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    Essential Guide to the Mourne Mountains

    By Eimear Quinn
    More by Eimear

    Located in County Down, the Mourne Mountains are the highest range in Northern Ireland. It’s a real natural playground for hikers and explorers of all abilities.

    Designated an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, it’s also one of Ireland’s most striking locations! No surprise then, that its peaks and troughs have been an inspiration for many – including the brains behind Narnia, C.S. Lewis.

    Why Visit the Mourne Mountains?

    For starters, the Mournes are home to Northern Ireland’s highest peak. Slieve Donard stands at 850m high and on a good day you’ll have views of many things; Scotlands peaks, the Isle of Man, the Wicklow Mountains and the Donegal Hills.

    The Mourne Wall

    The Mourne Wall is fascinating feature of the Mourne Mountains. Standing at 1.5m high and is 22 miles long, it passes over 15 peaks of the Mourne Range – a very useful feature for navigating! On 3 of the peaks – Slieve Donard, Slieve Commedagh and Slieve Meelmore – there are shelter towers, made to shelter the Mourne Wall’s hardy builders with “hands like shovels” from the elements. It was purpose-built to keep the man-made Silent Valley Reservoir free from livestock. Construction of this dry stone wall began in 1904 and took 18 years.

    How do I get there?

    The Mourne Mountains occupy a significant portion of County Down, in Northern Ireland, near the Irish Sea coast.

    Just one hour’s drive from Belfast and two hours from Dublin, you can visit and climb one of the Mourne peaks in a day.

    Of course, if you want spend more time here, you have a number of quaint towns and villages around that you can use as your base. The best way to get here is by car, though there are some sporadic bus services.

    In the High Mournes region, we recommend Newcastle or Analong for your base. However, in the Western and Low Mournes, Castlewellan, Warrenpoint, Rostervor or Kilkeel are great places from which to explore the mountains.

    What's the History of the Mournes?

    Around the 3rd century, the Mourne area of County Down is said to have been ruled by a king named Ross Ruad. He had a shepherd Boirche, who herded his cattle along the peaks. The mountains then became known as Beanna Boirche, the peaks of Boirche (pronounced Banna-borka).

    Later on in the 12th century, a sept of the Mac Mahon clan, called Mughdhorna (pronounced Mourna) came from modern day County Monaghan in the middle of the island to settle in South Down. They gave their name to the area we now know as Mourne and the Mourne Mountains.

    Mourne Mountains Game of Thrones filming locations Ireland

    Myths & Legends

    The Great Cairn at the summit of Slieve Donard, the Mournes’ highest peak, is known locally as one of many entrances to the ‘Otherworld’ (usually associated with the fairies in pagan times and hell once Christianity took hold) – a recurring theme in the myths and legends of Ireland.

    A man named Partholón, one of the first settlers in Ireland according to the Lebor Gabála Érenn (Book of Invasions), is said to be buried in the Great Cairn! It is also said to be guarded by Saint Domhanghart (Donard) from who Slieve Donard takes its name.

    In folklore, Ireland’s first physician Slángha apparently learned his trade in the Mournes, and so Slieve Slághna was named after him.

    More Irish Myths & Legends


    Who doesn’t like a good smuggling story? Northern Ireland has its fair share of them, such as at the Gobbins Path along the Causeway Coast, or here, in the Mourne Mountains. The narrow, remote mountain passes of the Mourne Mountains were once popular smuggling routes, the Brandy Pad being the most famous.

    As the lore goes, illicit goods were brought by sea to a cave along the coast. From there, smugglers would carry items such as coffee, tea, silk and spirits through the mountains to avoid coast guards and customs.

    At a place called the “Hares Gap” they would disperse with their goods and take different routes out of the mountains.

    Geology & Quarrying

    For geology fans, the Mourne Mountains are as interesting as they come. It’s taken millions of years of volcanic activity and many ice ages to reveal the Mournes in their granite majesty. Underneath the dominant granite lies Silurian age rocks of shales, mudstones and greywackes. The range as we see it today was formed from volcanic activity that was also shaping the Giant’s Causeway around the same time – Ireland’s most iconic rock formation.

    Quarrying granite was a huge industry for the people of Down by the 18th century, meaning this granite travelled far and wide as news of their skills travelled.

    The Mourne Wall was crafted using granite stone from the mountain itself. And the granite used at the 5,000 year old Neolithic site of Newgrange is supposed to have been sourced here as well. You’ll also find this hardy rock at these places too:

    • Hans Christian Anderson Statue, Central Park, New York
    • Parliament Buildings, Stormont, Belfast
    • 911 British Memorial Garden, London

    Irish Geology

    Music & Literature

    Need inspiration for that novel you’ve been meaning to write? Many famous authors have found it here over the years.

    Belfast born C.S. Lewis was inspired by the scenery and mythology of the area. Lewis crafted the Narnia wonderland from this place and once said that the mountains, “made me feel that at any moment a giant might raise its head over the next ridge.” He also cited the clifftop Dunluce Castle as another inspiration.

    Percy French, the Roscommon-born poet and songwriter made mention of the range in his tune “The Mountains of Mourne” when he sings “I might as well be, where the Mountains o’ Mourne sweep down to the sea.”

    Visit Narnia

    Tollymore Forset - Mourne Mountains - Narnia inspitation

    Magic is in the air in Tollymore Forest in Northern Ireland, another inspiration for Game of Thrones and Narnia

    Game of Thrones

    A recent nod to the Mournes can be found in Game of Thrones, as Tollymore Forest is featured in the very first episode. It set the scene for The Haunted Forest in Episode 1, giving viewers a glimpse of the lands North of the Wall! Several further episodes were filmed in the forest, and some scenes from Essos and Westeros were filmed in the Mourne Mountains themselves.

    Poet Edward Lear wrote of Tollymore Forest being “full of beautiful ruins and bridges and trees and hills and mills and lawns and laurels.” A perfect setting for a fantasy series!

    Game of Thrones Filming Locations

    What are the best hikes in the Mourne Mountains?

    Glen River

    From the Slieve Donard car park, take the well defined path through native woodland – watch your step as the exposed root systems of the trees can be slippery. Trace the edge of the Glen River, crossing a few bridges along the way, until you catch a glimpse of the saddle beyond. Shortly after, you’ll come across a steep stone path that leads you straight to the coll between Slieve Donard and Slieve Commedagh. It’s here you’ll first meet the famous Mourne Wall. Take left and follow the wall all the way to the top.

    Bloody Bridge

    It’s worth noting that parking for the Bloody Bridge involves crossing a busy main road to get to the trail head. A series of wooden gates leading from the car park will take you across the road to where the trail narrows, becoming uneven and stoney. Use the river as your guide until you reach a zig-zag trail – please keep on the path, no shortcuts! After reaching the quarry you’ll meet the Mourne Wall. Follow this for 1km until you reach the summit.

    The Brandy Pad

    You can walk in the footsteps of the smugglers by taking on the famous Brandy Pad. This linear walk begins in Trassey Car Park and ends at the Bloody Bridge – though you can shorten it slightly by starting at Meelmore Lodge. A shuttle service operates in the high season so you can easily get back to you start point at the end of your hike.

    This stunning trek takes you through the Hares Gap and along the Glenfofanny River. There’s an option to up the ante and summit a few peaks along the way, or you can keep it simple and soak up the surrounding scenery from the rocky but well-defined path through the High Mournes.

    Bearnagh and Meelmore via Trassey Track

    If you’re up for more of a challenge, another option from the Trassey Track is this route that takes in two peaks. Starting at Happy Valley car park, walk a short bit of tarmac road to the Trassey Track. Make your way to the Hares Gap where you will have great views of Ben Crom Reservoir below and Slieve Donard on your left.

    A set of stone steps on your right will begin your climb up Bearnagh. Although tempting to keep the wall on your right, this will make for a very difficult climb. Instead, veer off to the left along a faint trail that takes you around the edge of the mountain until you meet a gulley. Keeping the gulley on your left, begin to climb to the summit of Bearnagh.

    Continue on by tracing the Mourne Wall down the other side to a windy gap between Bearnagh and Meelmore. Follow the wall again North West, straight up to the summit of Meelmore for more amazing views.

    Your descent south along the wall will take you to the Ulster Way and back to Happy Valley car park on the Trassey Road.

    What else can I see nearby?

    Legananny Dolmen

    Located north of Castlewellan, at the foot of Slieve Croob this megalith dates back to the Neolithic period and is said to be over 5,000 years old. The name Legananny is derived from Irish Liagán Áine, meaning ‘Áine’s standing stone.’ Because of its three supporting stones, it’s known to be called a Tripod Dolmen. There’s evidence of a cairn site nearby and burial remains have been found in excavations of the site. Worth a visit if you’re in the area.

    Silent Valley Park

    You are surrounded by the mountains from every angle in “the valley”. The large expanse of water is the Silent Valley Reservoir which supplies Belfast and the surrounding area. A stunning spot for an easy going and peaceful amble. The easiest of the many walking trails are Ben Crom Trail and the Nature Trail. For more of a challenge, there’s also a mountain access to the High Mournes from here.

    Not far from the Visitor Centre in the valley is the Binnian Tunnel. Built in the 1940s, it carves through underneath Slieve Binnian and connects the Silent Valley to Annalong Valley.

    Castlewellan Forest Park

    For tree lovers this is a must-see spot – The National Arboretum calls this park home. It was started as a pleasure project by the Scottish Annesley family and contains trees from Asia, North and South America, and Australasia.

    Here, you will also find the Peace Maze, constructed in 2001 by volunteers, which contains over 6,000 Yews! It was once the world’s largest permanent Hedge Maze, though today it is now second in line after the Pineapple Garden Maze in Hawaii.

    Dundrum Castle

    Overlooking Dundrum Bay, Dundrum Dastle was built by the Anglo-Norman John de Courcy after his invasion of Ulster in the 12th century, and is a fine example of Norman architecture. It was built to control the land routes from Drogheda to Downpatrick and offers stunning views of the bay and Mourne Mountains to the South.

    Dundrum Coastal Walk

    This beautiful little coastal walk takes in part of the Lecale Way. Winding around the Inner Bay along an old railway track, this walk is a short 2.5km stretch. Starting from a national car park along the main Newcastle to Dundrum road, it’s perfect for taking in some fresh sea air after a day of exploring.

    Clough Castle

    Another one worth a visit is the wee Clough Castle. It’s also tied to John de Courcy and is also a great example of the Norman motte and bailey design. Excavations in the 1950s revealed a wooden structure around the motte that was used as a pit for archers.

    Hike With Us in the Mourne Mountains

    Meet the Author: Eimear Quinn

    “Originally from Northern Ireland, Eimear is particularly interested in gardening from a Permaculture perspective, exploring the Irish landscape, understanding the rich and wonderful world of Irish mythology, legend and folklore, and preserving Irish language, tradition and music.”

    View profileMore by Eimear

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