20 August 2005

When The Embers of Innocence Were Fanned Into The Flames of Fury


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When I was a kid my mates and I always looked forward to the 15 August – the Feast of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin, or Our Lady’s Day, as it was called. For weeks beforehand we would go out into the streets of Andersonstown (later, the Falls after I moved there in 1963) chanting, “Any oul wood for the bonfire!” We collected old furniture, tables and chairs, anything flammable, and would proudly compete with the next district to see who had the biggest bonfire.

In the run-up to the fifteenth the big lads would stay out until the early hours to prevent a raid or some sabotage by rivals. The ‘boneys’ were usually in a field or on waste ground and were lit before midnight so that the younger children could enjoy the spectacle. Families thronged around the flames and those who drank alcohol were in the minority and frowned upon. The occasion – though for the life of me I cannot imagine why, given that it was a holy day of obligation! – was also an annual rite for boys to try and get off with whatever local girl they fancied.

The tradition of the bonfire goes back to ancient times when the power of fire was thought to protect against the power of evil. Bonfires were subsequently lit to commemorate ancient festivals, including Samhain in the old Celtic calendar or Halloween. (That festival was also a time when fertility played an important factor in the future well-being of the community – so maybe that’s why we were kissing the girls!)

In Britain the tradition of Guy Fawkes-related bonfires came in response to celebrating the survival of the King in the failed Gunpowder Plot of 5 November 1605 with effigies of both Fawkes and the Pope later being burned on top. And, of course, some time after the Battle of the Boyne in 1690 loyalists began commemorating King William of Orange’s victory over the Catholic King James II with Eleventh Night bonfires. Effigies of the Pope and Lundy (a Protestant ‘traitor’ during the Siege of Derry) were burnt on top, then petrol-soaked Tricolours became traditional, only to be joined in recent years by effigies of Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness.

In Belfast the tradition of bonfires celebrating the Feast of the Assumption lasted about one hundred years but came to an abrupt end in 1969. In the week running up to Our Lady’s Day in August 1969 there were disturbances throughout the North. The Battle of the Bogside raged in Derry, and on Thursday 14 August the pogroms against nationalist areas in Belfast resulted in eight civilian deaths, hundreds of homes being razed to the ground and thousands fleeing for their lives.

Celebration died and there were no bonfires in 1970 or 1971.

In response to the IRA campaign the British and Stormont governments introduced internment against republicans on 9August 1971. It was controversial (some of those detained were hooded for seven days and tortured), resulted in the deaths of twenty people in its first week, further alienated the nationalist population and boosted support for the IRA.

When the first anniversary of internment came around on 9 August 1972 bonfires were once again lit in nationalist areas across the North as an act of solidarity with the internees and to celebrate the fact that internment had failed and that resistance was ongoing. Thus, what had been a religious-inspired tradition became subsumed into a political tradition, even after internment was phased out in 1975.

The eve of each subsequent anniversary of 9 August was commemorated with bonfires but was an extremely tense occasion during which control of the streets, especially in West Belfast and Derry, was disputed between the locals and the British army and RUC. It was a time of rioting, plastic bullets and gun battles, often resulting in fatalities or serious injury. In the confrontations the local community lost out most, as the streets lay littered with burnt-out vehicles. Soot and dirt permeated homes, and deliveries and essential services were suspended.

Republican marches and rallies on 9 August were also banned but went ahead anyway. One rally in particular, outside Sinn Fein’s Andersonstown headquarters, was extensively covered by the press because Irish Northern Aid spokesperson from New York, Martin Galvin, was expected to defy a British government exclusion order.

When Galvin got up to speak the RUC, according to one BBC reporter, “ran riot”.

One man died and up to 20 others were injured, four seriously.

In 1988, after two plain-clothes soldiers were shot dead in Andersonstown after driving into an IRA funeral, the local community was demonised by politicians and the media. Secretary of State Peter Brooke referred to nationalists as the “terrorist community”.

Fearing more trouble around the anniversary of 9 August the MP for the area, Gerry Adams, set up a committee and founded Feile an Phobail (the West Belfast festival). Instead of bonfires local communities organised street parties, raised money to take children and pensioners away on day trips. It grew slowly until it became one of the largest community festivals in Europe, attracting thousands of overseas visitors and bringing much needed revenue into the area.

Imagine my surprise, therefore, when driving down the Falls Road last week at the end of this year’s festival I saw a huge bonfire stacked on waste ground at the bottom of Divis Street. It was like a mirror image of an Eleventh Night bonfire except that it was bedecked with over a dozen Union Flags and Ulster Flags and was protected by gangs of youths.

This district – once an IRA no-go area to even the toughest of British army regiments – has, in the past few years, suffered at the hands of ‘hoods’ (juvenile delinquents) and joy-riders, with local people struggling to claw back ownership of their streets.

Increasingly, during the period of the IRA ceasefire, hoods in nationalist areas have been flexing their muscles, exploiting the policing vacuum and been bullying locals, including former republican prisoners. They know that the IRA is constrained from acting against them. If it does act then a major political issue arises, unionists and the two governments become involved and the Independent Monitoring Commission writes a report which results in Sinn Fein being penalised and excluded from the political process.

The hoods have become even more brazen since the IRA’s declaration of an end to the armed struggle. The PSNI cannot or do not pursue them (indeed, many believe that some members of the gangs act as ‘eyes and ears’ for the police who have little intelligence on republicans).

Upon inquiry, however, it turned out that those who had built the bonfire were not hoods but youths with no memory of the 9 August or the 15 August ‘Our Lady’s Day’ bonfires, who wanted a bit more ‘excitement’ than feile had to offer. However, their bonfire night descended into what one letter writer to a local newspaper described as “a slum circus”, with youths running around drunk into the early hours, urinating in public and being abusive.

Sinn Fein opposed the bonfire, fearing it would lead to trouble, and said it hoped that “it was the last bonfire we will have in West Belfast.”

Had that been said to my mates and I when we were ten years old we would have protested, “Never! Never! Never!”

But circumstances and times change and I too never want to see a bonfire again.

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