Make bonfires smaller but proposed ban is not justified

Sandra Chapman
Sandra Chapman

Bonfires? I love them. Every year this household traditionally held two of them – one on midsummer’s eve and the other at Halloween, material for which was reverently gathered up throughout the year.

We didn’t include one on the July 11th night due to our ability to see from our garden at the time the bonfires around the countryside, lit to celebrate the Twelfth.

A  bonfire at Bloomfield Walkway in Belfast

A bonfire at Bloomfield Walkway in Belfast

I always felt it important for the children to know how former civilisations celebrated events, the bonfire, often, was at the heart of those celebrations and that is still the case. Heat and light were precious to past generations, central even to man’s progression.

Now that the children have flown the nest we go to see other people’s bonfires, those of friends and family mostly because they are private events and that excitement, when the flames lick their way upwards joyful maybe for the release and the desire to show off, never leaves me.

If we are not on holiday at the time we make a point of going to see the local Twelfth bonfire. The days when there would have been several fires on the horizon on the night have gone, a point which makes me wonder if indeed the idea of bonfires were dying out because a new and technologically minded youthful generation were no longer interested. Or has it to do with the lack of material for a fire since so much was donated locally to one main event.

Bonfires have got bigger, gigantic in fact, many of them much too close to habitation to be safe. And these still draw big crowds.

A Canadian friend came to stay two years ago and chose the Twelfth week as he wanted to see the big ones, and if memory serves me right, one of those was at Newtownards. I left him in the company of friends and went home, simply too old to stay out all night to watch a fire burning.

When he returned he was a bit shell-shocked at the size of the fires. There would never be anything like that where he lived, the Canadian prairies.

But then very few people live in that part of Canada. He suggested that bonfires here could have grown in size because populations are crammed into smaller areas. I’m not sure that’s the case preferring to believe that big is beautiful now for a generation which suffered many hardships in years gone by. This is their one big chance to make a statement.

There’s an Irish saying ‘fear is a fine spur, so is rage’ and when you put those two things together in a pot an explosion of a kind takes place. The loyalist community has long been fearful for its future at part of the United Kingdom and its rage at the way the enemy, in the form of growing Nationalism and Sinn Fein in particular, exploits that fear and gets away with it despite its warring past, has created a desire on the part of loyalists to protect what they’ve got.

The bonfire is in the DNA of all of us. It’s a source of joy and comfort giving us a feeling of wellbeing. It should never have got to the stage where one party exploits it through political mischief while its defenders believe they can protect their rights by building bigger and better.

This week’s nonsensical vote at the City Hall where hapless council workmen will be instructed to ‘remove bonfire materials from all sites’ is simply ridiculous. Who is going to protect these workers and what does their union think about such risks to its members? We know that the perpetrators of this vote don’t really care about people’s perceived rights – after all their foot soldiers spent years trying to blow up and kill their way to a united Ireland – but someone has to take responsibility as SF uses the traditional bonfire as a new weapon.

We don’t have an up-and-running Executive, nor do we have a City Council capable of seeing ‘‘cultural dictation’’ bearing down on it. Bonfires should be very much smaller but a ban can never be justified.