Twenty years ago, about this time of year, I was sitting on the second floor of a fire escape on the gable end of a large red-bricked terrace in South Belfast. As usual, S. was with me; we shared the flat, and were making plans for a joint birthday party later in the autumn. It was a student area, but a slightly better one. Not the Holylands, down off the Ormeau Road. No, we wouldn’t live there. Not at this stage, now we were earning. Where the streets ran like potato drills towards the River Lagan: Cairo Street, Damascus Street, Palestine Street, Jerusalem Street. Living there had become a nightmare. It was full of boys from Donaghmore. I didn’t even know where Donaghmore was, but in my mind it was an untamed land where boys were overgrown, wild, and unkempt, like hawthorn hedges bordering stony fields. I was later to discover my notion was more or less true. Down in the Holylands they played hurly in the street by day, and by night they lost the run of themselves drinking Bulmer’s cider by the barrel. Our student area was less feral; a few more recent graduates, like ourselves, starting out, renting somewhere a step up from what we could afford as students.
From our perch on the fire escape we overlooked a narrow cut-through where cars parked up on the pavement when spaces ran out on the main avenue. We often parked there ourselves, no scruples, thoughtless as to how we might be blocking the pavement for buggies or old women pulling shopping trolleys back from doing their messages on the Lisburn Road. Year round S. would sit out on rusty metal fire escape to smoke. In summer I would join her, bringing drinks, and we would chat. This night, we were looking across the city to plumes of smoke rising from the traditional August bonfires in West Belfast. I could hear scraping and shuffling on the street below. I leaned out and down to see the outline of a scrawny youngster entering my car through the boot. Joyriding was the scourge of West Belfast back then. He had the lock off my Peugeot 106 before you could say ‘Mickey Marley’s Roundabout’. S.’s boyfriend was there that night; he yelled down at him – “I can feckin’ see ya. You’re asking for a hidin’.” Lewis O’Hamilton hared off, leaving me with a car that would never lock again.
It’s a wonder I saw him at all that night, for when we weren’t talking, our eyes were trained to the west, to the smoke, and to the Black Mountain that hugged the city, trying to hold Belfast steady. “Faith moves mountains,” I remember S. saying, out of nowhere. We began to laugh. Maybe we were a bit drunk; maybe we were giddy that we’d foiled the robbery. “What a load of old shite,” commenting on her own musings, “there’s no moving that mountain and it isn’t even all that big.” We fell back into silence, looking up at the Black Mountain: solid and fixed and keeping us sheltered when little else felt secure in Belfast. We agreed we’d go up it some day, look back down on ourselves. We never did.
Since then I have climbed the Black Mountain many times. The National Trust took it over and installed a raised walkway over the bog that leads to the most magnificent viewpoint. A view over all of Belfast that would still your soul: the docks with its famous yellow cranes; the ships coming and going; Milltown Cemetery in the west; Stormont in blocks of white lego to the east; Scrabo tower placed on a hill like a chess piece; the narrow inlet of Strangford Lough glistening; and (if the weather is good enough) the outline of the Mourne Mountains away to the south.
From time to time, everyone needs to find their Black Mountain: a view from on high, a bit of perspective, and, most importantly, a place of peace and quiet. There have been awfully sad memories from twenty years ago brought back to me this week. I cried all over again for 29 people I never knew who died in Omagh. I felt despondent about bonfires burnt not to commemorate but to insult. Yet, from a higher view, I’m quite sure I can see that mountains are moving, that the ignorant crowd is getting smaller, that the ways of hate are dispersing.
From ‘An Ulster Reckoning’ by, John Hewitt
“Though creed-crazed zealots and the ignorant crowd,
long-nurtured, never checked, in ways of hate,
have made our streets a byword of offence,
this is my country, never disavowed.
When it is fouled, shall I not remonstrate?
My heritage is not their violence.”