Updated: Nov 12, 2018
"In the morning the effects of the Grey Man's curse were sufficiently plain; rocks had been detached that no earthly power could move, and columns were hurled into the sea, which had stood erect since the world was a world."
The Troubles ended in 1998, officially, with the Good Friday Agreement, though you don't have to look hard to see there's still trouble. No one's officially agreed on when the Troubles started; if we didn't have to partition the flow of history with dates, then to tell a fuller story the seeds were planted in the 17th century. But it was 1968 or 1969 that things really kicked off.
Things were fairly peaceful, by Irish standards, in the mid 60s. The IRA had called it off for a bit, and the civil rights campaign was nonviolent. In 1966 things started getting violent again. The modern UVF was formed in the Shankill, and started murdering people as they walked home from the pub. The same year, two fellas from Belfast, Geoff Earnshaw and Calvert Moore, climbed a loose squeeze chimney east of the Grey Man's Path at Fair Head, and in the old-fashioned tradition called it Earnshaw's Route (VS). It was taken out by a massive rockfall in 2004 - things have never been too stable in these parts.
Fair play to those early pioneers, like the Dubs from the Spillikin Club who went up all those grassy deathtrap chimneys at Binnagapple on-sight in 1967. They must have thought the place was awesome, or bloody awful. Nowadays you wouldn't dream of setting off on a new line at the Head without abseiling it first, at the very least to pluck off the inevitable death blocks that await, primed by diligent slaters and bristletails, in the backs of chimneys. They pretty quickly got wise to that as the first flush of routes that actually still get climbed went up in '68 and '69, though I bet swinging about in those great gloomy grooves with a sling around your balls and a rope hitched through a steel krab, three wraps cutting off the blood in your thigh as you lever on a splinter that weighs more than you do, felt near enough as exciting as scrambling in through the brambles and chasms to start from the bottom.
As always is the way for me when I push through the veil of ineffability that covers the past and get curious, I wonder how it was; how the light was different on those days, the craic that they had, how it felt to be in that place, not in memory or photograph but in the raw beat of the now. What was rock climbing to them? Liberating, intimidating, hostile, beautiful? Did Rathlin and the Mull of Kintyre look close or distant, the sea inviting or angry? What did they bring with them, in their small talk or their take on politics or their existential doubts? Was a tune from Sgt. Pepper's or Highway 61 Revisited playing in their heads, a bit of Hendrix, or Grateful Dead? Were they digging blues and rock 'n' roll, or did they think that stuff was awful, like my Papa Tom did? History, as it's written, didn't necessarily happen to everyone. It's strange to converge these discordant parallel timelines, to overlay 60s music and counterculture with the images of people being petrol bombed or beaten to death in Derry and Belfast, or lads venturing onto those austere walls on the Antrim coast. Doldrum, Equinox, Hurricane...the Bogside, B-Specials, Bloody Sunday.
I feel like it comes over as morbid, harping back to the Troubles, as if that was the only thing going on at the time. As if that's the only story my generation has the privilege to tell. But when you think about that period in Northern Ireland, it is hard to ignore. It's easy enough when you're living in England or Scotland, like I do most of the time - sectarian violence is not often more than a footnote in the news, and no one talks about it, not many even understand the conflict because it isn't taught in schools. Loud reminders flutter in the breeze when you're in driving around in Down and Antrim in July, where every wee township of a loyalist bent likes to make sure you know about it.
There was a film from a few years back called '71, a thriller that follows a British soldier trying to survive in the back streets of Belfast after being accidentally abandoned by his unit during a riot. It's decent as a thriller, but some of the characters and costume and scenery are so acutely observed it gives you a feeling in your guts. Almost a wee bit too close to the bone, a family friend described it. I wasn't there, obviously, but I reckon if you want a double shot of the early years of the Troubles down your throat, watch that. Maybe you don't, and maybe I can't blame you, but it's a crucial part what it means to be a modern native of Britain and Ireland, whichever part you're from.
The names of those early routes are of a piece with how I imagine the crag felt at the time. Gnomic, laconic, serious. Fair Head is a serious crag. I liked Grimer's wee story he reads in this podcast, which captures some of the atmosphere back in the day. A lot of the routes climbed through the 80s and 90s are named after songs or films - they borrow evocative phrases, like Primal Scream or Blade Runner or Streets of Fire, but they don't come across as expressive or personal. Some of the Irish names, like Fáth mo Bhuartha ('the reason for my sorrow') stand apart, and the naming of big lines after characters from the Táin - Cúchulainn, Conchubair, Aoife - feels apt for Ireland's proudest cliff. Maybe it's my imagination glossing a more complex truth, but I feel like there is a bit of levity released in the last couple of decades, the fun of it captured in the Underdeveloped film, and expressed in names like Way of the Jive Monkeys or Waist Deep in Alligators. Though I have to say, a couple of Uncle Ali's routes at Muckros took this trend to its natural zenith with The Guardian Crustacean Spits Fire and The Borg Assimilated My Mars Bar.
What a difference half a century makes. 2016 marked the 50th anniversary of climbing at Fair Head. Now it's on the international radar, the only crag in Britain or Ireland to be included the Multi-Pitch Climbing in Europe book published by a Dutch author that year. Hundreds of climbers turn up to the annual meet, it's in the UK blogs and the magazines, Alex Honnold drops in and conducts a circus by strolling up the boldest wall on the crag. Nut slots on the Prow have that worn and whitened look of rock that has been popular for a long time. It would be fascinating to see the place now through the eyes of Calvin and Clare, who have climbed there throughout its history. Even when I first climbed at Fair Head in 2007, it was unusual to see anyone else at the crag. There still aren't a great number of climbers away from the meet season, but the latest development is the opening up of the place to tourism. Practically it was overdue - I always found it strange that the Giant's Causeway was mobbed while just down the road Fair Head was deserted, given the scenery is even more spectacular. Selfishly speaking though, I can't help but resent the intrusion on the solitary ambience. I don't like topping out to be greeted by a bunch of gawping tourists who snap your picture as though you're a performing waxwork in a Disneyland ride. It would be like me getting up close while they do their thing, like, say, going for a walk, and taking photos. Then again, who can blame them. I can't disagree that climbing at Fair Head looks way cooler than most things you'll see on this side of reality, where CGI dragons do not take flight from the top of Rathlin Wall.
Even with so much of it succumbed to the known and tamed by a hefty rack of lightweight gear, Fair Head is still intimidating. In a good way. When I haven't been up in a while, the abruptness of the thing as I round a bend on the road to Ballycastle, or when the docile grass of the approach walk is guillotined by the void at my feet, makes the heart skip a beat.
I love the climbing. The climbing speaks for itself. The unassuming history of the place, mostly unheralded through most of its development in the divided years, preserves it from the overwritten history you find daubed all over crags in the British climbing heartlands. I remember some comment from Johnny Dawes when Dave Macleod repeated Indian Face, to the effect that the route had gained such an aura with all that had been written about it that it overbore on the experience of climbing it, as though the Indian Face as a concept had taken on a life virtually detached from the physical reality of the thing. I find the history of climbing interesting, and sometimes it adds a dimension to the experience of a route. It did on Shibboleth when I finally climbed it earlier this year, imagining the audacity of a nineteen-year old Robin Smith to commit to those bold, precarious moves on such a daunting face with the primitive equipment of the late 50s. Crucially though, it was matched by the stature of the route. When the reputation weighs in heavier than the quality of the experience, I would rather get off and climb something that I don't know anything about, save a few perfunctory words pointing the way, and what I can see with my eyes. I can't stand the Rockfaxy, in-joke wisdom style of guidebook writing that wants to sculpt your experience in the image of its own.
Last week at the crag, Duncan was a gracious prisoner of the rest of us, raring to get down the Burren, which unlike Fair Head he hadn't visited before. His arm was cruelly twisted by geography, metaphysics and fate into trying the route End Game, because he'd already done the 'classic' E5s. Now I could point out that Fair Head has no fewer than thirteen three-star E5s, and a further eleven with two stars if you were really wanting to get elbow deep in the barrel - of which he had climbed only two. Admittedly, some of these would probably want a bit of TLC on an ab rope before you climbed them, and time was precious, so being situated among the well-travelled classics of Rathlin Wall, End Game seemed a good choice. And it was great to see, trad climbing in its essence - Dunky was off the rollercoaster, adrift from the safe mooring of UKC comments beta, and questing up a bold, complex Eddie Cooper route from the 90s, with all that is likely to entail. Perhaps I liked it because I likewise am not immune to the enticements of cleanliness, convenience and chalk, but when I leave those things behind I am often rewarded with a more intense experience. I think Duncan was too.
The last word goes to the Grey Man. According to the tourist sign at the head of the path that is named after him, legends abound and conflict as to the Grey Man's identity. Some say he's a devil-horseman who stalks the path by night, others that he is a cloaked giant who emerges from the sea-fog and who cut the path by hand. In the 1830s, according to local farmer Hugh McBride, who must be an ancestor of Sean's, an old recluse actually lived down there. I bet he was on a wind-up of whoever was asking, in the grounded way of a man whose relationship to the land is practical. When I told Sean's son that one of the lambs in the field next to the campsite was dead, he said deadpan "Aye, they're wee soft boys in there."
But anyway, if you don't know the truth about the Grey Man, you haven't been paying close enough attention. All these stories are stories, attempts to make sense of a thing we don't really know, like all of history, interpretation dressed up as truth for our satisfaction. Even the origin of the name Fair Head is obscure, some ballix about a drowned maiden washed up on the shore there. I'm pretty sure it's a reflection of the bizarre micro-climate that makes sure your crimps stay dry when it's pissing down on Ballycastle and Rathlin. But the Grey Man is clear enough.
Go up there on a misty morning, when the dew on the rushes makes your trousers cling to your legs, and beads on the little funnel webs that spiders spin in cracks in the rock. Find the old path marked by faded yellow paint spots, that guide you Gollum-like through the dead marshes, to where you intersect the path that traverses the top of the crag, close to the Hallowe'en block. A little to the right and you will find the Grey Man's Path, unmistakable with a fallen column guarding its entrance. Feel the cold damp air coming up the gully off the sea, and hear the waves, the waves, so often the only sound to be heard here save the wind. Feel the presence of these tall walls, not to be touched by you on a morning such as this, their stark presence, and the absence that defines it. Stand back and take it in, and I promise, you will see the Grey Man.