The 11th July dawns with news of violence in Northern Ireland. Loyalist communities unable to cope with the new dispensation turning upon themselves in the destruction of their own neighbourhoods.
In towns and villages across Northern Ireland the bonfires will be lit this evening. Some of them, 30-40 feet high, have taken months to build and will necessitate a visit from the local fire brigade, a visit that may prompt stone and bottle throwing, if not worse. Youths who have drunk copious amounts of beer over the past few evenings will break out large packs of cheap lager tonight. There will be the echo of drums in some areas, rhythms intended to intimidate those who were of a different tradition. There is something visceral in the emotions generated and expressed.
And yet I have happy memories of 11th nights. In the little country parish where I spent seven years we would have gathered for a barbecue on the Rectory front lawn. There was a holiday mood, the following day being perhaps the only day off some of the farmers would take in the whole summer.
There would have sometimes been as many as a hundred people. The older people would sit around in clusters; the children would play football and run amongst the trees. The last to leave would gather around the glowing embers of the barbecues, the last light from the charcoal illuminating their faces against the purple inkiness of the summer night sky.
They were good moments. I don’t remember words of hatred or confrontation. They would have had fundamental disagreements with each other. Some were Orangemen, some were Unionists, but amongst our numbers were others who were openly supporters of the SDLP. The district master of the Orange Order would have brought his Catholic neighbours with him; they would share drinks during the evening, some years they would have holidayed together in Donegal.
In the best of times there will always be bad moments, but in the worst of times there will be good moments. The next morning brought a trip to the town to watch the bands and the local lodges marching down to the bus station to go off to the town where the ‘Field’ for that year was located. No more than a handful of people would have gathered to watch their departure; a less contentious event would be hard to imagine.
Few of those at the Field ever remembered the speeches, probably because few of them ever listened. It was about taking part, about sharing company and friendship and solidarity.
Another 11th night approaches and the old memories are gone. It seems hard to imagine such times with no shadow of hatred or violence.