Until recently the Eleventh Night bonfires across Northern Ireland had a set pattern to them. Towers made from materials ranging from old tyres and fridges to furniture and wooden pallets were lit with Molotov Cocktails.
Effigies of the Pope or Irish tricolours would burn while the crowd sang loyalist tunes and many raised a beer (or several) in salute to King Billy.
Bonfires are built in Northern Ireland to commemorate the victory of William of Orange over the Catholic King James II on July 12, 1690. Legend has it that the night before this victory bonfires were lit on the hills of Antrim and Down to aid William's navigation along Belfast Lough.
The reputation of bonfires in the province has become one of drink-fuelled rabble-rousing, however such attitudes are changing.
In these times when both environmental issues and community relations are given increased priority, various organisations have set about trying to improve the standing and affect of bonfires, which some associate with disruption, fire damage and excessive drinking. Belfast City Council and other agencies have been cooperating in an attempt to make the bonfire tradition more acceptable and less damaging.
The Lower Castlereagh Community Group, for example, has pledged to go along with such trends, providing community and environmentally friendly bonfires.
Sam White, a community worker for the Belfast Conflict Resolution Consortium, is a founder member of the group.
“One local bonfire used to be in a car park surrounded by houses just off the Newtownards Road. It obstructed people's cars and rubbish would get piled up against front doors — some were almost trapped in their homes,” he explains. “Through the Bonfire Initiative we got the funding to move it into the grounds of Avoniel Leisure Centre. Now it's away from people's homes in a friendly environment which is open to all sides of the community.”
When joining the initiative the community associations sign up to a number of different conditions. A bonfire committee must be formed and the collection of material may only begin on June 1. Only wood can be burnt and according to the rules paramilitary flags and other emblems must not be displayed at the bonfire site.
Groups who refrain from burning nationalist flags or symbols this year will also be awarded an extra £100 funding. David Robinson, good relations officer for Belfast City Council, explains the purpose of the initiative: “The idea is to promote positive expression of culture and heritage within the loyalist community.
“In the past there were complaints about the behaviour at the bonfire at Avoniel until the community group joined the initiative. Last year the number of anti-social behaviour incidents was halved.”
Gareth Beacom (26) is a community worker and member of the bonfire committee. He started collecting wood for Eleventh Night bonfires at the age of nine.
“I'm here to make sure that the material collected is safe for us to burn. I also help with the structure of the bonfire. Pallets create walls on the outside and the scrap wood fills up the middle,” he explains.
“Being part of the bonfire committee helps the young ones around here be part of something they have control of — it's their responsibility and they get to make the decisions.”
Gareth adds: “Groups around here are becoming interested in what we're doing and how organised we are. Two billboards on the Newtownards Road were burnt recently by unofficial camp fires.”
Health and safety has become the byword of bonfire building in east Belfast. In the past bonfires were built with huts in the middle of them for children to play in, but this practice has now been stopped in case someone is crushed by shifting wood. Gone, too, are the Molotov Cocktails — petrol bombs used to ignite some bonfires. Nowadays the wooden towers are lit with a torch by a member of the bonfire committee specially trained by the Northern Ireland Fire Brigade.
The Lower Castlereagh Community Group, and others, have turned their event into a summer festival for all the family. In the days before and after the celebrations there will be football tournaments, dancing displays and human rights workshops. During the day on Sunday there will be amusements, dodgems, bouncy castles and game stalls.
Free food will be provided for all before the bonfire is lit at midnight — half an hour later than usual out of respect for the Sabbath. The site will be also cleared after the celebrations by the committee.
Bonfire events have long had a reputation for heavy drinking so there will be special areas for alcohol consumption at Avoniel.
“The carnival bit will be completely dry and family friendly,” says Sam White. “There will be an area on the other side of the bonfire for people who would like to have a drink.”
Sam adds: “We can't eradicate drinking at the bonfire but we do want to address it. In the future we would like to provide properly monitored facilities like beer tents so people can enjoy themselves responsibly.”
The bonfire committee at Avoniel have taken the decision not to burn anything on top of their bonfire but in the past some have been topped with nationalist flags or effigies of the Pope and have been used as platforms for paramilitary groups.
“It's still there but the bonfires are moving away from sectarianism,” says Sammy Quinn (22), a plasterer and member of the committee. “The more that happens the more the bonfire becomes community-based for everyone.”
Youth worker Robert Moore (19) is another member of the committee.
“The bonfires are cleaner now, there used to be lots of broken glass and lots of fights,” he explains. “Now we're trying to think of ways to get everyone involved, even the pensioners.”
He adds: “I started collecting wood when I was six or seven and now I help build it and stay out all night with it.
“It's a very busy time but it's great craic.
“As I get older I show the young ones how to do things and eventually I'll stand aside as they take my place. It's a generational thing.”
The reputation of the initiative is growing, as David Robinson explains. “We don't have targets but in 2009 17 of the 84 bonfires around Belfast worked with the Bonfire Initiative — that number has risen to 45 in 2010.”
The banner maker
William Magowan (40) lives in Garvagh with his wife Janet and their two daughters. He says:
I started off as a sign writer from the age of about 12, then I opened my own sign writing business at the age of 22.
Back then there were a lot of banner painters around here and they would sometimes call me in to do the lettering on the banners.
As they gave it up their old customers would come to me for the banners because they knew I had some experience. From there it snowballed and eventually I stopped doing sign writing and started to paint banners full time.
It's a busy job. I'm booked two years in advance and I turn away work that would employ someone else for a year. That sounds good in this economic climate but it does mean there is a lot of pressure on just one person.
An Orange lodge will come to me with an idea of what they want and we'll then discuss the colours and the design of the banner. After that I order the silk from Switzerland — that's where the best silk comes from.
The silk is stretched over the frame and I sketch an outline of the design.
After that it's a case of filling in the colours — a full banner will take about two weeks to complete. I work alone — I did have two others working with me but either they weren't interested enough in what they were doing or I'm too much of a perfectionist. It didn't work out anyway.
People also prefer to know when they get a banner from me it has actually been painted by me. I now produce up to 60 a year and they cost around £1,800. The busiest period is coming up to the Twelfth.
I like seeing my work in the parades — I can tell the badly painted ones too. You see them with horses that look like donkeys and that sort of thing. Sometimes I don't want to see them at all though and I take myself off to Donegal instead.”
The lambeg drum maker
Billy Hewitt (40) founded his shop Drum Sounds on Belfast’s Sandy Row in 1985. There’s a long history of Lambeg drum building in his family. He says:
Since I was a young child I've known how to build a drum. The technique has been passed down through my family since my great grandfather built his first Lambeg drum in 1870. I have one of the oldest drums there is, but it's still in very good shape because of the quality of the hard oak used to make it.
Hard oak is the best material to use but it's very hard to get in Northern Ireland. I have to source it from England, but it's even getting hard to get hold of over there too.
We use goat skin for the surface of the drum. When we get the skin, it's in a raw state, with the hair still on it. The process of preparing the skin is called tanning. We scrub and scrape the hair off before steeping the skin in water and repeatedly stretching it. We then scrape the skin to whatever thickness or thinness the buyer wants.
The Lambeg drum is mainly bought by people who take part in competitions, and a drum will cost the best part of £1,000. It's not used in many parades because it's too heavy to carry. The drumming season starts in April and goes on to September.
We do get requests for drums from all over the world. We've sent them to the USA, Canada and even Australia. Some use them as coffee tables, and a man in Australia, who's originally from Portadown, turned one into a small bar. They're easy enough to maintain. We use a malacca cane to beat the drum. A set of sticks costs £20. The cane grows in China and has no joints in it so it has a uniquely smooth surface.
I'd sell about 12 Lambeg drums a year and it takes about three weeks to build each one. Once you have one though, it'll last a lifetime. My grandfather’s one is still like new.
By Jamie McDowell
Half a million turn out for parades
- In recent years, the Orange Order has branded the occasion Orangefest, and the organisation has made an effort to make the day more culturally inclusive
- The marching season generally begins around Easter and lasts until the end of August
- In Belfast alone 70 bands will take part in the Twelfth of July parade this year
- The Orangeman's typical attire consists of a white shirt, black suit, white gloves, bowler hat and Orange sash
- Parades were once popular in the Republic, but now the only one held there is in Rossnowlagh in Donegal
- Last year, around half-a-million people took part in, and watched, the parades
- Orangemen will stop off at Belfast City Hall to lay wreaths at the War Memorial