The Hen Mountain/Mourne Range/Ireland
Location: Newry Ireland
Elevation: 1653 ft/5o8m
The Hen Mountain sits at the northeastern extremity of the Mourne Mountain Range. It is the lessor elevated gateway to an area known nationally as a “place of outstanding beauty”, rolling east all the way to the harbor city of Newcastle, and the dreamy Irish Sea. The gorgeous hamlet of Hilltown sits just west of The Hen, which is the practically perfect jumping-off point for this small mountain. The main car park for The Hen Trail is off Sandbank Road, near the beautiful River Bann, which can easily be found. The Hen, with it’s classically Celtic treeless approach, is entirely welcoming. I was so drawn to the view of this small summit from my deck at Hilltown that I literally ran down to the River Bann, hopped the fence, crossed the rocky river bed, and started an ascent from the northwest with my sneakers on. The image on the left was taken while standing in my sneakers at the base of the Mountain. It was just that type of day. When the Sun comes out in Ireland the landscape becomes a vision. The wildflowers in the area glow in variations of gold, green, and velvet.The image below shows Mount Hen, second from the left, taken from my accommodations in Hilltown. This was exactly how I pictured J.R.R Tolkien’s “Shire”.
The River Bann reminded me of so many rocky streams in the Massachusetts hills, with several massive free-standing boulders lining the sides of the flowing stream. The scientific explanation for these boulders is, of course, glacial, but several of the larger stones look as if they had been cut and angled specifically, which is often found near sacred mountains in New England, and here in The Mourne. Additionally, coming from New England, where the forests are an overpowering aspect to any landscape, views like this, where not even a single Hawthorn tree can be seen on the horizon, are a constant surprise to the senses. It is truly surreal. The mountains are roughly the same scale as New England’s smaller ranges, but the peaks just look so much more stoic, without one single tree. The Sandbank Trail is actually on the other side of the Mountain from this spot on the river, along the eastern face, about 400 yards away. In Celtic places the opportunity to wander should be embraced; there are no animals that could overpower you (like a Bear or Wolf), and the chances of stumbling upon Neolithic expressions are pretty good. And perhaps most importantly, this is one of the best places in the world to take out your camera(s).
Heading directly up the mountainside from the river, climbing over the farmers fence, I came across this lonely boulder. It was a like seat for watching the lower valley. Flocks of sheep rove the hillside with farms in foreground, all bustling and interwoven into a rural tapestry that America has almost forgotten. Ireland remains one of the the most functionally rural European country’s, where men over the age of 70 can be seen in the tractors hauling hay, while the elderly in America linger in nursing homes. Experiencing a nation where the food is fresh, without preservatives and processing, can have your body feeling stronger and more awake, in a relatively short period of time. Here I will venture to share a rare introspective moment that took place from this beautiful scene. Things at times become incredibly clear while hiking, super-clear. I began to think about America, and it was perhaps a thought I had been waiting to have for some time. Americans are confronted with a universe of processed and artificial foods on a daily basis, wars, social movements, and scandals, and while hiking in the safety of a place like this, I simply could not help but wonder what the hell has been going on in the United States for the last 15 years, and how the rest of the world truly sees us. It is borderline embarrassing. Ironically, so many locals in Newcastle expressed their desire to be in Boston, where I was from, having little awareness of the truly challenging social experience America forces upon its citizens today. All of this crossed my mind as I made my climb. Turning and facing the peak the wildflowers ran concentrically in what felt like a spiraling parade of color, radiating down the ledge. These are the places to wade in, like wandering into a dream. The brush here is deep, knee high, and strenuous to climb. The Irish Sea is only about 7 miles away, and the hedges have a toughness to them, a saltiness just beneath the surface, perhaps carried on the wind. Complimenting this faint ocean breeze is a strong Sun which can be felt warmly on the skin. Although many people do not picture Ireland’s climate in this way, when the Sun is out, windburn is a real possibility in the heights; in The Mourne the body can be fooled by the wind, seeming cool while outside, but later revealing a burn when out of the breeze.
It is said by Hebrew texts, that the fall of 300 angels took place, once upon a time, upon Mount Hermon, in Lebanon. While hiking in the heights of many mountains this is a story that has crossed my mind many times, especially while approaching peaks. If this story were true, than this culture of fallen angels would have claimed the high places first, coming from above, however surreal it sounds. And what we find in so many of the high places, in mountain ranges all across the world, are megalithic statements of impossibly large, but crafted stones. Hen Mountain’s peak is capped in solid rock, with indents and fixtures that are seemingly crafted into it. The anthropological side of hiking takes place as you explore the rocky ledges in the heights, and turn to see the beauty of the valley below.Simply put, the rocks tell a story, and a well trained eye can read that story. There are lineations in the rocky peak that are hard to describe. These parallel streaks look to have been burned, or smelted into the stone. These streaks look eerily like they were made to mimic the rippling landscape beyond, all at the top of the mountain.Here at the peak, this single 1 ton stone sat freely and in complete coherence with the parallel streaks beneath it. There were no other stones like it. With the scruffy wildflowers that somehow spurt out of the crags in the rock, and the layers of green beyond, this feels like the precipice of another world, however small the mountain truly is. This is the game that the peaks of mountains play, no matter what part of the world you find yourself in. At only 1,653 feet the feeling on Hen Mountain is still ‘top of the world’, as the Celtic landscape rolls nakedly away into the horizon.
Facing to east at the peak Sandbank Trail can be seen approaching an elevated knoll at about 1200 feet, just below. The view beyond this “porch” is stunning, leading all the way to across the Mourne to Newcastle at the coast. In this spot there are two distinct rocky fixtures that sit like ‘gates’ as the trail passes through, and between these two fixtures is a free standing boulder that I believe was placed here as a kind of ‘marker’. A closer look at this rocky “gateway” and boulder revealed a compelling case for megalithically cultural craftsmanship.This boulder stood perfectly square at roughly 8 feet high, and 3 feet thick, upon level rock beneath. The indentation of the lower portion of the boulder, again, had the look of ‘smelted’ rock, of a design, like a cherished chair. What is more compelling about this megalith, is the exact spot upon which stands, in a beautiful gateway on the northeastern edge of the entire Mourne range, as if to say “Welcome to The Mourne, enter!” Beyond this very spot is every other mountain in the region, including Bearnagh Mountain, which contains some of the most ancient roads, and cultural stones, in the entire world. If you ever come to The Mourne Mountains, The Hen’ is a perfect place to either begin, or end your experience, as a ‘gateway’ for the entire range and relatively pleasant climb. As all hikers do, I eventually made my way back down into the valley-village of Hilltown, and simply walked back east along the Sandbank Road. Be careful here, the Irish drive at one speed, fast. On my last day in The Mourne I witnessed a sunset from the eastern edge of Hilltown that sums up the entirety of the potential experience, stunning. Anyone visiting here can experience a waking dream; it is simply a matter of going. And although this particular article was filled with more personal introspection than usual, I would like to reiterate that the soul point of each featured place is to make the hike tangible for you, the reader, so you can picture yourself getting there, above the valleys, to the stone gateways in the clouds. Thanks for reading, and go strong.