- The County Tops – Number 2: Cupidstown Hill, County Kildare
- The County Tops – Number 4: Corn Hill, County Longford
- The County Tops – Number 1: Slieve Foye, County Louth
- The County Tops – Number 3: Sawel, Counties Derry and Tyrone
- The County Tops: Number 6: Slieve Gullion, County Armagh
- The County Tops – Number 5: Knockmealdown, County Waterford
- The County Tops: Number 7: Slieve Donard, Mourne Mountains, County Down
In the latest article from the County Top Series, Paul O’ Connor takes a walk up Slieve Gullion to visit Ireland’s highest surviving passage tomb making sure not to fall into the enchanted ‘Lake of Sorrows’ at the top of the mountain. It seems that so many of the hills and mountains in Ireland are shrouded in myth and legend. From Slievenamon’s connections with the Celtic underworld to the 236 leprechauns that reputedly still live and thrive in the Cooley Mountains, a huge part of the enjoyment to be derived from walking the landscape of Ireland comes from allowing your mind wander over these stories of folklore.
Slieve Gullion, the County Top of Armagh is no exception. Wrapped up in a thick cloak of legend and folklore, the mountain is certainly one of the more interesting that we will encounter on our journey of the County Tops of Ireland.
The Mountain forms the focal point of the Ring of Gullion, designated an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty in 1991. Gullion is also perhaps the most spectacular example of a ring-dyke volcano in the British Isles. Walkers need not worry however as this once huge volcano is long dormant, having last exploded over 50 million years ago.
Walking in the landscape of purple heather and rowan and birch trees, you are never very far from the land of myth and legend. Where else would you find a magical enchanted lake on the summit of a mountain? And just for good measure, the lake lies close to the impressive pre-historic home of a legendary wicked witch who features more than once on our round of the County Tops. The ring of Gullion itself has been populated for over 6000 years and is peppered with a range of megalithic and early Christian monuments.
The walk starts from Slieve Gullion Forest Park which is run by the Northern Irish Forestry Service. The forest park offers an 8 mile high-level scenic drive which offers views of the Ring Of Gullion as well as the Cooley and Mourne Mountains.
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Depending on time available, you could start your walk from the car-park beside Slieve Gullion Courtyard Centre in the forest park. From the centre, a series of tracks lead you to the upper parking area on the forest drive.
The quicker option is to take a car up the meandering one-way drive and park at the upper parking area for a much easier half-hour walk to the top of Slieve Gullion. Shortly after the parking area, turn right up a steep track and continue until you reach a stile. Cross the stile and continue on as far as a stone shelter. Pass to the right of the shelter and continue up steeper ground until you reach the large Neolithic passage-grave that marks the summit of Slieve Gullion and the top of County Armagh.
With Slieve Gullion, you’ll find that it’s not about the journey, it’s about the destination and that the magic of the mountain really starts when you arrive at its summit.
It is on arrival at the summit that you are greeted with the sight of a huge and impressive cairn. The archaeological explanation is that this is a Neolithic passage grave under a Bronze Age cairn, the highest surviving tomb of its kind in the whole of Ireland and The British Isles. Up to 3000 years older than the Great Pyramid of Giza in Egypt, the tomb is aligned so that the setting sun at the winter solstice illuminates its chamber.
However, we prefer the mythical explanation that the cairn is the home of the legendary ‘Cailleach Beara’, an evil old witch with the ability to transform into a hare. The witch has numerous links with the hills and mountains of Ireland and is one of the oldest living mythological beings associated with Ireland.
Having made the walk to the summit of Gullion, it is highly recommended that you continue North-West enjoying the magnificent views until you reach another of the mountain’s treasures, the magical enchanted ‘Lake of Sorrows’. Whilst enjoying your surroundings, it is worth calling to mind that legend has it that Fionn MacCumhaill once wandered over this very same landscape. Indeed, it is reputed that Fionn and the Cailleach Beara once locked horns on the very edge of the lake.
The story goes that whilst on the mountain, Fionn came across a beautiful young maiden sitting beside the lake in some distress. The maiden, the most beautiful that Fionn had ever set eyes upon, recounted a sorry tale to Fionn of how she had dropped her priceless golden ring into the lake. The mighty Fionn immediately leapt into the water and swam around the whole lake three times in an effort to retrieve the ring. Upon finding the ring, Fionn handed it to the maiden who immediately disappeared. On reaching the banks of the lake, Fionn had transformed into weakest of old men with a head of white hair. The Fianna eventually forced the Cailleach Beara to restore Fionn back to his former self but his hair remained white for the rest of his life. To this day, the superstition survives that if you swim in the lake, your hair will turn white.
If you are brave enough to make it past the lake, you will reach the more modest North Cairn, another Bronze Age burial chamber. It is possible to descend down the North side of the mountain and return to the forest park via road but a good option is to return to the South Cairn and take some more time to enjoy this mythical mountain.
It is also worthwhile taking some time to enjoy the glorious views. To the east lies Carlingford Lough with Slieve Foye and the Cooley Mountains sitting on one side and the shapely Mourne Mountains on the other. To the North are the hills of Antrim while the Sperrin Mountains are visible to the North-West. If conditions allow, you might well see the outline of the Wicklow Mountains, some 60 miles away.
It may be only a short walk up a small mountain but a visit to Slieve Gullion is massively enjoyable. The mix of fantastic stories and fabulous views are hard to beat and make Slieve Gullion one of the more enjoyable of the County Tops.
County Top Rating: A very well deserved 8.5/10
Height: 573 metres
Ireland’s County High Points: A Walking Guide (Walking Guides)
A great guide to the County High-Points from Kieron Gribbon and an essential read if you are planning to do the County Tops.