Bonfire of Hate?

12 Jul

This time last year I was sitting at the top of Scrabo Hill in Newtownards, photographing the 11th July bonfires from a safe distance. Part of an attempt to engage with the symbolism and iconography of this country and the cultures that surrounded me. A year later and I feel that I’ve travelled far. I’ve watched Orange Order parades, walked past the Ardoyne Shops unhindered en route to the Crum, cycled down the Garvaghy Road in Portadown, begun exploring the Bogside in Derry, stood silently in front of UVF and IRA graves, had coffee with a Sinn Fein politician on the Falls, run an interview with LAD and criss-crossed Belfast more times than I ever would have dreamed possible growing up.

For some this may seem rather basic, unexemplary, mundane. Others will see me as some sort of traitor for even daring the breathe in the same air. For me it has been about attempting to understand the divisions on a personal level.

"Coastal Beacon" [Groomsport].  © 2014, Robert J.E. Simpson. All Rights Reserved

“Coastal Beacon” [Groomsport].
© 2014, Robert J.E. Simpson. All Rights Reserved

This year I chose not to go out and photograph the bonfires. With the solitary exception of an unlit one in Groomsport when I happened to be passing through last week, it didn’t feel right. The increasing visibility of election posters, racist slogans, flags and dummies for lynching, made me feel too uncomfortable even to venture out to document the occasion.

When I was a kid I loved 11th night bonfires for being just that – big bonfires. I’d grown up in the countryside and it was fairly common to see our father light a bonfire for practical reasons around the garden. Scared as I was of fire’s destructive capabilities, I was also captivated – gathering the wood for fires when we camped in Tollymore Forest Park and watching it burn into the small hours was one of life’s great simple pleasures.

The colossal bonfires that are constructed each July were to us simply bringing it to a larger scale. I don’t recall seeing flags and slogans and so on, but I was probably too small to notice, and we seemed to always arrive after the fire had been lit so wouldn’t have seen flags burning anyway. There wasn’t at that age a sectarian bone in my body. I didn’t think about the reasons the fires were lit, merely that they were awesome spectacles. I do remember the searing heat and being surprised that they were allowed to build them so close to houses – I always expected the fires to topple and the houses to go up in flames too.

That changed as I got older, and now I’m so aware of the negative associations I find myself conflicted and appalled. I could accept the bonfires as a tradition and as a spectacle if they were better controlled – if they weren’t used politically. I don’t want to see flags or pictures of Anna Lo being burned. I don’t want the builders to construct them from poisonous tyres. And I don’t want to see the local fences being pulled apart just to facilitate this brief iconic act.

The fire nearest where I live had two gigantic tricolours (the Irish national flag) flying off poles on top of it during the last week. I don’t understand the need to be this provocative. I also don’t think anyone else sees the irony in picking the flag out for destruction, and yet willingly flying it for several days in the middle of a protestant/loyalist/unionist estate. I noticed them long before I noticed the Union Jacks flying elsewhere (and lower down).

I’ve said it before, but the Orange Order are not going to convince the majority that they are not a provoking bigoted organisation until they put stricter binds on things like this.

Northern Ireland’s problems aren’t really about religion either. It is broad politics. Attitudes are taught and learned from an early age. The contempt is accepted without question. I cannot imagine that most could articulate sensible reasons why they are at loggerheads with those of the ‘opposite’ community. And nor can they see the plank in their own eyes before removing the speck in yours.

I can’t stand July. Over the years I’ve had objects thrown at me, sectarian abuse shouted at me, intimidating songs sung at me, roads blocked, petrol bombs thrown outside my house – and all by those supposedly from “my own people”. I’m going to be staying in this year on the 12th too – photographing last year was risky enough. Fortunately if you’re careful and time it right, it is largely possible to avoid the activity around the 11th and 12th – escape the worst of the excesses and only deal with the aftermath. If it wasn’t I’d have to move.


2 Responses to “Bonfire of Hate?”

  1. tenderlytina July 12, 2014 at 3:32 am #

    Sounds awful, one day I hope for humanity to realize we are all human. Sighhhh here’s to someday, (stay safe)


  1. Who am I? (Part 1) | The Sherlock Holmes English-speaking Vernacular - December 3, 2016

    […] bonfires becoming adorned with flags, election posters and other weighted symbols and they become totems of hate once again and I cannot be a part of that. Tribalism and sectarianism only cement division and […]

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