- 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 Donard in the magical Mourne Mountains to visit the highest point in County Down and the province of Ulster.
Wonderfully dramatic, rugged and varied, the Mourne Mountains are quite simply a hill walker’s delight. Boasting a compact ring of 12 mountains above 600 metres and many other smaller hills, the range can undoubtedly lay claim to offer something for everyone, from the casual stroller to the seasoned hill walker alike. With several well defined paths, numerous stunning rocky tors, magical views and of course the legendary and epic Mourne Wall, this is one range that you simply must visit and explore. It’s no wonder that the Mourne Mountains are one of the leading locations in Ireland for walking holidays.
There are many great mountains to choose from in the Mournes such as Slieve Binnian with its distinctive tors and amazing views over Silent Valley or the mighty Slieve Bearnagh offering a magnificent platform from which to take in the impressive panorama of this classic range.
It is Slieve Donard however that claims the title of highest mountain in the Mournes. At 850 metres, it is also the highest point in County Down and the entire province of Ulster. In fact, the nearest point of land that is higher than the summit of Donard lies on the northern slopes of Lugnaquilla in County Wicklow.
The mountain is named after Saint Donard, known in Irish as Domhanghairt or Domhanghart. The saint was a disciple of St. Patrick who is said to have built a prayer cell at the summit of the mountain in the 5th century from which he could guard the surrounding countryside. Legend has it that the saint never died, instead becoming a perpetual guardian of this great mountain.
It was in 1896 that the Irish songwriter Percy French immortalised the Mournes in verse. Looking at the stunning and imperious outline of Slieve Donard towering high above Newcastle and the Irish Sea, it is entirely possible that it was this very vista that the songwriter had in mind when penning the line ‘Where the Mountains of Mourne sweep down to the sea‘.
It is possibly Donard’s position as the high point of the Mournes and Ulster that make it the most popular and busy of the Mourne Mountains wil hill walkers. Another probable factor is it’s accessibility from Newcastle along the tried and tested Glen River track. On any given day and especially at weekends, crowds of people make their way up to the saddle between Donard and Slieve Commedagh before picking their way up the steep slopes to the top of the mountain. Indeed, so popular is the Glen River route that steps have been installed at several points along the track in an effort to prevent erosion.
For this walk however, we will take the Bloody Bridge route which follows the river of the same name rising steadily to the Bog of Donard before a steep and demanding climb to the summit of Slieve Donard itself. Though not as well defined as the Glen River track, this route is much less crowded and for me, far more enjoyable.
Travelling to the Mournes from the South was made a lot easier with the opening of the M1 motorway and this situation will be further improved on completion of the proposed Narrow Water Bridge project . Until such time, you will need to take the motorway as far as the Newry exit before taking the scenic A2 road along the coast through Warrenpoint and on towards Newcastle. The Bloody Bridge car-park is located by the Irish Sea about three miles before Newcastle.
We advise getting hold of the Mournes Activity Map if you plan on doing any walking in the Mournes.
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From the car park, cross the A2 road and pass through a small gate and a wooden squeeze stile before following a path on the right-hand side of the Bloody Bridge River.
The old Bloody Bridge lies away to the left consisting of a stone arch over the river. The name comes from a massacre in 1641 when Protestant prisoners being led between jails in Newry and Newcastle were killed at the instigation of Sir Conn Magennis, whose family gave Newcastle its name.
Continue along the right bank of the river and after a kilometre, pick your way across it and join a track which eventually leads to the site of an old quarry, one of several abandoned quarries in the Mourne Mountains. These quarries provide evidence of what was once a very important industry in the local area. Stone was quarried and transported down the hills on carts to Annalong, Newcastle and Kilkeel from where it was shipped out on ‘stone boats’. This famous granite was exported world-wide and was used to pave the streets of Belfast as well as many UK cities. A few working quarries remain today and granite from the Mournes has been used in the 9/11 British Memorial Garden in New York.
From the quarry, continue to climb along a grassy track until you meet the Mourne Wall at the bog of Donard. For anyone walking in the Mournes for the first time, this is a real ‘wow moment’ as the views open up across the wall to the high Mournes including Slieve Binnian, Slievelamagan, Cove Mountain, Slieve Beg, Slieve Commedagh and our ultimate destination, Slieve Donard.
Turning right at the Mourne Wall, you are now just 1 kilometre from the summit of Slieve Donard but you still have the steepest section of the walk ahead of you with a punishing gradient of around 1 in 3. At this point, some people choose to walk on top of the wall to avoid some wet and boggy stretches. This feat is made possible as the wall is at its stoutest and most impressive along this stretch. Looking like a scaled-down version of the Great Wall of China, it stretches for more than 35km crossing over 15 mountains and walking it’s length is a challenge in itself. Up close, you can’t help but be impressed by the massive effort that must have been spent on its construction, a project that lasted over 18 years. Built between 1904 and 1922 by the Belfast Water Commissioners to enclose the water catchment in the Mournes, the wall serves as a very useful navigational aid to walkers today.
After several false summits, you will eventually catch sight of the lookout tower marking the summit of Donard. The tower, which is crowned with a trig point, is one of three along the course of the Mourne Wall. The summit is also marked by a large cairn with a smaller one lying around 100 metres to the North.
If you get the weather, the views from the summit of Slieve Donard are quite exceptional. Lying just a few kilometres from the Irish Sea, it offers extensive views along the coast and on a clear day, the Isle of Man is visible along with parts of Scotland. To the northwest lie Lough Neagh and the Sperrin Mountains while the Belfast and Antrim hills can all be seen to the north. In optimum conditions, the view South will include the distant outline of the Wicklow Mountains.
The summit of Donard is also a superb location from which to study the other peaks of the Mournes. At the tower, the Mourne wall takes a sharp turn heading downhill and across to the impressive bulk of Slieve Commedagh. Further afield are the impressive tors on Slieve Bearnagh backed by Slieve Meelmore and Meelbeg. Next comes Slieve Loughshannagh, Muck and rugged Slieve Binnian. Lying in the shadow of Commedagh is the inner spine consisting of Beg, Cove and Slieve Lamagan. Looking back down on the Bog of Donard, the wall seems endless as it snakes below Chimney Rock Mountain towards the Annalong Valley. This really is an amazing and inspirational panorama consisting of so many beautiful mountains in such a compact space, each worthy of exploration in its own right.
From the summit, it is simply a case of reversing your route to follow the wall down the steep slopes of the mountain to the Bog of Donard before turning left and following the track back to the car park at Bloody Bridge. Another option would be to continue down to the saddle between Donard and Slieve Commedagh before taking the popular Glen River track back to Newcastle. However, this option would necessitate some road walking. Various other options are available and you may be able to work the Brandy Pad, a former smugglers’ path, into your choice of route.
Whatever route option you choose to take for your descent, it’s highly unlikely that you will surpass the record time set by fell-runner Ian Holmes. The Bingley Harriers athlete took a barely credible 14 minutes 16 seconds to descend from the summit of Slieve Donard to Donard Park in Newcastle back in 2000!
“This really is an amazing and inspirational panorama consisting of so many beautiful mountains in such a compact space, each worthy of exploration in its own right.”
Whilst not the most exciting of the Mourne Mountains to walk, Slieve Donard is still more than worthy of a visit. This is certainly one of the busiest hills you will visit on your round of the County Tops but don’t let that put you off as you will be well rewarded by the stunning panoramic views from the summit. Save this one for a clear day if possible and we suggest you incorporate it into a longer route if time and fitness allow.
Distance: Circa 10km
County Top Rating: (8.5/10)
The Mournes Walks by Paddy Dillon
Guidebook featuring 32 different walks in the Mournes. If you’re planning to do any walking in the Mourne Mountains, I can’t recommend this highly enough.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.The Classic Walks of Ireland: The struggle to tame the Mourne Wall
An account of my walk of the length of the Mourne Wall, one of the classic walks in Ireland.Walking Ireland’s Iconic Mountains – Number 3: Slieve Binnian
Article on Walking Slieve Binnian, on of the classic Mourne Mountains.The County Tops in Photos: Slieve Donard
Reader submitted photos of Slieve Donard.