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Up the Walls – Paul Clements on Hadrian’s Wall and the Mourne Wall

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Up the Walls – Paul Clements on Hadrian’s Wall and the Mourne Wall

March 14
10:52 2022
 The drystone Mourne Wall, which snakes its way for 35km across the Mourne Mountains of south Down. Photograph: Getty Images

The drystone Mourne Wall, which snakes its way for 35km across the Mourne Mountains of south Down. Photograph: Getty Images

Two walls – one in the north of England and the other in the north of Ireland, separated in their construction by 1,800 years – are celebrating significant birthdays in 2022.

The monumental Hadrian’s Wall, stretching from the Tyne to Solway Firth, is basking in 19 centuries of existence. Dating from AD 122 and built by 15,000 soldiers, the wall is 73 miles (117km) long, 10ft thick and 12ft high.

Aside from the statistics, a mystique surrounds its purpose. One theory suggests that it was built to stop the Picts from marauding into Roman-held territory, while others believe that Hadrian (Publius Aelius Hadrianus) wanted to consolidate the empire and built the wall as a frontier and physical expression of Roman power.

Many observation towers, ramparts and large forts, such as Vindolanda (the home of the famed Vindolanda writing tablets) as well as 80 mile-castles, known as “fortlets”, punctuate the length of Hadrian’s Wall. Parts of it were rebuilt in the 19th century, and since 1987 it has been a world heritage site. A year-long series of events under the banner “1900 Festival” is marking the anniversary of this piece of the past, now an impressive pedestrian highway.

By comparison, the drystone Mourne Wall, which snakes its way for 22 miles (35km) across the Mourne Mountains of south Down, has a markedly shorter pedigree and is celebrating a mere humble centenary. Although building work on the project – overseen by Belfast Water Commissioners – started in 1904, it was not completed until 1922. The practical purpose of the wall was to enclose a catchment area of the Silent Valley reservoir to prevent freely grazing livestock from contaminating water supplies as there was no filtration process.

The stonemasons who carried out the back-breaking job during those 18 years (working only from March to October) used natural granite and whatever rock was to hand, splitting it with “plug and feather” tools while large footing stones were placed at the base. In a small shelter they lit a fire with heat raised by bellows, an iron anvil and a shallow hollow in a stone called the “fizz trough”. The workers made their own chisels, cut and dressed the stone on site, and referred to the wall as the “Back ditch of Mourne”.

Its construction played an important part in opening up the hills. Between 1957 and 1984 the Mourne Wall Walk was an annual event eagerly anticipated by ramblers, and as this writer can testify, a gruelling slog over bog, tussocky grass, granite boulders and rocky tors as well as the peaks of the high Mournes. In the early years, a few hundred people took part in the walk, but at the height of its popularity it attracted up to 4,000 on a single day. By that stage, erosion was causing serious damage to the ground close to the wall and the walk was cancelled.

The National Trust bought the 1,300-acre site which includes Slieve Donard, at 2,796 feet, the highest point in Ulster. St Donard’s Mountain, Sliabh Domhanghairt, was a holy mountain connected with St Patrick’s disciple St Domangard. It is said that St Donard established a hermitage and oratory there, and until the 19th century there was a tradition of a mountain pilgrimage on July, St James’s Day.

From its summit, wide views embrace the strand and sea at Newcastle. Further south lie the mountains of Carlingford and beyond them the Wicklow peaks are visible on a clear day; to the east is the Isle of Man and the hills of Cumbria, while views to the north, stretch to the Antrim coast and across to the Galloway hills of Scotland.

The wall leads to stone lookout towers on Slieve Meelmore, Slieve Commedagh and Donard, the only places where mortar has been used. The towers provided essential shelter because although the Wall has stood the test of time, like any structure exposed to the elements, especially lightning strikes, it is subject to wear and tear. In recent years parts of the Wall – now a listed monument – have fallen into disrepair and a restoration project in 2017 involved airlifting numerous bags of stones into position.

The alluring placenames of the Kingdom of Mourne, such as Hare’s Gap, Brandy Pad and Devil’s Coach Road tell their own story. These are recounted in the geographer Estyn Evans’s detailed study, Mourne Country (1951). His book is filled with folk-customs, the life of country people and their farms, many specialising in potato-growing. He saw the Mourne Wall as a monument to the skill of the stonemen, but in his Thomas Davis Lecture on Radio Éireann in December 1956 he suggested: “It serves no useful purpose other than as a slippery short-cut to the summits.”

As well as his prodigious topographical knowledge of the Mournes, Evans was familiar with the small towns of south Down.

On one occasion, while working on his book, he went into a shop in Annalong hoping to buy potatoes, only to be disappointed with the news that there were none. He remonstrated with the shopkeeper, saying that he had just seen heaps of them down at the harbour. “‘Oh,’ replied the shopkeeper, ‘them’s only fit for the English.’”


Source The Irish Times

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