Guy Fawkes' element dropped from Boscobel's Bonfire Night

 By Liz Schevtchuk Armstrong

Four centuries after his unsuccessful attempt to destroy Parliament with gunpowder, Guy Fawkes has become potentially explosive again, thousands of miles from London — right here in Philipstown, on the bucolic grounds of Boscobel. The  historic mansion outside Cold Spring had planned its first-ever Guy Fawkes bonfire night for this Friday, emulating an English tradition celebrating the failure of Fawkes and his Catholic co-conspirators to kill King James I and destroy Parliament on Nov. 5, 1605.  Following objections from Roman Catholics, however, Boscobel recast the event and dropped the Guy Fawkes elements. “We had planned a Guy Fawkes Night. When we heard it could be perceived to be anti-Catholic we changed it to a bonfire alone,” said Caroline C. Serino, deputy executive director for Boscobel Restoration Inc., which oversees the property.
       While Guy Fawkes Night initially had strong anti-Catholic overtones, by the latter 20th century it had become a curious kind of secular festival, featuring fireworks, refreshments, music-making, and similar activities as members of a local community gather around a huge bonfire. Still, there’s no escaping history. “Traditionally, it was often used as an anti-Catholic celebration in England,” Father Brian McSweeney, pastor of Our Lady of Loretto Church, told on Nov. 1. “I called Boscobel as soon as I heard of it” to register concern.
       Others in the congregation complained as well, and the organizers of the Boscobel event changed course. “They called and apologized. They did not understand it might be considered anti-Catholic,” Father McSweeney said. “We heard” of the sensitivity “and we took care of it” immediately, Serino said Nov. 1. “I’m very proud of that.”
       Resembling modern religious terrorists, Fawkes and his band intended to set off their explosives underneath Parliament as it convened with the king in state. They ostensibly sought to protest discrimination against Roman Catholics, though another motive may have been to replace the Protestant monarchy with a Catholic regime. Discovered shortly before they could act, they were seized and executed, or slain trying to avoid capture. Fawkes and his comrades “were anarchists,” said Leonora Burton, the British owner of the Country Goose shop in Cold Spring. “They happened to be Catholic anarchists.” To announce the survival of king and Parliament, the English lit bonfires, an age-old way of spreading news across the countryside. In 1606, England made the anniversary of Fawkes’ defeat a holiday.
       Over the years the annual celebration came to include creation of caricatures known as “guys,” straw or rag figures often burned on the bonfire, though one town reportedly still makes a figure of a 17th-century pope as well. Crafting and burning of “straw men” also harks back to pre-Christian Britain and the fall Samhain holiday, said to involve immolation of a symbolic straw figure.   
       At Boscobel, too, “they were going to burn effigies, as far as I know,” Father McSweeney said, describing that as one of the troubling aspects of the event. Boscobel took note of such sensitivities. “In keeping with England’s current tradition, as well as remaining ever-sensitive to our community’s concerns, Boscobel has redesigned its Nov. 5th event,” the organization said in an announcement. “Join us for an effigy-free evening that promises to warm your heart and toast your toes: Bonfire Night.”
       In England, communities work on bonfires well in advance of Nov. 5, piling logs, scrub trees, and wooden scraps in a large mound. In a sign of fall house-cleaning, industrious residents’ often toss cast-off paper, furniture, and other detritus on the mound as well. “It’s just a holiday in the U.K.,” rather like Halloween, said Burton of the Country Goose. “We just have fun.”
       “It is now an excuse to burn things and set off fireworks,” said Steve Walton, a historian who has worked on the West Point Foundry archaeological dig and specializes in early modern British military history, and who served as a visiting professor in Leeds, England, during 2009 Guy Fawkes observances. “They even seem to have lost the whole anti-political component as well.” 

5 thoughts on “Guy Fawkes' element dropped from Boscobel's Bonfire Night

  1. You have got to be kidding.

    This was to be an historically-linked event; why couldn’t be used to EDUCATE the attendees about history and traditions?

    This was not an event planned to be on public land. Separation of church and state indeed! And how exactly does this offend any Catholic or Christian today? History is just that…history! It should not be ignored or it (as we know too well) will be repeated.

    Being half-English and raised Catholic, this reader finds Father Brian McSweeney’s stance much too literal and sensitive.

    Why wasn’t there a call to halt all of the public Halloween events – – on public streets and land no less??? No one said no to saying the rosary at the bandstand or to planning a parade for a photo of the Virgin of Guadalupe, did they?

  2. I’m a Brit in Cold Spring and think it is a shame that an overly sensitive priest can influence a planned event in this way.

    What about July 4th celebrations. Maybe I should petion the village not to hold celebrations because they are “anti British” and make me very upset?

  3. Having the Catholic Church dictate what programs Boscobel puts on makes me very nervous. Father McSweeny, months ago, tried to stop the Garrison Art Center from having a specific art exhibition. Though I don’t remember the exact details the gist was that the artist had used the word “myth” in her description of a painting of the Virgin Mary’s Assumption. The Garrison Art Center, rightly, firmly and courteously answered the note that they had no intention of changing the artists statement.

    There has to be a limit to Fr. McSweeney’s need to govern the activities of Philipstown.

    The funny thing about the Guy Fawkes night is that no one here knows what it’s about and the local Brits think of it as a good party.

    I would be happier if Fr. McSweeny had protested FOR the “Ground Zero Mosque,”, another religious organization which is being judged guilty by association. Is he worried that the world might perceive all Catholics as terrorists if a 400-year-old tradition is celebrated in Philipstown?

  4. Catholics are required at all times to proclaim & defend our Faith so I’ll try my best here.

    As both a parishioner at Our Lady of Loretto and a Board Member at Garrison Art Center I can assure you that Fr. McSweeney did not try “to stop the Garrison Art Center from having a specific art exhibition.” The rest of Ruth’s comment is correct: the artist’s description: “the mythological story of a virgin becoming pregnant from divine intervention” is degrading to a fundamental belief of the Catholic faith.

    Carinda Swann responded to Fr. by citing the 1st Amendment of the U.S. Constitution; Article 19 of the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Fr. answered, “No one is questioning anyone’s freedom of speech or expression, the U.S Constitution .If the Garrison Art Center wants to disparage the beliefs of Christians, Muslims, and the Prophet Isaiah regarding the Virgin Birth by publically labeling it as a myth, they have every right to do so, as we have every right to object.”

    From the research I’ve done about Guy Fawke’s night online and questioning my friends from the UK I found that it is now actually most commonly referred to as “Bonfire Night.” Boscobel is in keeping with the country of origin of this tradition in renaming it such. In 2006 in London, Tower Hamlets Council chose an “alternative theme” for Guy Fawkes Night, replacing it with ‘The Emperor and The Tiger’ based on a Bengali folk tale.

    Our celebration of Independence Day on July 4 we don’t chant poems about choking, boiling in tar or burning King George, we are simply celebrating the birthday of our Nation.

    The full text of the Guy Fawke’s poem:

    Remember, remember the fifth of November,
    Gunpowder, Treason and Plot,
    I see no reason why gunpowder and treason
    Should ever be forgot.
    Guy Fawkes, Guy Fawkes, ’twas his intent
    To blow up the King and the Parliament.
    Three score barrels of powder below,
    Poor old England to overthrow:
    By God’s providence he was catch
    With a dark lantern and burning match.
    Holloa boys, holloa boys, make the bells ring.
    Holloa boys, holloa boys, God save the King!
    Hip hip hoorah!
    A penny loaf to feed the Pope.
    A farthing o’ cheese to choke him.
    A pint of beer to rinse it down.
    A faggot of sticks to burn him.
    Burn him in a tub of tar.
    Burn him like a blazing star.
    Burn his body from his head.
    Then we’ll say ol’ Pope is dead.
    Hip hip hoorah!
    Hip hip hoorah!

    Despite the separation of several hundred years from the original celebrations during which that poem in its entirety was often gleefully recited, it is still offensive, and one has to wonder what the reaction be if it called for the burning of Buddha or Allah.

    Was the procession of the Image of Our Lady of Guadalupe who represents humility and peace, promotes reverence for life, the sanctity of the family, and conversions of those who have not yet come to know of the love of God, offensive to anyone?