There’s something about the darkening evenings and falling leaves (at least in the northern part of the planet we call home) that makes me want to light a fire. There’s a joke “once a scout, always a pyromaniac” and it’s funny because it’s true. The ability to make fire with a flint and steel is one skill I’m proud to hold and keen to use at this time of year. If the weather co-operates on Halloween I’ll be lighting our garden fire-pit for a mini bonfire, as gatherings for large community bonfires are unwise this year.
The source of the word is suitably gruesome for this time of year when tradition holds that the veil between the world of the living and the dead is whisper thin. The bon in bonfire isn’t from the French word for good (no matter what the wonderful Dr Johnson thought), it’s from bone. The original bonfires were fires for burning bones.
Bonfire entered Middle English as banefire in the late 1400s but was defined early on as being for the burning of bones. Christopher Fowler, who pens the wonderful Byrant and May detective series and has a passion for London history, elaborates on bonfires in his novel “The Burning Man”. He reckons it started in Denmark when the bodies of the losing side would be piled up and burned in celebration by the victors. An alternative he provides is the story of Edward Bonner, the Bishop of London in Tudor times. In 1555, on his orders over 300 English men and women were burned at the stake for their faith and the fires became known as Bon’s fires as a result.
Sadly the burning of people for their faith was commonplace in those times and both sides did it. In the town of Lewes in Sussex there are bonfire societies who burn effigies to commemorate the burning of 17 Protestant martyrs by Catholics during Mary Tudor’s reign and of course burning a dummy of Guy Fawkes is popular on November 5th in the UK which again comes back to religious strife.
Here in Ireland we skip the 5th of November and save our bonfires for two specific dates – Halloween and St John’s Eve (the 23rd of June). The second of those was news to me as a Dublin girl but is a tradition in full swing in the west of the country. You can read more about it here. We’ve always liked a good fire in Ireland. Saint Patrick tapped into that by lighting a Pascal (Easter) fire on the hill of Slane, not too far from where I live, and in clear sight of the hill of Tara – seat of the pre-Christian king of Ireland.
The roots of the bonfire almost certainly reach back into Ireland’s pre-Christian past, but nowadays the inclusion of bones amongst your tinder is best avoided.
Until next time Happy Halloween, and happy reading, writing, and wordfooling,