Keeping ’er lit: the tradition of the North West’s bonfires

Thousands watched the Temple by artist David Best burn to the ground at Bard's Hill back in March. (''Photo Lorcan Doherty / Press Eye')
Thousands watched the Temple by artist David Best burn to the ground at Bard's Hill back in March. (''Photo Lorcan Doherty / Press Eye')

The tradition of the bonfire in Ireland stretches back into the mists of time, and over the centuries it has been used as a powerful rite and ritual for Celt, Catholic and Protestant alike.

For those living locally today, many across Derry and Donegal will remember the forage for bonfire materials in the run up to the August 15th or Eleventh Night events.

The bonfire in the Bogside this week.

The bonfire in the Bogside this week.

Kids from the same street would unite to guard their hard won pile of old sofas, uprooted trees, pallets, tyres or general rubbish.

The long summer nights included children working out defensive and raiding party strategies with military precision under the shadow of their growing pyramids of materials.

In the north over recent decades, the bonfires, particularly over the course of the Troubles and beyond, have taken on a political and tribal significance, and at times have been used as a via the burning of flags, emblems, effigies and even photos, as well as being used as a reaffirmation of cultural identity, of what and who we are or what and who we are not.

While in many areas the bonfire remains a strong tradition, the practice of bonfires in many other areas of the north west has all but died out over recent decades.

The bonfire at the Fountain this month.

The bonfire at the Fountain this month.

In various local estates, a combination of safety concerns and greater awareness of the negative environmental impact and damage to health have led to many community leaders and politicians working to find alternative ways of marking The Feast of the Assumption, or Lady Day as it was often known in the past.

The feast marks the day the Virgin Mary’s incorrupt soul and body was elevated upon her death up to heaven to take her place as Queen of Heaven beside God and Christ.

The Feast of the Assumption is one of the oldest Feast Days in the Religious Calendar, stretching back to the early Christian period, and Catholic world observes August 15th as a Holy Day of Obligation.

In much of Europe including the countries of Poland, Greece, Italy, Portugal, Austria, France, and Spain the day is also designated a public holiday.

The bonfire site on Bligh's Lane littered with blue bags back in 2007. (1708PG40)

The bonfire site on Bligh's Lane littered with blue bags back in 2007. (1708PG40)

In some countries traditionally, a lot of local women born on or around this week would carry the name of Mary in her honour and in some countries those called Mary host an open house to mark the religious occasion.

The feast day is celebrated in different ways across the world, with prayers, street parades and statue processions, special foods and drink ceremonies, and locally through fire or via outdoor parties and community events, like the successful festivities everywhere from Galliagh and Shantallow to Top Of the Hill and on to Malin Head.

Ritual fire as a symbol of purity and purification in Ireland meanwhile stretches back beyond the Christian period and is believed to have been used by the Celts and pagans as a distinguishing feature of various special times of the year including Samhain (Halloween) and Bealtaine (Spring).

In terms of timing, the August 15th bonfire may be related to one of the other two annual Celtic festivals, Lughnasadh, the harvest time, and there is some suggestion that such fires were used as a form of communication between communities in different locations when it was time for the harvest reaping to begin.

Lughnasagh was celebrated, according to scholars and historians, on hilltops across Ireland, with sacrificial offerings of food and animals as well as dancing and matchmaking.

Lughnasagh was one of the fire festivals and was named for the powerful Celtic god Lugh and other features, including athletic competitions, feasting and it was also used as a trading post.

It is easy to see how all this could have centred around the bonfire as staging post and beacon.

In recent years, the ancient Lughnasa occasion has experienced something of a revival with festivals held in Gweedore, and in other spots across Ireland.

And while the bonfire tradition itself locally may now be largely on the wane, and many would argue for good reason, the thousands who crammed on to a hill top in Gobnascale this year to watch the Temple burn demonstrates that the fascination with the bonfire burns as brightly and intensely today as it did for those who gathered with their torches thousands of years ago.