Slemish, Ballymeana and Beyond by Oonah V Joslin


Does the landscape form us?
This is my mother mountain breast where Patrick
prayed six years in whipping winds
where only snow and rain come now to rest.
Old as the hill my stony spirit; tough

Whose was the voice that broke on the wind;
the angel friend who led to shore,
ship and freedom
in those dark ages?

He, who was not born here,
returned to bring the light
of the gospel of Christ.
Thus he repaid slavery
on our basalt crags

with rivulets of blood.

Slemish Mountain dominates the landscape around Ballymena and whenever I see it I know I’m home. Seen from the town, it has the shape of a nurturing breast. And in a way it did give birth to the Antrim Plateau and therefore the town itself. It is an extinct volcano plug -- part of a fault line that crosses the UK. Saint Patrick is supposed to have been a slave there, keeping pigs and it was there that, praying long and hard for deliverance, he is said to have found God. He escaped by ship but later came back to share with the people his new found faith and every year people make the pilgrimage in his honour.

I went with the intention of walking up it one day. Even at its base the valley falls away sharply into what other people call "breathtaking scenery’ and I call vertigo -- so that I’m afraid was that.

Given that, in the simplest of terms, the past four hundred years of Ulster’s history has been scarred by di ferent sects of that same religion warring against each other, one might well question whether bringing Christianity to Ireland was that good an idea.

Outside and Blowing Bubbles

Stood by the gate
scowl on my face
in the sash my father wore,
coloured by King Billy’s reign
and Saint Patrick’s lore.
My feet skipped to the whistle,
my heart beat to the drum,
relentless as our history
parading on and on
and on and on to the lambeg’s beat
and the skirl set in my bones
my foot taps now to the memory
my throat throbs with the songs.

On that twelfth of July in the early light
I snuck out of my bed,
put on my yellow dressing gown,
tiptoed on each tread
carefully downstairs and filled
a tin with Fairy suds.

I reached
high to the latch,
stepped out and
wand in hand, I blew
worlds of my own
sky high
of every hue;
they burst in rainbow
stains on the path; aftermath
of my creation.

God would be cross.
Well, Mammy would
and that was the same thing.

I’d taken a liberty.

I was outside
blowing bubbles.

Outside and Blowing Bubble

William of Orange was a staunch protestant. He had an axe to grind with France because Louis XIV of France, a Catholic, had taken over the Netherlands and made William’s family mere caretakers in their own country. But William married his cousin Mary, daughter of James II and when James II became King of England, William came closer to the throne through his marriage.

James started promoting his Catholic friends to high office and
a lot of people at the top, suspected he was trying to make England Catholic again. They didn’t like it. So an offer was made to William and his wife Mary to become joint rulers in England. The stage for this war of succession to the throne of

England was of course -- Ireland because James had made William Viceroy of Ireland.

William drew supporters from the North and James from the South. After defeat at the Battle of the Boyne, 12th July 1690 James was deposed and William took his place. William was then able to pursue his fight with France, leaving Mary to do all the actual "monarching.’ But for the people of the North of Ireland and the protestant Scots, he became King Billy and while the Southerners remained loyal to the Catholic Church, the mostly Protestant North remained loyal to the crown.

Now that is way too simplistic as you will realise, but it is the reason the Orange Order is called orange and Orangemen are Orangemen and it is the reason I ended up on that July 12th at the age of two having this photo taken with my father’s orange order sash draped about my entire person and scowling because I was being made to “stand still" while an older sister snapped my picture.

But we loved the Twelfth Day parades because there were lambegs -- four foot diameter drums being blattered by comparatively diminutive drummers wielding long canes. These are not mere percussion instruments -- they are war drums and as they pass by your heart jumps to your mouth so that, when they fall silent, the silence itself seems loud. There was McGroggan’s ice-cream and strawberries, huge silk banners and silver bands and a big, long, loud, colourful day out.

That is the world I was born into. It was orange and green and black and white and very simple. But as I grew up, people

blew each other up -- still fighting that war of the succession. I grew out of step with those marchers.

Wouldn’t it be a wonderful thing, to have a multicoloured world where the only thing we blew was bubbles? But that doesn’t exist anywhere. The accepted spectrum may be different but diference is very persistent in getting the upper hand.


I wrote a tongue-in-cheek story about the subject of colour as it relates to Ulster politics, Com’allye which I am reprising in my forthcoming Story Collection, Mini-Bits and Micro-Bites along with some other Ulster tales. But at The Peace Line in Belfast, those colours were no joke. Red white and blue (the colours of the Union Jack) were Protestant as were orange, purple and black; because of the Orange Order and Black Order -- protestant organisations. I was never sure about the purple…

Green was the colour favoured by The Loyal Order of Hibernians -- they too had their marching day and Republic of Ireland’s flag colours, green white and gold were also considered Catholic/Republican; though loyalties did not always divide along such clear cut lines. Nonetheless, it was impolitic to wear a green, white and gold dress on the 12th July and such was my favourite dress when I was just a wee bit too young to understand the vast significance of being on the wrong side ofthe spectrum.

Not My Colours

I wanted to wear
my church-window dress
green white orange black

a confusion of lines
cutting across directions

such forms and colours as bodied forth
not the proud emblems of
my tribe

In the early 1970’s I had a suit -- Sunday best; an orange background with flowers of pink, turquoise, blue and a tracery of green leaves. At dusk those flowers shone psychedelic bright and the orange seemed to fade by comparison -- like when you see forget-me-nots at dusk and the blue is oh so blue. The Summer of Love was past; it was the height of The Troubles and coincidentally (and with hindsight) that suit became a metaphor for the peace and reconciliation many of us longed for but thought impossible.

Later as a student, I took part in projects at The Corrymeela Community Centre and other places. I tried then and still do try, in my small but colourful way, to be part of the solution -- not part of the problem.


Mandarin collars were Beatle.
Orange was 'in’.

The summer of love at fourteen
was far away as 'Frisco’

a background only
like the orange of my suit

my Sunday best.
Come dusk

peace shone forth in
psychedelic flowers

pink power
noisy turquoise.

A tracery of green
leaves no one in doubt,

and the darker it gets,
the brighter I shout


I used to walk all the way round that Mausoleum;
the Mussenden Temple.
Now the cliff has crumbled.
Downhill is as downhill does it seems.
The Northern Counties burned down years ago
where we stepped over Finn the wolf-hound
at two a.m.
lying like a threshold stone.
All the haunts of youth are strangely changed.
Giants are rare as out of season dulce,
all the way from Larne to Dunluce,
my causeways crumble.

I take flight on foot up on Townhill.
Along Pantycelyn I soar
over the lilting town.
If you can see Devon
it’s going to rain.
If you can’t see the Guild Hall it’s already pouring

A dragon sleeps still at the tip of Rhossili,
for this is a land of dragons and of songs,
chapels and gymanfa ganu.
I change my tune to Cwm Rhondda; marry one of her sons.

Lindisfarne castle, priory and church. Here are familial names engraved in stone yet in a place my family never dwelt.
We must be branches of some common root to have such names in common in this earth.
And there be castles too along
this coast; castles and crumbling cliffs ah - but no dragons
no giants Alas!
no time machine.

Triangulation is the means whereby one finds ones position in three dimensional space. I learned that from Star Trek. Anyway, I have had the great privilege ofliving in three of the most beautiful coastal regions in Great Britain.

Ballymena is 16 miles inland but we made frequent trips to Carnlough for the dulse -- a type of seaweed which we ate raw (and if you ever need a laxative…) 'nough said! My university days were spent on the glorious Causeway Coast --- the Giant’s Causeway built by Finn MacCool of course. Downhill stands just above Castlerock and we used to walk the Black Glen and out to the Mussenden Temple, a mausoleum at the edge of the cli f. You used to be able to walk around it but not now. Inevitably it will be lost to erosion.

We drank 'til two in the morning at The Northern Counties Hotel and Finn the Wolfhound scrounged our crisps -- would you refuse a giant of a dog? We got through lots of crisps. There’s a hundred miles of Coast Road in Co. Antrim. The drive between Larne and Dunluce Castle near Portrush gives rise to some of the most spectacular

Next I spent fourteen years in South Wales and married a man from Swansea --the graveyard of ambition, they call it; people who go there don’t want to leave. The Gower Peninsula is uniquely beautiful and there are choirs and gymanfa ganu (hymn singing) and it was of course the birthplace of poet, Dylan Thomas. From Pantycelyn Road high above the town, you can see all the way across the Bristol Channel to Devon and the rock formation at tip of Rhossili is called Worm’s Head with good reason.

I didn’t want to leave either but I have no complaints since Northumberland is full of Castles and coastline of equal stature to the beauties of Antrim and Wales and Lindisfarne has become very special to me not least because I found there family names engraved on headstones and I felt as though I had kin.
We all have landscapes that define in some way, who we are. But as one changes landscapes one changes identity in subtle ways too. We gain one thing by losing another. Who I am now is due to this triangulation -- but consequently I am no longer the person I used to be. It is almost impossible now to imagine I am that child in the photo -- there is never any going back.


All Rights Reserved--2007-2024