Remembering Bonfire Night: Fear & Loathing in Lewes

Last night, the 5th of November was just a quiet ordinary night for me – unlike the last two years amid the chaos of Guy Fawkes Night in the ‘bonfire capital of the world’. Lest I forget, I dug out this little film I shot last year and thought back on the whole visceral experience, and the brutal history behind it:  

As a child growing up in 1980s’ Ireland, I associated bonfires and fireworks almost exclusively with Hallowe’en. On that spooky night from Celtic mythology, the veil with spirit world was thinner, the dead and the fairy-folk could enter our world and bonfires were lit for protection. For us as kids, though, the bonfire on the green was just the culmination of an evening spent trick-or-treating, eating sweets and nuts and bobbing for apples.

However, I gathered from watching Blue Peter that in England bonfires were burnt not on Hallowe’en, but five days later on something called Guy Fawkes Night. To us, Hallowe’en without a bonfire was like Christmas without presents, and the story of England’s bonfires, of some guy trying and failing to blow up the Houses of Parliament, sounded like a rather dreary and dull alternative. Until I moved to England two years ago, inasmuch as I thought about it at all, I imagined Bonfire Night to be a quaint light-hearted family-orientated commemoration.

When I went to live in Hassocks in Sussex, I was taken to the Bonfire Night celebrations in nearby Lewes, expecting something of a hybrid of the parades of St Patrick’s Day and the cosy bonfires of Hallowe’en. Three things, however, gave me pause – that I was told the kids weren’t coming, that I was advised to wear ear defenders and that it might be an idea not to let my Irish accent be too obvious. All were wise moves.

What I found in Lewes was something far darker and more menacing than my expectations, more so than any Hallowe’en I’d ever had. I knew that Guy Fawkes had been a Catholic terrorist (an issue which England has had something of a fraught experience with) though I assumed it was so far back in history to still be a real issue. But I knew nothing of the 17 Protestant martyrs who had been burned at the stake in Lewes in the mid-16th century by the Catholic Church. Quaint little Lewes, it turned out, was not only the ‘bonfire capital of the world’ but the very heart of English anti-Catholic sentiment. Lewes takes Bonfire Night seriously – it is written in the blood and the blood runs deep. This was a wild, mediaeval bacchanal, a seething, exploding frenzy, and as profound a culture shock as any I’ve experienced in far more exotic places. That first experience overwhelmed me, but last year, I was prepared and I took the camera to film what I could of the chaos.

Bonfire Night in Lewes, 2011
Bonfire Night in Lewes, 2011

Marchers from various bonfire societies  – dressed as smugglers, as Native Americans, as Zulus – carried flaming torches and hauled burning barrels of tar through streets so narrow that the only separation from the spectators was the kerb and the torches dropped as they smouldered out. Bangers exploded almost relentlessly, dropped on the street or thrown into the burning barrels. My ear defenders – while muting the constant point-blank explosions – just added to the eerie sense of otherworldliness and vulnerability. I took them off at one point, just as someone dropped a banger three feet from me. I felt the blast hit me and I could hear nothing but the ringing in my ears for ten minutes afterwards.

The societies dragged giant effigies of reviled public figures through the town to the outskirts, to their respective bonfire sites, where they were immolated. Men dressed as popes and bishops were hoisted onto a platform and pelted with cascades of lit bangers. There was little sign of the cautious advice that Hallowe’en was always peppered with, about letting responsible adults light fireworks, about never pointing or throwing them towards anyone. The adults were the ones causing the chaos. For all the world, it looked like a huge lynch mob, and in essence, there was not much difference. It was extraordinary to see this mediaeval barbarism, this barely-bridled chaos in the very heart of genteel, gentrified, quaint and conservative Sussex – just sixty miles from one of the most modern, civilised and cosmopolitan cities on the planet. And I haven’t even mentioned the bonfires.

The traditions of Hallowe’en bonfire in Ireland may be of a much greater antiquity than Guy Fawkes’ Night, rooted as they are in pre-Christian pagan mythical and mystical imagination. But the tradition of the Guy Fawkes’ bonfires – certainly in Lewes – is more frightening than the ghosts of Hallowe’en, because it is real. The refrain of Lest We Forget – whether it be the failed Gunpowder Plot, the Lewes martyrs, or the more recent dead of the World Wars – echoes around Bonfire Night as a reminder that this is a commemoration of something factual, historical and ingrained in the English psyche. I learned my history within the Irish Catholic education system, where Catholics were tacitly portrayed as the downtrodden good guys and Protestants as the traitorous turncoats and oppressors. To find myself as a (putative and nominal) Catholic in the midst of a very tangible anti-Catholic anger and even bigotry, and to learn of the true story behind that anger, was to gain a salutary lesson in the subjectivity of history.

Lewes confounded all of my expectations of Guy Fawkes’ Night. Unlike Hallowe’en, it is not for kids (although the Nevill Juvenile Bonfire Society does hold a family-friendly parade and fireworks display a week or two earlier). Unlike St Patrick’s Day, it is not geared towards tourists, though it is something that any adventurous traveller should seek out to experience at least once. And unlike Hallowe’en and St Patrick’s Day in Ireland, has not been heavily commercialised until it stripped of its real relevance. It remains deeply embedded in community spirit and allegiance, and in the collective historical memory.

It is not a tradition that I belong to, or one that I necessarily like, but it is one that I am very gratified to have experienced (twice), one that I missed in the quiet ordinariness of last night in Dublin. One I won’t forget.

3 thoughts on “Remembering Bonfire Night: Fear & Loathing in Lewes

  1. That is some sinister stuff. What the fuck has Angela Merkel got to do with anything? some sort of UKIP anti Europe protest? As someone who sees first hand every year the problem with these “cultural commemorations and remembrance” during the “marching season” in Northern Ireland, i feel it is not something that should be part of modern society. History is to be learned from not to be recreated year after year symbolically or other wise. Thanks for the blog a big eye opener.

  2. I couldn’t say I ever found the Lewes bonfire night experience that deep. It is worth going at least once, if only because it is unique and where else can you get your eyelashes & brows burned off legally. But as for hate or loathing I never found it genuine to the ancient cause. These days it is about a celebration, fire, rebellion from the normal for one night and getting drunk. Other towns do this on marches, parades or football matches. If however you go to some of the village bonfires either in East Sussex or beyond in England you will find a more family fun filled evening with safe fireworks and also mulled wine or beer. I have done both on several occasions.

    1. Thanks for the insider perspective. I think we do tend to see the traditions of others in different ways from how we see our own. That said, there’s certainly a lot more allusion to the history and tradition in Bonfire Night than there is in the oversized leprechaun hats and tricolour wigs of St Patrick’s Day.

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