Growing up in Westport the act of gathering for and around the bonfire every year was an important ritual and evokes many happy childhood memories. For some it was more important than Christmas or even their birthdays. The roar of the flames, the sharing of food, songs and stories was and indelible part of an Irish upbringing. But a nationwide tradition is dying out year by year and is now in real danger of being quenched forever. Paradoxically the bonfire tradition remains strong in several countries around Europe, obviously valued as an essential part of their heritage. Why are we different here ?
I, as a citizen of Ireland and privileged to be so, feel that the bonfire is a very important aspect of Celtic and Irish life and it falls to me and others of like mind to highlight this threat to our heritage and ensure that the tradition of bonfire night remains as a celebration of our unity through community.
We still have a right to light a wood-based fire on St John’s night, June 23rd. But I fear we are losing the connection with the very reason for the bonfire, Why ? Simply put, the bonfire was in respect for the earth and the sustenance it provides. It marked the link between death and life, sowing of seed and harvesting of crops. Lighting and rekindling the flame. Couples and families coming to the fire for a blessing and wishing each other a bountiful and healthy year.
Now we are standing by and letting our heritage disappear, without any realisation of how vital this connection is to the past, present and to our future. We have a responsibility to our ancestors and to our children to prevent the tradition of the bonfire disappearing forever. What we need to do is have a central fire in Westport to unite young and old. A gathering of all generations who would share our culture, a real light of hope for our future. To my mind this event could incorporate all community groups and provide an opportunity for all to gather o celebrate our roots. It would not interfere in any way with other groups rights to have their own bonfires.
My proposal may cause some concern to tidy towns and environmental organisations. Let me allay their concerns. I am talking about just one fire in Westport town centre, possibly near the Fairgreen, built on a steel base and burning wood only (no tyres or other pollutants). The residue of the single fire would be cleaned up and taken away immediately after the event. The site of the dish could be a flower bed for 364 days of the year marked by a map of Westport showing where all the town bonfires were held in the past.
This is an occasion for all of us to celebrate our heritage, to build unity through community, share blessings and hopes for the future and preserve a beautiful tradition for our children.
The event would be complemented by a series of food stalls and music sessions, a true community event.
It could be the ultimate ‘Gathering’ event and in this special year we need to gather our integrity, passion and respect for heritage and tradition, especially in a heritage-designated town like Westport, one of the few planned towns of Ireland. It has the potential to become not just a national event but an international symbol of unity and community.
I am asking for a positive rethink towards this ancient event by the people of Westport and to join me in planning a ‘Gathering’ bonfire for St John’s night in June next.
To highlight this issue I, my daughter Saoirse, her friends Luke, Callum and Roadhán will push a wheelbarrow of wood only and a banner in this year’s St Patricks Day parade on Sunday, March 17. We would love others to join us in a first step in preserving a wonderful traditional event that is truly part of our heritage and one that we should treasure into our future.. I invite people to support our proposal by joining us in the St Patrick’s Day Parade. We will be presenting a large match to our public representatives at the reviewing stand at the Octagon and this, in turn, will be presented to Westport’s old citizen who will be given the honour of lighting our bonfire on St John’s night. What a wonderful way to mark The Gathering 2013, honouring an old tradition in the best way possible.
Michael Kelly is a well known Westport musician who will be keep The Mayo News updated on the ‘Keep her Lit’ event. He can be contacted on 087 6715192.