Slieve Gallion was Seamus Heaney’s home mountain, a bulky familiar in the childhood countryside that shaped his poetry, ‘one of the dream boundaries of my imagination’ as he put it himself.
First published in: The Times Click here to view a map for this walk in a new window
But today I found it hard to see the mountain clearly. Heaney had died less than a month ago, and my head was crammed to spilling point.
Yesterday at Laurel Villa, Magherafelt’s own House of Poetry, the ‘On Home Ground’ poetry festival had turned into a wake and thanksgiving for Ireland’s greatest poet since W.B. Yeats, Nobel Laureate and local boy. Everything seemed Heaney-coloured this cloudy midday on Slieve Gallion: the blue-fingered spruce trees, the birdsong in Iniscarn Forest, the tin-roofed farms and sedgy fields that he so brilliantly brought to new life with his pen, ‘snug as a gun’.
A long muddy track carried us up through the forest, where long-tailed tits sent their needly thin cries through the treetops. Up near the crest of the hill we broke out of the spruce and pine into open country. A path beaten into the heather led to the summit cairn, a solid flattened dome of stones, burial place of Callan, grandson of one of the High Kings of Ireland 1700 years ago.
We stood by Callan’s grave, savouring the hundred-mile view. In the east, Heaney Country lay along the shores of cloud-like Lough Neagh – the green meadows around the poet’s birthplace of Mossbawn, Church Island’s spire beside Lough Beg, Castledawson and Magherafelt. Away beyond, Slemish Mountain, a pale grey cardinal’s hat under cloud; the Mourne Mountains sharp and clear in the south; and in the west the whole graceful spine of the Sperrin Hills, green and grey, with tiny fields raked up in converging lines of hedges rising toward their foothills.
A curling tarmac road led down from Slieve Gallion’s peak, handing over to a rough farm track that descended through the rushy fields of small farms with rain-faded green corrugated barns. No grand images or thundering metaphors here today, but drifts of Heaney’s lines going in and out of the mind, along with a snatch of the beautiful old air of ‘Slieve Gallion Brae’:
‘May good fortune shine upon you when I am far away,
And a long farewell to bonny, bonny Slieve Gallion Brae.’
Start: Iniscarn Forest car park, near Desertmartin, Magherafelt, Co Derry (OS NI ref H832908)
Getting there: A6/A31 to Magherafelt, B40 to Desertmartin; B40 towards Draperstown. In 3 miles, left at crossroad up Iniscarn Road. Parking place on right in 3½ miles, signed ‘Iniscarn’.
Walk (5½ miles, moderate, OSNI Sheet 13. NB – online map, more walks at christophersomerville.co.uk): Pass gate, up forest track. In a ⅓ of a mile at ruined house, left (827905) past gate ‘2’. Keep ahead. Where track narrows keep uphill; keep to path that’s been trodden bare and muddy, climbing through spruce to reach open mountain and fence 1½ miles from start (814891). Right along fence; left over stile to masts and cairn beyond (813896). Back to mast; follow road (stony, then tarmac) for 1½ miles. Pass between rock outcrops; in 200m, on sharp right bend (820885), left along stony track. In ½ mile, at top of farm drive (824891), left along stony road, descending for a little over a mile to road (835905). Left to car.
Lunch: Bradley’s Bar, Desertmartin (028-7963-2377)
Dinner: Church Street Restaurant, Magherafelt (028-7932-8083) – fabulous Irish cooking
Accommodation: Laurel Villa, Magherafelt, Co Derry, BT45 6AW (028-7930-1459) – supremely hospitable and helpful ‘House of Poetry’.
Downloadable instructions: walkni.com