From Irish Political Review: June 2006

The Vanity Of The Bonfires

Though I must own to having indulged in much of what The Preacher of Ecclesiastes would have called Vanity, all of which Fra Girolamo would have put to a Florentine fire, my spirit has not been at all vexed thereby. Not by the vanities at any rate. I can't say the same of the preaching. Much vexed by preachers I've been.

(So now, hypocrite that I am, I commence to preaching.) In Florence at the turn of The Quattrocento, as Europe ebbed into a great new age of progress, a brand new sixteenth century of continent-wide slave hunts and frenzied genocide of the peoples of a brave new world, the Medici (this was when they were posing as just the leading officials of a notional republic) briefly gave way to a real Republic of born-again Catholics which, in the first four of its eighteen years (when it was a kind of democratic theocracy), set itself to providing the world with a wonderful wee foretaste of Calvin's Geneva.

In those days singing nuns were vowed to stability, but preaching monks were all over the place. The Dominican Friar Girolamo Savonarola preached the length and breadth until he finally settled in Florence in 1489 where he added prophesying to sermonising. First off he prophesied the death of Lorenzo il Magnifico (only the second in a series of Florentine honorifics 'il Magnifico' might as easily be translated 'the Second-Rate' as 'the Magnificent') who duly died in 1494 at the even then early age of 43 of some form of aggravated gout (aggravated as much as anything by the preaching and prophesying of the Friar). Also prophesied were the duly accomplished deaths of the Pope and the King of Naples and an unseasonal French invasion which Savonarola welcomed as heralding the rule under King Jesus of the Florentine Saints. And, Hallelujah! so it did.

There followed Savonarola's campaign to Save Florence From Sodomy which the Preacher pursued by burning Sodomites alive. And some minor and two major Bonfires of the Vanities.

The first Christian Bonfire of the Vanities was at Ephesus when the world's First Christian, the post-facto Apostle Paul, preached a holocaust of blasphemous books, idolatrous images, and all the vain ostentation of irreligious men and women there. Such bonfires are not exclusively Christian. There was for example an early nineteenth century occasion when preachers of their native religion (described by the local government agent, Return Jonathan Meiggs, as mad prophets) encouraged Cherokees to make a conflagration of the commodities of white civilisation. The more boring fires in which only particular categories of books are burned don't count for anything much in this context.

Anyway, Savonarola's Bonfire of the Vanities is well described in George Eliot's Romola (which conflates the two great holocausts into one):

"She chose to go through the great Piazza that she might take a first survey of the unparalleled sight there while she was still alone. Entering it from the south, she saw something monstrous and many-coloured in the shape of a pyramid, or, rather, like a huge fir-tree, sixty feet high, with shelves on the branches, widening and widening towards the base till they reached a circumference of eighty yards. The Piazza was full of life: slight young figures, in white garments, with olive wreaths on their heads, were moving to and fro about the base of the pyramidal tree, carrying baskets full of bright-coloured things; and maturer forms, some in the monastic frock, some in the loose tunics and dark-red caps of artists, were helping and examining, or else retreating to various points in the distance to survey the wondrous whole…

"Approaching nearer, she paused to look at the multifarious objects ranged in gradation from the base to the summit of the pyramid. There were tapestries and brocades of immodest design, pictures and sculptures held too likely to incite to vice; there were boards and tables for all sorts of games, playing-cards along with the blocks for printing them, dice, and other apparatus for gambling; there were worldly music-books, and musical instruments in all the pretty varieties of lute, drum, cymbal, and trumpet; there were masks and masquerading-dresses used in the old Carnival shows; there were handsome copies of Ovid, Boccaccio, Petrarca, Pulci, and other books of a vain or impure sort; there were all the implements of feminine vanity—rouge-pots, false hair, mirrors, perfumes, powders, and transparent veils intended to provoke inquisitive glances: lastly, at the very summit, there was the unflattering effigy of a probably mythical Venetian merchant, who was understood to have offered a heavy sum for this collection of marketable abominations, and, soaring above him in surpassing ugliness, the symbolic figure of the old debauched Carnival.

"This was the preparation for a new sort of bonfire—the Burning of Vanities. Hidden in the interior of the pyramid was a plentiful store of dry fuel and gunpowder; and on this last day of the festival, at evening, the pile of vanities was to be set ablaze to the sound of trumpets, and the ugly old Carnival was to tumble into the flames amid the songs of reforming triumph."

The first of the Bonfires was an unqualified success. The second followed a few years later in a doomed attempt to shore up Fra Girolamo's faltering popularity among Florentines grown bored with sanctity. That was an expensive flop which was quickly followed by a Bonfire of the Saints when Savonarola and his closest lieutenants were burned alive in that same Piazza della Signoria. And let our local homophobes take note of the truth of the old adage that he who lives by the flaming faggot shall die by the flaming faggot! Here endeth that lesson.

Moving quickly on then, from the sublime to The Twelfth.

Vulgar old Jerome's use of the Latin word vanitas to translate the Hebrew hebel seems fair enough to me, given that the vanity of which the Preacher spoke meant the futility of worldly displays of wealth, wisdom, beauty or power. Vanity of vanities saith the Preacher. All such is vanity.

And such now is the vanity of those boozed-up dressed-down processions which adherents of the Protestant religion (I'm happy to take Roy Garland's word for it that the loyal orders are religious institutions) engage in as very worldly displays of their power; most particularly the power to display their boozed-up dressed-down selves where their Fenian enemies live and supposedly put the fear of the Protestant God into them.

When the Billy Boys really could march up and down any traditional or otherwise route they wanted, filling each Fenian heart with fear as they went, those displays were hardly futile and vanity would not have been the word for them. But now…

Now that the Billy Boys march for the most part on Fenian sufferance or are shepherded shame faced and silent through grace and favour of the Parades Commission along roads they once staggered proudly, now vanity of vanities is all may be seen.

The good old days of Orange ascendancy were recalled by the Irish News this week in a daily feature by Eamon Phoenix which reprints and comments on the news of seventy or so years ago. So this was the area of Belfast I've lived most of my life in as it was reported in the Irish News on 18th May 1937:

"A Catholic family has been forced to leave their house in Walmer Street in the Ormeau Road district owing to the attitude adopted towards them by their neighbours. They left at midnight on Friday in a taxi taking with them what belongings they could…

"During last week two of the girls were forced to leave their employment owing to the tactics of a loyalist mob and were moreover badly beaten as was the mother who received among other injuries, a split finger and black eyes. Molly Corr, one of the daughters, a delicate looking girl of about 26, said her sister Eileen and herself were followed to their work during the week by local loyalists who made a demonstration outside their works…

"On Tuesday evening, as her sister and herself were going home by the entry at the back, their dog ran to meet them. As it did so, a man in the entry went over to it and kicked it.

"'My mother came out and spoke to him about kicking the dog and immediately a crowd set upon us.

"'My sister Eileen was struck on the face and two men struck me and knocked me down. My mother was struck on the mouth and her lip was split. She also got a finger split in the struggle. We all got inside but later the crowd kicked in the back door. Some of them shouted, 'Burn the Fenians out'…'

"…Mrs Corr, who states that she was 32 years in the house, said they had often trouble before the Twelfth but nothing so serious as this.

"It was so bad that when we got things quiet on Friday night we decided to get away from the district. I was afraid of my life all the time" (Irish News, May 18 2006.)

Walmer street is about a minute's walk from the Orange Hall which still stands today on the front of the Ormeau Road. Then, coming up to The Twelfth, the area will have been covered in bunting and Union Jacks, as it was even thirty years ago. Today there's the odd few houses in a very few streets, lamp-posts are flagged in the early hours of the morning when there's no-one around, and the red white and blue displays in the couple of Protestant enclaves remaining are very half-hearted indeed. Below the Ormeau Bridge the road is almost completely Catholic and Orangemen don't set foot. Above the Bridge is now about 75% Catholic and amazingly tolerant of the level of Orange activity they permit to carry on around the Hall. And it may well be that they are so tolerant just because they are so well aware how much it galls the Billy Boys to be hemmed in and put up with.

The large Orange demonstrations that continue in solidly Protestant areas are irrelevant to the spirit of The Twelfth. The only processions which ever lifted that spirit and exalted the Billy Boys were the ones that brought them as close as they wanted to fill each Fenian heart with fear; marching up and down on the road to Portadown, or wherever else they cared. But there is little enough of that now. They can no longer walk where they care to, nor even where they dare to. Today it's a matter of them walking where they are inoffensive or put up with. And there is no exaltation in that. Only that vanity of vanities of which the Preacher spoke. Today its all vanity.

The end of Orange Ascendancy in the lacklustre vanity of its latter day bonfires has not been marked in any way in Nationalist politics. The SDLP and Sinn Féin both continue to act as though there is, lurking somewhere, however heavily disguised, some reasonable form of Protestant politics that can be negotiated with to a point of mutually beneficial compromise. There isn't.

The border that Craig and Dawson Bates conjured themselves to accept was just the right one for the Brethren to walk within, with just the right number of Fenians to be walked through and over. Not so many as to prove troublesome (they thought, and rightly so for long enough) but just a sufficiency to provide that amount of Exaltation on a Twelfth Day as makes an old Prod's life worth living. And such is as far as their notion of politics has ever stretched or ever will.

An ascendancy cannot be compromised with. It is either ascendant or its not. Today it's not. In becoming ascendant within the Twelfth Day walkable area of its power, Northern Ireland Protestantism exalted itself beyond the workaday world of practical politics. That was its choice in 1920 and it cannot be unmade for it now. All the wishful thinking of all the soft nationalists in all the world cannot unmake it now.

The workaday world of practical politics today is where stand the British Government, the Irish Government and the political expression of Northern Catholics. The one time ascendancy stands nowhere. It is doped up or dumbed down. And it doesn't count.

There isn't the glimmer of a worthwhile compromise to be made that can bring Northern Ireland Protestants into political alignment with Bold Fenian Men. It can't be done.

They want 1937 back but they can't have 1937 back. Political engagement with them should begin and end with telling them that and then move on to deal with the British and Irish Governments on the timescale and terms of Northern involvement in the political life of the Irish nation.

All else is vanity. Vanity of vanities. And excruciating vexation of spirit.

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