For many years, there has been a tradition of having bonfires on the eve of the anniversary of internment in republican/nationalist communities. Internment was introduced on August 9, 1971 by the British government, and hundreds of republicans/nationalists (no loyalist paramilitaries) were taken forcibly from their homes on that date by the British army and the RUC. Under the internment policy, those suspected of engaging in paramilitary activities could be picked up and held with out charge for an *indefinite* period of time.
The Féile an Phobail, west Belfast’s annual community festival, was organized in 1988 as a direct response to the conflict in the north. From their website:
The West Belfast community was demonised for many years by both the establishment and the media and this reached fever pitch in March 1988 as a result of the tragic events which followed the SAS killings of three unarmed IRA volunteers in Gibraltar. In reaction to this unparalleled negative and damaging portrayal of the West Belfast community, local groups and their MP, Gerry Adams, decided to organise a festival. Its purpose was to celebrate the positive side of the community, its creativity, its energy, its passion for the arts, and for sport. And it aimed at providing events and entertainment at a price that the majority of the community could afford.
And the date chosen for the festival? The week around August 9th.
The festival was organized in part to give the people of west Belfast an opportunity to express themselves creatively and to move away from the traditional bonfires.
From what I hear, the bonfires are more or less gone from west Belfast. However, I saw a small flaming pile of wooden pallets in the middle of the Falls Road by the Leisure center, and some local kids had erected a pretty large bonfire on Divis Street. Bonfires continue to be created in other parts of the city, like in south Belfast where I am staying. Here are some pictures that I took of them. This first one will give you an idea of the average size of these bonfires (note the absence of used tires):
Now, the cover photo in the Andytown News (for this Saturday the 12) depicted the ground on the Divis bonfire site the morning after and had a headline below that referred to the “thugs” that erected these bonfires despite the communities’ calls for no bonfires. The accompanying article refers simply to “young people”; I’m not sure if the headline is just meant to be sensational but I thought it was pretty misleading.
I stopped at the bonfire on the Lower Ormeau Road, and noticed right away that the group of children who had erected it appeared to be between the ages of 7 to 14 with the average (or should I say median?) being somewhere around 11 or 12. I knew some of the kids who were there, and they are anything but thugs–rather, they were just regular kids. The fire department “stopped by” just to double check to make sure that there was no gas line nearby, but the kids were left to continue to add to the pile and light it on their own, largely without adult supervision.
Some of the parents who were out later when the bonfire was lit remarked that they did not believe their kids had any idea what they were doing, or what it meant to have the British flag and the flag of Ulster burning atop the bonfire–nor what the date signified. There were no republican songs (or any for that matter) sung either- something that would have occurred “back in the day” said my friend Patsy.
We went back when the fire was lit, I suppose just to watch it burn. (Fires that huge can be pretty mesmerizing. I suppose you can imagine by the pictures that I haven’t actually uploaded because they are too huge but they will be coming soon.) I didn’t ask any of the young people there why they had erected the bonfire, or what the tradition meant to them, if anything. Maybe they do it because there’s not much else to do?