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Why it's time to take the heat off unfairly smeared bonfires

Published 09/07/2016

The Chobham Street fire last year
The Chobham Street fire last year
Bonfire pictures taken by Bronagh Lawson. This picture and below right: Ballymacash bonfire. Right: Ballybeen. Below, centre: the Chobham Street fire last year
Bonfire picture taken by Bronagh Lawson
Ballymacash bonfire
Bonfire picture taken by Bronagh Lawson
Bronagh Lawson

From where they are located to the tyres used in some of them, bonfires across Belfast have been attracting negative publicity over the past week. But city-based artist Bronagh Lawson, who has spent the past few years getting to know those who build them, says they are an intrinsic part of unionist culture, thriving social hubs and offer considerable tourism potential.

We are a province in transition, moving from a warrior people to peacemakers. We have generations of militaristic traditions (I'm not going to get into the argument about what was legal and what was not). These traditions are socialised into us. Sometimes so subtly that we do not even understand it ourselves.

Some of us are triggered into memories of violence and another time by these traditions, worried by the reality that they might push into the present. Some communities are finding it easier than others in making a transition. Some people just wish it all would disappear, so that they could get on with their lives, and are "just so bored" by it all.

Take bonfires: attraction to fire is embedded in our common memory, going back hundreds of thousands of years. You cannot just wipe that away with swings and a basketball court, no matter how tidy that would be for people who have worked hard for it.

In some communities in Belfast, bonfires were for internment anniversaries, while for other communities they were for Eleventh Night commemorations. In Strangford and Portaferry, where I'm originally from, they were for Halloween. As children and young adults, we would be let loose to have our own adventure, gaining our independence by having an adult-feeling project to do.

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As an artist, I am a naturally curious person, and over the last few years I decided to really take a close look at what was going on with the Eleventh Night bonfires, instead of relying on other people's views. I have always been welcomed with interest.

Living in east Belfast as I do, I cycle up and down the beautiful Comber Greenway, noticing when the bonfires start being built and the fun young people have making them. I wondered what was going to happen on the Greenway this year as there had been some building work going on.

At first, I thought it might be a new east Belfast bonfire interpretation centre for our ever curious tourists. After all, last year I met a man on a bike beside one and when I stopped to take photos, he asked me: "What on earth is this?" It turned out he came from England every week on a lorry and decided to bring his bike with him to have a look around while the lorry was being loaded, but was totally mystified by the bonfires.

"There is one further on up the Greenway (in Ballybeen) with a Portakabin in it," he said. "What's this all about?". I tried to explain but it is hard without going back to the 16th century and a flipchart or a touchscreen. Now there is an idea.

In about April this year, I noticed some pallets on the Greenway, which was two months later than they first appeared last year. Then they disappeared. Last week, more arrived back. Cycling home, I noticed some young men putting down the foundation pallets, so I stopped to talk with them.

"Can you make sure you leave a path for the bicycles to get through?" I asked.

"We will leave the footpath clear," they said.

"I thought last year was going to be the last one?" I added.

"We just say that," they replied.

I told them my joke about the bonfire interpretation centre, but they did not laugh, just looked forlorn. I told them I had noticed the way the media had covered the bonfire last year, all the angles of the photographs taken to sensationalise, which was one way to cover the story.

We talked for a while about its aesthetic appeal. As an artist, I admired the work involved and the variety of techniques required to build one, the physical requirements to be able to do it. A couple of days later, there was a den and a couple of young women coming for a chat after school.

Later still, three children under the age of eight, excited about putting a tarpaulin over a den, huddled inside, playing houses. Then it rained, and one boy, about 10 years old and sitting on top of the pallets, asked his friend inside a house nearby if he was coming out to make a den. "Augh go on, please," he pleaded.

Later in the week an increased workforce arrived with a caravan with graffiti about the BBC on it. Oh media attention, it had always spurred on the bonfire builders in the past, calling in the back-up, reinforcing the front line.

Two young black men were coming down to chat with them. Were these the same young men I had seen the year before saying, "This is amazing, but no way am I going up there", to the young man on the top of the bonfire?

Down in Pitt Park at the bottom of the Newtownards Road, I stopped to take photos of the bonfire in progress, noticing a child I knew who had been very participatory when we took over St Martin's, the deconsecrated Church of Ireland building close by, for the EastSide Arts Festival 2015.

I stopped to chat with him. He had two months off school, he said, and was enjoying the freedom already. The puppy he brought to show us last year had been lost."My granny opened the door and it got out," he said.

"Look, there is some Lego," he added, pointing to some of the toys at the bottom of the bonfire.

The slightly older boys sheltering in the makeshift den nearby asked me to come back when it was finished if I wanted to photograph it, eager to gain status with the perfect bonfire construction.

Meanwhile, on the Shankill estate, a forklift truck was putting pallets on a bonfire while a couple of men on top put everything in place. Seven or eight young men stood at the bottom, watching.

A tourist bus from Cornwall stopped and people sheepishly got off to take photographs. It was here that last year a young man had given me a couple of free CDs of band music. "Why is everyone queuing up to pay £5 to get into Crumlin Road Gaol?" I thought. "This is much more interesting."

I talked about the bonfire with children playing in the mud and they spoke about how exciting it was to see it being built.

"You would think they were at the Somme," quipped someone, "with all that mud around". Which is, of course, where all these young men building these bonfires would have been 100 years ago.

I was told there would be much more for children this year on the estate. "There is a truck and a DJ, do come back, it's great fun," said one of the onlookers.

In Ballybeen, I was welcomed mid-bonfire construction, talking with one young man with a stutter who told me excitedly to come back on the Eleventh as a funfair would be coming.

I had come across it the year before, tucked in behind the Mace, on a car park. It had been filled with children and all things glittery and whizzy.

I remembered when the funfair came to our village and recognised the feeling.

There have been various schemes to improve bonfire management since the "culture not cash" graffiti came up on the Greenway.

It's an ongoing process of evolution, but when we just try and wipe away our past, no matter how distasteful to some, or shout from the safety of our social media that it should just disappear, it will keep popping up in other places.

We are a warrior province with a challenging past/present, pedalling like crazy to not have a warrior future.

Other countries make their bonfires a tourist attraction, like in Bali where thousands of tourists flock to watch cremation piles of a similar size being burned, or Lewes, a town in the south of England that has transformed Guy Fawkes Day into a world-renowned time of bonfire pageantry, administered by the Lewes Bonfire Council.

What will I be doing on the Eleventh of July? Cycling around the bonfires to see how this year's batch has shaped up.

Bronagh Lawson is based at Creative Change NI,

Belfast Telegraph

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