Poem of The Month – Cave Hill, by Alice Milligan

We lived on a road at the base of the massive outcrop in the picture above which is, of course, Cave Hill. Straddling the skyline of North Belfast, it was immortalised by Jonathan Swift as a Sleeping Giant. The best panoramic views of the city and Belfast lough are from the peak by McArt’s Fort, or as it’s otherwise known, Napoleon’s Nose, at more than 350 metres above sea level.

I always find time to  visit Cave Hill (part of the Cave Hill County Park and Belfast Castle estate) whenever we’re in town; its weathered basalt peaks comfort me, maybe because the doings of the humans who live below are a mere blip on its history, birthed as it was millions of  years ago from volcanic eruptions. I hope that the Cave Hill country park remains protected from development by its public ownership; there have been mutterings of proposed hotels, new housing and a cable car.

Cave Hill has been in my mind recently; when we visited last year we had a chat with a lovely lady who was jogging with her dog; we passed on the path by a small spring which, she informed us, was the Volunteer’s Well , which I had never heard of. This well may have already been incorporated into the plot of a future story!

And now I’ve discovered another near neighbour (in space if not in time) who at one point lived in the Cave Hill neighbourhood, a stones throw from my childhood home on the Shore Road. Author and poet Alice Milligan (1866-1963) was born in Omagh into a middle class Protestant and Unionist family, but she is remembered as an influential supporter and propagandist for the Irish nationalist movement in the early nineteen hundreds. Milligan’s pan-Irish views were at odds with most of her prosperous, Protestant peers, but during her time living at Cave Hill, she became actively involved in a number of Irish and nationalist organisations in Belfast, which led eventually to the 1896 publication of a journal, Shan Van Vocht (“poor old woman” in Irish, a metaphor for the troubled island of Ireland ), one of the most influential of the various literary and political journals of its time.

The poem I want to share with you today looks closer to home for me, although I’ve set up Alice’s background story to share a quote from her which embodies my own feelings on the Troubles.

One of her most successful publications was the book Hero Lays (1908) which contained a section titled Mountain Shapes; this included the short poem below extolling Cave Hill.

Look up from the streets of the city,
Look high beyond tower and mast,
What hand of what Titan sculptor
Smote the crags on the mountain vast?

Made when the world was fashioned,
Meant with the world to last,
The glorious face of the sleeper
That slumbers above Belfast.

Although her nationalist support was anomalous in the Protestant North Belfast of her time and place in society,  she stated unequivocally in Shan Van Vocht her condemnation of the use of violence, guns and bombs to address the question of a united Ireland:

Those who would stoop to suggest, or organise, or carry out anything of the sort, degrade the name of their country, and in the eyes of the whole world render her less worthy of Nationhood. Ireland’s cause is high and holy: When Irishmen cease to regard it as so, the faith which has sustained the strife of ages will perish and she will sink into hopeless bondage…. this method of bomb throwing and blowing up buildings, without aim or reason other than the mere desire for vengeance is imbecile and wrong.


Leave a Reply