THE practice of lighting bonfires on St John’s Eve has long died out in most areas of the country, but the Rebel County has kept the home fires burning, despite an attempt at banning the custom in the 1950s.
Cork City counsellor and local historian Kieran McCarthy has explored the origins of the tradition. “I know it’s an old pagan ritual. Gougane Barra in the 1700s 1800s kept on this ritual of lighting bonfires on a pilgrimage site. After doing the rounds, 13 stations in Gougane Barra, they’d really let their hair down. I know they lit bonfires on the hills all around there on the 23rd of June, St John’s Eve,” he said.
Kieran sees a clear link between bonfire night and the pagan Summer solstice, which falls on June 21: “Early Christianity appropriated old rituals and tried to tie them in to Catholic saint’s days. The Summer Solstice was only two days away and they just noticed that St John’s Eve was only two days after it, and they said we’ll go with that, it’s close enough!” So why does Kieran think that Cork maintained the custom while it died out in other counties? ”
Cork has a very strong sense of place, a strong sense of identity, very rooted in the physical landscape. We keep on a lot of traditions in Cork, we’re slow to let go of them and it’s been difficult to out these fires,” he said.
“Bishop Lucey actually banned them, I’d say he took out a lot of the bonfires in Co Cork, certainly in his own diocese of Cloyne and Ross. There are references in old copies of The Fold magazine, which are in the City Library, to him banning the bonfires. That would have been in 1952-53. Yet they seemed to survive in the city.”
Cork City Council may have learned from Bishop Lucey’s misguided attempts at a clamp-down: in recent years they have worked with local communities and arts groups to provide a family-friendly and eco-friendly alternative to the unregulated and heavily polluting fires that wreathed the city in plumes of black smoke in years gone by.
Stephen Scully is Cork City Council community arts officer, and he has been involved in the project since its inception in 2008.
“’Bonna Night’, as it’s known, is a Cork institution really and we recognised that it wasn’t practical to just ban the bonfires. We said we’d try to work with it, and work with local communities who were having difficulties and see if we could provide alternative family-friendly events on that night to try to distract from the other activities that were taking place,” Stephen said.
At least 10,000 people now attend the annual festivities.
Sergeant John O’Connor is in charge of community policing for the Cork City Garda division. “The amount of incidents involving assault and anti-social behaviour has gone down significantly,” he said, “It’s a real success. It’s become a community event, a family event, rather than a chaotic night of anti-social behaviour, which is what it would have been up until a few years ago.”
The records of Cork Fire department report a halving of call-outs between 2009, when they received 200 bonfire-related call-outs, and 2013, when they received 100. The steering committee receive an annual budget of €35,000 for these “Summer Fun Nights”, as they’re known. Yet despite this cost, Sergeant O’Connor believes that they actually end up saving the taxpayer money.
“I can’t give you exact figures, but the cost of the clean-up alone used to be enormous, not to mention the cost of injuries, or the cost of damage to patrol cars and fire tenders and property. So yes, I consider it huge value for money,” he said.
Does Stephen Scully consider the scheme a success? “I do accept in some areas there are still problems with anti-social behaviour and vandalism, but they’re very few compared to a few years ago, so yes, we would see it as a success. But it’s not our success, it’s the success of the partnership of everybody working together to deal with the issues that arose,” he said, “The local communities decide the programming that will work best for their area. The key is the local community buy-in. 40 different groups work with city council on the project, and the amount of negativity associated with bonfire night has decreased hugely in the last eight years.”
In years gone by, it wasn’t uncommon to see furniture, tyres and even fridges and old electrical goods mounded up on the pyres. The approach of the city council has been two-fold; firstly to facilitate entertainment in parks around the city, and secondly to provide skips to encourage residents to dispose of their bulky waste in a responsible way.
This year, Dowtcha Puppets, a Cork-based puppetry and street theatre company, are building spectacular burnable bonfire sculptures in Togher and Mahon, and “fire drawings” made of flammable rope attached to large metal frames, in Knocknaheeny and Mayfield, to add a creative dimension to the choice of burning materials.
At a youth diversion project in Mahon, a group of teenagers are painting the head of a large dragon cut out of plywood. Under the watchful eye of Serge and Sam from Dowtcha Puppets, they are preparing to build a 3½m tall bonfire sculpture, which will form the centrepiece of the Loughmahon Park bonfire night festivities.
Niall Collins is a youth justice worker at the project. “This gives the young people a lot of ownership and they get to bring their families and brothers and sisters, they get to showcase their own work and show their families what they’re doing here,” he said.
Is he confident that these teens will be satisfied with the safe, family-friendly version of Bonna night? “It’s my first year here, but having spoken to them I think they’re happy enough to stay with the fire that we’re running!” he said.
Younger children have also been working with Dowtcha Puppets, making and decorating glowing lanterns and planning a parade to take place before the fires are lit.
The Garda mounted division will have horses at two of the bonfire sites. “It’s breaking down the barriers, it just creates a better atmosphere,” Sergeant O’Connor said.
Cork’s Summer Fun Nights will take place in Kilmore Park in Knocknaheeny, Popham’s Park in Farranree, Glenamoy Park in Mayfield, Loughmahon Park in Mahon and Clashduv Park in Togher. See www.corkcity.ie/news for more info.
All the events are free and open to all, and provide a unique opportunity to celebrate Cork’s heritage and traditions in a way that even Bishop Lucey would surely approve of!