The day dawns with perhaps as blue a sky as I ever thought possible in Northern Ireland. Certainly the weather is in distinct, sharp contrast to that which accompanied my first attempt to ascend Slieve Gullion a week before, that attempt aborted before even leaving the car due to a very low cloud base. In retrospect I'm glad I didn't push my luck, although I admit it would have probably been easier, yet undeniably foolhardy to carry on with such a prize waiting at the summit.
Slieve Gullion, at 1,894ft (573m) is the highest point in South Armagh and focal point of a vast ampitheatre of volcanic hills encircling the border town of Newry known as 'The Ring of Gullion'. Newry, infamous within the context of recent Anglo-Irish relations, is, on a happier note, the birthplace of the great Arsenal/Tottenham goalkeeper Pat Jennings. Reaching much further back into the mists of time, legendary Irish heroes such as Cuchulain, Fionn MacCumhail and the Red Branch are closely linked with this fine little mountain.
Those megalithically inclined - or even simply looking for a majestic view - are helped by a well maintained, well signposted 'Slieve Gullion Forest Drive', itself offering panoramic views, which can be followed to a car-park on the western shoulder of the peak. Here, a steep path heads eastwards towards the southern summit.... apparently there was a sign, but it keeps getting periodically, er, removed by persons unknown, so please make sure valuables etc are locked away out of sight. The terrain consists of springy peat, although erosion has made the path steep in places. Nevertheless the trek should not be overly taxing, the retrospective views over the surrounding countryside stunning and ample compensation for any flagging limbs.
Then, upon reaching the top, there's the magnificent passage grave crowning the summit, one of the highest 'opened' examples in Ireland. Although not quite in the same class as the Seefin cairn upon the Wicklows (it being much more accessible and thus bearing a little unsightly grafitti - but, hey, so does Maes Howe, albeit Viking!) it remains an outstanding example of this type of monument. The traveller is required to stoop in order to traverse the low entrance passage, the flanks of which are comprised of very large slabs, and emerge into the tall central chamber within the massive cairn. This is octagonal with a rear recess lined with orthostats, the interior illuminated with a stream of sunlight from a grilled sylight in the roof. Interestingly the aforementioned recess appears to contain a bowl-like receptacle similar to that within the great tomb at Newgrange.
I stay within the cool of the interior for a considerable time before finally emerging to take in the views; the Cooley Peninsular and sea to the south east, the Mountains of Mourne across Carlingford Lough to the east and, to the north beyond Callaigh Berra's Lough, the northern summit of Slieve Gullion bearing another, although chamberless cairn. Sadly, however, I've spent so much time inside that I must now begin the descent...
Incidentally it would appear that 'Callaigh Berra' is a reference to the 'hag' incarnation of the Mother Goddess trinity. According to legend, the giant Finn Macool (him again) was persuaded by Callaigh Berra to take a dip within the lough only to be transformed into a grey haired old man. It seems he managed to get his youth back (ha!) but was nevertheless left with the dodgy peroxide barnet. Because he was 'worth it', probably. A lesson to us all.
The cairn is rather convex at top; in the centre is the mouth of the cavern; the roof is formed by large flat stones, regularly placed to support the incumbent weight, and in the descent lapped over each other with a sufficient bearing. I have been told that within is a spacious apartment, and that, but a few years ago, it was easily entered; but now there are such huge blocks rolled in, and the entrance is so very narrow, that they could not be removed but by mechanic powers.
From the mouth of the cave there extends a wide and regular range of flagging to the edge of the lake, evidently the work of hands; it is said by the peasants in this district to be the roof of a covered passage, but this seems very improbable, as the soil here is a deep wet bog, which could not bear an excavation to support so great a weight as these flags must have; it rather appears to have been a dry passage outside from the cave to the lake, though, indeed, the magnitude of the stones, adn the same kind not being found in other parts of the mountain, render it very improbable that they should be carried up this long and steep way for any secondary or immaterial purpose.
He then mentions that 'there is no doubt' that this cavern was once the abode of robbers like the celebrated O'Hanlon ('long the scourge and terror both of farmers and travellers') - but this reads as romantic speculation despite his certainty.
p38 of 'Statistical Survey of the County of Armagh' by Sir Charles Coote (1804), now online at Google Books.