A grand tour to fire the imagination: The Eleventh Night bonfires of Northern Ireland
Some bonfires made headlines for all the wrong reasons, but Belfast-based artist Bronagh Lawson maintains the vast majority are important cultural symbols.
On the Eleventh Night she visited as many as possible, from Ballyhalbert to Carrickfergus via Belfast, encountering excited German schoolchildren visiting the pyres as a tourist attraction... and local young people proud of their workmanship.
Why did I start documenting the bonfires? Living in east Belfast as I do, I had noticed while cycling up and down the Comber Greenway the fun people who were building them were having, but then I saw on social media how they were being depicted.
Later I noticed the protests at City Hall around giving financial support to bonfire management. People are not seeing the whole picture, I thought. It was as if one bonfire with a tricolour and a few Sinn Fein posters was representative of every single one, whereas what I was seeing was telling me this was not the case. So I decided to make an effort to document every one, from Ballybeen to the inner east.
This year I swooped up to the Ards Peninsula early on the Eleventh and tried to get to most bonfires, from Ballyhalbert to Carrickfergus. Knowing that I'd miss a few, I did my best to honour the hard work of the bonfire builders (it's the artist in me) and the difficult cultural circumstances and positions each is built in.
The first one I came across was in Ballyhalbert, echoing the pallet fires better known in an urban environment. I considered just how spectacular it must look while burning against the backdrop of the Irish Sea. In Ballywalter, perched on a rock for as long as anyone can remember, the pyre echoes the shape of Mont Saint-Michel and is reflected in the ebbing tide.
Millisle, surrounded by wildflowers, was the first and only one I saw with a tricolour that day. I wondered if the builders knew, as I did not know until this year, that the white in the centre of the flag was to represent the peace between the orange and green?
In Newtownards, town of my birth, the council there has found a way to make it work - a large tower of a bonfire sat locked behind gates with a sign reading, 'This bonfire is regularly monitored for fly-tipping and illegal dumping, you will be reported to the council'. It seemed to have sorted the issue somewhat, with only one sofa outside the gates and everything orderly inside. It had the added benefit of being right opposite a fire station.
Ballybeen in Dundonald next, with front row seats laid out to watch the bonfire. I wondered what conversations took place the night before as people sat in the cool July evening air, the light night stretching out as the final preparations were made for the next day. Across the hill in Ballybeen, no Portacabin and toilet in the pallet bonfire this year, but wood and, sadly, tyres.
Tullycarnet site, now with houses built on it, had a hipster GroundworkNI bonfire in situ. Off the ring road, it still had a way to go with the construction. It was all open-ended to the sky, front row seats laid out from the night before, builders' gloves waiting for the next burst of energy and direction.
No one was up yet at Sandy Row's main bonfire site, a spectacular size with some pallets still waiting to be added - they probably didn't want to tempt fate and encourage people to burn down the finished article early like last year perhaps?
I decided to swoop across to the lower Shankill next and came across Paddy Campbell, who is described on his card as 'a guide to Falls and Shankill murals up close and personal'. He was giving a tour to German secondary school children from Bavaria, laminated photographs of a lit bonfire in hand.
They had come to Ireland especially at this time of year for four days to experience it in all its glory: one day in Belfast, two in Portrush, one in Dublin, then home. My head hurt just thinking about it. The tour guide was explaining that the bonfire was a cultural tradition of a display of Britishness, that the lower Shankill perceived itself as British, so its community did it, and the lower Falls not, as its residents did not.
One German schoolgirl asked if there had ever been a vote for independence, to which he explained: "Independence for Northern Ireland, no, we could not afford to keep ourselves, but Brexit has changed everything in terms of a united Ireland."
He went on: "It's all to do with the money in your pocket. If it meant that I'd be financially better off with a united Ireland, then fine, but I'd still be culturally British within it."
That's the first time I've heard anyone in that area say that.
Going down the motorway towards the Rise sculpture at Broadway roundabout, I noticed another sculpture of sorts, a bonfire poking out from behind the wall, and decided to track it down. Turning down into the Donegall Road I came across some neatly stacked pallets on wasteland beside a terraced house. A young man came out. I asked what he thought of it. "I'm not sure," he said. "They arrived last night. Are they protesting about something?"
I discovered he and his friend were visiting from Italy for one week, staying in a house nearby, and had no idea of the cultural significance of the season (I blame AirBnB). I explained what it was and when it was likely to be lit.
"We really like the Titanic part of Belfast," they said. "It's a really interesting city, we are going with a friend to Cave Hill today by bike to view it."
Down Roden Street the bouncy castles, barbecues and play buses were in full swing, children in plastic bubbles playing in paddling pools. A woman in her early thirties walked me down to where the bonfire was, the one that was poking over the motorway. "My son has been building the one in the Village," she said proudly. "Have you been to it? They are only 12 and 13-years-old and they did it all by themselves," she added, showing me pictures of it on her phone.
The young men were busy trying to finish off their bonfire. They scurried up the edifice, pallets in hand, and the building of Egypt's pyramids came to my mind. Wishing them good luck, I set off to find the Village bonfire.
There it was in all its glory, on waste ground. I noted some new housing had been built since the last time I was in the area. A smaller children's bonfire was also ready at the side for an earlier lighting time.
An overseas photographer was lining up children on the bonfire eager to get their photos taken. "We did it all ourselves," they said. "Collected by hand, using no nails. Is the picture going to be in the Belfast Telegraph?"
"It's going to be lit at 12," they said, excitedly dancing around.
Back on Donegall Road, the guys at the end of the terrace had returned to their bonfire, posing for photos. "Stop you posing," one guy quipped. "I'm not posing, I'm just updating my snapchat," the other replied.
Up the Shore Road there was bonfire after bonfire of every shape and size, with no flags or election posters in sight.
In Carrickfergus, while asking if I could take photos, a wee boy of six took me on a tour. "I got stuck in the mud over there, don't go that way; there is a bouncy castle coming at 11.30," he told me eagerly.
He was keen to show me the bar that had been built out of pallets. "You have to be careful, people get the drink in them on the Eleventh and you never know what might happen," he said.
Filmed this at Coolfin street beside City Hospital just now pic.twitter.com/lj9HitPCh6— Declan Lawn (@DecLawn) July 11, 2016
Crowd being moved back at Chobham St bonfire in case it falls forward pic.twitter.com/FReywn0TID— Maria McCann (@journomaria) July 11, 2016
Flames getting higher at Sandy Row pic.twitter.com/TIwwKwQSS2— Damien Edgar (@damien_utv) July 11, 2016
Here's hoping for a quiet 11th night, I really hope everyone will take care and come safe.— Dale Ashford (@NIFRSAshford) July 11, 2016
Depressing to still see Irish flags burned on bonfires for #EleventhNight. Celebrating your culture doesn't require disrespecting others'.— Christine Quigley (@c_quigley) July 11, 2016
Well done Ladyhill Bonfire Group .. Donation to Meningitis NI .. & great turnout from families and local groups pic.twitter.com/tsQug6nPp5— Danny Kinahan (@DdeBK) July 11, 2016
Chobham Street Bonfire— Gary (@UlstersNo1) July 11, 2016
east Belfast pic.twitter.com/1HuRSS1s7g
Just the standard Cluan Place bonfire, on a road, damaging public property and burning flags. pic.twitter.com/5AQb0HPIRL— Kris Nixon (@belfastbarman) July 11, 2016
Everyone welcome. All inclusive event we're told. Even "Taigs" like me? pic.twitter.com/hdqOX7o0tI— Orla Boyle (@The__Boyler) July 11, 2016
Oh joy, I can hear the pipes and drums in the distance #EleventhNight— Rachel (@rmoomin84) July 11, 2016
You couldn't move for the Prime Time specials and liberal think pieces if this was somehow a Republican bonfire. pic.twitter.com/7kSFu4jOpW— Paul Reynolds (@PaulFedayn) July 11, 2016
The only bonfire our wee one is bigger than is last yearspic.twitter.com/B1HcXwqmL5— Izzy (@Izzy_Giles) July 11, 2016
1st call from a constituent telling me my posters are on Bonfire in Ballymena area.— Patrice Hardy (@MisssPatrice) July 11, 2016
I ran for election in 2014.
What idiot kept my posters?
Bonfire before it gets lit pic.twitter.com/21PBzBxRev— Kacey :)) (@kaceylovessam) July 11, 2016
Responsible adults should look after lighting bonfires - before lighting the fire, check that no children or pets are hiding inside it— NIFRS (@NIFRSOFFICIAL) July 11, 2016
In Pitt Park, in east Belfast, they were still hard at work on their bonfire. A car pulled up to the crossroads from the Short Strand and occupants shouted abuse at the people making it. Music blared, the bonfire had two Sinn Fein posters on it, the only ones I saw that day, and there was much work still to do with a team of men and boys of all ages hurrying to finish it off, while a young man sat in the gated-off memorial in Pitt Park, just by himself, looking forlorn in the urban landscape.
In Madrid Street they were waiting until the last minute to build theirs. Some young mothers were sitting under a gazebo with their babies, as older children played on the bouncy castle. A large tricolour could be seen on the Short Strand side of the street. The young women said the fire would be lit at around 7.30pm for the kids, the men said 11pm.
In Lord Street they were all happy and organised with their hipster bonfire designed by GroundworkNI, with music starting at 7pm. "If anyone wants a bigger bonfire they can go outside of the city, we have no room here, it's starting early because it's for the kids really," they said. I told them theirs was the most family friendly I had experienced last year.
The Cluan Place bonfire had been built earlier than usual, with a guy over from Scotland for the occasion keeping guard and a DJ blaring music.
The Comber Greenway bonfire builders were still hard at work. "Are you a tourist?" one child asked. "No, I'm an artist," I replied.
"If you take a photo, will you do it in black and white and have it all grainy please?" he asked. I thought it interesting that this child seemed to be placing himself in some historical visual context.
Off I went back down the Ards Peninsula, knowing that the bonfire builders had more stamina than me, interested that tourist tours were already happening, and very aware that in every case it was young men I saw doing all the work. Verdict on my Bonfire Watch 2016? Still a way to go and part of an evolution; now, where is that Bonfire Interpretation Centre economic appraisal?
Bronagh Lawson is based at Creative Change NI, www.creativechangeni.com