Is Slieve Donard the Jewel of the Mourne Mountains?

Slieve donard
As you drive across the Mourne Mountains towards Newcastle Co Down your mind can sense that something special is about to unfold. Nearly everywhere you look a spectacular mountain pops up from the earth’s crust beneath the background of a clear blue sky. A jet darting across the sky gives the impression of a shooting star, a shooting star promising omens of a glorious day.A journey through these hills is a bit like going for a 5 course meal in some Michelin Star Restaurant where the starters are just mouthwateringly delicious. Awakening every sense and taste bud of your body. You’re left flabbergasted with each new dish that is placed before your eyes. The next dish couldn’t be any better than the last, it couldn’t, could it?? But it always is.

As you travel into the heart of these hills the suspense is slowly built up, and then bang. The waiter removes the cover from the last bit of food and there she is- the main course itself, Slieve Donard standing in all her majestic glory. The mountain is a masterpiece of nature carved out of the rock, granite, volcano, and sea ice. It dominates the surrounding landscape for miles around. At the bottom of the main street in Newcastle, she stands there with her chest puffed out rising magnificently into the heavens.  Make no mistake about it, Slieve Donard sits on the throne of Newcastle Co Down.

There are numerous ways in which to start your trial up the mountain but the one I took is the most one which is via parking at Slieve Donard carpark and making your way to the trail which starts at the end of the park.  The initial trail up the mountainside is an enclosed rocky pathway that in many ways resembles an 18th-century cobbled street. After a few minutes of hiking you come across the ominous-sounding bloody bridge which has a lovely waterfall running down between it. The Bloody Bride is a place where a massacre was said to have taken place during a rebellion that occurred in 1641. One real noticeable feature during the first phase of your hike is that of waterfalls rushing down the side of the mountain. These waterfalls provide a hypnotic and soothing sound.

Once you clear the forest you’re then out in the open and there before you stands Slieve Donard standing at 2790 feet and Slieve Commedagh standing at 2,516 feet. As you make your way up towards these mountains, in the distance, small flashes of silver catch your eyes. For the first time hiker, you might be forgiven for mistaking these flashes for a motherload of silver or gold but upon closer inspection, you realize that these flashes are small trickles of water flowing down the mountainside.

Isn’t it amazing to think how these small little trickles of water will morph into streams, slowly growing momentum, slowly gathering pace, then bit by bit all of these streams will join in union to create a river and then this river will expand into a raging torrent that can cut through rock and spread out throughout the countryside like the life-giving arteries of the human body?   In total, the Mournes gives birth to 19 separate rivers, most notably, the River Bann and the River Lagan.  It’s remarkable to think that these mighty rivers humble origins all began with a single trickle of water flowing down the Mourne Mountains.

Local legend has it that the Mourne Mountains was the place where Saint Patrick banished the snakes from Ireland. There is also said to be a stream located in the Mournes known as Saint Patricks stream where the legendary Saint was said to have knelt down and drank some water. Legend has it that when Saint Patrick’s hand touched a rock on the stream that to this day his handprint can be seen upon this rock.

When you hike your way up between the Slieve Donard and Commedagh the first thing that catches your eye is the Mourne Wall. The immense and powerful Wall was built between 1904 and 1922 using local granite and which was hauled up to the top of the mountains. The wall which runs for 22 miles encompasses 15 summits and includes the biggest mountain of them all Slieve Donard. Its awe-inspiring thinking of the sheer audacity and iron will of the men who set out to accomplish the task of hauling masses of granite up a mountain, thousands of feet into the air, and then to build a wall which stretches across the 15 highest mountains in Ulster.

When you stand at the wall and look to the other side of it the views are simply breathtaking.  It’s almost like you’re stepping foot inside one of Van Goghs or Michangeloes masterpieces only these masterpieces are second rate garbage compared to the reality that mother nature has put in front of you.  It’s not surprising that they have filmed  TV shows like Game of Thrones show on these slopes as  hiking the mournes is like stepping foot inside your own real-life fairytale.

When you’re standing at the wall and peering up at the summit of Slieve Donard it does seem like the peak could be reached in only 5 or 10 minutes but this illusion is very deceiving because the last end of the trek to top of the summit is very steep and if you’re not prepared it will have you tested to the last.

But the hike up this last section provides you with one spectacular view after another. Just when you think that you’ve seen it all another revelation is at hand. A previously undiscovered snow-covered peak catches your eye. A ray of sun blasting its way through a pit of blackness in the sky becomes almost like a message from god himself. A sudden breath of a wind clearing away all the clouds, and nature, like a  master magician, reveals another trick to a stunned audience. Words can never do it justice. If there is a god she is up here amongst the hills. This is my chapel. My church. I kneel at the alter of the nature’s craftsmanship.

Hiking Ireland
When you finally reach the top of Slieve Donard You can’t but help smile. You’re at the very top of Ulster.  Of the 2 million people in Ulster not a single soul is standing higher. At the summit, in the distance, you can see the Isle of Man, Snowdonia Mountains in Wales, and the Lake District. Masses of green and golden fields populate the horizon. To the east there’s Dundrum Bay which stretches all the way to Saint Johns Point. There’s several miles of beach that reaches all the way into a seemingly limitless horizon. On a good day the yellow cranes from the Harland and Wolfe Dockyards in Belfast can be seen.

This is the ancient province of Ulster shaped by men like:  Cuchulainn, Finn McCool, Henry Joy McCracken, Owen Roe O Neill, Hugh O Donnell, Edward Carson, Ian Paisley, Bobby Sands, George Best, and the list goes on and on. This land has borne witness to some of the momentous and tragic moments in Irish History. In 1798 Belfast born Presbyterian Henry Joy McCracken and a dozen or so other protestants set up the group called the United Irishmen a group that pledged to end English rule over Ireland by any means possible. Their motto was to “unite Catholic, Protestant, and dissenter. ” Predictably, the 1798 rebellion ended in disaster with McCracken meeting his doom at the end of a hangman’s noose. These days the Mourne Mountains unites people from all creeds, orange and green united in our love of the great outdoors.

As you descend from the mountain you will be afforded more time to soak in some of the sites you may have overlooked on the way up. Depending on how fast you’re going you should reach sea level within the hour. When you come down from the mountain your mind is swimming with endorphins. A creamy pint of Guinness is the cherry on top of the large cake that you’ve been consuming all day. The first gulp of the Guinness is a thing of bliss as it flows down your welcoming throat. Conversations flow free and easy.

The town itself, Newcastle, is a town that has something for everyone. Amusement parks, water parks, the seashore, restaurants, bars. At the end of the town stands the impressive gothic-looking Slieve Donard Hotel. For anyone who likes a bit of golf they can always decide to go for a round of Golf in the famous local golf course, the Royal County Down, which has hosted tournaments as prestigious as the British Open and the Irish Open. Four time major winner Rory Mcilroy counts the course as his most favorite course in the whole world.

But Newcastle in spite of its stunning surroundings is a town that has been on the receiving end of its fair share of tragedies. In 1843 a  fleet of local fishing ships sank resulting in 73 men reaching a watery grave. References to the tragedy at the time stated that, “Newcastle town is one long street entirely stripped of men.” One of the most famous residents of Newcastle is a man called Harry Ferguson, who in 1910 became one of the first Irishmen to fly an engine-powered plane. Newspaper reports at the time stated that “He flew a distance of almost three miles along the foreshore at a low altitude varying between fifty and five hundred feet.” His solo Plane ride is commemorated with a large plaque which is located along the Newcastle shoreline.

But all of this is a secondary aftershow to the main course itself, Slieve Donard. She stands there, proud, defiant, unbroken, enduring. A symbol of strength and power.  She stood here a thousand years ago and will stand here a thousand years into the future when we’re all dead and gone.  And us mere mortals,  temporarily full of life, full of delusional self-importance will register not even a flicker in the great passage of time.  The Mourne Mountains rekindles your spirt, revitalizes your heart. Redemption is poured amongst these treasured hills and Slieve Donard, for me anyways, is the ultimate Jewel in the crown.

How Hiking Ireland’s Highest Mountain Can Spring Many Surprises

After a 7 hour Journey from Northern Ireland we had finally reached the southern tip of Ireland. The dark silhouette of Ireland’s highest mountain, Carrantuohill, stood over us like an imposing giant as we pulled up to the campsite at 12.30am. Things started to go pear-shaped nearly straight away when to my horror the small two-man tent that Jonny had promised to bring looked more like a 200 person Wedding Marquee.
Jonny, from Belfast, assured me that he was an expert survivalist, turned on the headlights of the car, and began assembling the tent, but It quickly became apparent that he hadn’t a clue what he was at as the tent repeatedly collapsed like a drunk man after drinking a few bottles of whiskey.
Another camper beside us in a pristine perfectly formed tent stuck his smug head out to try and see what all of the commotion was about, smirked, and then zipped himself back up inside his cosy sanctuary.  Any chance of rendering us some assistance? Absolutely f@#king not! A few seconds later it began pouring rain. I resorted in a fit of despondency to swigging from a bottle of spirits that Jonny had stashed in his Car.  But Jonny’s persistence paid off as after about 2 hours of fumbling about he assembled a makeshift sanctuary that looked more like a ramshackle hut that had been hit full force by Hurricane Katrina.
We settled in and got ready for some well-earned sleep. Just as I was about to nod off a piercing cry struck the night air and jolted me wide awake,  Baaa, baaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaa. The unmistakable sound of a sheep who began marauding around the campsite and bleating with sadistic venom every few seconds.
At one point I heard a crunching and rummaging sound close to my ear and I realized that the Sheep had developed a taste for the tent and had began dining on it. I clenched my fist in anger and hit the sheet a thump which caused the animal to briefly scamper away but a few minutes later it returned and began chawing and eating like his life depended on it.
Just when we thought things couldn’t get any worse the sound of a Donkey penetrated the night the air, Heehawww heehaaaww. “Oh, for fucks sake!” I heard Jonny saying from the other side of the tent. Throughout the night the Donkey and the Sheep appeared to be working in union like some perverse sadistic animal orchestra intent on depriving us of any sleep.  By the time dawn broke we had gotten zero shut eye and we wearily got our stuff ready for the 3,406 foot trek to the summit of Carrauntoohill.
Another Hiker we had met at the bottom advised us to get to the top of the mountain by using the Devils Ladder and to come down via the Zig Zag route. So we wearily set off towards the summit by hiking up the  Devils Ladder and as we made our way up the steep and rocky mountain we began to see some spectacular views of the countryside and stunning views of nearby lakes that eased the pain of our tiredness.
After an arduous 4 hour hike, we reached the highest point in Ireland where a huge steel cross marked the cloudy summit. After a brief stay we began our descent, Jonny who look totally spent, said that he wanted to go down via the Zig Zag route- I peered over at this passage that was covered with cloud and announced to Jonny that “You can Zig Zag down whatever way you want but I’m going down the way that I came.” Jonny relented and decided to take the safe option of  the ‘better the devil you know.’ Halfway down the Devils Ladder my lips began salivating at the thoughts of eating some sausages. My stomach growled its approval as Jonny took out a small heating stove and frying pan. But my anticipation soon turned to dejection as no matter how much we tried the stove wouldn’t work. After about a half an hour of attempting to spark the stove into life Jonny got the sausages and fired them away with a look of abject disgust on his face.  No sooner had he did this then we heard the sound of a rescue Helicopter that began hovering over some stricken climbers who had gotten penned in by clouds on the edge of a cliff on the Zig Zag Route. At least we weren’t them- be grateful for small mercies!
The two of us, exhausted, staggered down the mountain like a pair of zombies emerging from a war-zone where one trauma was inflicted after another. We had conquered our Everest, Ireland’s highest Mountain, but had been beaten into submission by a Donkey, a Sheep, and a dodgy Stove.