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Kids-on-bonfire-night-CROP

I’m a Republican but I’ve always loved the bonfires and flute bands

The ‘11th Night’ is here and that means controversy follows. Huge bonfires placed too close to people’s houses. Sinn Fein, SDLP election posters and Tricolours burnt on the pyre. The negative environmental impact of the bonfires. And what about the potential for sectarian songs, the blue bag brigade and drunk and disorderly behaviour? There’s no shortage of things to condemn.

But there’s also much to admire if you look closer at bonfire night and the Twelfth of July celebrations next day marking King Billy’s victory over King James at the Battle of the Boyne.

Because for the vast majority of Protestant people bonfire night is simply a fantastic night of fun and celebration devoid of sectarianism or malign intent.

Thinking back to bonfire night on July 11th as a Catholic kid I loved everything about it. Living in Newry Street off Castlereagh Road, East Belfast, ‘11th Night’ was right up there with Christmas and birthdays for me. My mates and I looked forward to it months in advance. We started collecting wood for the Boney many weeks in advance before school broke up for the summer.

The dedication and hundreds of hours of collecting the wood, physically carrying it to our boney site was not to be sniffed at. Nor were the many hours standing guard over our wood so that no rivals would steal our material for their boney.

My nickname Tich, which all my West Belfast mates know me by rather than Kevin, was given to me when my big brother Terence would take me along with him and his Protestant mates to collect wood for our boney from further up the Castlereagh Road. Being the wee one among the big boys they nicknamed me Tich.

As we approached 11th Night the big girls including my sisters Dympna and Maura would go around the doors collecting money for the bonfire party. With the money collected Coca Cola and Tayto crisps were bought and distributed to us excited kids as the party got under way and the bonfire was lit.

The atmosphere was brilliant, happy and festive as we watched the flames rise into the air. We got to stay up late and gorge ourselves on coke and crisp as the music blared and people sang. It was a party atmosphere. I do remember the odd ‘F**k The Pope’ song amongst the merriment. But to be honest I don’t think it deterred our sense of excitement too much on the night.

The next day was equally enjoyable as we headed down to Templemore Avenue early in the morning and occupied our favourite spot, sat on a high wall to watch the Orange bands parade in the 12th procession. I still remember the feeling of being blown away by the music and spectacle of the occasion. And also being jealous of my older sisters Bernadette and Deirdre who got to go up to ‘The Field’ as we called it, which was the final destination of the parade. All these years later that sense of wonderment I felt back then as a kid has remained with me.

I remember my curiosity being pricked by the artwork of the Orange Order banners and the stories they hinted at with their biblical references. The bowler hatted men in suits and sashes looked striking. But what impressed me most were the bands. Impeccably turned out in pristine uniforms, there were accordion and pipe bands. But it was the flute bands that really did it for me. I loved the sounds and still admire the fact that young guys not that much older than me back then could so brilliantly play their flutes and drums. That these largely working class young men and boys, who otherwise might be roaming the streets with little to do, were (and still are) attending band practice several nights a week, developing their discipline and mastery of instruments in preparation for the big day on the twelfth is worthy of respect.

Of course all good things come to an end as they say. On August 10th our lovely world came crashing down as an armed loyalist arrived at our Newry Street front door in the middle of the night, put a gun to my daddy’s face and told him we had 30 minutes to get out of our home or we would be dead.

As we fled out our front door we knew we would never see our house again. That same night hundreds of Catholic families were driven from their homes across east Belfast never to return.

It was now 1971 and The Troubles had exploded big time. Over the following years the context of conflict redefined the nature of bonfire night and the Twelfth. It was now a no-go area for Catholics. Bonfire night and the Twelfth took on what was increasingly perceived as an overtly sectarian character.

Of course there is still a sectarian element to the Orange Order and sections of unionism/loyalism. Sometimes that sectarian current comes to the fore on 11th Night or on the 12th of July parades. But equally, it’s important to point out that for many thousands of young Protestants in 2024 – bonfire preparation and night is like a right of passage and a benign experience full of only joy and fun. As the Troubles fade I hope we can get back to a time when young mates both Catholic, Protestant and neither can go collecting wood together again for their local boney and have a good time together on the 11th night. Of course this may sound wishful thinking and some might label me hopelessly naive but I wear my idealism as a badge of honour.

Yes there are those who still wish to stoke division. Yes there is still controversy. Gerry Kelly’s face on the top of one boney. The dispute over the bonfire at Annandale Embankment. The UVF flags surrounding the Moygashel bonfire is not exactly a promo for good community relations. I could go on and ask questions about the Craigyhill bonfire if so inclined but I won’t.

I know the overwhelming majority of people celebrating bonfire night and the 12th parades are only interested in having a good time and participating in what is for many of them an important part of their culture. They are not interested in loyalist supremacy, sectarianism or picking a fight with anyone. In the context of 2024 when The Troubles are the past I say to the young boney builders the vast majority of whose bonfires are uncontentious and not linked to paramilitaries – congratulations on all your efforts and hard work. Good on ye. Enjoy your night because I used to enjoy mine.

If we could solve the remaining 1% of contentious band parades I’d let you into a secret. United Irelander and Republican that I am – I still admire the young boney collectors and love watching those flute bands.