Last night was Eleventh Night, the night before 12 July where at many places in Belfast and around Northern Ireland, hundreds of thousands of pounds went up in flames. Celebrations on 12 July mark both the 1688 revolution and the Williamite/Jacobite war of 1689-1691. It’s said the bonfires, lit the night before the day itself, are lit in memory of the fires lit on the hills of Antrim and Down to help William of Orange and his army find their way up through Belfast Lough. It was back then that Catholic King James lost his foothold in Ireland and so began more than a century of British rule.
Bonfire building starts months before. Rows of wooden pallets, each of which supposedly fetches £7 on the scrap market line up in silence awaiting their fate. [I think this is an exaggeration as the most I could get online was $2 – but even still it’s money going up in smoke – and did you know that there are magazines dedicated to pallet recycling? Mad!]. On the night itself, fire trucks stand by to hose down the walls of houses that swelter in the heat cast by the up-to-100-foot blazes. The burning of tyres is frowned upon, the burning of effigies and Republican symbols decried. This year, an effigy of Sinn Féin’s Gerry Adams hanging from a makeshift gallows atop a bonfire in Antrim’s Ballycraigy drew accusations of racial hatred. And while this was going on, a Tricolor was raised over an Orange Hall in Ballycastle with slogans sprayed on the wall, something also being treated as a hate crime. What happened to roasting marshmallows?
Apart from a trio of stabbings (shocking how inured I have become to violence) and a few more arrests, last night was one of the quietest Eleventh nights in years. Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) assistant chief constable Will Kerr said: I am pleased that last night was one of the most peaceful in recent years and am encouraged by the responsible behaviour of the vast majority of people involved. Perhaps the tide is turning.
But then a look at what Irish Times had to say suggests that some just refuse to move on. Although promoted as a cultural event, the celebrations are dense with jingoism as well as sectarian overtones, with anti-Catholic songs and slogans being chanted in many areas during the night. Apparently earlier in the week a statue of the Virgin Mary was removed from a bonfire at Lanark Way. I can well imagine how the sight of that might stir a few embers too many.
Here’s hoping that today’s (and tonight’s) celebrations don’t mirror the clashes we saw last year and that maybe next year, some of that pallet money might be put to better use.