It is ten years now since I was in Ulster for an Eleventh Night. In the seven years I spent in a little country parish south of Downpatrick, this was a night for a parish barbecue. Few of the parishioners walked on the Twelfth, but it was a holiday and the night before was a time to relax. We gathered on the big front lawn of the Rectory and the kids played games and we sat and talked well into the darkness.
In other places it was not so benign, huge bonfires topped by Tricolours and effigies declared a visceral hatred for anything that didn’t accord with a tub-thumping definition of Protestant. I remember going to meet with the new Police Superintendent in one town. I was intrigued by the large-scale map of the town on one wall of her office. There were large red dots in places that seemed without great significance. Before leaving I asked her, “Do you mind if I ask what the red dots are for?”
“The Eleventh Night bonfires”, she said.
The Eleventh Night bonfire was not a declaration of loyalty, it was declaration of fear, not that those who spent weeks building the huge structures had any idea what it was they feared. Perhaps it was fear itself that frightened people most, fear induced by rants from platforms, rants from pulpits, rants on television and rants in the newspapers.
Fear in Protestant hearts inspired fear-inducing efforts, thus Seamus Heaney’s “Orange Drums, Tyrone 1966”
The Lambeg balloons at his belly, weighs
Him back on his haunches, lodging thunder
Grossly there between his chin and his knees.
He is raised up by what he buckles under.
Each arm extended by a seasoned rod,
He parades behind it. And though the drummers
Are granted passage through the nodding crowd,
It is the drums preside, like giant tumours.
To every cocked ear, expert in its greed,
His battered signature subscribes ‘No Pope’.
The goatskin’s sometimes plastered with his blood.
The air is pounding like a stethoscope.