11th July night bonfires in wartime Northern Ireland

July bonfires are a tradition among the Unionist and Loyalist communities in Northern Ireland but they took on a different glow in the Second World War.

The lighting of bonfires on 11th July each year is a tradition among Unionist and Loyalist communities in Northern Ireland. In recent years, the controversy over the size, location, and safety of these "11th Night" bonfires has dominated the news in early July.

This may also be something of a tradition. The following letter appeared in the Belfast Telegraph on Friday 14th July 1939.

Sir. The lighting of bonfires in city streets on the Twelfth Eve has grown to such an extent in recent years that they are rapidly becoming a nuisance to many householders, and mar the enjoyment of Loyalists who desire to celebrate in an orderly manner. In the Manor Street area (Cliftonville) a bonfire was lit in almost every side street and in some streets two fires. It is time that the civil authorities and Orange Lodge leaders placed some restrictions on bonfires in the city. Not only are such fires an annoyance to householders, but they are a source of danger and of damage to property. Yours, etc. “Scripto”.

A similar letter appeared in the Belfast Newsletter on 17th July 1939.

Sir. There were too many bonfires in Belfast on the night of the 11th inst. It is time the Civil Authorities interfered and restricted the lighting of fires to cases where permits are granted. In some districts at almost every street corner, one sees an unsightly heap of burnt-out rubbish. City streets are not the proper place for bonfires which not only are a source of annoyance to residents but also cannot fail to create an unfavourable impression on visitors. Yours, etc. “Cityman”.

Bonfire in Portadown, Co. Armagh

An effigy of "Lundy" on a bonfire on Bridge Street in the Edenderry area of Portadown, Co. Armagh in 1939.

Bonfires in the Blackout

On 11th July 1944, bonfires took place in daylight across the city. The extinguishing of all fires took place before the blackout calls. Members of the Royal Ulster Constabulary and Air Raid Precautions Wardens stamped out the smoldering remains before darkness fell. Residents lit fires in Sandy Row, Shankill Road, York Road, Crumlin Road, Ballyhackamore, Cregagh Road, and Townsend Street. Drumming and singing took place around the flames and flags flew and residents sported Orange Lillies.

During the Second World War, bonfires suffered due to fuel shortages but by 1944, things were improving. People made trips out to the countryside trailing tree stumps and fallen branches back with them to add to their quota of untreadable car tyres. These fires caught the attention of members of the Allied forces based in Northern Ireland, particularly the American GIs who had their own July celebrations a week earlier.

By 1945, the tradition of lighting bonfires on 11th July was almost back to normal. Many flammable resources were used in the Victory in Europe bonfires that cropped up in May 1945 but in some parts of the city, enterprising youths made use of redundant air raid shelters as makeshift fuel storage bunkers in advance of the July celebrations.

The lighting of 11th July bonfires resumed in hours of darkness in 1945 and has continued in communities across Northern Ireland since.