On the 11th July each year the protestant tradition of lighting bonfires on street corners and in the middle of main roads was something all the kids from our area took part in. We had been brought up around this annual custom yet nobody seemed to have any knowledge of why these huge fires were lit all over the country. What it meant to us was being allowed to stay up late to wander around the local streets to watch other fires blazing. We also knew it was about burning an effigy of the Pope on the top of the fire. My mates and I weren't sure why, but the Pope was bad.
When the bonfires were lit, large crowds of people would gather around the flames to drink copious amounts of alcohol. The kids ate sweets and drank lemonade in between fuelling the great fire by throwing pieces of wood and car-tyres on top of it. The crowds sang along to Orange-Band music coming from a record player someone had rigged up in the street. This night of fierce Protestant pride .
My mates and I thought the ‘eleventh night’ was all very exciting. Kids from the various areas would begin collecting wood for ‘the boney’ months before the 11th July in a bid to see which street could create the biggest inferno. This competition led to huge rivalry between the various streets resulting in gangs from one bonfire raiding another to steal their wood. Running street-battles between the rival camps happened regularly. Gangs of kids from seven to sixteen years old faced each other in hand to hand fighting, all in an attempt to steal or protect a few rubber tyres and wooden pallets.
The war between the bonfire-crews entered into espionage tactics with the smaller kids sent out on a reconnaissance mission to monitor the other bonfires. These kids reported back times when the other bonfires were least guarded. The older ones would plan a raid on one of the neighbouring street’s stash of wood. Often the plan was simply to set fire to the rival bonfire in a bid to spoil their chances of having the biggest fire on the day.
In our area there were two main bonfires, the ‘Backer’ and the ‘Rossy’. The Backer came from a patch of ground known to everyone as the ‘back-field’ and the Rossy came from just around the corner in Roslyn Street. There was fierce rivalry between these two factions and each had a crew of around twenty kids. Quite a few violent running battles took place along London Road with bottles, stones and bricks being thrown amidst punch-ups.
Our wee bonfire could not compete on the scale of the Backer and the Rossy. There were only five of us collecting for our boney and we were all nine years of age. We were fodder for the bigger kids. My mates and I often watched helplessly as a large gang of older kids set fire to our puny but proud bonfire and casually walk away laughing at us. We would then begin collecting wood all over again from scratch. If we were quick enough we would get a few fathers out to chase the bigger kids away but they would inevitably return later.
To stop future raids from the bigger kids we came up with a plan of storing our wood on the roofs above the back yards. If the wood was up high, no one would be able to get at it was the logic.
We moved all of our wood onto the little roofs and stood on high amidst it all thinking that no one would ever rob us again. A few rival gangs attempted to storm our walls and as the enemy were hoisting each other up to get on to the roof we would stand on their finger tips or beat them with big wooden sticks. We watched them as they fell back to the ground. The enemy gang would gesture up at us hurling threats and obscenities. We stared back at them smug in our satisfaction that we were unreachable.
That year we managed to gather and build a puny excuse for a bonfire, but regardless, we were very proud of what we achieved. I think we did rather well considering our entire supply of wood was raided three times forcing us to start over again each time. We were persistent little buggers and determined that we would have a bonfire with a party - and that’s what we did.
On the 11th July 1973 as our little bonfire blazed we drank lemonade, ate sweets and listened to the flute-band music being piped out into the street. We all agreed that it would be the last bonfire we would arrange. The enemies made, battles fought and sheer back-breaking work that it took simply to light a small fire was definitely not worth the bother…