I’m watching a short-muscular-incredibly-flexible African man gear up to limbo dance under a steel rod set at about eight inches and wrapped in a flame dripping rag. The street performer, in his African-bona-fides-establishing leopard print, stretch hat, and an Oh-my-God-what-have-we-done-to-that-continent, purple Lion King jumpsuit, stalks around Dublin’s pedestrianized Grafton Street in tight figure eights, calling out in heavily accented English, clap-clap-clapping, as he tries to gin up the crowd of sweaty-faced tourists and a few youse-is-ony-pullin-me-leg-now Dubs. As he rapidly figure-eight-clap-walks, behind him on the black and white checkered, plastic tablecloth, placed under the limbo bar to allow his sneakers glide along easily, a ball of flaming paraffin drips from the burning rag, and starts a, smallish, fire.
In fairness now, it is only a smallish fire, albeit on an apparently, highly flammable tablecloth, recently procured from the €1 Shop. But this is Ireland, so no one, including African immigrants, will getting excited nor nothing about, smallish, fires, on highly flammable materials, in thronged, pedestrianized, downtown retail districts, in the middle of an intense, is-this-climate-change-or-just-a-good-summer, heat-wave.
A few of the youse-is-Dubs rethink interrupting their busy bargain hunting for a street act, purse their lips, grasp their oversized, plastic shopping bags, and drift off, heading for one of “dem latté tings, down Bewleys.” The tourists, sticking with international tourist etiquette, stand stoic-silent, critically assessing the street performer for future comparison to acts in their own capital city. A tall German woman, forehead anxiety furrowed, raises and lowers her arm repeatedly, pointing at the, smallish, fire.
Finally, the leopard-print-hat turns just enough to notice the smoke emanating from his workplace. Still clapping and calling out, he walks over, at the anxiety-inducing pace of a man who’s put out too many fires, to his duffle bag. Maintaining pace, he rummages easefully around in the bag for a sweat rag, finds one, drops it on the burning tablecloth, and taps out the flames.
A ball of fiery paraffin drips onto the sweat rag.
The street performer calmly taps the second fire out with his shoe.
Instantly happy that the, heretofore unperceived, threat of burning down one of Europe’s she-she retail districts has now been dispensed with, he releases a fresh burst of energy. He calls out louder, more unintelligibly, and figure-eight-claps so vociferously that, before you realize that your self-image desperately needs “a latté from Bewleys,” the Africa fella is stuck halfway under the flame dripping, eight-inch high limbo rod.
There he hangs, totally pissing off gravity.
The insides of his feet and ankles – his only connection to our planet – entirely horizontal.
His shoulders sway-dance, over … back, as he shouts further, unintelligible, self-encouragement.
His head never stops moving – shaking no; nodding yes – like it’s not even a part of the purple-Lion-King-suited body that is now this-is-what-it-takes-to-pry-a-few-Euros-from-you-miserable-bollixes, close to the flame dripping limbo rod.
We, his, sufficiently walleted but beat challenged audience, all watch with gaping mouthed disbelief. And for a few seconds we can suspend our middle-class-risk-adverse-boringness, and we all – the remaining youse-is-Dubs, the Euro and American tourists, even the anxiety-browed German woman – get onto his team.
He limbo dances his way under the flame-dripping, eight-inch high pole, the Lion-King jumpsuit getting scorched, but just a little-ish, on the chest. He whips his face, fractions of a fraction of an inch, under the dripping balls of flame.
He springs upright.
Now, as the crowd starts breaking up without visiting their wallets, his, heretofore hidden, anxiety kicks in fast.
“Pee-pulles, pee-pulles,” he calls out loudly, moving much faster than is required to put a, smallish, fire.
He grabs a purple, felt hat from his duffel bag.
“Pleeaase doo nut fore-get,” he pauses, but for too long, the way someone communicating in their second language does.
“That these ees my juub.”
He flashes a-too-quick-smile, that says he’s seen it all before.
“Pleeaase doo nut fore-get to pay fur dee show!”
Some pay – I send my son up with a, heavy-on-the-careless-middle-class-tourist-guilt, €10 note – but most turn quickly, and scurry away.
Presumably the fleers are rationalizing that if the limbo bar had been set at four inches and laced with meth crazed scorpions, then, …well that would have been worth a €2 coin.
Turns out July is a big month for fires, and not just smallish ones, in Ireland. Well, at least in Northern Ireland, the six counties of which have remained under British rule, after, what is now the Republic of Ireland, gained its independence in 1921.
At this point, it’s important to dwell on the different methods of measuring time in Ireland. First there’s regular Irish-time, as in for instance, the 5:05PM train to Westport, which leaves at 4:59PM or 6:34PM, depending on which will cause me the greatest heartache. Then there’s Irish-sport time, as in the clock slowing to a near standstill when the Republic of Ireland’s soccer team takes a lead against any team better than the Faroe Islands, eh, …, make that Lichtenstein.
Then there’s Irish-history-time.
This method of time measurement is no way tied to our planet’s three hundred and sixty five-ish day trip around the nearest star, but is instead inextricably linked to the emotions of your particular religious-cultural tradition. Under Nationalist – as in supporting the Irish Nationalism; this term was coined long before the current type of “consumer nationalism” we see from those who believe that burning down refugee housing is a patriotic act – history-time, the War of Independence in 1921 was about fifteen minutes ago; just about when I ordered that latté, which I hope many other vain people are jealously observing in my hand. Oddly enough, the Irish Civil War, which ran for about ten months between 1922 and 1923, gets no Irish-history-time at all; it would seem it took more or less as much time as it takes to re-swallow a bit of bile that might come up from your stomach. Now in Northern Ireland, Loyalist – as in loyal to the British Crown – history-time holds that the Battle of the Boyne, 1690 was just about twenty minutes ago – pretty much just when I realized that it was way too long since anyone had seen me holding a latté.
To compress time like this – a feat which, even Einstein, for all his craziest-ever-hairstyle, couldn’t do – it is necessary to force-retain memories by faithfully commemorating every victory, loss and slight, no matter how small, against your particular religious-cultural community. In fairness, every country attempts this. The great state of Rhode Island – which is about the size of County Galway – celebrates VJ Day; Victory over Japan day: However it remains unclear if Japan knows that Rhode Island exists, and if so, that it’s not actually an island which can be retroactively, surprise bombed. On our, sometimes unhappy, little island at the edge of Europe, we work hard at force-retaining memories.
Thus it is, not without some particularly convoluted Irish-Irony – a topic for another day – the battle of the Battle of the Boyne, actually won on July 1, 1690, is celebrated, with near religious fervor, every July 12. The contestants in the battle were on one side, an army consisting of English, Scottish, Dutch, Danish, French Huguenots and colonial settlers in Ulster; all a part of the first ever alliance between Protestant European countries, and, none other than the, survival-first-religion-later, Vatican; fighting on behalf of a Dutchman – William of Orange. On the other side was an army of French and Irish Catholics, fighting on behalf of James II, the recently dethroned Scottish, Catholic King of England. There was that odd hilly-billy thing that James II was both William’s uncle and his father-in-law – one could have hoped they’d have solved their differences in a drunken brawl at the wedding? They didn’t, and on the day, William of Orange’s forces won the battle decisively. If this is confusing, it is, seemingly, meant to be, and can only be kinda-sorta understood by studying it, under the tutelage of some bitter, old Irish man, while consuming massive quantities of alcohol. But no worries, just hate on. Now, through the mill of Irish-history-time, perennially re-ploughed confusion, and all too easily fueled sectarian hatred, the celebrations of that July 1, 1690 victory are now traditionally started at midnight on July 11th, by setting alight massive bonfires.
Once upon a time, these bonfires would have been modest heaps of various construction and household debris, maybe the odd bald tire, or a pallet, filched from the Harland and Wolff shipyard. But with modern consumer nationalism taking over, now – not unlike the on-the-cheap-and-easy, KKK hatemongers marching with $3.50-on-Amazon tiki torches – pallets and tires are bulk purchased, or force-donated, such that communities compete as to who can have the tallest, most dangerous, highly combustible heap. Once constructed, these, hundred foot plus infernos-in-waiting are then, traditionally, decorated with the Irish flag, effigies of the Pope, and any other remotely Catholic or Irish Nationalist symbols. Since Brexit the EU flag now gets regularly burned, as, I imagine, does the odd stray poster of Father Ted. While certain traditions, such as bonfire materiality or hand crafting a Papal effigy while consumed with hate, can be eschewed, others can definitively not be toyed with. Thus, the requirement remains that these, smallish, towering infernos be placed in the middle of tight-streeted, redbrick, row-housed neighborhoods.
On television, a news reporter harangues a stony faced man – whom the editors have elected to award the professional title of “Bonfire Builder” – about building these flimsy-infernos so close to people’s residences.
“Ach, ‘e hav it all wrong agin, me sonny boy,” the “Bonfire Builder” retorts, with the acquired-wisdom of a man well used to hectoring the world into seeing itself from his point of view.
“Them thare houses, they’s were built tii close ti my bon-fiire.”
The screen flicks to eerie-crackly footage of a few minutes before midnight on July 11. It’s a scene that would send any self-respecting Health and Safety professional into an immediate, and deep, panic attack: Climbing up the side of the hundred foot tall bonfire, is a twenty-something, jowly-beer-bellied man; whom, it would appear, has just spent several hours, traditionally, consuming alcohol. Up he climbs, past the washed-out-by-the-darkness colors of the Irish and EU flags, one drunken arm being used to keep life and limb safe-ish, while the other drags an approved-by-no-one-ever, plastic five gallon container of whatever highly flammable liquid is, traditionally, sold to drunken young men on the afternoon of July 11.
Then, swaying on a ledge, that would give Sir Edmond Hillary vertigo, the flammable liquid is roughly, and, of course, unevenly splashed around – the flags getting more than their fair share. A couple of barely averted, you’d-be-lucky-to-just-end-up-a-quadriplegic, falls later, and out of nowhere a box of matches flames up.
The flaming matchbox dominates the screen.
The burning matches are thrown, wildly, as far away as possible.
Wooooosshhh, goes the bonfire, instantly a half an inferno.
Somehow I’ve gotten onto the team with this young man, who is seventy-ish foot up the side of the inferno, and clearly impaired. But no worries, as the flames start to consume the pile, he retreats, with a previously unsuspected litheness and speed – fire, it would seem, induces this response in humans.
In a matter of seconds – so fast, that I’m expecting the next shot will be the beer-bellied-drunk man running, screaming, his back aflame, toward the camera – the pile of pallets and tires is a swirling, crackling inferno, making its own wind, as the flames devour the wood, the tires, the darkness.
The crowd sings songs of hate and war, cans of beer and bottles of booze are raised in defiance at the television cameras, at the cops in their riot gear. Off to the right, a fire truck busily hoses off houses downwind from the fire.
The firemen hold their forearms up to the fire, shielding themselves from the heat and the hatred, waiting out the flames, hoping, no doubt, that on the way back to the fire station they can reward themselves with a latté.