What’s your opinion on bonfires? If we only focus on the negative we will simply be spending the next one hundred years reinforcing and justifying our own sectarianism.  

Let me  take some time to explain. When first I came to Belfast to live, I had a physical reaction to going anywhere that was red white and blue or green white and orange. It physically made me fearful in my body.

A physical reaction to the years of violence I’d experienced (luckily for me) through media outlets and the physical reality of what was happening. It took the years I spent firstly as a participant on cross-community, cross-border programmes and then 13 years running them, for me to get rid of some of my trauma around symbols and colours in the city.

The last thing to be dealt with was bonfires. Why be scared of a pile of wood?

When working in North City Business Centre in Duncairn Gardens, we made progress in that the bonfire-builders no longer told us they were going to build a Twelfth of July bonfire in our car park.

But the ramping up of tensions always happened around bonfire season. However, as we were experiencing daily recreational rioting it seemed to pale in comparison. My fight or flight instincts always made me want to get out of the city in July. Particularly as the media always focused on the grimmest part of the season.

The camera angles made to look like houses were about to be burnt down, petrol stations to go on fire and danger, danger, danger everywhere.

Around seven years ago on visiting an art gallery, where I was the only viewer, it was bits of wood and more bits of wood beautifully installed and written about. Cycling along the Comber Greenway afterwards it seemed to me that while the art public were praising the creativity in the gallery, it was vilifying the indigenous  creativity of the local population.

Enormous logistical challenges were being overcome in this outdoor sculpture park that pops up in the city every year. I was seeing a different side to bonfires than the one depicted in the media.

At that point I decided to visit and document every bonfire from Dundonald, up the Shankill and out to Carrickfergus.

One year I went all the way up the Ards Peninsula doing the same. I invited people to join me to go on a tour. At each bonfire we stopped at we told the people there we were doing a recce for a tour that could be offered for cruise ships.

While everyone got a good laugh at the suggestion, there was a seriousness in the conversation. It took me a few years before I felt comfortable going out to a bonfire in the evening. In one instance in East Belfast it was only to find lots of extra ones that had not been there during the day, randomly set on fire at the end of the street.

In lamenting to a friend about the challenges around the bonfires, he told me about the Lewes Bonfire Festival. Although many in our population come from a unionist tradition, we are not known in Belfast for our well-travelled population or our awareness of what actually happens in England Scotland and Wales.

A number of years ago I went over to visit the Lewes Bonfire Festival in Sussex, England. Anyone remember Guy Fawkes? Remember remember the 5th of November, gunpowder treason and plot, we see no reason why gunpowder and treason should ever be forgot?

If you were brought up here maybe it’s through Blue Peter that you might be aware of it? The Lewes Bonfire Festival commemorates Guy Fawkes and they very proudly state that although they get thousands of tourists coming to see them, it’s not for the tourists but for the associations that go back right to the time of Guy Fawkes.

The bonfires are the same pallet design as in Belfast, but one slight difference is you buy a ticket to be allowed in to see them — the going rate is £5. They compete with each other and fireworks and pageantry are also enjoyed. You can also buy programmes that are sponsored by different businesses, or why not try a Bonfire Boy beer while you are there?  

The festival is not a Disney experience. When I visited in 2018, it seemed raw and dangerous with thousands of people gathered to enjoy the spectacle. The town centre of Lewes is boarded up for the night as if expecting riots, as people in fancy dress parade  in the streets. Some carry oil drums filled with fire which are pulled via chains, or flaming poppies!

This year there will be 25 to 30 bonfire societies from around Sussex parading at the festival as well as the six local charity bonfire societies.

The Advice: “This Lewes Bonfire Night Festival/Carnival in Sussex is not suitable for yummy mummies or very young children, especially those in pushchairs, the frail or if you have breathing problems. Some pubs in the town will be ticket-only and all of them will be heaving and there will be limited toilet facilities and food vendors.”

How do they deal with sectarianism? It’s certainly not politically correct. Maybe it’s because Guy Fawkes was so long ago? Maybe it's because it’s far away from us in Belfast but somehow they deal with the situation in a way that is unpalatable to some but much better than blowing each other up? Maybe it’s all too raw for us?

While I certainly would not want everything that the festival does replicated here, my personal view is that the society model should be looked at. In Winchester, where I went to art college, it’s the local Rotary Club that runs the bonfire. You can even buy tickets for a champagne reception to view it.

My travels around the bonfires locally brought me to an area in East Belfast that has wrangled their bonfire into a manageable family event with a beacon and a funfair the next morning.  

It’s within this community that I’ve been working with groups of young people and the Diamond Women’s Group on a Loyalist Art Summer Scheme. Along with artists Ngaire Jackson and Elaine McGinn, we have touched on ceramics, printmaking, sketchbooks, collage and photography.

In September we will have a showcase of the children's art. The children are really talented and there is a massive hunger within them for all the art making. We have been made to feel welcome and appreciated and look forward to developing the work further.