In Northern Ireland, the Eleventh Night or 11th Night, also known as "bonfire night", is the night before the Twelfth of July, an Ulster Protestant celebration. On this night, large towering bonfires are lit in Protestant loyalist neighbourhoods, and are often accompanied by street parties and loyalist marching bands. The bonfires are mostly made of wooden pallets. They originally celebrated the Williamite conquest of the 1690s, which began the Protestant Ascendancy in Ireland. Eleventh Night events are regularly condemned for sectarianism or ethnic hatred against Irish Catholics and Irish nationalists, such as the burning of Irish tricolours, and for damage and pollution caused. Some are controlled by loyalist paramilitaries, and authorities may be wary of taking action against controversial bonfires. Not all bonfires are controversial however, and there have been attempts to de-politicize some bonfires and make them more family-friendly and environmentally-friendly. In 2021, there were about 250 Eleventh Night bonfires.
Origins and overviewEdit
Like The Twelfth, the Eleventh Night bonfires celebrate the Glorious Revolution (1688) and the victory of Protestant king William of Orange over the Catholic James II during the Williamite-Jacobite War (1689–1691), which began the Protestant Ascendancy in Ireland. When King William landed at Carrickfergus in 1690, his supporters across Ulster, the northern province in Ireland, lit bonfires to celebrate. Some of those who did not join in the celebrations were attacked by the Williamites. There is also a belief that the bonfires commemorate the lighting of fires on the hills of counties Antrim and Down to help Williamite ships navigate through Belfast Lough at night.
Traditionally, both Catholics and Protestants in Ulster lit bonfires at Midsummer, May Day (Bealtaine) and Halloween (Samhain), which were non-sectarian. In the 18th century it also became a tradition for Ulster Protestants to light bonfires on 11 July to commemorate the Williamite victory, and for Catholics to light bonfires on 14 August to mark the Feast of the Assumption of Mary.
Eleventh Night bonfires are built mostly of wooden pallets and lumber by local young men and boys. They begin gathering and stacking the material weeks beforehand, and often keep watch at the bonfire site overnight to ensure they are "not lit prematurely by saboteurs". Community bonfire groups raise funds to pay for wood and sometimes cranes, while some district councils also provide funding through cultural grants. Historically, bonfires were smaller and more numerous, but over time communities have joined together to consolidate resources to build much bigger bonfires, often due to lack of space. The lighting of the bonfire is typically accompanied by a large street party and loyalist marching band.
Eleventh Night bonfires often involve sectarian displays. Symbols of Irish nationalism/republicanism (such as the Irish tricolour), and symbols of Catholicism, are often burnt on the bonfires. The tricolours on such bonfires may be daubed with sectarian slogans such as "Kill All Taigs" (KAT) or "Kill All Irish" (KAI). Effigies, and posters of Irish nationalist election candidates, are also sometimes burnt, which has been condemned as "inciting hatred". More recently, symbols of the large Polish immigrant community were burnt on some bonfires, which was described as "racist intimidation".
During the Troubles, loyalist paramilitary groups like the Ulster Defence Association (UDA) and Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) used Eleventh Night bonfires to hold "shows of strength", which involved masked gunmen firing volleys of shots into the air. After the conflict, some bonfire events have continued to be controlled by current or former loyalist paramilitary members. A 2018 government-backed report noted they were a way for paramilitaries to "extend their legitimacy and control community activities". In some cases, attempts by the authorities to intervene in controversial bonfires has sparked paramilitary violence.
Safety and environmental harmEdit
Eleventh Night bonfires have raised health and safety concerns, as well as environmental ones. Bonfires are often built to be as large as possible. Some are built near houses and other buildings, which need to be boarded up and doused with water by firefighters to protect them. In some cases, homes have caught fire, and bonfires have collapsed near crowds and onto roads. According to the BBC, clean-up and road repairs due to bonfire damage "costs thousands of pounds every year". Another concern is the pollution caused. Tyres are burnt in some bonfires, despite bans by bodies such as Belfast City Council. Tyres produce many toxic chemical compounds when burnt, and therefore pose a major health issue.
In July 2022, a bonfire-builder died after falling from a 50 feet (15 m) tall bonfire in Larne.
Attempts to address the concernsEdit
There have been attempts to make the bonfires more family-friendly and environmentally-friendly. In Belfast, a Bonfire Initiative has been set up. When joining the initiative, the community groups who organize bonfires agree to a number of conditions. A "bonfire committee" must be formed; the gathering of material for burning may only begin on 1 June; only wood can be burnt; and paramilitary flags and emblems must not be displayed at the bonfire site. In 2010, groups who forbore from burning nationalist flags or symbols were awarded an extra £100 funding.
In 2009, Belfast City Council began promoting "beacons" as an environmentally-friendly alternative. It is a pyramid-shaped metal cage filled with willow wood-chips, and set on a base of sand to protect the ground underneath. The willow trees re-grow within a year of being cut down, making the bonfires more environmentally sustainable. By agreeing to use the beacons, the communities qualify for up to £1,500 of funding from Belfast City Council to hold a street party – as long as they do not fly paramilitary flags or burn tyres. Some loyalist communities in Belfast have begun using the beacons. However, many others oppose the beacon, claiming that it infringes upon their traditions.
- Simpson, Mark (12 July 2004). "Damping down the flames". BBC News. Retrieved 17 July 2011.
out with one of the crews on their busiest night of the year - Bonfire Night. It is the eleventh hour of the eleventh night
Santino, Jack (1998). The hallowed eve: dimensions of culture in a calendar festival in Northern Ireland. Lexington, Kentucky: University Press of Kentucky. p. 54. ISBN 978-0-8131-2081-2. Retrieved 18 May 2011.
While the term Bonfire Night once referred to Halloween, in Northern Ireland today it refers to the Eleventh Night [...]
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- Bowcott, Owen (13 July 2006). "Army off streets for July 12". The Guardian. London.
- "Limavady bonfire: Election posters 'inciting hatred', says Sinn Féin". BBC News, 9 July 2014.
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- "Terraced homes gutted as blaze sparked by embers blown onto roofs in Belfast". The Telegraph. 12 July 2016.
- "Firefighters protect homes during Portadown bonfire as Eleventh Night celebrations begin". Belfast Telegraph, 11 July 2021.
- "Tiger's Bay bonfire: NI ministers begin legal action". BBC News, 9 July 2021.
- "Larne bonfire: Man dies after falling from a height". BBC News. 11 July 2022.