I’ve been alluding to the Silly Season for a while now – this time in Northern Ireland where everything becomes even more about being ‘for God and ulster’ and Loyalist villages are decked out in red, white and blue bunting. Parades commemorate just about everything and it seems to point to July 12th. However, for some people here – the ‘real’ party seems to be the night before.
Now, I’m not honestly sure when the celebrations on the 11th started or why they happen – but I know that they coincide with the 12th and that commemorates the Battle of the Boyne which took place in 1690. It was when William of Orange (a Protestant) defeated King James (a Catholic). The Orange Order – the Protestant fraternity thing – is named after this man.
I’m sure you’ve pieced two and two together by now and have realized that anything that celebrates one tradition in Northern Ireland is going to cause upheaval among the other tradition. Good call. And since July 12th is a day filled with parades and such things all for Loyalistism and Protestantism (which are not the same thing, I promise… it just seems that way), it has had a history of being a not-happy day among the Republican community. Most of my Northern Irish pals get the heck out of dodge for the 12th fortnight – it’s the most popular time to take a holiday for both communities.
The night before, as I said, it has become tradition to gather within each estate (read:neighborhood) and light a gigantic bonfire. The wood, couches, mattresses, tires, rubbish, etc. for these fires has probably been being collected since last year’s fire; if we’re honest. From Easter onwards, the construction starts – so I’ve had a lot of time to drive by them. Most of them were about as big as a 2 story building. They take up entire lots and free areas that stand in the middle of the estates.
Then, in appears, the flag of the opposing side (as Northern Ireland has no true flag and each side clings to either the Union Jack or the Irish Tricolor) is placed upon the top of the fire so that the flag burns with it. I’m assured that the ultimate symbol of hatred and defeat is to burn someone’s flag (which must be why people burn US flags…), so often two or more flags are affixed atop the stack – to add insult to injury.
Lisa, Jay and I walked a short distance from Jay’s house to the Annadale embankment to see the bonfire there. Annadale is a definite Loyalist estate, by the way. We sat on a hill, feeling the heat from the fire and listening to the cheer of the crowds. It was definitely a party – complete with a DJ on a flat bed, disco lights and lots of booze. Children ran all around; jeering on the Republicans on the other side of the river and singing football songs as the fire consumed the Tricolors on the top.
I didn’t know what was going on. I understood, intellectually, that this is how we do it and I should have been shocked by none of it. But I was. I understand, intellectually, that sectarianism is not only in Northern Ireland but runs rampant throughout the world and I should not, perhaps, be so upset by it all. Perhaps I should just resign myself that it is a way of life in a fallen world and move on.
But I can’t.
I know, in the depths of my soul, that there is more than this. That unity and peace are better than division and violence. I know that when we make compromises for the greater good of humanity, everyone wins – instead of some feeling ostracized and put-upon. I know that the best way to celebrate all of the glorious and wonderful heritage of Northern Ireland is not to light things on fire and slowly get drunk. Or to march in parades that make our neighbors feel like they are not welcome. The heritage of Ireland is one of welcome – St. Patrick made that clear.
Sitting on that hillside and feeling the fire so intensely that I could barely breathe; I think I understood this wee country more than I ever had before. I made the comment to Lisa that y1 should start on July 11th and every y1er should have to go to bonfire. She agreed. It puts it all into context. Things like the murals and the parades and the attacks… It’s not like you can justify them or really understand them – but that night definitely helped paint a fuller picture of many people’s stories for me.
As I head off to Summerserve to work with kids from a tiny Loyalist village, please continue to pray. Please pray that the thing that seems to have its tenterhooks so deep into this place would release it. John Gordon, a Northern Irish y1er from a Loyalist background, spent a bit of time serving in a Republican estate two weeks ago. “It’s all the same,” he told me, just a little bit shocked. “I always thought there would be some big difference between Catholics and Protestants and where they lived. There’s not. And it would only take one generation to change that thinking. Just one.” Please pray for that one generation.