As I cycled into town from Ballybrack, through Kilbogget Park and Meadow Vale, I passed the smouldering remains of the previous night’s Halloween bonfires. An acrid smell of burnt rubber and plastic hung in the air and the grass was covered in sweet wrappers and empty beer cans. This scene is repeated in green spaces throughout the city of Dublin and urban areas across the country. It made me think how banning these bonfires has clearly failed over the years and that there may be a better way to handle this.
Every year local authority environment and parks departments devote resources to prevent bonfire materials being stockpiled. Then, in spite of these efforts, they are left to clean up the mess of bonfires that proceeded anyhow. Often tyres and plastics are thrown into the bonfires, releasing toxic fumes into the city’s air. The remaining burnt patches on the grass are difficult and costly to re-mediate and repair. Dublin City Council spends approximately half a million euro on clean ups.
Along with the environmental damage, the bonfires can attract antisocial behaviour, with shocking stories in the press of the Fire Brigade being attacked while attending to fires. Drink, large fires and fireworks are not a great mix and it is a busy time for hospital emergency departments.
It is clear that the general ban on bonfires in public green spaces on Halloween night is not working. Halloween, as we know it, tends to be an Americanised version of the ancient Celtic Samhain festival, which marked the end of the harvest season and the beginning of winter. The lighting of bonfires may not reach back to ancient Celtic times, but they are a long-established Irish tradition, particularly in urban areas, and seem a primal response to the onset of winter. In spite of the damage I know they cause, I brought my own children to the local bonfire while trick-or-treating, as I did when I was a child.
Maybe it is time for local authorities to bite the bullet and support supervised bonfires on Halloween. A few years ago I engaged with local children in the Sheriff Street area on the planned greenway along the Royal Canal. I was struck with how important they viewed the annual bonfire held on the planned route and their concerns that this would be no longer possible. Could the money spent trying to prevent, and then cleaning up the bonfires, not be allocated to community and youth groups instead? They could work with local kids to organise safer and more environmentally friendly bonfires, avoiding materials such as tyres and plastics and locating them appropriately. Similar work has been done in Northern Ireland for the 12th July festivities.
So I suggest that we might embrace the Halloween bonfire and celebrate the creative initiative and energies of local children. This would require co-ordination between parks and communities departments, the Fire Services, Garda and community groups. Children would learn about the importance and value of green spaces, the impact on the environment of burning inappropriate materials; anti-social behaviour and accidents can be reduced, emergency services can be otherwise diverted and local authority resources better allocated. We need to engage more widely on the use and management of our green spaces.