The Burning Season – by Mary Nelis

Oh the joy of it!  The hunt for anything that would burn in the days when people had little by way of furniture or other possessions, did not deter us children from scouting the back lanes for material for our bonfire.

It was the 15th August and practically every street in the Nationalists areas of Derry had a bonfire, all vying with each to see which would be the best in terms of combustible material and street entertainment.

Those were the days when having lit our own street bone fire, we went on the tour of bone fires in other areas. We children knew the best ones, the bone fires that over the years had acquired a reputation for being the biggest and the best and the most entertaining by way of singers and musicians. We were never sure why the older people put such store in this tradition of burning but there was a vague undercurrent of Nationalistic fervour as people gathered around the fires and the local Tenor rendered twenty verses of ‘The Croppy Boy’ and no one ‘Feared to Speak of 98’.

Those were hard times. Any relief from the daily grind of poverty was welcome. Bone fire day the 15th August, was also the feast of The Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary.  We never understood the connection between bone fires and a Catholic Church holy day. But whatever the reasons Catholic households took advantage of the bone fires to burn their old and probably bug and flea ridden mattresses and other items requiring disposal, for those were the days of poor sanitation and its associated health problems, mainly TB

Most bone fires were located in the middle of the narrow streets but they rarely got out of control and by some miracle the heat did not damage the windows of the houses.

For us children bone fire night was magic. The sight of the flames dancing up in the air, the crackle of wood, the warmth, and the older people sitting in chairs around the fire enjoying the banter and the singing. We children were allowed to stay up late and when the flames died down, warm and sooty we went into cold beds in cold houses and fell asleep to the strains of ‘The Wests Awake’ for our street had fine male singers.

The day of the street bone fires and the songs of old have long gone.
The slum houses in the old communities have been dispersed by the bull dozers of redevelopment. The communities dispersed into the new housing estates and homes with bathrooms and indoor toilets and even gardens. The tradition of building a bone fire in the street where people park their cars and the only material available was trees in the local cemetery was somehow not as exciting as in days gone by. We looked on as the Orange Order tradition of burning, the ritual of ‘what we have we hold’ so deeply ingrained in the Orange State continued, despite the dangers to life and limb. Many in the Nationalists areas convinced themselves that the traditional bone fires of the 15th August would be our way of protesting a regime that refused to acknowledge our right to exist

 That acknowledgment would come later when we got off our knees and did not need the ritual burning to establish our identity as Irish and Equal.

 Over the next few years, the bone fire burning changed from the 15th August to the ninth of August, the day we watched the armoured cars and tanks and guns take away our sons, husbands and friends.  Internment without trial was the price the Nationalists communities paid for asserting their rights to live in peace in their own country. 

Now in this, the post cease fire era and the long road towards the creation of a new society, the tradition of the bone fires in no longer valid. Science has showed that the materials used now, tyres and wooden pallets are dangerous to the health of the community. The burning of tyres containing harmful properties connected with cancer has convinced most responsible people that the days of burning bone fires are over.

No matter that the Unionist community are still hooked to a tradition that is nothing other than an expression of naked sectarianism. No matter that Unionist bone fires are a festival of hate with the UDA and the UVF issuing threats to Councils concerned for the safety of nearby residents by Unionist bone fires. 

But it is difficult to understand why young people in the Republican/Nationalists areas still feel the need to construct these replica Unionist pallet towers adorned with photos of dead Republican politicians, hunger strikers, and even a statue of the Blessed Virgin Mary. The only difference being the colour of the flags.

As adults we cannot walk away from the bone fire legacy we have passed on to this generation, for it is children who now organise the fires and we have allowed them to engage in this yearly cycle of destruction, in the name of a tradition that is long past its sell by date.  Street festivals are now gradually replacing bone fires as a means of positive community enjoyment.

It is time to put the fires out for good.  

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