Nuala McCann: Falling in love with the place called home

Nuala McCann

Nuala McCann

Nuala McCann is an Irish News columnist and writes a weekly radio review.

After 35 years living in Belfast, Nuala has finally climbed Cave Hill Picture: Mal McCann
After 35 years living in Belfast, Nuala has finally climbed Cave Hill Picture: Mal McCann

It’s only been 35 years living in this city but Cave Hill last week was a first.

“Never been there, never done that; never got the tee-shirt” was my badge of honour.

I’ve only been in Crumlin Road Gaol when it was a jail and never for weddings or film nights. It feels wrong.

The Titanic was a tragedy and I’m not paying a very pretty penny to re-live it at the fancy centre, thank you.

So like the Parisians who boast that they have never been up the Eiffel Tower, I’ve never got up Napoleon’s Nose.

“We’ll do Cave Hill on Friday,” said my friend.

She may have used the word “climb”, she said later that she used the verb “hike” but I chose to ignore it.

Friday dawned warm yet cloudy. Perfect walking weather.

Three of us met up. The sight of the others’ walking poles was puzzling.

The sight of their hiking boots and their bottles of water and their backpacks, was a tad alarming.

“Run, run, run… and not up the hill,” shrieked a little voice in my ear.

I hit Cave Hill looking, to quote my mother-in-law, “like Sissy in the summer time.”

No water; no boots, definitely no poles and clad in a tee-shirt, jogging bottoms and an old pair of trainers.

“Didn’t I use the verb hike?” said my mate.

I thought the idea was a swift flat walk on a tarmac path around the Castle grounds,

Climbing is for roses and fit people.

Reader, I baulked.

I love Cave Hill at a distance. On early mornings, driving into work as dawn breaks over the Lagan, Cave Hill is easy on the eye, ethereal in the mist.

In winter, the white snow sifted like icing sugar over the black rock is magical.

Long ago, I pointed out to my son the shape of Napoleon, slumbering in profile – his great hat, his closed eye, his nose.

“Look,” I said, “Do you see?”

“Ah,” he said.

It was an “Ah,” that echoed down the years to the first time I saw the mighty emperor etched into the rock.

Once seen, it can never be unseen.

“Now the eyes of my eyes are open,” as the poet wrote.

And my friend was right. The walk was more of a hike.

“I’m setting the pace,” she said and she has trekked the Himalayas.

“Slow down,” she ordered;

“Thank the Lord God Almighty,” my lungs whispered.

But heaven is a summer’s day and the “blue true dream of sky”, the “leaping greenly spirit of trees”.

It is a woodland path edged with the frill of cow parsley and the soft blue of cornflowers, it is songbirds calling to each other.

Three dogs bounded round the corner, one painted from nose to tail like a tiger.

His dog walker said he had won a prize. You can get your dog a birthday cake and a blueberry facial .. far from that we were reared.

On we went slow and steady past a child trailing a bike, a woman with a beautiful flowery tattoo of a sleeve, a couple of Americans drinking in the view.

You can measure how fit you are by how fast you take the steps, said my friend.

I hadn’t the breath to argue.

But oh the view from the top – the tiny buses wending their way down the Antrim Road, the yellow gantry of Goliath, the glitter of sunlight on the lough.

And how the distance divorces us from the everyday: from a distance the city is so beautiful.

The next day, was another first.

After three years of the blasted you know what, the Pride parade was back with attitude.

You couldn’t help but catch the joy - the kissing couples posing for the camera; children with rainbows painted on their faces, teenagers draped in rainbow flags; music and laughter drifting from the grounds of city hall.

Once it was a world of dour men in hats and coats; gospel messages thrust at you on street corners; men in sandwich boards proclaiming damnation; people forced to keep their secrets dark.

How things have changed in the grounds of City Hall; how beautiful it is.

It was a week of firsts – Cave Hill; the Pride Parade.

“Next week, we’ll do the Black Mountain,” said my friend.

My calves are screaming but I’m not letting on.

Here’s to falling in love with the place you call home.