A Bony collector’s nostalgic memories of Unionist/Loyalist street parties and bonfires in backstreet Belfast over the decades
provided evidence of underlying lawlessness and gave us an insight into Loyalist disregard/contempt/ignorance of normal social behaviour.
• 2 months minimum of flags and bunting
Comment: for a 2 day party to which half the population in NI isn’t invited!!
“The streamers would be put up in the street a few days just before the 1st July (traditionally all loyalist decorations and flags must go up for the 1st July and come down again after the last Saturday in August, this would be in recognition of the Orange Order 1st and 12th July parades and the Apprentices Boys 12th August Relief of Derry parade and the Royal Black Institution Last Saturday in August parade)”.
“I used to collect wood for the bonfire on the 11th Night . . .
But the next morning that was it.
The 12th, 13th, 14th all my Protestant friends disappeared; the bigotry got really bad but up until the 11th night it was OK”
The streamers would be put up by young men from the street. They would climb up a ladder and tie the streamers to the terraced houses roof spouting wall brackets from one side of the street to the other.
They would also knock at your door and ask if ‘you want your flag out’
I would get our flag on a white painted pole which was stored at the side of our bedroom wardrobe and give it to the guys who would climb up their ladder and erect the flag pole with flag into the permanent flag holder installed on front of our house between the two upstairs bedroom windows.
As bonfire collectors we had plenty of empty houses to strip out for bonfire material, we had plenty of empty houses backyards to store these materials,
Our district was lucky as we had so many other avenues to gather materials, there was factories and warehouses for pallets, the railway line for sleepers, the binyard,
it would not be usual to see a group of children carrying doors on their backs down the streets during the bonfire collection period.
Comment “I never liked seeing kids playing in piles old furniture/sofas and piles of wood with nails sticking out. It reminds me of Calcutta”.
“Away and get us a bag of spuds and a box off eggs from the top of the street’ where there was a potato and egg distribution warehouse
The orders would be relayed to the ‘doers’‘
“OK we need X amount of pints of milk’ and a list of the type of morning papers to get to read would be instructed and ‘for f sake don’t be taking anything from our side of the road get it on the other side !’
• Telling Belfast Council Binmen not to do their duty
The Binmen who would come weekly to the entry to collect and dump the Metal Dustbins full of coal ashes and rubbish would be informed not to touch or dump the wood stacked beside the bins as this was for the street bonfire.
• Burning tyres, flaunting the law and deception
The place of most interest that we would visit every day was the garages and the greatest prize of them all used and old tyres. This was the material that made the smoke and identified when your bonfire had been lit. On the 11th night you could look up into the sky and see the black smoke rising and identify which bonfire it was
Tyres would be piled high in the centre of the bonfire and then surrounded by furniture and wood. No one seen the structure of how the bonfire was built and as far as an outside observing eye was concerned there was no tyres in the bonfire.
Comment: They undertake acts of mass pollution that would attract custodial sentences anywhere in the UK,
• No co-operation with police
The Peelers where just snooping around to see what materials should not be used in the bonfire, so items like tyres had to be well hidden from their eyes.
Comment: They know for the next four weeks law and order do not apply.
They can vandalise, steal, racially abuse, assault who ever they feel like in the knowledge that PSNI does not intervene for fear of being the spark that causes the riot.
This did not dampen our enthusiasm to partake in the game of trying to have the biggest bonfire and
stealing our rival’s bonfire material and even sabotaging the size of their bonfire by prematurely burning it before the 11th Night.
• Forming an Illegal Defense Group
‘Staying out with the Bony’ basically which means staying out overnight to guard and protect the bonfire material from either being stole or burnt. We had a double edged sword on that front because not only did we have other bonfire rivals but our bonfire was the closest to the frontline and the ‘Taigs’
• War-like language
We would engage in running battles with both before it was all over on the 11th Night. ‘Strength in Numbers’ especially when you were only a few street corners away from enemy territory. Today the district is left with one bonfire. I had a chat at the bonfire last year with a childhood friend who informed me ‘we had a good team staying out last night, just in case the other side would try anything’
Comment: it’s all in their minds but it’s real for them
• Collusion in deceiving the authorities
There would be visits from the Police and Army while staying out in the middle of the night. ‘How’s it going Lads everything alright ?’ would be their introduction. Sometimes a landrover of the Army would pull up and a group of squaddies would get out and come and stand around the camp fire with us, they would be given food and drinks and have a general chat, we would be warned however that if the Army Military Police appeared at the Bonfire and asked did we see any army patrols we were to report back that we seen them driving about a few times at the bottom of the street.
once the pubs closed their doors after last orders the majority of the punters would arrive at the Bony to continue drinking and sit around the camp fire. This is when the singing and playing of flutes would commence, it was also when the arguments and fights would occur.
• Danger to lives and property
we had to wedge old doors up against resident’s house windows closest to the fire to stop the glass from cracking with the heat. Once the fire was lit we would run in and out of peoples kitchens to get basins of water to douse over the houses and the telegraph poles. I can still remember the black tar seeping out of them poles due to the intense heat of the fires. When the upper Sandy Row bonfire was beside the Orange hall at the corner of the Donegall road the houses there were cooled with hoses.
Every year in NI we risk seeing houses and public buildings damaged by fire and heat.
A bonfire spectator/participant could get severely injured or killed should one of these burning structures collapse.
Any criticism is dismissed as “oh, you’re just attacking our culture”.
Lack of effective PSNI intervention means the Unionist/Loyalist sense of impunity grows, further alienating the nationalist/Republican community and everyone else who does not support this breakdown in law and order
PS the Orange Order says the bonfires have nothing to do with them!!
“The Grand Lodge or the Orange Institution does not organise bonfires”
Voices from the grave, page 31. Ed Moloney. Faber and Faber