Life

Nuala McCann: Still my holy mountain, Slemish, rests easy on the gaze

We buzzed about the top of Slemish in a sugar haze. Then, down to the bottom and we set our faces to the wind and the long and winding road home, all 10 miles of it. That walk is freeze framed forever in my heart

Slemish Mountain, Co Antrim, Northern Ireland in profile. It is alleged that St Patrick tended sheep on his mountain when he was in captivity.

FROM my bedroom window, Slemish rose up, perfectly framed – a watercolour painting from a childhood long ago. I would check on the mountain – more of a hill – as I sat at my desk battling simultaneous equations and trying to cram in a whole novel on the night before the English exam.

Just at that very moment in the Latin translation when Horatius defended the bridge against the army of Lars Porsena and, at the very last minute, dived headlong into the swirling river crying “Tiber, Father Tiber,” I would raise up my eyes to my holy hill and pray for a little divine inspiration.

In school, we knew the story of the boy Patrick but never tired of hearing about how he came to our part of Ireland, taken to our Slemish to mind the sheep. It had a kind of kudos.

OK, so it was not of Patrick’s own volition – this was no package holiday jaunt – he was kidnapped and sold as a slave to Milcu. But he came over to our Slemish none the less.

And on cold winter nights, I pictured him sheltering from snow in a nook on the faraway hill, clinging to his cape as the wind whipped and the rain fell heavy and the sheep huddled together for heat.

And even when he escaped Milcu and found his way home again, the Irish would not let him go. They haunted his dreams, cried to him to come back and save them, so that’s what he did.

It is over 40 years since I sat shivering in my shoes at my bedroom desk before my O-level Physics. There’s only so much a girl can take about waves and velocity and Boyle’s law and all that jazz.

Eventually, I fixed my eyes on that far-off hill and prayed to God and St Patrick.

Reader, I passed it. Hail glorious Saint Patrick.

But that was long ago and far away. In those days St Patrick’s Day was a holiday in the hell of lent that meant no sweets, no cake and the horror of no sugar in your tea.

One St Patrick’s Day, our heating boiler erupted like a small volcano, spewing horrible black muck into the garage. My father, who had probably been looking forward to a sleep in, stood in his stripy pyjamas, looking at the garage mayhem and pondering what to do.

He needed space and sent us all out to first Mass where we indulged in a rousing chorus of Hail Glorious St Patrick and Faith of our Fathers – belting out the bit about the “dungeon, fire and sword”.

People came wearing sprigs of shamrock wrapped tight in tin foil on their lapels. A friend’s father gave us all a lift out to the foot of Slemish, in the days before tourism had got there.

There was no car park, no toilet and no easy route. There was a house at the bottom and a man who handed out free bottles of lemonade for the day that was in it.

Our driver handed over a blackthorn stick to keep us steady on the walk back down. Then he let us loose like young goats to clamber to the top. The reward was the glut of sticky Lenten sweets – the hoard of dolly mixtures, blackjacks and lemon sherbets waiting to be plundered.

We buzzed about the top of Slemish in a sugar haze. Then, down to the bottom and we set our faces to the wind and the long and winding road home, all 10 miles of it.

That walk is freeze framed forever in my heart. There goes my old friend running the blackthorn stick along the privet hedges. We are drunk on chocolate, singing a rousing chorus of “Everyone’s a fruit n nut case”.

We were four young friends on the road with our whole lives ahead of us. It was all a carefree adventure.

The patchwork of fields and woods looked lush and green and beautiful from the top of Slemish.

But the view from the road down below is a different thing. Little did we dream what lay on the path ahead.

Now when I take the road to my old home, I climb the stairs to gaze out my bedroom window. Slemish is the same immutable mountain that I gazed on as a girl.

How the years have flown, how life has changed immeasurably, how we have grown old... but still my holy mountain rests easy on the gaze.

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