The boys who built the bonfire

photo credit : Andre Austin

There are some dates or times of year that are indelibly printed in the psyche like Christmas. The eleventh night, the eleventh night of July is another though probably only if you are of Northern Irish Protestant Unionist descent.

I haven’t celebrated an eleventh night since I was 16, some thirty years ago, though, like many things, what is formed in childhood remains like the rings of a tree.

The eleventh night is the eve of the Twelfth which is the day Orangemen, a Protestant fraternity, commemorates the Battle of the Boyne. I seem to be more of an ‘eve’ person than the day of celebration. Eves, whether Christmas, New Year’s or eleventh nights provide anticipation of the day ahead which is fuel for the imagination. When the day comes reality is born and anticipation is for another time.

The bonfire although not lit until the eleventh night was our focus from after Easter. We would set up a small camp and then collect wood each day until bonfire night. A hut made of old doors would soon be assembled and this would be where we spent endless days and the odd nights. No longer wanted sofas and chairs would furnish ‘the bonfire hut’ and we would sit like old men puffing on our cigarettes talking about everything and anything.

As the eleventh night neared ‘Billy Lundy’ would be made who on the night would take prime position on the fire and burn as in the flames of hell. It was as I grew up with the bonfire that I learned later that Lundy had betrayed our people in the ‘Siege of Derry’ in 1689.

On the days leading up to the eleventh, the bonfire would be built as if we were Babylonian masters. By the eleventh it was ready like a cake for a birthday, waiting for a torch to set it ablaze.

The older guys would dowse the wood with petrol and then flamed torches would appear and one by one the bonfire would be set alight.

Mesmerised we would stand watching the flames roar consuming the wood like a fire monster.

So much energy went into constructing the bonfire only for it to be burned in the flames of one night, the eleventh night. Yet the smell of smoke and burning, the noise of flames alive remain vivid in the minds of the boys who built the bonfires.


Thanks to Andre Austin of Corcrain and Redmanville Bonfire for permission to use their photo, the boys who continue to build bonfires

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