corey says…After the BBC interview, we grabbed a bite to eat before being picked up by Heidi and Ray. Heidi is the editor of Belfast In Your Pocket, and she offered to take us on a tour of some of the 12th Eve bonfires.
For those who don’t know, Marching Day commemorates the triumph of Protestant William of Orange over exiled Catholic King James at the Battle of the Boyne in 1690. Today, the celebration accentuates the divide in Northern Ireland’s politics between Loyalists and Nationalists. Last year was the first year in recent history that the British military didn’t have a presence during the celebrations…and there were no major problems.
We received all kinds of mixed messages about being in Belfast over the 12th. The tourist industry and the government have been touting a new era of peace and political parties working together. Citizens warned us to be careful and to avoid neighborhoods labeled as flashpoints where violence may erupt. Others told us we had nothing to worry about and to just enjoy the party. Others said, you’ll probably be fine, but if something terrible is going to happen it’ll be over the Marching Days. Still others said, “I wouldn’t go near Northern Ireland at that time – it’s too dangerous.”
Who to believe? Well, we approached it with the same caution we would any major city.
To be honest, we wouldn’t have ventured out to the bonfires if we didn’t have local guides. There was a small bonfire a few blocks from our hotel that we probably would have visited knowing we could easily retreat, but we certainly wouldn’t have taken a bus or cab to another part of town.
Heidi and Ray started by taking us to Shankhill Road, the heart of Protestant-Loyalist Belfast. We drove the area on the bus tour earlier that morning, and there were fewer people around now. Considering this is probably the largest of the bonfires (it even has a MasterCard advertisement posted on it), I was surprised, but I also knew that a lot of people would be back to see this mammoth tower burn.
The bonfires are constructed of stacked wooden pallets, which locals collect for months. The Shankhill Road bonfire was surrounded by other debris…it looked as though in addition to dropping off doors and pallets, all kinds of other burnable trash was dumped. In the end, only pallets were used and the rest of the debris was left scattered around the empty lot.
It was clear nothing was going to be happening at this site for quite a while. We then moved on to a few other bonfires. Each community has its own, so there are many more than I expected throughout the city. There is definitely a bit of competition as to who has the biggest or most political bonfire. The pyres are decorated with political flags, Irish flags and campaign pictures of opposition candidates. I don’t think I saw that in the visit Belfast brochure!
Although Shankill was quiet, the other bonfires had a festival atmosphere going for them. Vendors selling food and battery-operated red, white and blue paraphernalia. There were families, couples and groups of teens, men and women all enjoying themselves. Some sites had music and, like many festivals, there was plenty of beer.
I was certainly more concerned about people misbehaving because of the drink over any other violence.
The Tallest of the Bonfires
We arrived at another site where a small group of people were playing church hymns from a bus shelter. It looked a bit like a scene from Guys & Dolls where the Salvation Army singing to the corrupt gamblers.
There were a lot of people here, and we made our way through the crowd. This crowd was a little different than some of the other bonfires…more immigrants and tourists, more senior citizens and less drinking. It felt a little more relaxed than some other places we had been.
This site also had the absolute tallest bonfire of all…maybe not as big around as Shankill, but definitely taller. The beehive-shaped pallet castle was crowned with posters of Gerry Adams and other Sein Fein party members, and an Irish flag was perched at the top.
Lighting the Fire
With a bit of fanfare, a group of boys and young men marched up to the bonfire. The tallest and biggest of the group, wrapped in the Union Jack flag, tossed a flare into the pile of pallets. A moment later, the flame had gone out. A second flare was tossed with the same effect. The crowd waited as Plan B was enacted.
Young boys returned with blazing torches. They held them to various points at the base of the fortress. Within minutes the fire began lapping at the bottom half of the tower. As it climbed its way to the top, we could feel the heat intensify. The people in the front row retreated a couple of feet.
The fire was building in intensity and the air and smoke flowing skyward caused all the posters to flip upwards with great force. Then the posters burst into flames…delighting many people in the crowd. Then there were cheers when the Irish flag burst into flames.
The entire pile of pallets was now glowing orange and the flames licked up to the sky reaching heights nearly twice as high as the tower itself. The heat was intense. Heidi and I checked each others eyelashes to make sure they hadn’t been singed off.
Then the top portion of the tower began to lean. Sensing the danger, the entire crowd shifted. We pushed our way further up the hill to make sure we were a safe distance away. Some teenagers stayed close to the edge…the air movement from the fire causing their hair to blow back. Camera phones and video cameras were working double-time capturing the event.
The tower began to lean more. The teenagers began backing away from the burning beast. Then, as if in slow motion, the entire tower began to bow to the asphalt below. The crowd was breathless, and every eye was fixated on the flames.
A blast of hot air blew passed us when the inferno finally collapsed into the road. The heat was so intense people turned their heads and covered their eyes. I had to bring my camera down to my waist as my arms were getting too hot to bear the fire. Gradually, the heat lessened, but the flames continued to reach to the sky just as high as they were before. The collapse spread out the fire, but did not diminish its intensity.
A Quiet Spot
The heap continued to burn at full force, but after it collapsed, the crowd slowly began to thin out. We followed suit and headed for the car. Heidi and Ray then took us to a hill overlooking the town. The clouds had rolled in, so it was too foggy to see anything other than the closest bonfires from here. We sat and chatted for a while until the rain forced us into the car.
As we drove back into town, we passed many of the same bonfires we had seen earlier. Even the ones that were very busy before were almost abandoned now. I had thought people would be partying until dawn…or at least until the fire went out, but that wasn’t the case. I’m not sure if it was the rain or the fact that many of the people had to get up early for the parade, but the town was oddly quiet shortly after midnight.
I have to say, the bonfires were like nothing I had ever seen before. Had I not had a local guide, I certainly wouldn’t have ventured too far from my hotel…partly out of concern and partly out of feeling overwhelmed by all the activity.
Bonfires and Tourists
Are the bonfires a tourist attraction? Well, they are a spectacle to behold, but for a regular tourist, they would be definitely off the tourist trail and might be a bit overwhelming.
One should realize that a portion of the city’s population does not participate in the bonfires. This would include individuals who have a more Irish national identity…most of which are Catholic.
Are the bonfires safe? That depends on one’s definition of safe. The building of the bonfires is not necessarily regulated, so there is a chance of physical danger from the enormous structures. As with any festival, especially one with alcohol involved, violence is a possibility, even with the heavy police presence in the city at that time.
I wouldn’t recommend venturing too far into the unknown without a local guide or without doing a great deal of research before heading out. Transport can be challenging because some roads will be blocked for the bonfires or for block parties.
That said, the people of Belfast are certainly welcoming and take good care of their tourists.
Those drawn by the rebranding efforts to call it the family-friendly Orange Fest should find out which events are specifically promoted as family-friendly…as each bonfire has its own identity.
Click here for footage of one of the bonfires: http://irishfireside.wordpress.com/2008/02/28/bonfires-in-belfast/