Light Up the Sky: Halloween Bonfires and Cultural Hegemony in Northern Ireland

By Santino, Jack | Western Folklore, Summer 1996 | Go to article overview

Light Up the Sky: Halloween Bonfires and Cultural Hegemony in Northern Ireland


Santino, Jack, Western Folklore


Large-scale, fire-based public events are a staple feature of traditional celebratory life in Northern Ireland. Bonfires are connected to a large variety of different festivals and celebrations (Gailey 1977; cf. Newall 1972). For example, bonfires associated with the victory of William of Orange at the Battle of the Boyne are burned in July, and bonfires are used by various members of the population to mark diverse events such as the anniversaries of the relief of Derry, the enactment of the internment laws, and the feast of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Effigies of unpopular people or representations of unpopular ideas are frequently immolated ritually on these bonfires. Effigies are also set afire on their own, distinct from bonfires per se. The annual burning of Lundy in Derry in December is one such occasion; a festive event that involves parades, bands, and public drinking, but which is centered around the dramatic burning of the fifteen-foot figure.

Along with the above-named events, bonfires are very much a part of Halloween as well, as are fireworks. There is, I believe, a thread of connections that links bonfires, effigy burnings, fireworks, and other fire customs that allows us to look at them within the same analytical framework (see for instance Cressy 1989:88). This thread is frequently recognized by the Northern Irish people themselves. Effigies, as mentioned, might be burnt on bonfires or might be the basis of their own public fires. While neither bonfires nor fireworks displays are always part of Halloween festivities (the bonfire tradition is highly localized, within both rural and urban areas), the ways in which these customs are enacted imply that people recognize at least a metonymic relationship between the two. For instance, family fireworks displays are often constructed next to Halloween bonfires. The relationship can be seen also as metaphoric: I have on several occasions overheard people identify the sparks flying heavenward from the fire as the probable inspiration for manufactured fireworks. Sometimes boys load the bonfires with bangers for the thrill of hearing them explode as the fire roars, thus joining the two traditions into one. Michael McCaughan told me in 1991 that one of his outstanding Halloween memories concerned getting bulrushes and soaking them in parafin to make large torches, "theoretically to light the bonfires," he said, "but we quite liked the torches." Fire is a constant of traditional life in Northern Ireland, and it is specifically an important component of Halloween.

Nevertheless, bonfires are not always a part of Halloween proceedings. Like other customs, the tradition varies from place to place and region to region (see Gailey 1977). However, even when bonfires are present at Halloween festivities, I found that the interpretations of their meaning varied immensely. Likewise, fireworks displays in back or front gardens were also interpreted in varying and often conflicting ways. While many Halloween customs differ from locality to locality, what I find more interesting are the varying interpretations of the same custom, or as in this case what I will approach as a bundle of related customs (see Charsely 1987; Handelman 1990). The relationships of these customs has to do in part with the particular history and ethnic settlement of Ulster.

In this article I am interested in the multiple interpretations of Halloween customs having to do with fireworks and fire displays, in the context of the interrelationships of ethnic groups in Northern Ireland. By ethnic group here I am refering to Roman Catholics and Protestants generally without noting the very real cultural differences among Protestant denominations (for religious groups as ethnic groups, see Buckley and Kenney 1995). Generally it is said that members of these various Protestant denominations, such as Church of Ireland, Presbyterian, and Free Presbyterian, are united in their wish to retain the union with Great Britain rather than join the Republic of Ireland; that is, they are unionists rather than nationalists despite other differences of identity such as Scottish or English national background. …

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