A bit more than one hundred years ago, workers began putting stones together to build a wall in a remote area of what is now Northern Ireland. Eighteen years and twenty two miles later, the wall was finished.
The Mourne Wall is in the heart of a land of legends, fairies, song, and poetry. It runs in a rough circle as it traverses fifteen mountains in the northeast of Ireland, in County Down.
It’s a drystone wall, put together without the use of mortar, all along its twenty two mile length. It rises up over the summits of most of the mountains in the range. This is one of the farm walls below, giving you an idea of one way a drystone wall may look.
What is the Mourne Wall doing there in the heart of the mountains? It was built to serve a practical purpose: it keeps cattle and sheep, which graze freely on the mountains, away from Silent Valley and Ben Croom, the two reservoirs which supply Belfast and other parts of the northeastern part of Northern Ireland with fresh, pure water.
During the years when it was built, things in this part Ireland — indeed, many parts of the world — were not especially prosperous. Work on on the wall, which was commissioned by the Irish Water Board, was a welcome source of income for many in the area.
Today, it still stands to keep the water reservoirs clear. It’s also a mark of persistence, variety, and creativity. The wall will, if you let it, help you connect the range of these ancient mountains with the history of those who have lived and continue to live on their slopes and in their shadows.
Along its path you will find many different ways in which the stones are put together. People have all sorts of opinions as to which is best or true or right. Whatever your thoughts on that, it is a reminder of the work of the hands and and backs and minds of people who lived just beyond the edge of our own lives’ history.
The mountains themselves were once volcanoes, formed in fire, carved by ice age glaciers, and shaped by centuries of weather. There are legends here, too, of fairies and of saints and of ancient kings, stories too from the days when leather and silver and brandy were smuggled through the mountains, tales of people seeking a safe place to hide from those who’d do them harm. All these folk, it is said, walked the mountain paths. Over time, Mourne landscapes have inspired creators from musician Percy French to writer C.S. Lewis to the filmmakers of the Game of Thrones.
What did the workers building the Mourne Wall those years ago think? Did they see ghosts or sprites as shadows grew long of an afternoon? Was it a back breaking job to feed the children? Did they see it as using their craft to create work they were proud of? Did they think of us, a century and more away, and how we would experience what they were making?
You can walk the whole length of the Mourne Wall yourself these days, though it is not a walk to be done in a day or without proper boots and other gear. You can also follow sections of it, as much or as little as you like, by taking a steep walk up from Newcastle on the eastern side of the mountains, or by driving up one of several roads which will lead you near the reservoirs, and walking from there.
In the summer months there are often shuttle buses that will take you up to those places. and the seasonal Mourne Rambler Translink bus route runs a circular trip from Newcastle, passing several places where you can get off and walk up to the wall. There are guides who will take you, as well, and in June there’s an international walking festival in the Mournes with many routes and activities often including ones that take in the wall.
Newcastle is a bit more than an hour southeast of Belfast. There are no large towns in the shadow of the Mournes but the places you will find are welcoming. Clockwise north to south you might find ways to begin your journey in Castlewellan, Newcastle, Kilkeel,or Rostrevor.
The Mourne mountains in Northern Ireland have many stories to tell; this is just a bit of one of them. Whether you visit in person or imagination, listen to what the Mourne Wall and the mountains have to tell you.
Whatever the form of your journey to the Mourne Wall, music is a good companion. If you’ve been reading my stories here at Perceptive Travel you’ll know I have suggestions about that.
Padraigin Ni Uallachain’s Songs of the Scribe, while not set specifically in the Mournes (she’s from the area, though) evokes ancient Ireland through music and word. The Sands Family, many of whom are musicians, come from Rostrevor on the western side of the Mournes on Carlingford Lough. Take a listen to Let the Circle Be Wide from Tommy Sands. Cathie Ryan has lived on the other side of Carlingford Lough, facing the Mournes; give a listen to her album Through Wind and Rain.
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