The Historical Significance of Bonfires

The Historical Significance of Bonfires

The Bonfire Tradition

Each year throughout Northern Ireland, hundreds of bonfires are lit and enjoyed in a safe manner by many people.  Although if they are not built properly, they can cause damage to property.

The tradition of building bonfires in Portadown goes right back to the 1830’s.  According to our archives, It was around this time that the first Arches also started to appear throughout the town.  The two traditions have developed together throughout the years.

Bonfires are lit around the world at different times of the year to celebrate many different occasions.

Timeline of the Bonfire

Bonfires have been around since the start of mankind.  In Ancient times, Bonfires were not only used for warmth, cooking and light, but they also became a centre of social activity and a religious and spiritual ritual.  In essence it became a tradition of remembrance and celebration.

When Christianity was brought to the Island of Ireland sometime before the 5th century,  it caused a shift in religious belief.  Instead of the ancient tradition of ‘fire worshipers’, a bonfire became significant on feast days and other religious holidays.  The whole community would come together around a bonfire and praise God.

Military use of a Bonfire

The military first started using Bonfires in the 1500’s.  Fire and light have always been used as a means of communicating and signalling.  The military would often use bonfires as a way of signalling that danger was approaching.

The Bonfire and Orangeism

William III Prince of Orange, landed at Torbay in England on 5th November 1688.  William came at the request of the people.  They wanted  King James II removed from the throne. The people also wanted  their rights restored as subjects. Their rights had been taken from them by James.  William agreed to a new Bill of Rights.  This became the foundation of modern day democracy.  When the people heard of William and Mary’s coronation, Bonfires were lit all over Ulster in Celebration.

In June 1690, William and his army landed at Carrickfergus .  As he marched into Belfast, Bonfires were once again lit to celebrate his arrival.

The 11th Night Tradition

Bonfires are lit on the 11th July night throughout Northern Ireland.  These bonfires are a commemoration of William III’s victory over James II at the Battle of The Boyne. The Bonfires are a tradition that represent the Bonfires lit in celebration of William’s coronation and also his landing at Carrickfergus.  But the Bonfires also represent the camp fires lit by William’s army the night before the Battle of The Boyne.  The Battle was fought on 1st July, but changes to the Christian calendar mean the anniversary is now celebrated on the 12th July.

Other Historical events in Northern Ireland

Bonfires were lit to celebrate the defeat of the First Home Rule Bill in 1886.  In 1945, to celebrate Victory in Europe day (VE), Bonfires were also lit throughout Northern Ireland.  They were a focal point of the celebrations as large street parties were also held throughout communities.

Bonfires Today

Bonfires in the Protestant, Unionist and Loyalist community are a means of maintaining tradition and are an expression of cultural heritage.  It is a tradition that is passed down the generations.  For the areas of Portadown that host Bonfires, it is a community event that brings together the generations.  It is around those fires on the 11th night that people come together to celebrate their history.  It is also an opportunity for the older generation to have a yarn and reminisce about the old days of building the bonfire.

The Stories are told of days gone by. The days of going out to collect the dead wood and trees before the days of wooden pallets being delivered by lorries!

What is not to be underestimated, is the time and effort that is given to building Bonfires.  This effort makes the continuation of tradition possible.  As Northern Ireland changes, aspects of the Bonfire will change.  It will develop and change as it has done throughout history.  What will not change for Northern Ireland Bonfires, is the heritage and history of tradition behind them.



Edward Saunderson and the Ulster Covenant

Edward Saunderson and the Ulster Covenant

The MP for North Armagh Edward Saunderson (1837-1906) had stated in the House of Commons:

“No man who comes to Belfast will laugh at the Ulster Loyalists. When all is said and done, whether or not the House of Lords rejects this Bill, I say in the name of my people I reject it. You may occupy the House of Commons for years to come with academic debates about the merits of this Home Rule Bill but I say in their name I reject it …. Home Rule may pass this House but it will never pass the bridge at Portadown”.

It was no surprise then that in 1912, Unionist leader Edward Carson chose Portadown for one of the final pre-covenant demonstrations on 25th September.  Carson stood at the statue of Edward Sanderson (outside St Marks Church) and, in a tribute to the MP and his views on Home Rule, read a card attached to the statue stating “though dead, yet speaketh”.

Here, Carson greeted the procession-consisting of thousands of Unionist club and Orange Order members.  The town centre echoed to the sound of drums and bands as the ranks passed, Carson receiving the salute from all.

He then proceeded to the town’s show grounds were a stage carriage carried the slogan, “We will not have Home Rule”.  During a stirring oration, the crowd was told in no uncertain terms that in the battle for unionism, “Portadown will not be behind”.

Just a few days later, over 95% of the district’s eligible population penned their signatures on the Ulster Covenant and the Ulster Declaration.




Charles Moore and Portadown Unionist club

Charles Moore and Portadown Unionist club

Charles Moore Johnston was a Captain with the 9th Battalion, Royal Irish Fusiliers. He was originally from Carrickblacker Avenue in Portadown. Captain Johnston was in command of ‘C’ Company, which was positioned on the left of the centre for the attack on the 1st July.  He was killed in action on the 1st July 1916 at age 30. He is buried in Mensil Communal Cemetery Extension, Somme, France. He was a member of Portadown Unionist Club.

His Father also, Charles, was Chairman of Portadown Unionist Club. The bannerette of Portadown Unionist Club has been preserved and is on display in Carleton Street Orange Hall.

Charles Moore and Portadown Unionist club