Slieve Gullion - The jewel in the district’s crown

Tuesday, 5 August 2014

For those seeking the thrill and intrigue of Irish myth and legend or a taste of native culture in poetry, music and song a visit to the Ring of Gullion in south Armagh is certain not to disappoint.
The area is officially designated as an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB) which only serves to enhance the sense of magic and wonder of this special place.
Perhaps the most famous of the legends associated with the area is that Slieve Gullion played a key role in the life of the legend, Cú Chulainn.
Cú Chulainn
According to folklore, the mountain of Slieve Gullion is named after Culann the metalsmith, who lived on its slopes. It is here that Sétanta spent his boyhood and was given the name Cú Chulainn.
Culann invited Conchobhar mac Neasa, king of Ulster, to a feast at his house on the slopes of Slieve Gullion. On his way, Conchobhar stopped at the playing field to watch the boys play hurling. So impressed was he by Sétanta's performance that he asked him to join him at the feast. Sétanta duly promised to join him after he finished his game. Conchobhar went ahead, but he forgot about Sétanta, and that evening Culann let loose his ferocious hound to guard his house as it was a dangerous place because of raiders and the like. When Sétanta arrived, the hound attacked him, but he killed it. Some say by smashing it against a standing stone, and others by driving a sliotar down its throat with his hurley.
Culann was devastated by the loss of his prized hound, so Sétanta promised to rear him a replacement and until it was old enough to do the job, he himself would guard Culann's house. The druid Cathbhadh announced that his name from that day forward would be Cú Chulainn, "Culann's Hound."
In the Táin Bó Cuailnge, commonly known as the Cattle raid of Cooley, at the nearby Gap of the North is where Cú Chulainn single-handedly fended-off the army of Méabh while the warriors of Ulster were under a spell.
The Calliagh Berra's Lake
Visitors to the area can also follow in the footsteps of the legendary Irish Warrior Fionn Mac Cumhaill (or Finn McCool). Legend has it that the Fianna warrior walked up the slopes of Slieve Gullion to the lake near the summit to find a beautiful young lady sobbing on the water's edge.
Being a gentleman he enquired as to why she was crying. She replied that she had dropped her golden ring in the bottomless lake. Without a moment's hesitation Fionn ripped off his shirt and dived in, swam down until he found the ring, grabbed it and returned to the top only to find an old hag laughing, the Calliagh Berra.
The witch had tricked Fionn and he fell out on the lake's shore as an old withered man. When Fionn came down the mountain, no-one recognised him, not even the Fianna! However, when his trustworthy Irish Hounds smelled the old man they knew that he was their Master. Fionn, the Fianna, and the hounds forced the Calliagh Berra to restore Fionn to his youth, but it is said that his hair remained white like an old man's for the rest of his life, and that his fate is said to befall anyone who bathes in the lake to this very day. Are you bold enough to take a dip in the Calliagh Berra's lake?
The Calliagh Berra's House
The huge burial cairn located on the summit of the mountain, the South Cairn, is known as The Calliagh Berra's House and is the highest surviving passage tomb in Ireland or the UK.
Visitors can crawl into the burial chamber via a passageway in the side of the cairn. A skylight allows light to enter, so a torch is not needed. The earliest documented investigation of the site dates to 1789, when the chamber was opened by locals searching for the old lady Cailleach Beara, but only a few human bones were found, the Calliagh Berra's?
Music, poetry and the arts
The people of the Ring of Gullion and the whole south of County Armagh has a wonderful tradition of music, song and poetry.
The ceilidh probably best exemplifies the community spirit of the area, as it does throughout Ireland. These communal coming togethers helped bond people through harsh, unforgiving times by not only entertaining the people but also allowing everyone to share the work load and contribute in so far as they were able to do so.
From late medieval times and probably earlier the whole of south Armagh was a notable centre of Irish poetry, and Creggan churchyard is famous as the burial place of poets. This was celebrated in former names for the area, still used in the 18th century - Ceantar na nAmhran (The District of Songs) and Ceantar na bhFill (the District of Poets).
The area was also the last gaeltacht in Northern Ireland. In the 2001 Census some 9 per cent to 17 per cent of people were recorded as being able to speak, read, write and understand Irish. Today, festivals, storytelling, publications, townland drama festivals, ceilidhs and dances all give expression to this heritage. Initiatives such as the Poet's Trail, and assertion of the Urney Graveyard Path as a public right of way give physical access to sites associated with local poets and, through interpretative panels and guidebooks, introduce visitors to the poetry of the area.
Lislea, a small settlement to the north-west of Slieve Gullion provides an important and long established annual drama festival which draws players from all over the country to perform traditional plays in the Old Schoolhouse Theatre.
Built Heritage
The area abounds with archaeological and historical features, having been settled for at least 6000 years. Historic monuments and buildings include prehistoric tombs, cashels, churches and other prominent buildings.
The remains of 20 or so large stone tombs can be found in the Ring of Gullion. Many, such as Ballymacdermot are situated in prominent positions with commanding views over the surrounding countryside.
The King's Ring at Clontygora, and the Ballymacdermot tomb are two of the best examples of court tombs in the North of Ireland.
An outstanding example of a portal tomb is the monument at Ballykeel and the South Cairn at the top of Slieve Gullion is the highest surviving Passage Tomb in Britain or Ireland. Digs at several of these burial monuments have unearthed stone tools, pottery and human remains whilst areas around Carlingford Lough such as Cooley, Mourne and Gullion, have seen human habitation for centuries.
Proposals for an Area of Significant Archaeological Interest covering the Dorsey Earthworks and surrounding lands, as a feature of wider importance to the whole of Northern Ireland are also in place in the AONB. The Dorsey forms a large enclosure or double set of earthworks thought to be part of Ulster's defences in the Iron Age and possibly controlling access along an important route to Navan Fort near Armagh. "Dorsey" is derived from the Gaelic, Na Doirse, which means "the Gateways".

Cultural Heritage
The Ring of Gullion has its' own particular cultural heritage. The people of the area share cultural traditions closely identified with the countryside. Many of these can be attributed to the past difficulties in communication between townland communities which were separated by mountain, bog or stream. Townland names in the area continue to bear testament to the area's cultural landscape, its heroes and heroines and the families who tended the land.
Nestling close to Camlough Mountain are the mill villages of Camlough and Bessbrook, which would have provided employment to people all over the Ring of Gullion in days gone by. Linen working has been associated with Bessbrook since 1752 but the village is now probably best known for its "Model" village built from 1845 by John Richardson, a Quaker, to provide housing, educational and social facilities for their workforce in the spinning mills.
The thatched Derrymore House, a National Trust property, is believed to have been where the Act of Union was drafted in 1800. The house was built by Isaac Corry, MP for Newry in the Irish House of Commons for 30 years from 1776.
Farming continues to be very important in the Ring of Gullion with small farms the norm.
Traditionally, farmland in the area between Slieve Gullion and the ring of hills would have been divided into strips of rectangular fields, each strip originally worked as one farm. In the past many farms would have grown some crops of oats and potatoes but now grassland and cattle dominate.

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