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History of Slieve Donard

Slieve Donard, Mourne Mountains, County Down, Northern Ireland
Slieve Donard, Mourne Mountains | © National Trust Images/Joe Cornish

Slieve Donard’s dramatic granite peak dominates the Mourne Mountain range and standing at 852m it is the tallest mountain in Northern Ireland. The area is steeped in history, with settlements dating as far back as 5,500 BC and we know Viking raiders, Gaelic lord, 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) which houses Ireland’s highest passage tomb.

Two hundred metres to the north-east is the Bronze Age ’Lesser Cairn’ (c. 2,300-1950 BC), which overlooks Newcastle.

Slieve Donard, Mourne Mountains, County Down, Northern Ireland
Slieve Donard, Mourne Mountains | © National Trust Images/Joe Cornish

Where did the mountain get its name?

Slieve Donard takes its name from St.Donard, a hermit who lived on the summit.

St. Domhanghart (known by his Anglicised name, St. Donard) 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 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).

Visitors walking at the Brandy Pad, an ancient smugglers' route, Mourne Mountains, County Down, Northern Ireland
Visitors walking at the Brandy Pad, The Mournes | © National Trust Images/Joe Cornish

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 was between 1904-22 by the Belfast Water Commissioners, to enclose the water catchment in the Mournes, then added to changes to the structure of the Great Cairn.

Designated as AONB

The region was designated as an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB) in 1986, and the National Trust bought the 1,300 acre 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 Trust continues to care for the landscape for future generations.

The Mournes have long inspired songwriters and storytellers, and the mountains were immortalised in a song written by Percy French in 1896, 'Mountains o'Mourne' and famously by Don McLean.

They also influenced C.S. Lewis to write ‘The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe’.

A view across water to the Mourne Mountains in the distance surrounded by foothills and trees

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