Blogger extraordinaire Kelly Hargie asked me to throw together a few words for her Every Treasure blog and, because she’s been kind enough to do the same for me on more than one occasion, I was only too happy to oblige.
Quick bio preamble, first of all. My name’s David McIlroy (no, not related to him). I’m 31-years-old, married to the beautiful and talented Christine and currently living in the metropolis of Dromara with two canine companions called Lupin and Ghost. We enjoy watching Liverpool Football Club be amazing, reading, watching movies, and getting outdoors in Northern Ireland, which leads me to…
…Trekking NI, a community blogging site I set up at the end of summer 2018. I wanted to create a little space for fellow walking/hiking enthusiasts to share their experiences with others and help demystify the concept of climbing mountains, something that can often be quite daunting to those who haven’t done it before. Where do you start? How fit should you be? What’s it like at the top?
Trekking NI’s grown fairly quickly because, as I’ve discovered, lots of us have stories to tell and (in most cases) incredible images to share of the fantastically diverse little country in which we reside. Northern Ireland, for its humble size, contains a plethora of stunning landscapes, from the reed-lined lakelands of Fermanagh to the breath-taking craggy peaks of the Mournes and the wild bluffs of the North Coast.
It’s no surprise that ‘Our Wee Country’ is rapidly gaining in popularity with film and TV studios around the world – where else can you travel from the alien-looking stonework of a causeway built by giant hands to the equally-impressive rock towers that sit above the clouds in the heart of an ancient kingdom, all in a just a couple of hours (many thanks, Google Maps)?
I love the Northern Irish outdoors. I grew up in the shadow of Slieve Binnian in Kilkeel, and though I failed to appreciate the views at the time (teenage hormones have a way of clouding what’s in front of you), I came to love the Mournes after returning to County Down following a spell living in the often-underappreciated County Fermanagh. I’m always amazed at what our landscape has to offer, and I love championing it to others both at home and abroad.
However, there’s another emotion mixed in there with all that wonder, something odd that I can only describe as, well, ‘fear’. Let me tell you two extremely short stories.
The first took place three years ago. I was taking part in a retreat at the North Coast, staying at Downhill Beach House (highly recommended) when I decided to take an early-morning stroll on the beach. It was a cool, calm morning, only just light. I had in mind to walk around the base of the cliff on which Mussenden Temple is perched – I had no idea if that was actually possible, but hey, no-one else was around to tell me otherwise.
However, as I made my way between sea-swept rocks and approached the corner around which I assumed I could walk, an ominously-dark cave yawned up out of the cliff face, totally unexpectedly. I didn’t know the cave existed until I was right beside it – practically in it – and I was struck with a fear I’d never experienced before. I don’t know if there’s such a thing as a phobia of caves, but as I staggered away from the base of the cliff as fast as my wobbling legs could manage, I suspected I might have a touch of it.
Fast-forward two years, and I’m scaling the side of the shale-covered face of Slieve Bearnagh in the Mournes. It’s swelteringly hot and I can feel my skin prickling as sweat runs down my face, stinging my eyes. But it’s a good feeling – I’d never climbed Bearnagh before and I wasn’t far from the top, where I could tick another summit off the list.
It was a Monday morning (formerly my day off) in April, and I was training for the Seven Summits challenge in June, which through a comedy of poor cuisine choices and unrealistic expectations, I wouldn’t complete in full. Nevertheless, I was enjoying climbing this mountain that I’d never attempted before, the fourth-highest in the range.
The Mourne Wall to my right abruptly vanished into the rocky mass of Bearnagh’s North Tor and I started circumventing it, following a rough trail to my left towards what I assumed was the summit (my lack of understanding of the mountains was scary, in hindsight). After a relatively short time I came up over a rise and saw the massive bulk of Bearnagh’s South Tor for the first time.
And it happened again. Almost.
That inexplicable emotion, that Fear, struck me again, rooting me to the spot as I gazed at the colossal fortress on top of the mountain. But it was different this time. I wasn’t simply afraid, as I was on that beach roughly 90 miles away and two years previously. This was something more like reverence: I feared what I saw because the sheer magnitude of it was beyond my comprehension. It was beautiful, foreboding and mighty, all at once.
This happened in about five seconds, and then it was over. I hiked the rest of the way to the South Tor and enjoyed the panoramic views across the Mournes, which are second to none.
That fearfulness I experienced on Downhill Beach and on the summit of Bearnagh is something that’s stuck with me on this journey with Trekking NI so far. It’s what sustains my curiosity and increases my love of the Northern Irish outdoors, and affirming to me that there’s more to life than what we look at on a screen (he typed on his keyboard, ironically). It drives me to encourage others to find those moments for themselves, even the fearful ones, because they remind you that you’re alive.
As a Christian, I’ve decided that powerful and ultimately indefinable emotion is my soul’s response to seeing the handiwork of God with my own eyes – not everyone will think of it in the same way, but I’m sure we can all agree that the natural beauty of our little country is something worth drawing inspiration from, whether you’re a hiker, photographer, writer, poet, painter, or just someone who likes to get away from it all for a time of refreshment and nature-inspired rejuvenation.
Get out there this summer and shoot for the high peaks in your life, both figuratively and metaphorically. Just be sure to watch out for the dark places that spring out of nowhere, and keep your eyes on those awe-inspiring summits.