Eleventh Night

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A typical loyalist bonfire prepared for the 11th Night in Newtownabbey, County Antrim Loyalist bonfire in Newtownabbey - geograph - 1394144.jpg
A typical loyalist bonfire prepared for the 11th Night in Newtownabbey, County Antrim

In Northern Ireland, the Eleventh Night or 11th Night refers to the night before the Twelfth of July, a yearly Ulster Protestant celebration. On this night, large towering bonfires are lit in many Protestant/loyalist neighbourhoods in Northern Ireland and are often accompanied by street parties [1] and loyalist marching bands. The bonfires are mostly made up of wooden pallets and tyres, with some reaching over 100 feet (30 m) tall. [2] The bonfires are lit to celebrate the Glorious Revolution (1688) and victory of Protestant king William of Orange over Catholic king James II at the Battle of the Boyne (1690), which began the Protestant Ascendancy in Ireland. The event has been condemned for displays of sectarian or ethnic hatred, anti-social behaviour, and for the damage and pollution caused by the fires. The flag of the Republic of Ireland, Irish nationalist/republican symbols, Catholic symbols, and effigies, are burnt on many bonfires. There have been attempts to make the event more family-friendly and environmentally-friendly. It is also known as "bonfire night", in common with other events in which bonfires are lit. [3] [4] [5]



Like The Twelfth, the Eleventh Night bonfires celebrate the Glorious Revolution (1688) and victory of Protestant king William of Orange over Catholic king James II in the Williamite-Jacobite War (1689–1691), which began the Protestant Ascendancy in Ireland. When King William landed at Carrickfergus in 1690, his supporters in Ulster lit bonfires to celebrate. Some of those who did not join in the celebrations were attacked by the Williamites. [6] There is also a belief that the bonfires commemorate the lighting of fires on the hills of counties Antrim and Down to help Williamite ships navigate through Belfast Lough at night. [7] Traditionally, both Catholics and Protestants in Ulster had lit bonfires at Midsummer, May Day ( Bealtaine ) and Halloween ( Samhain ), which were non-sectarian. [8] In the 18th century it also became a tradition for Ulster Protestants to light bonfires on 11 July to commemorate the Williamite victory, and for Catholics to light bonfires on 14 August to mark the Feast of the Assumption of Mary, [8] although this latter custom largely died out.

Bonfires in Northern Ireland traditionally mark the night before the Twelfth. However, should the Twelfth fall on a Sunday, as it did in 2015, the public holiday is given in lieu on the following Monday. When this situation arises, some bonfires are lit on the Saturday night.


Ballycragy bonfire in Antrim. Irish tricolours have been set atop the bonfire and are intended to be burnt. The Ulster Banner and Union Jack are flying from streetlights in the foreground Ballycraigy Bonfire - geograph.org.uk - 491803.jpg
Ballycragy bonfire in Antrim. Irish tricolours have been set atop the bonfire and are intended to be burnt. The Ulster Banner and Union Jack are flying from streetlights in the foreground
A large bonfire in Newtownards on 10 July 2009 11th Night Bonfire - geograph.org.uk - 1394886.jpg
A large bonfire in Newtownards on 10 July 2009

Sectarianism and violence

A bonfire decked with Irish tricolours to be burnt Eleventh Night Bonfire.jpg
A bonfire decked with Irish tricolours to be burnt

Eleventh Night bonfires have involved sectarian and loyalist paramilitary displays. Symbols of Irish nationalism/republicanism (such as the Irish tricolour), and symbols of Catholicism, are often burnt on the bonfires. [1] [7] The tricolours on such bonfires are often daubed with sectarian slogans such as "Kill All Taigs" (KAT) or "Kill All Irish" (KAI). [9] [10] Effigies, and posters of Irish nationalist election candidates, are also sometimes burnt, which has been condemned as "inciting hatred". [11] More recently, symbols of immigrant communities, especially the large Polish immigrant community, have been burnt on some bonfires. The Polish Association of Northern Ireland, and others, described this as "racist intimidation". [12]

Loyalist paramilitary groups, such as the Ulster Defence Association (UDA) and Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF), have also used Eleventh Night bonfires to hold "shows of strength", which often involve masked gunmen firing volleys of shots into the air. [1]

Another issue that has been raised is drunkenness and alcohol-fuelled violence amongst those attending. [1]

Environmental harm

Eleventh Night bonfires have raised health and safety concerns, as well as environmental ones. [1] [13]

Bonfires are often built to be as large as possible. Some have been built near houses and other buildings, which in a few cases caught fire. [14] Roads are often damaged and, according to the BBC, clean-up and repairs made to roads due to bonfire-related damage can "cost thousands of pounds", with some roads needing to be resurfaced. [1]

A major concern that has risen to greater prominence in recent years is the pollution they cause. In some bonfires, despite bans by bodies such as Belfast City Council, tyres are burnt. Tyres produce many toxic chemical compounds when burnt, and therefore pose a major health issue. [1]

Attempts to address the concerns

There have been attempts to make the bonfires more family-friendly and environmentally-friendly. In Belfast, a Bonfire Initiative has been set up. When joining the initiative, the community groups who organize bonfires agree to a number of conditions. A "bonfire committee" must be formed; the gathering of material for burning may only begin on 1 June; only wood can be burnt; and paramilitary flags and emblems must not be displayed at the bonfire site. In 2010, groups who forbore from burning nationalist flags or symbols were awarded an extra £100 funding. [7]

In 2009, Belfast City Council began promoting "beacons" as an environmentally-friendly alternative. It is a pyramid-shaped metal cage filled with willow wood-chips, and set on a base of sand to protect the ground underneath. The willow trees re-grow within a year of being cut down, making the bonfires more environmentally sustainable. By agreeing to use the beacons, the communities qualify for up to £1,500 of funding from Belfast City Council to hold a street party – as long as they do not fly paramilitary flags or burn tyres. Some loyalist communities in Belfast have begun using the beacons. The Orange Order, whilst recognising the importance of bonfires to Protestant culture, have issued calls for the organisers of bonfires not to burn tyres. [15] However, many others oppose the beacon, claiming that it infringes upon their traditions. [1]

See also

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