The Troubles: A Walking Tour

By Will Self, the author, most recently, of “The Book of Dave” (THE NEW YORK TIMES, 18/05/07):

THE packet of Wagon Wheel cookies crushed into the damp grass on the slopes of Black Mountain in the Belfast Hills bore a faded illustration of a covered wagon traveling at speed, together with the slogan: “Size Matters!” Indeed, it does. I was making my way gingerly down this steep hill, which, along with the rest of the massif — from Divis Mountain to Cave Hill — was imagined by Jonathan Swift to be a giant, recumbent figure. Some say that this was his inspiration for the distortions in scale with which he opened “Gulliver’s Travels.”

I myself couldn’t see it. When I’d arrived in Northern Ireland three days previously, my flight skimmed past Black Mountain to the north, and the day before I’d driven back into town from Fermanagh over a spur of Cave Hill (the supposed nose of the giant). Then, this afternoon, I’d quit my hotel in the center of town and walked west along the Falls Road. The whole way up this artery — which is imprinted in the national consciousness as the very circulatory system of Republican terrorism — the landmass loomed above me, its flanks dappled with heather and pitted with old quarry workings. Big it may have been — but anthropoid, not at all.

The last time I was in Belfast it was shortly after the Easter Accords had been signed. I walked this way with my friend, the writer Carlo Gébler, then we stomped back into town via an equally notorious Loyalist artery, the Shankhill Road. The time before that it was the early 1990s, and I went up the Falls Road to visit the Sinn Fein headquarters and interview its press officer, Mitchel McLaughlin, who now represents South Antrim in the Legislative Assembly.

On neither of those previous occasions do I remember feeling any great anxiety along the Falls Road, despite the Republican murals of H-block martyrs and gun-wielding paramilitaries, the gun-toting Royal Ulster Constabulary foot patrols, and the armored vehicles swishing past, hopeful “Crimestoppers” hotline numbers painted on their camouflaged sides. But this time it was the May Day holiday and the streets were empty; I suspected that if I were to encounter loafing oafs they might well give me a casual, nonsectarian thump. Then, the potential violence was so extreme it was non-apprehensible; now the teenagers smashing traffic lights with their hurly sticks suggested merely workaday beatings.

At Milltown Cemetery I made a detour to visit the Irish Republican Army plot. It was here, in 1988, that a Unionist paramilitary member, Michael Stone, shot and threw grenades at three Republican mourners at a funeral. Three days later, two British Army corporals who accidentally ran into the funeral cortege for one of these victims were dragged from their car, beaten by the crowd and then summarily executed. So the Troubles eked themselves out in grotesque dribs and drabs of human life, adding up to more than 3,500 in all.

Even on a bright day, with sun and showers alternating, there remained something minatory about Milltown. A couple of tight-faced street drinkers loitered among the overgrown Victorian graves. The I.R.A. plot is like an ancient chamber tomb: the volunteers’ black marble markers arranged in a boat-shaped compound, while at the prow the declaration of the 1916 Easter Rising is carved in stone.

I turned my back on the city and trudged up the Monagh Bypass, then past the Irish travelers’ camp and along the Upper Springfield Road. Finally I reached open ground and headed on up to the ridge. Public access to the Black Mountain has been possible only for the last couple of years. Before that the British Army held sway up here: it still has a huge listening post on the summit of Divis.

The evening before I’d met a warden for the new park that’s being created here, and he told me that the hills were becoming well used by the city’s inhabitants. This didn’t accord with my experience: as the wind soughed over the heather I saw only a posse of young travelers — indigenous Irish nomads — coursing for hares, their track suits flapping as they ran after their lurchers. And the heather itself was burnt to a crisp, while fresh yellow blades of grass speared among the scorched roots. The warden had told me that the children set fire to the heather every year, and that really it wasn’t such a bad thing, since it provided one of the few remaining habitats suitable for the red grouse to nest in.

It was beautiful up on the hills, with achingly long views southwest to Strangford Lough and over 30 miles south to the conical Mountains of Mourne. In the near distance, on the far side of town, I could make out the pale, stone monstrosity of Stormont: a Brobdingnagian Parliament built for politicians all too often fit only for Lilliput. The following day would see Tony Blair and Bertie Ahearn descend on Stormont to celebrate the new devolved government of the Democratic Unionists and Sinn Fein with plenty of mutual back-slapping.

But the arrival of these giants lay in the future; for the meantime it was I who was slapping the back of the mighty hill with my boots. Immediately below me I could see the enclaves of Ballymurphy and Springmartin, Catholic and Protestant respectively, still separated by 30-foot-high “peace walls” topped by razor wire, and I wondered, which one would it be safer to walk through, the Big or the Little Endians’?