The Loyalist Bonfires

THE LOYALIST BONFIRES

 

The Loyalist Bonfires of Northern Ireland are a tradition that very few political or historian commentators have considered or written about so I am going to do a bit of a blog on the topic and see where it gets us too.

Tradition holds that the bonfires commemorate the lighting of fires on the hills of counties Antrim and Down which helped King William of Orange Ships navigate through Belfast Lough at night and land at Carrickfergus and also as beacons to let the population know of the King’s arrival in Ireland.

The activity of lighting bonfires on the 11th July night to commemorate the above comes from the Orange Culture and its supporters who would perform this ritual before they would parade on the next day “12th of July” to commemorate King William’s victory at the Battle of the Boyne.

With the industrialization of Belfast in the 19th century along came with the people its culture and its bonfires. Previously bonfires would have been lit in country fields now there was the logistic problem of erecting and lighting bonfires at street corner junctions in a built up city.            

11th Night Bonfire - Belfast 1952
11th Night Bonfire – Belfast 1952

I will fast forward to the 1960’s which commences my introduction and experience to this activity. As a very young boy I would remember around about the month of June older boys in the street collecting bonfire wood and storing it in their house backyards and against the back of houses walls in the entry of the street. The Binmen who would come weekly to the entry to collect and dump the Metal Dustbins full of coal ashes and rubbish would be informed not to touch or dump the wood stacked beside the bins as this was for the street bonfire.

It has to be noted that every house within those streets in the centre of Belfast was fully occupied during this period of time and the backyards and back entries was the only place where bonfire material could be stored.

The women of the street would gather at Mina’s house where she would bring out a large bag of streamers (red,white,blue bunting) for the street which they would equally distribute to each other to wash and return back. Once this was carried out a decision was made what streamers needed repaired or dumped and what new streamers had to be made or bought.

The next item on the agenda would be to calculate the number of children in the street who would be attending the 11th Night Street Party and make a list of sweets, buns, bread, fruit and drinks and other accessories that was needed to be bought for the party. This created a budget of costs and money required. The ladies would then knock on each house door of the street for a donation towards the party and new streamers for the street.

The streamers would be put up in the street a few days just before the 1st July (traditionally all loyalist decorations and flags must go up for the 1st July and come down again after the last Saturday in August, this would be in recognition of the Orange Order 1st and 12th July parades and the Apprentices Boys 12th August Relief of Derry parade and the Royal Black Institution Last Saturday in August parade).

The streamers would be put up by young men from the street. They would climb up a ladder and tie the streamers to the terraced houses roof spouting wall brackets from one side of the street to the other. They would also knock at your door and ask if ‘you want your flag out’ I would get our flag on a white painted pole which was stored at the side of our bedroom wardrobe and give it to the guys who would climb up their ladder and erect the flag pole with flag into the permanent flag holder installed on front of our house between the two upstairs bedroom windows.

At about 6 o’clock on the 11th July, once work had finished for the holidays the older boys of the street would start bringing the wood and materials for the bonfire from the bottom end of the entry and start erecting it at the bottom junction of the street.

Once they had undertaken this activity they would help the ladies and mothers of the street bring their kitchen tables and chairs out and join them together in a line in the middle of the street close to the bonfire for the children’s party.

A large record player would be located outside on the street footpath closest to the party and neighbours would share their loyalist records to play.

The children would gather and party games and prizes would commence followed by all the children sitting along the table to share all the party foods and drinks.

The Bonfire would be lit and there would be cheering, singing and dancing from all the neighbours of the street.

pass 4
11th Night Street Party

 

This activity happened in every street of the district. You could look down from my street junction and see five bonfires all in a line as per each street name.

In one of these streets they had a bonfire at the top and bottom of it, a complete Orange District of Belfast had to parade along this street the next morning to meet the 12th July Main Parade. This meant that once the two bonfires had finished water had to be thrown over them and the burnt ashes shoveled and brushed into the corner of the footpath to allow the parade.

Belfast and its streets changed dramatically in the early 70’s due to the movement of people and the dereliction of its Inner City.

As bonfire collectors we had plenty of empty houses to strip out for bonfire material, we had plenty of empty houses backyards to store these materials, however what had also changed was our numbers, gone where the days of every street having a bonfire and party, we were now a collective group of people from surrounding streets.

However this did not dampen our enthusiasm to partake in the game of trying to have the biggest bonfire and stealing our rival’s bonfire material and even sabotaging the size of their bonfire by prematurely burning it before the 11th Night.

The above now brings me to the activity of ‘Staying out with the Bony’ basically which means staying out overnight to guard and protect the bonfire material from either being stole or burnt. We had a double edged sword on that front because not only did we have other bonfire rivals but our bonfire was the closest to the frontline and the ‘Taigs’.

We would engage in running battles with both before it was all over on the 11th Night.

Staying out overnight was the genesis of the bonfire huts. Once the bonfire material had come out from the safe havens of empty houses and backyards into the exposed street the first basic form of construction was the hut. This would consist of wardrobes position side-by-side with doors position on top as a roof. The bonfire material would then be built on top and around this hut.

Staying out also meant a camp fire to keep you warm through the night, we would scavenge through our kitchens to see what we could bring to cook at the camp fire. We were quite lucky because at the top of the street from our bonfire was a potato and egg distribution warehouse. ‘Who’s starving?’ would be the cry from the team. ‘Ok you, you, and you are good climbers away and get us a bag of spuds and a box off eggs from the top of the street.’

The potatoes would be then wrapped in tin foil and baked in the fire and the eggs would be fried along with bread in the frying pan on top of an impoverished iron re-bar cooking plate above the camp fire. All the cooked food would be equally dished out to the Bony Guards.

It was also a bad time of year for the Milkman and Paper Shops. The milkman would start his rounds at about 5.00am and the morning papers would be delivered outside the shops about the same time. Once again the orders would be relayed to the ‘doers’ ‘OK we need X amount of pints of milk’ and a list of the type of morning papers to get to read would be instructed and ‘for f sake don’t be taking anything from our side of the road get it on the other side !’

Bonfire and Flute
A young boy plays a flute at a bonfire

Staying out during the weekdays could be quiet but was a bit more dangerous as there would be only a handful of the bonfire team as a rota was drawn up into which night of the week you had to stay out and protect the Bony. You would be glad when other rival bonfire friends would come round and visit you and sit around the camp fire and have a chat and something to eat together. The old motto holds dear ‘Strength in Numbers’ especially when you were only a few street corners away from enemy territory.However the weekends would be the noisiest and wildest, once the pubs closed their doors after last orders the majority of the punters would arrive at the Bony to continue drinking and sit around the camp fire. This is when the singing and playing of flutes would commence, it was also when the arguments and fights would occur.

There would be visits from the Police and Army while staying out in the middle of the night. ‘How’s it going Lads everything alright ?’ would be their introduction. Sometimes a landrover of the Army would pull up and a group of squaddies would get out and come and stand around the camp fire with us, they would be given food and drinks and have a general chat, we would be warned however that if the Army Military Police appeared at the Bonfire and asked did we see any army patrols we were to report back that we seen them driving about a few times at the bottom of the street.

When the Police appeared there was not the same friendship or welcome as with the Army. The Peelers where just snooping around to see what materials should not be used in the bonfire, so items like tyres had to be well hidden from their eyes.

As I mentioned previously a big source of our bonfire materials was obtained from the derelict and empty houses which would have had their doors and windows sealed with concrete blocks. We would climb over the backyard walls of the empty houses and smash in the concrete blocks of the back kitchen door. We would take out any old furniture left in the empty house and transport it out the way we had entered the house. Two guys would position and sit on the back yard wall while one team lifted the furniture up to them from the yard to swing over and drop down to the other team on the other side in the entry. Once we had the furniture removed from the house we would remove the inside wooden doors of the house. The simple technic of removing the doors was to wedge a piece of wood between the door hinges and slam hard which ripped the hinges and door completely away from its wooden frame.

This material would be transported back to the bonfire by guiders (Go Karts), trollies and hand carried, it would not be usual to see a group of children carrying doors on their backs down the streets during the bonfire collection period.

Our district was lucky as we had so many other avenues to gather materials, there was factories and warehouses for pallets, the railway line for sleepers, the binyard, but the place of most interest that we would visit every day was the garages and the greatest prize of them all used and old tyres. This was the material that made the smoke and identified when your bonfire had been lit. On the 11th night you could look up into the sky and see the black smoke rising and identify which bonfire it was. It was also the material that put us into the biggest conflict with the police The ‘Owl Dolls’ of the street would cry their eyes out to the peelers once they seen us wheeling used tyres down the streets. The Police would then try to do snatch hits on the bonfire and confiscate and collect any tyres they seen in the collection.

For this reason the tyres where hidden away in a safe empty house backyard close to the bonfire. They would be brought out just when dawn was breaking early 11th July morning to commence the building of the bonfire in the junction of the street. They would be piled high in the centre of the bonfire and then surrounded by furniture and wood. No one seen the structure of how the bonfire was built and as far as an outside observing eye was concerned there was no tyres in the bonfire.

Before we lit the bonfire we had to wedge old doors up against resident’s house windows closest to the fire to stop the glass from cracking with the heat. Once the fire was lit we would run in and out of peoples kitchens to get basins of water to douse over the houses and the telegraph poles. I can still remember the black tar seeping out of them poles due to the intense heat of the fire.

We would spend the rest of the evening throwing onto the fire the rest of the bonfire materials until it had all been burnt. My memory of this would be off a mate and me carrying a full settee at both ends each and swinging it into a projection and on the count of three releasing it as close to land in the the middle of the fire as possible.

The Young Bonfire Collectors
The Young Bonfire Collectors

Alas the derelict streets of Belfast made way for new housing redevelopment and new social housing planning of cul-de-sacs and parking facilities and its streets had gone into the folklore of history and memories. It was now a case of finding a piece of waste ground for the bonfire and another generation of bonfire collectors. The days of throwing wood onto the bonfire were over, these bonfires would be fully build up with all materials on the waste ground and burnt in one go.

As the years rolled on the waste grounds got eaten up by new buildings and so did the bonfires. Today the district is left with one bonfire. I had a chat at the bonfire last year with a childhood friend who informed me ‘we had a good team staying out last night, just in case the other side would try anything’ The replanning of Inner City Belfast had removed the old frontline between ‘Us and Them’ which this guy and me would have remembered. A new frontline has emerged today, in that there is only one available waste ground left to have a bonfire in the district and just maybe ‘Them’ is now Commercialization and Development ?

Today the Councils will support environmental friendly bonfires and will supply any district who wishes to apply for a framed metal pyramid shape beacon filled with wood chip and metal base for burnt ashes which will not damage roads.

To me it kind of takes away the excitement for children actually collecting for a bonfire and protecting it, however I have a good friend who enjoyed seeing such a beacon lit a few years ago in Brownstown Estate, Portadown and stated ‘It was good to see a bonfire again in Brownstown’

Finally I stood at our bonfire a few years ago and had a chat with a good friend who I would consider one of the best bonfire men from my district even though when I first met this guy along time ago he was the leader of a rival bonfire. As both of us gazed into the burning flames I asked him what did he see ? ‘I see Happiness, Fun, Excitement, Adventure, Comradeship, and I wish I was 10 years old again, but it’s not the same as it used to be !’

I replied back ‘maybe them two little boys just in front of us will say the same thing as you have just said in another 50 years time ?’

 TE Lawrence

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14 thoughts on “The Loyalist Bonfires

  1. As kids I remember “batons” of newspaper being used to bop each other on the head and chasing each other around the bonfire before it was lit. When it was lit said batons would be thrown on the fire in the hopes to make it last longer. Such childish innocence but great crack!!

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    1. Glad you liked the article Jo-Ann, yeah a lot of people have contacted me and said it brought back a lot of happy memories for them. Like you said such childish innocence but great craic ! one might wish life was so simple today !

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  2. When I was about 11 years old we found an old piano thrown out for the fire. We all carried it to the bonfire site and I remember I played it while all of us sang. Great memories of nearly 60 years ago

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  3. At what point did the paramilitaries take over the bonfires? Was it then the sectarian nonsense began or was that always an integral part of the fire? – Serious questions.

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    1. Tom, You have to understand that the bonfires are for children. I don’t think you would have seen the commander of the paramilitaries running down the street with a door on his back, but if it happened it would have been hilarous. The children would have had loyalist paramilitary groups that they would support but the paramilitaries like the Orange Order do not run or control bonfires.
      My next door neighbours where catholic and the 2 boys collected with me for the bonfire and along with their other 2 sisters attended the Kids Party in the Street and the bonfire on the 11th Night. Sadly with the ethnic segregation of Belfast in the early 70s you could say it was at this time that the 11th night bonfires only became available to participation from one community.

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  4. i spent most off my child hood from the day i got off school in june till the 11th night sleeping out at the bofire west winds newtown ards 50 years old now and one off my best memorys lol

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