Unionist culture lit up by towering infernos

A kids' bonfire and the main event on the Old Warren Estate, Lisburn
A kids' bonfire and the main event on the Old Warren Estate, Lisburn

Up and down Northern

Ireland, these towering structures will become pillars of flame when the traditional Eleventh Night kicks off 
this evening.

For some communities, they will have represented months of planning, but by the time the estimated 50,000 marchers set out on the morning of the Twelfth, they will be little more than heaps of cinders.

From Carrickfergus to Londonderry, communities have dedicated themselves to out-doing one another in terms of how high and how spectacular they can make their bonfires.

UUP Belfast councillor Bob Stoker said he will be spending the Eleventh Night at Roden Street in south Belfast, close to where he lives.

That bonfire is smaller than in previous years, and has been moved away from the interface area – both things he thinks are good developments.

In his youth, he remembers “a bonfire in every other street”, whereas now the tendency is to concentrate efforts on building one gigantic one per district – leading to much bigger structures.

He said the practice dates to the late 17th century and dubbed the activity a “celebration of our cultural heritage”.

“They’re a symbol of freedom; of free civil and religious liberties for everyone,” he said.

“The big difficulty about all culture is the message is lost in the negative elements of it.”

This year has seen controversy over electoral posters bearing the images of Alliance candidate Anna Lo and Sinn Fein figures placed on some bonfires.

Mr Stoker said efforts are being made to teach many of the youths involved in building the fires that they are “not just about coat-trailing or trying to get at ‘the other side’”.

In addition, one independent unionist – Jim Brown in Carrickfergus – said he was extremely worried about what he estimates to be several hundred tyres stacked on one fire in the town’s Woodburn area.

He warned of the poisonous fumes which would be released and questioned where the tyres could have come from in the first place.

“I believe that unionist culture needs to be protected,” he said. “

“But the sad thing is this is an abuse of unionist culture, and we’re actually bringing disrepute to unionist culture because we’re not doing it sensibly, and in many respects, not doing it lawfully.”

The Orange Order this week said it encouraged those involved in bonfires not to accept tyres.

Last year, the Fire Brigade attended 54 bonfire-related incidents from 6pm on July 11 to 8am the next day – almost double the number in 2012.

It said in a statement: “Firefighters are not out to spoil anyone’s fun – their job is to protect life and property from the dangers of fire.”

If any fire gets out of hand, call 999 immediately.