Eleventh night bonfires: How centuries-old tradition is (very) slowly evolving

Posted By: July 03, 2014


Sandy Row South Belfast

Eleventh night bonfires have been a consistent feature of community life in unionist and loyalist circles since the Battle of the Boyne in 1690.

The symbolism associated with bonfires continues to divide opinion, with nationalists viewing them as both illegal and sectarian, while unionists maintain that the bonfires are an important aspect of identity, culture and tradition.

Bonfires are a visible and tangible reminder of the segregated society in which we reside in.

In the post-ceasefire years there has been a concerted attempt to transform the bonfire tradition. Although it is difficult to provide an overall assessment of what this entailed, largely because some communities have been more progressive than others, it is possible to draw conclusions.

Firstly, over the last decade there has been a concerted bid to regulate the material collected and burned – often measured by the reduction in the number of tyres and other toxic materials.

Secondly, paramilitary shows of strength have become a thing of the past, with community groups taking ownership of the bonfire and transforming them into more festival-type events, with Woodvale Park being a case in point.

Thirdly, dumping has largely been condemned by community groups, who work alongside public-sector bodies to discourage this practice.

Fourthly, there has been increased engagement between the fire service and those responsible for constructing the bonfires.

Fifthly, the burning of effigies has been eradicated although the practice of burning nationalist and republican symbols still continues on most bonfires.

Sixthly, there was a reduction in the number of large bonfires.

Finally, communities have begun to explore the cultural significance of bonfires through workshops and training programmes, with an emphasis on raising awareness among young people as to the relevance of the ‘bonfire tradition’.

One organisation particularly prominent in attempting to address several of the contentious issues associated with bonfires has been Belfast City Council.

Its approach has been based around three strands that include community development, good relations and community safety.

However, behaviours such as the burning of flags and emblems continue to dominate the public debate around Eleventh bonfires.

And further bids by public bodies to regulate the bonfires are seen by many as evidence of the eradication of culture.

Dr Jonny Byrne is a University of Ulster lecturer and works with the Institute for Research in Social Sciences and School of Criminology, Politics and Soc