Twelfth (Fort)night

archCompletely unrelated to Shakespeare, the Twelfth (see older post for details!) is a pretty big deal in Northern Ireland. The main event is on the 12th of July, hence the name, but preparations begin weeks – even months – in advance. Red, white, and blue streamers are strung across the streets, flags are flown from houses and lampposts, and decorative arches are sometimes temporarily erected for the parades to pass under. Kerb stones may even be painted red, white, and blue in protestant/unionist/loyalist areas. Throughout this time, known as the “marching season”, numerous band parades and Orange marches take place across the country.

Here’s what things currently look like in the area where I grew up:

flags and streamers

In July, we have what’s commonly called the Twelfth Fortnight. For the two weeks surrounding the 12th of July, businesses in the past traditionally closed down for a summer holiday. Obviously, nowadays, we have all the same big chain stores and supermarkets as everyone else, so this doesn’t happen to such a large extent, but some smaller local shops and businesses do still opt to close for the Twelfth Fortnight (which has now begun). The Twelfth Day itself, though, is a national public holiday.

In the midst of the aforementioned build-up, it’s common to see large piles of rubbish springing up in patches of wasteland or parks, often with a hand-painted sign out by the roadside asking local people to “DUMP WOOD”. Over many weeks, the bonfires are steadily built, usually by young local boys. I took this picture today, of my neighbourhood’s bonfire.


Bonfire ready for burning – the Unionist flags will be removed first, and replaced with something else. Mmmm-hmmm… read on…

When I was a child, I remember each bonfire having a small makeshift hut next to it, which would be constantly occupied by a couple of tough-looking young men. When things were less peaceful than they are today, rival youths from nearby Catholic/nationalist areas would wait until the bonfires were towering high and almost complete, usually a few days before the Twelfth, and set them on fire in the middle of the night, when no one was around. There was no way the bonfire builders could scramble to collect enough material to rebuild them in time, and once it was alight there was nothing they could do but watch helplessly (and probably go retaliate in one pleasant way or another, such was life around these parts). They would have to do without a bonfire that year. And so the huts were built, with guys sitting in them in shifts to guard their bonfires from potential saboteurs. Yes, we are a complicated people.

I haven’t seen any such huts this year (other than at the HUGE bonfire at the Shankill), so I suppose that means either everyone’s living in peaceful harmony now, or the Catholics just don’t give a shit any more.

So, what’s the craic with all these bonfires, then? Well, on the day before the Twelfth (creatively titled…. the Eleventh), there’s usually a bit of a knees-up. The bonfires all across the country are lit to launch the celebrations as soon as it gets dark on the Eleventh Night. In my family, we always used to have a BBQ on the Eleventh, with the extended family – as I have said before, I am by no means a loyalist, but I always loved the Twelfth when I was a child. I didn’t know much about it, but all the family was together, the adults were having a drink and a laugh, the kids were playing outside, and there were bands and BBQs. For children like me, the Twelfth was just an exciting, fun, family holiday.

On the Eleventh night, people make their way to their nearest bonfire. The surrounding streets will be lined with food carts, burger vans, souvenir stalls and the like, similar to a fairground or festival. The bonfire is lit, and everyone stays and watches until the item on the top of it is engulfed in the flames. There’s a loud cheer. This is the part that I wish with all my heart that they’d stop. The rest of it seems light-hearted, an excuse for a party, family fun. This part is not.

The item on top of the bonfire is an Irish flag.

Even when I was small, I didn’t like seeing the flag go up in flames. I didn’t understand it, but it made me feel sad to see a flag being burned, even though I didn’t particularly know how offensive an act that can be considered. I loved watching the bonfire burning, and I loved seeing people having fun around it. But when the flag caught fire and the loud, roaring, victorious cheer erupted, I was scared.

Despite developing a serious aversion to the whole Twelfth thing throughout my late teens and my twenties, I’m looking at it all with a more open mind, these days. I’m very much of the opinion that community celebrations, festivals, and cultural events are a good thing, whatever country they’re in – as long as they don’t hurt anyone, and are not intended to cause offence. People are entitled to their beliefs and opinions, their customs and traditions.

The Twelfth decorations and parades, as I discussed in a recent post, do not generally seem to have offensive intent. Yes, they do cause offence to some, but I know many Catholics (both indifferent and nationalist) who join in with the local events alongside their Protestant neighbours. It’s (largely) a tradition and celebration of identity, not an attempt to intimidate or offend, as I believed for many years.

You can’t realistically expect any group of people to abandon their beliefs, traditions, customs, or holidays because they may offend those from a different background. You don’t cancel Christmas to avoid offending the Jews. You don’t tell the Muslims to stop dressing like that in public to avoid offending the Christians. You don’t tell the Irish to stop celebrating St. Paddy’s Day to avoid offending… oh, I dunno… the teetotallers. You’re always going to offend someone. You just try to live your life according to what you believe, and don’t be a douche by specifically trying to offend anyone.

But burning a flag? No. That is offensive intent. How could it be anything else? Can you imagine if people all over Canada ritually set fire to the flag of their southern neighbours every year, while cheering and dancing? Blimey, I think the world might actually end.

My world view of “can’t we all just get along?” is probably a bit weak and unrealistic, but it’s the only one that works for me.

Christians are entitled to celebrate Christmas despite the Jews – but don’t be an antisemite.

Muslims are entitled to dress according to their beliefs despite the Christians – but don’t attack Christian churches.

Unionists are entitled to celebrate the Twelfth despite the Nationalists – but don’t burn the Irish flag. Or any country’s flag, for that matter.

Just… don’t.


2 thoughts on “Twelfth (Fort)night

  1. Can I ask why there are Scottish Saltires flying in the second picture? Seems a bit incongruous in an area that proclaims loyalty to the British crown when, in Scotland, it’s usually flown by those who seek independence from it *confused doggy head tilt*

  2. Ah, well spotted! I actually meant to include a line about that, but forgot. Many Northern Irish people (mostly loyalists… I assume) fly the flag of Scotland as a sign of their Scottish ancestry. Back in the 17th century, there was a colonisation process called the Plantation of Ulster, when land was confiscated from Irish nobility and given to the Scottish (and some northern English) people being “planted” there. Many unionist-minded people therefore have Scottish heritage – and that’s why we have the Ulster-Scots dialect over much of Northern Ireland.

    Lots of the houses here are flying three flags each at the moment: Northern Ireland, Scotland, and the Union Jack. Northern Irish people… who identify themselves as Ulster Scots… and are loyal to the British crown!

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