Eleventh Night

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A typical loyalist bonfire prepared for the 11th Night in Newtownabbey, County Antrim

In Ulster, the Eleventh Night or 11th Night refers to the night before the Twelfth of July, an Ulster Protestant celebration. On this night, large towering bonfires are lit in Protestant loyalist areas of Northern Ireland, and are often accompanied by street parties[1] and loyalist marching bands. The bonfires are mostly made of wooden pallets and tyres. They originally celebrated the Williamite conquest of the 1690s, which began the Protestant Ascendancy in Ireland.[2] The event is regularly condemned for displays of sectarian or ethnic hatred against Irish Catholics and Irish nationalists, such as the burning of the Irish tricolour, and for the damage and pollution caused. Some bonfire events are controlled by loyalist paramilitaries, and authorities may be wary of intervening due to the threat of violence.[3] There have been attempts to make some bonfires more family-friendly and environmentally-friendly. It is also known as "bonfire night".[4][5][6] In 2021, there were about 250 Eleventh Night bonfires.[7]


Like The Twelfth, the Eleventh Night bonfires celebrate the Glorious Revolution (1688) and the victory of Protestant monarch William of Orange over the Catholic James II during the Williamite-Jacobite War (1689–1691), which began the Protestant Ascendancy in Ireland. When King William landed at Carrickfergus in 1690, his supporters across Ulster, the northern province in Ireland, lit bonfires to celebrate. Some of those who did not join in the celebrations were attacked by the Williamites.[8]

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.[9]

Traditionally, both Catholics and Protestants in Ulster lit bonfires at Midsummer, May Day (Bealtaine) and Halloween (Samhain), which were non-sectarian.[10]

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.[10]


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


A bonfire decked with Irish tricolours to be burnt

Eleventh Night bonfires often involve sectarian displays. Symbols of Irish nationalism/republicanism (such as the Irish tricolour), and symbols of Catholicism, are often burnt on the bonfires.[1][9] The tricolours on such bonfires may be daubed with sectarian slogans such as "Kill All Taigs" (KAT) or "Kill All Irish" (KAI).[11][12] Effigies, and posters of Irish nationalist election candidates, are also sometimes burnt, which has been condemned as "inciting hatred".[13] More recently, symbols of the large Polish immigrant community were burnt on some bonfires, which was described as "racist intimidation".[14]

During the Troubles, loyalist paramilitary groups like the Ulster Defence Association (UDA) and Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) used Eleventh Night bonfires to hold "shows of strength", which involved masked gunmen firing volleys of shots into the air.[1] After the conflict, some bonfire events have continued to be controlled by current or former loyalist paramilitary members. A 2018 government-backed report noted they were a way for paramilitaries to "extend their legitimacy and control community activities".[3] In some cases, attempts by the authorities to intervene in controversial bonfires has sparked paramilitary violence.[15]

Safety and environmental harm[edit]

Eleventh Night bonfires have raised health and safety concerns, as well as environmental ones.[1][16] Bonfires are often built to be as large as possible. Some are built near houses and other buildings, which need to be boarded up and doused with water by firefighters to protect them. In some cases, homes have caught fire,[17] and bonfires have collapsed near crowds and onto roads.[18] According to the BBC, clean-up and road repairs due to bonfire damage "costs thousands of pounds every year".[1] Another concern is the pollution caused. Tyres are burnt in some bonfires, despite bans by bodies such as Belfast City Council. Tyres produce many toxic chemical compounds when burnt, and therefore pose a major health issue.[1]

Although there are laws that could regulate dangerous bonfires, authorities are wary of enforcing them due to the threat of loyalist violence.[3][19]

Attempts to address the concerns[edit]

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.[9]

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.[20] However, many others oppose the beacon, claiming that it infringes upon their traditions.[1]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c d e f g Mark Simpson (10 July 2009). "Turning hotspot into friendly fire". BBC News. Retrieved 13 July 2009.
  2. ^ "Eleventh night bonfires getting ready in NI". BBC News. Retrieved 8 July 2021.
  3. ^ a b c "Paramilitary control of loyalist bonfires exposed in leaked report". The Irish News, 26 February 2018.
  4. ^ Simpson, Mark (12 July 2004). "Damping down the flames". BBC News Online. BBC. Retrieved 17 July 2011. [...] went out with one of the crews on their busiest night of the year - Bonfire Night. It is the eleventh hour of the eleventh night [...]
  5. ^ "Village bonfire night hit and run driver 'was fleeing mob'". The Belfast Telegraph. Independent News & Media. 4 August 2010. Archived from the original on 23 July 2012. Retrieved 17 July 2011.
  6. ^ Santino, Jack (1998). The hallowed eve: dimensions of culture in a calendar festival in Northern Ireland. Lexington, Kentucky: University Press of Kentucky. p. 54. ISBN 978-0-8131-2081-2. Retrieved 18 May 2011. While the term Bonfire Night once referred to Halloween, in Northern Ireland today it refers to the Eleventh Night [...]
  7. ^ "Eleventh Night: Politicians call for bonfire regulations". BBC News, 13 July 2021.
  8. ^ Childs, John. The Williamite Wars in Ireland. A&C Black, 2007. pg. 205
  9. ^ a b c "The boy and the bonfire", Belfast Telegraph, 9 July 2010.
  10. ^ a b Gailey, Alan. "The Bonfire in North Irish Tradition". Folklore, vol. 88, No. 1 (1977). pp. 3–38
  11. ^ Bowcott, Owen (13 July 2006). "Army off streets for July 12". The Guardian. London.
  12. ^ "News - An Phoblacht". Anphoblacht.com. Retrieved 7 August 2018.
  13. ^ "Limavady bonfire: Election posters 'inciting hatred', says Sinn Féin" BBC News
  14. ^ "Poland flags burned on bonfires across Belfast on 11 July"BBC News19 July 2012
  15. ^ Cochrane, Feargal. Northern Ireland: The Fragile Peace. Yale University Press, 2021. p.277
  16. ^ "Health fears over burning tyres". BBC News. 11 July 2007. Retrieved 13 July 2009.
  17. ^ "Terraced homes gutted as blaze sparked by embers blown onto roofs in Belfast". 12 July 2016.
  18. ^ "Firefighters protect homes during Portadown bonfire as Eleventh Night celebrations begin". Belfast Telegraph, 11 July 2021.
  19. ^ "Tiger's Bay bonfire: NI ministers begin legal action". BBC News, 9 July 2021.
  20. ^ "Orange Order appeals for no tyres to be burned on 11th night bonfires" The Newsletter