History of Slieve Donard

Landscape of the Mournes

Slieve Donard’s dramatic granite peak dominates the Mourne Mountain range and standing at 852m is the tallest mountain in Northern Ireland. The area is steeped in fascinating history, with settlements dating from the Late Mesolithic period (c.5500-4000 BC) and we know Viking raiders, Gaelic lords, and Anglo-Normans were all active in the region.

The two cairns on the summit of Slieve Donard are both recorded prehistoric archaeological monuments. The south-west side of the summit of Slieve Donard is crowned by the “Great Cairn” (c.3,300-3,000 BC) housing Ireland’s highest passage tomb. Two hundred metres away to the north-east is the Bronze Age “Lesser Cairn” (c.2,300-1950 BC), which overlooks Newcastle.

View from Slieve Donard's Lesser Cairn
View from the summit of Slieve Donard towards Murlough
View from Slieve Donard's Lesser Cairn

Where did the mountain get its name?

Slieve Donard itself takes its name from St. Domhanghart (known by his Anglicised name, St. Donard) who had removed himself from society, converted the cairns into a hermitage and oratory and lived on the summit until his death in AD 506, later giving his name to the mountain. Pilgrimages to the summit sanctified by St. Donard are documented from 1645 to the 19th century but may have been going on much longer. Held on the last Sunday of July, Slieve Donard was one of Ireland’s four principal Lughnasa pilgrimages (the others being at Croagh Patrick, Co. Mayo; Mount Brandon, Co. Kerry; and Church Mountain, Co. Wicklow).

The Lesser Cairn at the summit of Slieve Donard
The Lesser Cairn on Slieve Donard
The Lesser Cairn at the summit of Slieve Donard

Modern history

In 1826 the Royal Engineers used the cairns to establish base stations on the summit for the Principal Triangulation of Ireland in advance of the Ordnance Survey six-inch-to-one-mile scale maps. The original construction of the Mourne Wall between 1904 and 1922 by the Belfast Water Commissioners to enclose the water catchment in the Mournes then added to changes to the structure of the Great Cairn.

The region was designated as an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty in 1986, and the National Trust bought the 1,300acre site which includes Slieve Donard, Slieve Commedagh, Thomas Mountain, Millstone Mountain and Shan Slieve from the Annesley Estate in 1991. The Annesley family had owned the land since the 1700s. The National Trust continues to work to protect and preserve its history for future generations.