Opinion

Jake O'Kane: Can the madness around bonfires and the Twelfth really be called 'culture'?

A scientist calculated that the carbon dioxide released from the Craigyhill pyre was equivalent to 25 planes, full of passengers, flying from Belfast to London – not this would concern Sammy Wilson who continues to deny climate change

Jake O'Kane

Jake O'Kane

Jake is a comic, columnist and contrarian.

Council workers clean up following the Twelfth parade through Belfast. Picture by Mal McCann
Council workers clean up following the Twelfth parade through Belfast. Picture by Mal McCann Council workers clean up following the Twelfth parade through Belfast. Picture by Mal McCann

My granny's house sat high up in the Sperrin Mountains, between two hills. Viewed from my bedroom window, the narrow road leading up to it looked like a Disney creation as it undulated insanely into the distance.

It was in that bedroom that I had a childhood nightmare I remember vividly to this day. It began with the sound of flutes and drums, which filled me with terror as it meant the Orangemen were coming to get me. In my dream, I could see their banners as the parade rose and dipped along the road toward our house, and I woke screaming.

I was living in my granny's after our family home in north Belfast had been firebombed; little wonder I was having nightmares. My family was part of a wave of Catholics who, in the late 1960s, moved out of working-class nationalist areas into what had formerly been exclusively middle-class Protestant districts.

Former DUP leader Arlene Foster interviewing DUP deputy leader Gavin Robinson on GB News during its coverage of the Twelfth. Picture by Mal McCann
Former DUP leader Arlene Foster interviewing DUP deputy leader Gavin Robinson on GB News during its coverage of the Twelfth. Picture by Mal McCann Former DUP leader Arlene Foster interviewing DUP deputy leader Gavin Robinson on GB News during its coverage of the Twelfth. Picture by Mal McCann

No doubt my night terrors were augmented from listening to my parents' conversations, picking up on their fear as they discussed the ever-increasing violence which marked the start of the Troubles.

As I got older, my anxiety around the Orange Order first dissipated and then disappeared from my thinking, apart from flashpoints such as Drumcree, Harryville or Ardoyne.

Today, the Order appears much diminished, with bonfire builders and bandsmen the Achilles' heel of an organisation founded on sectarian supremacy. With not a papish in sight, its leadership recently announced proposals to shorten the traditional Twelfth route and completely cut out gathering at the 'field' at Shaw's Bridge.

The public explanation given was a desire to eliminate the disgraceful scenes of street drinking and anti-social behaviour which occurred during the 2022 return parade. However, the PSNI reported that the 2022 march was one of the most peaceful, resulting in only a few arrests.

Read more:What is the Orange Order?

Read more:Why is the Orange Order not demanding the DUP returns to Stormont?

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In reality, the decision to shorten the parade is more likely to be due to the ever-increasing age of its members – there are thought to be fewer than 30,000 these days – and a worry the annual walk to the field could very soon become a ride there... on mobility scooters.

Council cleansing staff clean up following the Twelfth parade through Belfast. Picture by Mal McCann
Council cleansing staff clean up following the Twelfth parade through Belfast. Picture by Mal McCann Council cleansing staff clean up following the Twelfth parade through Belfast. Picture by Mal McCann

Another focus of celebration/commemoration – I'm never sure which to call it though I believe the difference may be solely dependent on the amount of alcohol consumed – are the Eleventh night bonfires.

Middle-aged bonfire builders prove their loyalty by attempting to escape into the clouds to the accompaniment of a soundtrack provided by raucous bandsmen. Tragically, a life was lost last year and this year, two more bonfire builders were injured after falling from their towering constructions. One wonders who decided to suspend health and safety legislation for these edifices.

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar's picture was burned on a bonfire in Moygashel, Co Tyrone
Taoiseach Leo Varadkar's picture was burned on a bonfire in Moygashel, Co Tyrone Taoiseach Leo Varadkar's picture was burned on a bonfire in Moygashel, Co Tyrone

My spirits were lifted somewhat when I saw the image of a small boat perched atop the bonfire at Moygashel in Tyrone. I thought those responsible had succeeded to protest the Protocol and the Irish Sea border in an imaginative and amusing way. For once, the knuckle-dragging stereotype appeared to have been usurped for something sarcastic and cerebral... but I was proved wrong.

As before, loyalism managed to grasp defeat from the mouth of victory by placing an image of Taoiseach Leo Varadkar and an Irish tricolour on the boat before setting the pyre alight; in doing so, the knuckle-dragging equilibrium was restored.

In Larne, the Craigyhill bonfire reached a world record 210 feet. While only the most churlish couldn't marvel at this effort, I do, however, question the decision of Sammy Wilson to table a motion in parliament to congratulate the bonfire builders. Sammy effused that they "...demonstrated what was best about Northern Ireland". I'd suggest our local health workers may be somewhat more deserving of such a plaudit.

A scientist calculated that the carbon dioxide released from the Craigyhill pyre was equivalent to 25 planes, full of passengers, flying from Belfast to London – not this would concern Sammy who, contrary to all scientific findings, continues to deny climate change.

Any criticism of the Twelfth is discounted by the Protestant, unionist, loyalist (PUL) community as nationalist bitching, with its attendant madness justified through liberal use of one word, 'culture', though I question what is meant by the use of that word.

They patently don't mean PUL culture epitomised by painters such as William Conor and Markey Robinson, poets such as John Hewitt and Michael Longley, writers such as C.S. Lewis or playwrights like Sam Thompson and Gary Mitchell.

To link such luminaries with bonfire building or bandsmen is like having been invited to a wonderful banquet but deciding to dine on the tablecloth.