The highest mountain in the Mournes, and indeed all of Northern Ireland, is Slieve Donard (850m/2,789 feet).
In ancient times, the mountain was known as Sliabh Slainge, named after Slanga, a Partholan prince of Grecian roots who came to these shores after the battle of Troy. Its summit cairn came to be known as ‘Slainges Cairn’, in which today is the Great Carn. According to the Annals of the Four Masters, Slanga’s final resting place is allegedly under this large cairn, and so it was that the mountain was named after him.
This name stood for around 2,000 years until the arrival of St. Patrick’s follower St. Domangard in the 5th century. Domangard, like other great Irish Saints, found solace of the heavens on such lofty heights, so much so that he built an oratory on the summit. They say that the stones of the Great Carn may have once been part of the Saint’s oratory and even his passage grave. And so, it soon became known and accepted as Sliabh Domangard, and now Donard is thought to be a corrupt form of this name.
I’ve climbed Slieve Donard many times, over different seasons of the year and each time from a different direction. Climbing a mountain from a different direction is a way to really get to know it. You’ll also get to appreciate the contrasting views, have new experiences and sample a varied degree of difficulty. Here are three different approaches to the summit of this popular mountain, along with a lower-level option around its foothills for a shorter and easier day out.
Summit From Newcastle
This is regarded as the most popular route up Slieve Donard. Starting from Donard Park, the trail makes its way up a lovely stretch of woodland populated with birch, holly, oak and rowan. It later follows the course of the Glen River, passing green slopes of firs and pines. You’ll also pass a domed stone structure dating back to the nineteenth century that was once used as an ‘ice house’ by locals.
As you follow a well-defined trail uphill, you’ll come across granite everywhere. Granite rocks are strewn about the grass, granite boulders decorate the riverside and granite slabs line the path, all the way until it reaches the Mourne Wall. This monumental structure stretches for some 35km (22 miles) and took almost 18 years to complete in 1922. It was built when Water Commissioners identified the Mourne as an ideal natural source for supplying clean water to an ever-expanding Belfast.
Once at the Mourne Wall, it’s a simple turn left but a steep climb to the summit. You’ll have the Wall for company throughout and if you need a breather turn around for a glimpse of an ever-improving mountain vista.
The steepness finally relents once you reach the stone lookout tower on top, with a trig pillar placed there to mark the summit. Check out both the Great Carn and Lesser Carn too, with the latter supposedly an ancient burial cairn and from there you’ll enjoy a beautiful view of Dundrum Bay.
There’s an expansive view of mountains too, starting with Donard’s nearby neighbours Slieve Commedagh and Chimney Rock Mountain, then the range of peaks across the Annalong Valley as far as Slieve Binnian and the jagged tors of Slieve Bearnagh. On a very clear day, even the distant profile of the Wicklow Mountains and the Isle of Man can also be seen.
Summit From Bloody Bridge
Another route to the summit of Slieve Donard is from the east along the Bloody Bridge track. The original bridge lies a few hundred meters upstream from the present one that crosses the coast road. Now wreathed in ivy, the old single stone arch bridge is almost a forgotten antiquity. In his 1900 book Official Guide to County Down and the Mourne Mountains Robert Lloyd Praeger writes that the old Bloody Bridge “… derives its gruesome name from the massacre of a number of protestants of Newry, including their minister, in the troubled year of 1641 at the instigation of Sir Conn Magennis”.
Starting from Bloody Bridge car-park, follow a track that runs westward along its river. The track initially meanders along the river decorated by rock pools, then later passes beneath an unused railway line at Carr’s Face to finally reach an old quarry at Crannoge, a mini-amphitheatre of sliced vertiginous rocks.
Once here, the track turns stony and rocky, ascending due west to finally reach the iconic Mourne Wall. Following the Wall, turn right for a steep pull up to Donard’s summit.
Summit From Meelmore Lodge including Slieve Commedagh
This is the connoisseur’s route for Slieve Donard and my favourite. You’ll not only get to stand on top of Northern Ireland’s highest, but you’ll also top out on three additional Mourne peaks – Slievenaglogh, Slieve Corragh and Slieve Commedagh.
The trail initially takes you along the Trassey Track, passing under the mighty Spellack – a vertiginous cliff-face whose many buttresses and gullies were shaped by the movement of glacial ice around 10,000 years ago. Today, its sheer precipices are a haven for rock-climbers on routes named Ariel, Cabin Cruise and Scarface.
After crossing the Trassey River, the trail veers left with a rocky ascent up to Hare’s Gap, a dramatic mountain pass where you can appreciate the cirque of mountains that surround the wide valley ahead.
Veer left at the Gap and follow the Mourne Wall over the three aforementioned summits (note to get to the actual summit of Slieve Commedagh you need to do a short out-and-back to its large cairn). Along this stretch, enjoy splendid views to the south toward Ben Crom Reservoir and its surrounding hills. Once pass Commedagh, drop down to a col between it and Donard followed by a final steep pull up to its summit.
Later, descend back down the way you came, and at the col cross the ladder stile over the Wall then veer right to meet a trail known as the Brandy Pad. This was an old smuggler’s path back in the 18th century where ponies were strapped with illicit stock of brandy, tobacco, wine and silk. The trail meanders below some curiously shaped rocky pinnacles and outcrops known as The Castle and also gives fabulous views of the Annalong Valley and Ben Crom Reservoir as it makes its way back to Hare’s Gap.
Hike the Foothills of Donard
The Granite Trail is a waymarked route that links a number of sites in the area associated with the granite industry of the late eighteenth century. This industry thrived up to World War II, where Mourne granite was dressed and supplied as kerbs and cobblestones for booming cities of industrial Britain. In recent times, the same granite was used in the 911 British Memorial Garden (New York), Hans Christian Anderson statue in Central Park (New York), Parliament Buildings in Stormont (Belfast) and the “Silence” Water Feature at the Connaught Hotel (London).
Assuming you do the trail in a clockwise direction, you’ll first come across an old funicular railway which once rattled from old quarries on the hillside down to King Street near the sea. This railway was named The Bogie Line after iron trucks or ‘bogies’ which transported local granite to be shipped from Newcastle quay. The original line, built by John Lynn in 1824, had cables attached to a pair of bogies on rails, with the weight of the fully loaded descending bogie assisting to haul the empty one up.
You’ll later get good views of Dundrum Bay through the trees as height is gained. At the top of the tree line, you’ll reach a ladder stile and a wooden gate by a fence. Here you’ll find a wooden Shoddy Hut, used as shelter by stoneworkers involved in building the Mourne Wall. Its name originated from pieces of granite or ‘shoddies’ that remained after dressing stone. Each Shoddy came complete with tools, bellows and furnace.
Cross the stile then turn right onto a trail that runs near the forest edge. The imposing mass of Millstone Mountain rises to the left as the path rises gently uphill to reach a large quarry below Thomas’s Mountain. The trail later crosses the Glen River before winding its way down the foothills of Donard back to base.
About The Blogger
Adrian Hendroff is a member of the Outdoor Writers & Photographer’s Guild and a Mountaineering Ireland approved course provider. He is a fully-insured mountain guide and runs regular navigation and Mountain Skills courses. Adrian has written several Irish walking guidebooks for the Collins Press and is a regular contributor to newspaper/magazine features. He also runs outdoor photography workshops. More on Adrian see www.adrianhendroff.com or www.fabulousviewpoints.com