The mountains of Cooley are uniquely accessible – it is quite a challenge to get more than a mile or so from a public road. The main road from Jenkinstown over the Long Woman’s Grave to Omeath (blue line) was built by the county Grand Jury in the 1770s at the urging of the Fortescues, major landlords in Ravensdale. In the Great Famine a new north-south road from Cornamucklagh through Glenmore (red line) was built as a public relief work: it is still known as the New Line. In the 1940s war massively reduced supplies of coal and Minister of Supply Frank Aiken sanctioned the building of a new road (green line) for access to the turf fields below Clermont Cairn on Black Mountain. The Turf Road was dug out the hard way in just six weeks in 1941 by men working for 15 shillings a week.
This is a north-south tour with a couple of east-west zig-zags through the mountain townlands, but we start in the north-west corner of the Cooleys, right by Junction 20 on the M1/A1. Alongside the north-bound exit slipway is a derelict but still pretty little rural church (CoI). The architect was Sir Charles Lanyon, better known for his design of the main building at Queen’s University Belfast, which is named after him: the main Belfast train station was recently renamed Lanyon Station in his honour. The Jonesborough church which opened in 1866 was built at a cost of £935, paid for by Lord Clermont, Thomas Fortescue of nearby Ravensdale Park, who could afford it: he owned 23,000 acres in County Louth alone. Fortescue is buried in the little graveyard there which is in Co. Armagh. Just beside it is a very much larger Catholic graveyard in County Louth. The low iron railing between them is an international border which featured prominently in Brexit news coverage.
A path through the Catholic graveyard leads into Dromad Wood, which has 7-8 km of easy, low-level walks on fairly good tracks, with a clamber to a 225m viewing point for the more energetic. A short side-track will give a view of our first Famine Wall (blue line), the March Wall. The wall runs along the boundary between two townlands, Dromad and Edenappa, which means it is also the international border. More importantly, when it was built in 1846 at public expense it was also the boundary between the estates of Thomas MH Jones (Armagh) and Thomas Fortescue (Louth). Walls on townland boundaries had no economic or agricultural significance, but they were handy vanity projects for the landlords who dominated the relief committees which decided how government relief funds would be spent.
At a sharp bend in the track right beside the motorway is an accessible souterrain, an underground tunnel/chamber typical of the fourth to ninth centuries. They were used for storing food or grain and valuables and possibly for hiding young people likely to be targeted by the slave-trader bands. This is a big one, 19m long, 1.7m high and 1.3m wide. There may be as many as 10,000 souterrains in Ireland – North Louth has one of the highest concentrations.
Returning via the graveyard, the car park in front of the church provides a vantage point for viewing our next Famine Wall which starts a couple of hundred
meters to the right (south) of the Carrickdale Hotel in Carrickarnon townland. This is the longest wall I have found, running 5-6km into the mountains, and for at least 2km in Annaverna it is also the international border. To the left (north) of the Carrickdale another wall separates Carrickarnon from Edentubber townland. The upper reaches of this wall are a great favourite with local hillwalkers because of the views towards Slieve Gullion. The Famine wall on Ben Rock is clearly visible from the motorway near Junction 19. It runs almost all the way to the TV mast beside Clermont Cairn on Black Mountain.
Nobody knows how many walls there are – they are not recorded in any way and we cannot even say with certainty that a particular wall is indeed a Famine relief work. However, there is a strong folklore tradition around Slieve Gullion that mountain walls running on townland boundaries were built by men earning 10 old pence a day – women and boys fourpence. My red lines on the map show perhaps 20-25km of likely famine walls in Cooley: there are 15-20km in the Ring of Gullion. They are not recorded or protected in any way and there is a constant problem with forestry contractors ploughing them aside.
It may sound strange, but most famine victims don’t actually die of hunger. When your immune system is badly compromised by malnutrition, any infection can kill you. In the Great Hunger 80% of victims were killed by some combination of three highly infectious diseases: typhus, relapsing fever and bacillary dysentery. High on the hill of Edentubber is a roofless ruin that was once a fever house where infected people were kept in isolation.
As we go to press it is still possible – and completely legal – to cut turf in the Cooley Mountains provided you do it by hand, with a sleán. Plots can be rented for a nominal amount from the forestry service Coillte which owns the northern end of the mountains along the Turf Road. it is not particularly hard work and it is very good for the soul.
From the TV mast a good track heads south and then swings west towards Annaverna. The track was built with voluntary labour in the 1940s to access the turf fields, but today it is known as the Poc Fada trail. Every August the best hurlers in the country compete to see who can complete a five-kilometer circuit with the lowest number of pucks. The circuit is marked by yellow-painted rocks leading up to the turning point at Carnawaddy – the Cairn of the Dog – supposedly the burial place of Fionn Mac Cumhail’s dog Bran.
Just north of the TV mast the international border runs between the summits of Clermont and Anglesea mountains. From the Turf Road a broad, stony track runs between them, known to hillwalkers as Dead Horse Trail because for many years the skeleton of a horse lay alongside. Following the Foot& Mouth outbreak in 2001 an Animal Disease Control fence was erected on the line of the border (red line on map); local hillwalkers have installed a rather useful little stile on it. There are stunning views all along the trail (green line)which leads down to Clontygora Court Cairn on the County Armagh side.
The eastern side of the mountains were once part of the estate of the Paget/Bayly family, earls of Anglesea; the western side was the property of Thomas Fortescue, Lord Clermont. These powerful and important people clearly made a deep impression on the military men who drew up the first Ordnance Survey maps in the 1830s, to the extent that they got mountains renamed after them. Unfortunately many of the original mountain names have been lost.
From the summit of Anglesea the border fence drops sharply northwards, passing another minimalistic hillwalker stile. Down in the valley of Clontigora (Meadow of the Goats) tight against the border there is a little cottage which would have made a grand setting for “The Quiet Man”. This is the ancestral home of Mickey McAllister, one of nine children reared in its two rooms. Nowadays the house is home only to a couple of Mickey’s exceptionally friendly black-and-white Collies. The house opens onto a lane that glories in the name of “Larry Tam’s Loanan“ that was once the main road from Omeath to Dundalk. In November 1600 Hugh O’Neill’s kern and gallowglasses marched along the loanan to ambush Lord Mountjoy’s army at Ballyonan.
Running east from the border fence are two kilometres of wall that do not follow any townland boundary, but we can be pretty sure that they are Famine relief works anyway. Firstly, they serve no purpose – or to put it another way, tenant farmers would never have devoted scarce labour resources to building them. Secondly, they are built rather higher and better than the typical field ditch: the relief works sometimes had masons or others with construction experience. In this particular case the wall has been pointed out to me by several local residents as a Famine wall.
A break in the wall provides magnificent views of Warrenpoint and an exit path that leads down to the steep Flagstaff Road just by the border bridge. Under the bridge is a little stream called the Owencoggery (abhainn coigcríoche = boundary stream), an appropriate name for a watercourse now delineating an international border but first named in a Plantation of Ulster document from 1612.Below the road on its way to Carlingford Lough it tumbles down a magnificent cascade. There is a track down to the waterfall but take care: it is steep and dangerous. This is Fathom (An Fheadán) Wood which stretches five kilometers back from the border along the Lough and up to the Flagstaff Viewpoint. The views of the Lough down over the Narrowwater can compete with any beauty spot in Ireland. The Flagstgaff has its own old story to tell. On a clear day, if you look towards the base of Slieve Gullion you may see the white statue at St Monnina’s Well. Sixteen hundred years ago there was a monastery there which had already been raided by the Vikings. So every year around St. Patrick’s Day when the raiding season began, the monks posted a lookout on the hill to look out for sails in the Lough and to warn them by running a huge flag up a pole.
Close by the viewpoint, on the Upper Fathom Road there is a shed with a story. In an earlier life in the mid-18th century it was a shebeen operated by one Patsy McDacker and his daughter Molly. The shebeen was frequented by the poet Séamas Mór MacMurchaidh who was also a part-time tory or highwayman and had a price on his head. In his poems he modestly referred to himself as ‘an deise atá in Éirinn’ (the handsomest man in Ireland) and he was indulging in a bit of dalliance with Molly. Someone whispered in her ear that he was also dallying elsewhere and in a fit of jealous rage she decided to turn him in to the infamous tory-hunter Johnston of the Fews. Séamas Mór was hanged in Armagh and Patsy was there to collect the reward. It was paid out in small coin and Patsy set off home with the heavy bag on his back. In Upper Fathom, within sight of his shebeen, Patsy dropped dead and the children of the townland stole his coin.
Down in Narrowwater, opposite the 14th-century keep (renovated in the 1560s) there is a little wood which you should visit in mid-May for the stunning displays of bluebells which turn the very light blue. There was once a small monastery here, possibly operating a ferry and/or hostel for the many pilgrims who came this way on route to Downpatrick, burial place of our national saint. It was wiped out by the Vikings and no traces remain – it was probably built of wood. However, there is a poignant memorial there. Until quite recently a stillborn child could not be buried in consecrated ground, so people buried their babies in areas that they thought might have once been consecrated. These unofficial graveyards are known as cillíns: the one in the Ferry Wood has many dozens of little depressions in the ground, many marked by half-buried stones,
On the seaward shore beyond the wood is a round tower (visible from the Warrenpoint dual carriageway) which has absolutely nothing to do with monks or Vikings. One clue to its origins is that unlike all the other round towers in Ireland, this one has a solar panel on the top. It was built in 1888 by the Newry Navigation Company together with a smaller tower a few hundred meters away out in the lough. Newry-bound vessels coming in past Omeath had to line the two towers up to guide them into the dredged channel through Narrowwater.
In the Gaelic revival at the end of the 19th century, Omeath still had a majority of Irish speakers, particularly in the mountain townlands. From the point of view of Conradh na Gaeilge (the Gaelic League) it had a unique advantage over the Gaeltachtaí in remote areas on the west coast: there was a railway running through it and scholars from Dublin or Belfast could reach it in a couple of hours. A photo from 1905 taken in front of the Strand Hotel in Omeath shows an up-and-coming young barrister and his fashionably dressed girlfriend. He with the bowler hat is Patrick Pearse and on his left in a rather stunnning hat is Eibhlín Ní Niocal.
At the foot of Anglesea mountain there is a deep river gorge separating Cornamucklagh and Omeath townlands. According to folklore collected by schoolchildren in the 1930s, this is where people hid from ‘the Welsh horses’. This is actually a reference to a Welsh cavalry regiment known as the Ancient Britons which took part in arms searches in 1797. Following a number of massacres around Newry, they swept through Omeath on their way to link up with the Ballymascanlon yeomanry. The following spring the Ancient Britons got their comeuppance at Tubberneering in Co Carlow when they ran into the pikes of the United Irishmen and were almost wiped out.
Hillwalkers looking down upon our valleys generally think they are looking at a timeless landscape, an ancient field pattern, and it is hard to convince them otherwise. In fact the field patterns are relatively new: most of the ditches are less than 200 years old, virtually none in Cooley are more than 300. A generation before the Famine, open-field farming was the norm; people generally lived in housing clusters – each known as a baile – and tilled the soil in co-operative groups. Cattle were herded by day and penned at night, but in the summertime all of the cattle and a lot of the people headed into the mountains at the beginning of May. There they lived in temporary huts known as booleys (buaile), milking and churning butter for sale. The main booley sites in the mountains are easy to identify by the remains of stone huts: there are at least 50 with intact walls such as this one in Lislea. Door openings always face south or south-east for light: there were no window openings. Sites are also identifiable by the broad patches of bright green grass fertilised by centuries of cow dung and still winning the battle against heather and bracken. Finally, conclusive proof is a handy source of clean water for making butter. Booleying is sometimes referred to as a form of nomadism but this is nonsense: people in the booleys were generally no more than a mile or two from their permanent home. The purpose was (1) to exploit the mountain grazing (2) to allow crops to be planted on an open-field system and (3) most importantly, to keep lowland grazing for the wintertime.
There are two booleys close together on the slopes of Ballyonan close to the Omeath-Carlingford Greenway at Greer’s Quay. The Táin Trail leading from Carlingford across the Golyin Pass to Glenmore is lined with booley sites on both sides. Moving to the booleys was the big event in the agricultural calendar from the Bronze Age until the Famine era and was mentioned by Norman and Elizabethan sources. Cattle were rounded up and driven between two bonfires, a purification ritual linked to the name of the month in which it took place, Bealtaine.
There was an Omeath dialect word for a booley that is still used today: “mari”. The most accessible booley hut is Mari Tanamuc in Tullagh Glen, no more than 100 meters from the car park at Tullagh Bridge. Andrew McGuinness of Ardaghy, Omeath has studied the Irish-language placenames in the mountains resulting from booleying: he kindly drew me a little map to show the density of names in the glen.
From Mari Tanamuc there is a good view of “lazy beds” close by on the hillside. These long grass-covered mounds are what remain of desperate attempts to cultivate potatoes in the acid, turfy soil without lime or manure in the bleak spring of 1846. The men who planted those lazy beds probably sought work on the Famine relief scheme which opened later that year, the building of the New Line road. The bridge they built here spans a deep gorge known as An Ghríanán, the sunny place. That was also the name given to the poetry school run by Séamas Dall MacCuarta: in the summertime the poets and scholars composed and debated on the banks of the fast river that runs through the gorge.
Tullagh Bridge is also the starting point of the famous Cadgers’ Pad, the route by which Omeath girls and women carried herring to market in Dundalk (see my 2021 video “The Mountains of Cooley” on YouTube). In 2022 volunteers put a line of guiding posts along the trick eastern half from the bridge to Iomaire Fada, the summit ridge. From there a gentle track leads down towards the ford at Annaverna. Halfway down there is a flat rock known as Clochán na gCart where the herring girls used to rest and sometimes play cards – until the day the devil appeared out of the mist. The Pad ends at a narrow bridge at Carrowbane, marked on maps as Cadgers Bridge.
Down the road from Carrowbane towards Ravensdale, Annie Flynn was photographed in 1888 with her creel of herrings strapped to her back. The herring fishing in Carlingford Lough was all but finished by then. She is the only cadger to have been photographed and she may well have been the last of them. The Pad itself remained important as a shortcut and animal droving route well into the 20th century. In the 1950s the last Irish speaker in Omeath. Áine Bá Ní Annluain, told a folklore collector that as a young woman she “thought nothing of throwing half a dozen hens in a bag and heading out the Cadgers’ Pad to Dundalk”. Just to be clear, the hens were live.
Ravensdale is the only non-agricultural village in Co Louth; its wealth which was quite considerable was based on flax and linen. The Fortescue family which had lands around Dromiskin took over much of the valley along the Flurry River in the 1730s. A century later Thomas Fortescue, soon to be named Lord Clermont, was raking in rents from 23,000 acres. His income from the river must also have been considerable: between Flurrybridge (Junction 20) and the sea at Bellurgan there were 14 mills operating in 1836, mostly on his land.
In their early years the Fortescue family enclosed a large part of the mountainside as a deer park, their private hunting ground. Most of the area is now covered by forestry plantations and the deer park wall itself is rather ghostly, masked by moss and ivy, but it can still be followed for 5-6 km if you are sound of lung and limb. In places it has been buried under forestry access roads but then it magically reappears. In the angle between two tracks you can still find the ruined gamekeeper’s lodge, a reminder that the purpose of the wall was to keep the good lord’s deer in and our hungry ancestors out.
All things are relative and care needs to be taken with the term “good landlord”, but if if can be applied to anyone, Lord Clermont must qualify. Don’t take my word for it. The Ribbonmen organisation which specialised in shooting landlords and their agents said in 1852, ” Mr Fortescue is a good man”, then with schoolmasterly reserve they added: “But he could do better.” Fortescue built himself a magnificent house called Ravensdale Park which was burned down in the Civil War. The stone and even the design of the house reappeared in the church at Glasdrumman, South Armagh.
What the Fortescues left behind is a wonderful outdoor playground for young and old, a network of paths and watercourses and old stone bridges which volunteers have been trying to keep free of invasive species. At the north end of the wood there are some giant redwoods and perhaps the crowning glory – not to be missed if you are walking with young children – is the Elephant Tree.
A glance at the scale and beauty of older houses around Ravensdale shows what a thriving community it was. It even had its own courthouse which is still there at the corner of the Annaverna Road and remarkably, still has the Royal Coat of Arms – Lion and Unicorn – on the facade above the door. There is a story in local folklore of a magistrate who sat on the bench there and often fell asleep during trials. He would suddenly wake up and shout: “Give him a month” before asking a colleague: “What did he do?”
Back up the Annaverna road is a poignant reminder of the harsh realities of landlordism: Carrowbane cattle pound. Families which could not meet their half-yearly farm rent on the “Gale Days” of 12th May or 12th November were liable to have their animals “gripped” by bailiffs and held in the pound for sale on the next fair day.
Lord Clermont had some odd ideas, one of which was building ancient ruins. A couple of hundred meters from the car park in Ravensdale wood is a rather cute stone circle like a mini-Stonehenge. It is a fake, a hoax. There is another fake circle up along the Poc Fada trail and close by is the cutest little dolmen you ever saw. All built by Ravensdale estate workers. If you want to see the real Neolithic deal in all its massive magnificence, go see the Proleek Dolmen in the grounds of Ballymascanlon Hotel.
There are an estimated 40,000 ringforts in Ireland, also known as raths: their high survival rate has more to do with our pastoral form of agriculture than protecting our heritage. They are not really forts (which would usually have dún in their name), just simple embankments of earth or stone designed to protect small groups of farmhouses and their cattle herds. They can date back to the Bronze Age (from 1000BC) but were still being constructed well into the Christian era (from 500AD). Exquisite mapping on the first Ordnance Survey maps from 1834-36 shows tight clusters of ringforts on the hills west of the Flurry River in the townlands of Doolargy and Ballymakellett.
Gleanndorcha, the shallow glen which runs north-south through Doolargy from the Cadger’s Pad to Doonan Hill, has been a hive of both arable and pastoral farming through the millennia. The lazy-bed method of planting did not begin in Famine times: crop ridges around and over the Doonan are under a layer of turf, indicating that they could be Neolithic corn fields. Cropping corn in raised beds made sense if harvesting had to be done with a sickle which was really a cleft stick with flakes of flint set in. Perhaps they were growing rye: right in the middle of the glen is the great Bronze Age fort of Lissachiggel (Lios an tSeagail = fort of the rye). This is a large circular fort more than 80 meters in diameter, probably more ceremonial than defensive. Although dated to the Bronze Age following an excavation in the 1930s, it yielded evidence of habitation through a couple of millennia: it is likely that ruins of 2000-year-old huts were constantly refashioned into booleys. The excavation also yielded moulds for musket balls, probably left by 18th-century rebels or rapparees.
From Lissachiggel there is a good view of Tippings Mount, the little conical hill also known as Trumpet Hill overlooking Bellurgan, the mouth of the Flurry River. This is a key location of An Táin Bó Cuailgne, the Cattle Raid of Cooley. Local legend has it that Cúchulainn had his camp at the foot of the hill while Queen Maeve’s forces were camped on the Bellurgan shore. Every morning Cúchulainn sent his trumpeter to the top of the hill to blow out a challenge for a Connacht champion to meet him in single combat. Every day at noon they met at the Ballymascanlon Ford and every day Cúchulainn lopped the head of another Connachtman.
The Ballymakellett River flows by Trumpet Hill. About a kilometre upstream there is a deep gorge referred to in the Táin as An Dubhchoire (the black cauldron). This is said to be where the Cooley men hid their famous brown bull. But after all the fighting was over, the Connachtmen found the bull quietly grazing with his heifers beside Lissachiggel Fort.
The Táin, of course, is legend, a tale from the sixth century AD about events in the first century, written down in the tenth century. However, it may well reflect some real events in the centuries-long struggle between the men of Ireland and the Pictish kingdom of Ulster. It has such massive cultural significance that scholars have gone to great lengths to interpret and map the ancient place-names mentioned. There is a signposted hiking route called the Táin Trail, but it is of no use in recreating the line of march of Queen Maeve’s armies. They seem to have crossed the Cooley Mountains through the Pass of Annaverna, what we now call the Cadgers’ Pad, and then followed the coast back around the peninsula.
Lumpers were the commonest type of potato in Ireland at the time of the Great Hunger, cheap and bulky and able to grow in the worst unmanured soil. Unfortunately, they were uniquely vulnerable to the blight which came on the summer wind in late August 1845. The Lumpers Pub premises then housed a seed potato dealer known as the Lumper McArdle, according to a plaque in the bar.
A few hundred meters up the side road, a forestry barrier provides access to one of the most extraordinary experiences in these mountains, one particularly recommended for (accompanied) children. This is Foyle’s Way, a riverside route of perhaps 3km named after a visionary hillwalker. It crosses and re-crosses the Ballymakellett River by tiny footbridges: the exact number of crossings is disputed as by some reckoning, crossings of tributaries should not be counted. But let the children count them: my grandson got 27 but that is some years ago, who knows?
Back down where Foyle’s Way starts, the main forestry track leads south towards Round Mountain and along its base there is a particularly well-built wall which fits the bill of a Famine relief scheme. Unfortunately there is no way of knowing for sure. More importantly, since they have no legal protection there is absolutely nothing to stop landowners bulldozing them. On nearby Annaloughan there is a similar wall running right over the mountaintop, but only the lower reaches are well-built. It is quite extraordinary how some walls begin well but building standards seem to decline as they go higher: around Glenmore, some stop dead in a bog.
There is a chilling little monument a couple of hundred meters above the treeline on Annaloughan, a plaque to commemorate 15 Allied airmen who lost their lives when their Liberator bomber crashed in heavy mist in March 1942. The rusting wheel struts of the aircraft can still be seen stuck in a bog. Further information boards were erected recently,
Perhaps the best-known landmark in the Cooleys – certainly the best-named – is the Long Woman’s Grave. There is a great back story about the very tall Spanish woman – sometimes a princess – brought home by a merchant called O’Hanlon, who died from shock and disappointment when she saw the misty wilderness where she was to live. Curiously, the story and the name seem to go back no further than the early 20th century. In earlier times, before it became a road junction, this bowl-shaped dip in the mountains at Corrakit was known as Folach Éireann, usually translated as ‘the hiding place of Ireland”.
Nearby in the angle of two roads is Annagh Bog, where the merchant O’Hanlon is said to have drowned himself over the loss of his tall princess. Nearby too, old walls buried in bracken mark the site of Peggy Tam’s shebeen. One of her regular customers was the poet Séamas Dall MacCuarta, but he was bad for business because he had no money to pay for drink, so Peggy Tam cut off his line of credit. One dark night when Séamas came tapping on the window, she blew out the candle and told the other customers to hunker down and hide on the floor until he went away. He went, but replied with a biting satire called The Cold Houses of Corrakit “where the people know not the ways of hospitality, but hoke in the dirt and the darkness like badgers”.
Above the Long Woman’s Grave, beyond Fox’s Rock and Raven’s Rock rises the steep north face of Slieve Foye, called Eagle’s Rock. The Irish name is Stalcais which means a stubborn, sulky or difficult person: try climbing it straight up and you will understand. Beyond the Long Woman’s Grave is the wide sweep of Glenmore where the western flank of Slieve Foye provides rugged hillwalking. In at the base of the mountain are terraced slopes and a great jumble of house-sized rocks made of gabbro, which I am told is a bit like granite but from deeper down in the volcano.
The lower slopes were a prime booleying area and there are many signs of Famine-era cultivation. All along the New Line from Cornamucklagh to Glenmore many of the family names are typical of mid-Ulster, Monaghan, Cavan and north Armagh, reflecting a local tradition that the mountain townlands were first populated by refugees from the Plantation of Ulster and other upheavals of the 17th century. At Crocknamona in Glenmore, for example, there were nine O’Neill families within a half-mile radius just after the Famine.
Some Famine walls which do not run on townland boundaries, but were clearly build toseparate arable farmland from mountain grazing commonage. One such is the Glenmore mountain wall, which was very well built. Just above the curve in the wall, look out for the zig-zag paths down from the summit. These can be found all over the mountains and we know their precise cause: a horse will often climb straight up or down a hill but a donkey prefers a zig-zag route as it carries its creels of turf down from the bog.
The Glenmore wall runs across to the Altawillian river at Crocknamona. There are clear signs that the river has cut new channels for itself several times before it settled for the deep rocky gorge where it now runs. You can walk the gorge with care for several hundred meters, a very special experience.
Down past the river, heading for the Táin Trail, there is an area of recently cleared forestry around the ruins of an old cottage. According to local legend or superstition, trees were planted up to the old walls but would not grow because in the Penal Days, two Franciscan friars were hanged by the yeomanry from a tree in front of the house.
The Táin Trail crosses the Glenmore valley and then heads for Carlingford up through the saddle – as we hillwalkers say – known as the Golyin Pass (from gualann = shoulder, as in the shoulder of the hill). There is a stunning view from the Pass of Maeve’s Gap, the mighty cleft in the hills which legend says was cut by the Connacht army as an insult to the Cooley men. From the Gap, a steep but safely negotiable trail leads down the the magic place known as the Deserted Village. OK, it’s not really a village as there are only three houses and only one in good condition – it is almost certainly the oldest. The Griffiths Valuation record for 1857 shows that there were three families here: Donnelly, Flynn, and Maguire in the best house. Look out for the tiny sweathouse built into a bank close to this house: you might just mistake it for an ancient dog kennel. This Irish version of the sauna began in the Bronze Age (1000 BC) and had ritual significance for a couple of millennia: according to one theory, its origins have to do with getting rid of human smells before going hunting.
In the field behind the Maguire house there is a small Neolithic passage grave, probably dating from around 3500 BC, in the angle of the ditches. These graves were once covered by great mounds of stone like mini-Newgranges, but in the great rush to enclose fields on landlord instructions in the early 1800s, stones were pulled away to build nearby ditches. Superstition must have kicked in when they revealed the orthostats or standing stones, as these are seldom disturbed.
The area below Maeve’s Gap, South Commons, roughly marks the transition from volcanic rocks such as granite and gabbro to limestone. Close to the Deserted Village are two old kilns where crushed limestone was burned for several days to make lime, not just to make mortar for building, but to counteract acidity in the soil for growing potatoes or corn. A cholera epidemic in the 1830s introduced the practice of whitewashing house interiors as a hygiene measure and this led to new kilns being constructed. Limestone, turf and wood were loaded in layers from the top and then fired from the bottom: the opening at the front was for controlling the draught and rate of burn.
The most interesting way to climb Slieve Foye is an anti-clockwise route north from Carlingford along the forestry trail to the Slieve Foye Forest Park. Start at the north end of Carlingford across from the entrance to the Castle, where a grassy path curves behind a fine stone house and heads for the hill (thin red line). This is the Badger’s Pad, named not for the local wildlife but for a man called McKevitt who once lived here and whose house still stands, slowly crumbling up at the treeline. From there make your way up through the woods and head north for about 2km on the forestry trail to the Forest Park. Follow a rough path on to the Two-Mile River and then climb along the river, going left where it forks, until you are in a boggy saddle with Eagle Rock above on the right and a view of Glenmore valley ahead. Go left (south-east, thick red line) and follow the ridge to the summit of Foye, where a well-marked path (thin red line) will take you to the Táin Trail on the Golyin Pass and back to Carlingford.
From Foye there are great views of Greer’s Quay, built as a Famine relief scheme in 1847-48 to exploit the flourishing herring fisheries.
It is now a major start point for the Omeath-Carlingford Greenway on the old Newry-Greenore railway line. The kilometer or so from the quay to the bridge on the Two-MIle River is of historical interest because of a minor battle that took place in the Nine Years’ War. On 12th November 1600 an English army under Lord Mountjoy marching out of Newry was attacked here by the forces of Hugh O’Neill. It is said that 40 men may have been killed but neither side kept good records and neither side told the truth about casualties. The Slieve Foye Forest Park not far away is a great starting point for easy strolls on good forestry tracks. From the top car park a rougher track leads south towards Carlingford along the top of the forest: be prepared for steep descents at the end. If you fancy something a bit more strenuous, from the lower car park head up along the Two-Mile River and veer right (north) for Eagle’s Rock. At 528 meters it is just 50 meters less than the summit of Foye: the views towards Narrowwater and the Newry Ship Canal make it worth the effort.
In the lower car park you can get a closeup view of a fragment of Famine wall right by the picnic tables (circled in orange). It runs on up the hillside to the north of the Two-Mile River, traditional boundary between Carlingford and Omeath (circled in red). Further up the hillside on the Ballyonan (Omeath) side another wall descends in the direction of Greer’s Quay: it seems to have been built to demarcate an old forested area (which the landlord, the Marquis of Anglesea, would have retained for his own use) from commonage grazing above and enclosed fields below.
Hillwalking is great, and it gets even better when you know a little about the mountains, when you can interpret the landscape and spot how humans have shaped and moulded it over the millennia. History is not just an abstract litany of dates and kings and battles, it is right there in front of you in the walls and the booleys and the lazy beds and the burial cairns. You can reach out and touch this history.
This lightning tour of the Cooleys was just an appetiser: if it is to your taste there are two ways to follow up and get more.
The Cooley mountains have a great number of ancient place-names because they have been so intensively used for grazing and turf-cutting for centuries. In 2015 the place-names were systematically recorded by a team including Omeath man Andrew McGuinness, and an academic study was produced which is available online: https://www.academia.edu/20142648/Mapping_the_Minor_Place_Names_of_the_Cooley_Mountains_Mourne_Cooley_Gullion_Geo_Bursary_Scheme_Report_November_2015
It contains about 250 references to place-names across more than ten townlands. The old booley sites such as Tullagh Glen provide the most densely described areas and there are numerous references to grasslands and grazing. A typical entry might look like this:
“Gar Drummin, Cloney Owel, Tullaghomeath
Informant: Frank Mullins, Bavan (RNíM), Andrew McGuinness, Ardaghy (EC).
References: Ní Mhurchú (2000), Ó Dubhda (1914, 234).
Description: The Gar Drummin, also known as Cloney Owel, is a long narrow ridge of ground flanking the
townland boundary stream to its north (190m by 40m). The Dá Abhann streams flow north to meet the ridge,
and flow around its southeast side. To the southwest it is enclosed by an earth and stone bank. The area is
covered with cultivation ridges. To the north of the ridge its steps down to the townland boundary stream.
Mari Tarnie (see below) is located on one of these steps. There is another unnamed oval hut site on another
In 2021 with funding from the Heritage Council we took about a hundred of these place-name entries and wove them together with five stories related to the mountains:
- The Cadgers’ Pad, the route for carrying herring to Dundalk
- Booleying, the summer grazing communities in the ‘mari’ huts
- The Táin – the Cattle Raid of Cooley
- The Montiagh expulsions: post-Famine clearances in Moneycrockroe
- “Oneillsville”: Plantation refugees from mid-Ulster in Glenmore.
The result was a 20-minute video called “The Mountains of Cooley”, available on YouTube: