Belfast Telegraph

Why 400 years after William Shakespeare's day do bonfires remain such a burning issue?

Addressing question of vacant Housing Executive land could take the heat out of the debate, writes Nelson McCausland

There is an interesting conversation in Act 5 Scene 2 of William Shakespeare’s play The Winter’s Tale. One of the characters asks: “The news, Rogero?” And the second character replies: “Nothing but bonfires.”

I thought of that exchange recently because bonfires have featured prominently in our local newspapers and on radio and television news programmes, as well as radio phone-in shows.

Shakespeare’s play was first published in 1623, but some things are always with us and almost 400 years later bonfires are still in the news.

Perhaps at this point I should confess that I was once a bonfire-builder. It was a long time ago and it was before the era of pallets and forklift trucks.

Those first 10 days of the school holidays were dedicated to the collection of the wood and the building of the bonfire. We did our best, but with limited time and without pallets, it was a modest structure.

We were reliant entirely on the generosity of local people, who were happy to dispose of any scrap wood. Nevertheless, we enjoyed it and looked forward to both the party and the bonfire.

It was a genuine community activity and, indeed, a community-building activity. Moreover, I suspect that the bonfires that were built in some Roman Catholic communities around August 15 were somewhat similar.

Times bring change and in more recent years communities and councils have struggled to deal with the problems surrounding what is now a very different situation.

There is always a danger of some minor damage with any bonfire, but the scale of the problem has increased with the size of the bonfires.

Some of our councils have introduced bonfire initiatives with incentives for those who manage their pyres  in a way that limits the potential for damage and disturbance and this is to be welcomed. Some groups have even opted for ‘beacons’ filled with wood-chips.

However, I wonder if we should also be looking at bonfires elsewhere, both in the United Kingdom and beyond, to see if there are any lessons to be learned.

There are certainly plenty of examples to look at and learn from, because there are bonfire traditions in countries around the world and not just in the British Isles.

The significance of the bonfire will vary from place to place, but in every case there is a bonfire at the heart of the commemoration or celebration.

The town of Lewes in Sussex has six bonfire societies which organise pyres  for November 5, remembering the failure of the Gunpowder Plot in 1605 and the arrival of William of Orange in 1688.

The town of Biggar in Scotland has a Hogmanay bonfire in the High Street on December 31 to mark the end of the year. Meanwhile, down in Cornwall, midsummer bonfires are lit on June 23.

These are popular traditions and, indeed, some communities and countries even market them now as part of their tourism product.

They feature in tourist literature and appear on tourism websites. They have not been without their problems, but they seem to have managed to resolve them.

I appreciate that we may face additional challenges here in Northern Ireland, but I do believe that we can learn a lot from others and I just wonder if, as a society, we are mature enough to do that.

So, here are some questions. How do they manage to have a bonfire on High Street in Biggar without burning down the historic Corn Exchange and how big is Biggar’s bonfire? What sort of community programmes or festival programmes are organised around the bonfires in the various towns in Britain and beyond?

How do they avoid damage to roads and properties? What do they teach children in schools about the bonfire tradition in their area?

And a final thought for the Housing Executive: perhaps if there was less derelict land in some communities, where houses once stood and where families once lived, there might be fewer opportunities for some of the bonfires which are the most problematic?

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