A pilgrimage up the holy mountain of Slemish was how we celebrated St Patrick's Day
For me, Slemish shall always be holy – a distant guardian on the horizon, a certainty that made all the everyday worries and problems fade. It was our Mount Fuji – nose dusted with snow in winter; fresh green slopes in spring
THE St Patrick's Day when the central heating boiler broke down is many moons ago – at least four decades in ordinary time. It did not so much break down as erupt, like a small volcano. The lid on it came off, it belched black smoke – picture a fat man puffing hard on a Cuban cigar – and a crimson, lava-like substance tumbled down its metal sides.
Quelle horreur, I might have said in my best schoolgirl French.
And picture my father, knotting the belt on his old tartan dressing gown and scratching his head at the smoke and the flames as his six children dash about in a fair imitation of the good citizens of Pompeii high tailing it away from the red hot flow.
Sadly, my father's dream of a quiet St Patrick's Day breakfast in bed went up, literally, in a puff of smoke.
Turn off the grill and hold the sausages for the barbecue in the garage. It was lucky that it was March 17.
We left the adults scratching their heads and ringing various boiler experts. Happy to escape the eruption at home, our sights were set on a small inert volcano just outside town. We were all for the annual pilgrimage to Slemish – our holy mountain.
For me, Slemish shall always be holy – a distant guardian on the horizon, a certainty that made all the everyday worries and problems fade. It was our Mount Fuji – nose dusted with snow in winter; fresh green slopes in spring.
Driving down the motorway on a summer's evening, I still glance sideways, spot Slemish in the distance, know I'm back at my childhood home, breathe easy.
Slemish was heart's ease as I sat at my desk in our bedroom wondering how on Earth anyone could call a book Physics is fun. Equations danced can cans before my eyes.
But stare across to the distant horizon, and there is Slemish, off in the distance, easy on the eye.
The numbers dancing in my head settled to the peace that follows a sand storm in the desert. And, on exam revision days, I'd think of the boy, Patrick, crouched into a hollow on the side of the mountain, sheltering from the wind, minding the sheep on the soft green slopes.
Little did he dream of the path and the future that lay ahead of him – how he'd make his escape from Slemish and leave only to dream of returning, pulled back by an ocean of Irish voices. St Patrick's Day was always a rousing fresh kind of a day in Antrim.
No need for the boiler – you lived on an inner furnace of heat and pride and a rousing chorus to our glorious saint looking down on Erin's green valley in his love.
It was also the one day in Lent that you could gorge on sweets, guilt free. Lenten promises do not apply on saint's days, don't you know.
After early morning Mass – boiler dilemma pending – somebody's parents drove us the 10 miles out of town to the slopes of Slemish and we scrambled up like mountain goats. It was a fair climb – a more recent attempt left my knees squealing and my heart thumping.
But back then, it was a mere tussle and a scramble to the top of the world, Ma. The wind whipped your hair and the gorse scratched your knees. But hell, it was heaven.
The sweet spoils were saved for the top. Where better to enjoy your first ever crème egg? Alas, it was not to be the last and I have a paunch to show for it. And often as not, the jelly babies, the dolly mixtures, the wine gums and the lemon bonbons had softened and melded into a soft gooey lump, made worse by the journey up the mountain, lodged in the bottom of coat pockets.
But who was complaining?
And back down, after free lemonade from the farmers at the bottom of the slopes, we set off to walk home. No mobile phones back then, no quick call for a lift – sure what was 10 miles to us? A marathon really.
But we were four friends sauntering and singing and laughing and telling jokes on a country road. Life hadn't bruised us back then.
Somebody pulled an old blackthorn stick along the hedges. And every so often we'd look back and measure how far we'd come.
But that was long ago. It's a sweet memory – but a warm one – and never mind the old erupting boiler.