An Americans Experience of Belfast On the Twelfth of July
I am an American currently living in Ireland. I recently attended the Twelfth of July events in Belfast. This particularly piece is on my experiences at the bonfires.
The annual July 12th parades occur every year in Belfast and across Northern Ireland. The event celebrates the victory of Protestant king William of Orange over Catholic king James II at the Battle of the Boyne 1690, which marked the beginning of Protestant Loyalist rule in Northern Ireland. Since this date there has been almost constant violence between the Protestant communities, that view themselves as loyal to the British government, and the Catholic communities, that want a united Ireland free of British rule.
Northern Ireland, currently, is almost split 50/50 between the percentage of Protestant and Catholics living in the region. In Belfast, many of these communities are split by barriers or “peace walls.” Even though Protestant and Catholic residences may live a few yards from one another, they rarely or never interact. Violence and separation has always been a constant reality in these communities, even since the Good Friday Agreement of 1998 “officially ended “The Troubles.” Still, 90% of schoolchildren attend segregated schools and paramilitary groups control their specified neighbourhoods.
During the parades in Belfast the Protestants, of the Orange Order and Ulster Loyalist, march across the city dressed in uniforms while flying the banners of their communities. Many of these marches go through Catholic neighbourhoods, which provokes violence and disorder.
Being that I was an outsider from the United States, I planned to enter Belfast, on the 11th of July, with an open and unbiased mind. But, it would not be completely truthful if I said I actually did. I came from a family who was proud to be of Irish Catholic decent and I am currently living in the Republic of Ireland as a student. That being said, I know there are two sides to every story and I wanted to document this.
I had been in Belfast a few months earlier with my parents and did the whole tourist adventure. I even took the Black Taxi tour, which brings you into the hot bed areas of the city. I had a relaxing time and found the city very inviting. My return was a bit different though. I was now arriving alone the day before the biggest gathering of Protestant loyalism. The previous year’s parades resulted in weeks of rioting and violence.
Coming from the train station to the hostel, I immediately became aware of the changed atmosphere. Walking through the Donegal Pass I realised it was clearly marked as U.V.F. (Ulster Volunteer Force) territory. Needless to say I felt a bit uneasy.
At the hostel, I was informed about the current situation and was later told that I was allowed to stay, because I was foreign. They made it known, to their customers, that they were closed to anyone who came for the parades from Scotland, England or Ireland. This is very understandable, because any business would be crazy to become a hotbed for drunk and violent political discourse.
As night fell, it became apparent that the city was becoming more intoxicated. The sounds of chanting and breaking bottles became the norm. After getting to know the hostel staff, I was invited to follow a group of them to a nearby bonfire.
The bonfires are constructed from wooden pallets and each Protestant community competes to make the largest one. Many of these structures reach a hundred feet or more. At 12:00 a.m. they are lit with gasoline and petrol bombs marking the start of the July Twelfth celebration. These are a big source of controversy, because of the nature of what is burned. On the pallets are hung the Republic of Ireland flags and Republican/Nationalist/Catholic political posters. Many of the fires are blatantly violent towards Catholics, Effigies of the pope and other catholic symbols are frequently burned. One structure, listed in a tabloid, burned a lynched effigy of Gerry Adams and flag that read “We hate Cotton Pickin Niggers and Taigs.” To be fair, not all of the communities’ fires go to these extremes, but many do.
The bonfire we attended was in Sandy Row, which is a known breeding ground for Protestant paramilitary groups like the U.D.A. (Ulster Defence Association).When we first arrived the party atmosphere was quite apparent. A DJ blasted music while hundreds of people dressed in British Union Jack flags and Loyalist symbols, danced and drank. The drunken state of these people was at a level that I haven’t seen at even the most notorious parties. Fireworks were lit over the structure, which contained political posters and Irish flags. The largest one read “KAT” or “Kill All Taigs” which translates to “Kill All Catholics.”
After talking our way into the structures location, with another photographer from Israel, it immediately became apparent that the organisers did not like the press. More specifically, we were confronted by a man that kicked us out and lectured us on how they don’t like photographs.
I was later told that this man was most likely a U.D.A. member. Over the months leading up to the bonfire they guard the structures with guns to protect them from sabotage by Nationalist/Catholics. It is understandable that they would not want their photograph taken, being that they could become potential targets for revenge by opposing groups.
We ended up sneaking into the other side of the fence, which stood open. Soon enough, petrol was poured over the structure and at 12:00 petrol bombs were thrown at the structure igniting it into a ball of flames.
Like the fire, the crowd ignited into what I could only call a frenzy. They circled the fire and proceeded to throw objects and beer bottles into the flames, while singing loyalist songs and chanting “Kill All Taigs.”
The ages of the crowd in attendance ranged from small children to elderly adults. The whole community seemed to be taking part in the celebration.
For the most part, the crowd was pretty joyous and friendly towards us. In one instance, a drunken teenager came up to me wide eyed and grabbed me screaming “Isn’t it fucking beautiful!” I sort of just laughed and said “Yea, yea it is.”
Overall, I can see how the bonfires are a celebration of community identity. The tradition goes back almost 300 years and even though the crowd is incredibly intoxicated. the event still seems to be family oriented.
But, as an outsider, I can only look at the situation for what it is. It is a cultural celebration, but it is a culture that celebrates hate. I can see how anyone that lives in a warzone will hate the opposing side, but it doesn’t change the fact that it is in fact hate. The fact that the bonfires are burned with signs that read “Kill All Catholics” makes it blatantly obvious that the sole reason for the fire is to show who they hate. When young children see and chant this it just continues that mindset of hate.
There is a movement to portray these bonfires as cultural symbolism, but from what I saw it is just hate speech. That being said, I am still an outsider.
I do not believe that there can ever be peace in Northern Ireland with events of this nature. But, these communities may not want peace. Their communities have been moulded by this conflict for so many years that their main identity is reliant upon the conflict. It’s a vicious cycle that I will never fully understand.
That ended my first night of the event.