Bonfires, including Halloween bonfires are (we are told), dangerous, illegal and bad for the environment. They should not, and must not, be tolerated. Yet still they persist.
Monday was Halloween and I posted on Facebook and, without expressing an opinion, reported that the local kids were building one anyway and that they seemed damned well organised in the way they were going about it. Of the responses 90 per cent appeared to ‘like’ the fact; 10 per cent were ‘angry’. So what are the rights and wrongs?
First the negatives:
- Anyone who puts out old mattresses, sofas, or MDF for collection might be doing themselves a favour by avoiding recycling charges and letting kids do their dirty work for them by taking them away to be burnt in the open air, but they are ultimately doing none of us – or for that matter themselves – a favour.
- Someone must clean up the mess the day after. This particular pleasure falls to the cash strapped Local Authorities, which is a waste of valuable resources and your and my taxpayer’s money.
- There is a very good chance that someone might get hurt or burnt.
All very valid arguments which can’t be faulted, but is there another side? Could the pros actually outweigh the cons?
The first thing to understand is that as a species we have a deep grained affinity with fire; there is something deeply primeval about it that resonates with the innermost exhortations of our souls; and it’s not going to go away anytime soon. Ever since our distant ancestors learned how to use fire to keep warm, chase off scary animals with larger teeth than their own and – later – to cook, it’s been an integral part of our lives. The most common modern day manifestation is the summer barbeque, safer and more sanitized than a fire at the entrance to a cave, but nonetheless an opportunity for the male of the species to get back in touch with his inner Neanderthal and impress his mate by displaying his mastery of fire.
We like fire and are determined to have it occasionally in our lives, despite what we are told we can or can’t do; the kids who built the bonfire, like all those before them, certainly were had a view on the matter.
There were twenty of them here this year, ranging in age between ten and eighteen years. Over eighteen and they are vulnerable to the full weight of the law; below it they’re not.
And they’re smart enough to know it.
Apparently there are always up and coming members ready to step up and take on an organisational role when their elders are forced to retire on reaching the legal age of adulthood.
And organised they are.
They have learned by experience that a prematurely prepared bonfire will be removed, so they stash material in back alleys and out of the way places where hopefully it won’t be found, and leave everything else to the last minute.
This year they acquired a load of pallets and a pallet truck to transport them on. The truck was loaded twenty pallets high, carefully roped down and pushed down the road, one lad in front steering, four behind pushing. Every now and again they pulled in to the side of the road to let traffic past. A couple of smaller kids brought up the rear staggering under the weight of a pallet each, both bigger than they were.
Others were scurrying around collecting combustibles left out in front of local houses that afternoon. The householders have also learned to leave leaving things to the last minute. Sadly a good few three piece suites and sofas were involved and made their way onto the fire. This is totally wrong on all levels, but who is mostly to blame, the kids who took them or the adults who cynically and irresponsibly left them out to be taken?
Gary, and of course that is not his real name, is the current de facto leader. A likeable and intelligent street-wise individual, he’ll be retiring this year. He is proud of the community bonfire’s record.
”Unlike a lot of the fires in Dublin”, he says, “there is never any trouble here and we’ve never had an accident. The Guards know it and, while they keep an eye, they tend to leave us alone. We have a fire and everyone has a good time.
“The one thing I insisted on to the lads was, don’t even think about aerosols or gas canisters.”
They didn’t, and there weren’t.
When I suggested to Gary that his troops could earn civic brownie points to be stored against future celebrations by cleaning up some of the inevitable mess the next day I was met by a blank look.
By nightfall there was an impressive pile in the middle of the Green; by eight o’clock it had been torched and was an even more impressive blaze. Cars lined the road as hundreds of people turned up to enjoy the spectacle: kids, adults and young families alike
There were no incidents and no accidents.
The Gardai inevitably arrived with obligatory flashing blue lights but attended without interfering, which was the right thing for them to do. Once the fire had burned down to a safe level (more or less) they departed, leaving about a hundred people, mostly young adults, standing round the embers talking and drinking. A few young families remained with the kids, under parental supervision, racing round searching out overlooked scraps of wood to throw on the glowing ashes.
Having gone home for an hour or so earlier I had returned myself and was happy to accept a random can of lager in the spirit it was proffered. No-one got ridiculously drunk, no-one became abusive or aggressive and there was no anti-social behaviour; truth to tell the prevailing air was that of a sense of community. It’s just a pity that the drinkers, having taken the trouble to carry full cans down, couldn’t manage to take the empties home.
One thing I took from all this was that twenty kids effectively organised an evening’s entertainment for several hundred people. What’s more, they managed it in defiance of the law and the dictates of the State.
It really is like that old story about the bumblebee: For decades it was declared that, according to all the laws of aerodynamics, bumblebees couldn’t fly. The insects in question, blissfully unaware of said laws, happily carried on doing so anyway. Then science realised where it had been going wrong all along and aerodynamicists finally conceded that, yes, bumblebees could fly.
Just as well for the bees that they didn’t listen.
Could there be some sort of societal analogy here? As responsible adults we are given to understand that ‘yes, we must do this’ and ‘no, we cannot do that’. And we believe it so we comply.
These kids didn’t know they couldn’t do it so they got right on and did it, and where was the harm in that?