by Ella Smith and Alison Spencer
On April 24, the Irish Studies Program at IES welcomed Renée Tosser, Assistant Professor of Irish Civilization at Université de la Réunion in France, for a lecture on “Political Imagery and Bonfires in Northern Ireland.” Her talk to an audience of 25 was accompanied by photographs from her exhibition on bonfires entitled "King Billy’s Towers," shown in Ireland and North America in 2016. Tosser demonstrated through her research and photographs how relevant marches and bonfires are to understanding Northern Ireland’s contemporary culture and political history.
Tosser first provided a historical overview of marches in Northern Ireland, where up to 4,000 parades happen in a single year. These raucous events are especially prominent around July 12, known as "the Twelfth," which celebrates the victory of William of Orange at the Battle at the Boyne against the English Catholic King James II in 1690. The celebrations traditionally involve visual displays, in particular large outdoor wall murals and bonfires, through which Northern Ireland’s powerful sense of nationalism is exemplified. As Tosser argues, these celebrations act as social paradigms which entertain and indeed seek to encourage separation between the Catholic and Protestant communities of Northern Ireland.
Much time, money, and energy is invested in the construction of massive bonfires, which are controlled by loyalist movements. Associated with masculinity, strength, and power, Tosser claims that the bonfires are prominent military and political symbols through which the loyalists assert domination and superiority over territories previously occupied by Catholics. They have also become a means to show resentment of Irish political leadership as a whole. “No one represents us,” reads one sign on a bonfire, in one of Tosser’s photographs. Despite their contentious and dangerous aspects, the bonfires are considered “culture” and may receive public funding, since the Good Friday Agreement enabled communities to organize cultural displays as a way to keep the peace. Tosser argues that the bonfires represent a form of “institutionalized sectarianism,” pointing out that they have paradoxically become higher and more divisive than before the peace process was enacted.
During an engaging Q&A, Tosser responded to questions about the mix of symbols on the bonfires, which may include Catholic icons, Palestinian and Confederate flags, and effigies of republicans and Sinn Fein politicians, along with the Irish flag itself. Tosser noted the irony of Protestant groups burning the Irish flag, as the orange part of the flag represents Protestants within Ireland, and discussed the lack of internal acknowledgment of these tensions. To conclude, she also noted that 2018 marked a turning point in the history of “the Twelfth,” when two bonfires were removed following judicial decisions, and that Brexit risks complicating the situation even further.