Museum Launches New Year Book

17 May 2012

Museum Launches New Year Book


A new book entitled ‘The Archaeology of Slieve Donard: A cultural biography of Ulster’s highest mountain’, was launched by Down County Museum at Tollymore National Outdoor Centre on Tuesday 15 May.

The book is the work of Sam Moore, a prehistorian and landscape archaeologist who lectures in Applied Archaeology at the Institute of Technology in Sligo. Sam spent a considerable time living in Castlewellan, Co Down, and while working in Down County Museum he developed an interest and passion for the Mourne Mountains in general, and Slieve Donard’s rich cultural heritage.


His book on Slieve Donard was made possible through the assistance of many individuals and agencies. In 2009 the Heritage Council of the Republic of Ireland granted Down County Museum a Research Grant of €6,750 for Sam’s research on the archaeology of Slieve Donard, and his findings, including the first conclusive map evidence of the 5000 year old passage tomb on the summit of the mountain, were safely lodged in the Museum archives. However, both Sam and Curator Mike King wished to bring the findings to a wider audience, and fortunately, publication was made possible early this year by a successful application to the Northern Ireland Environment Agency for a grant of £6600 for printing the book.


Significant support was received from Margaret Ritchie, MP, who was present at the launch and commented, “This is a wonderful book which presents an interesting, informative, and instructive perspective on Slieve Donard. It illustrates very clearly the pre-eminent position of Slieve Donard in the Mournes. Above all, it illustrates the importance of this mountain in the geological, cultural and historical evolution of this island. I pay tribute to Sam Moore for this outstanding and illuminating piece of work”.

Assistance was also received from the Mourne Heritage Trust and the National Trust in completing both the research and the book. Director of the Mourne Heritage Trust, Martin Carey said, “Sam’s research has uncovered a wealth of wonderful stories about the most prominent peak in the Mournes, to the extent that even many of those who thought they knew the mountain intimately can now see it in many different lights. In Mourne Heritage Trust we are very grateful for what will be a great resource to support our work in promoting understanding and appreciation of the special qualities of the Mourne Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty”.

The book has something of interest for all, as it covers areas of geology, archaeology, history, geography, science, folklore and myth which will captivate the reader, and encourage everyone to go walking in the Mournes to seek out the clues to Slieve Donard’s fascinating life-story. The book will be a useful guide for local people familiar with the Mournes and tourists visiting the region alike. The book is the latest in Down County Museum’s Down Survey series, annual publications which have been produced since 1997 to shed light on important museum collections and archaeological and historical subjects relating to Co Down.

Slieve Donard in Co Down is the highest mountain in Ulster and the seventh highest mountain in Ireland at 849m above sea level. Sited dramatically at the eastern edge of the Mourne Mountains, with its granite summit only 3km from the northern half of Irish Sea, it provides spectacular views in all directions. Various mythical and legendary characters are associated with the summit including Boirche, a magical cowherd, Mad MacSweeney and Fionn MacCumhaill. The summit has two large circular piles of stone on it; the Great Cairn which is a 5000 year old Neolithic passage tomb, and the Lesser Cairn, which may be a 3500 year old Bronze Age burial site. Both cairns have been extensively altered through time with the construction of an oratory and cell in them when they were converted by the hermit, St Donard. He was son of a local pagan chieftain and became an important disciple of St Patrick whose holy acts made him one of Ireland’s early saints. Subsequent alterations to the cairns occurred that were linked to the actions of pilgrims who would visit the summit on the last Sunday of July, the ancient Irish festival of Lughnasa, up to the early 19th century. Slieve Donard became regarded as one of Ireland’s four principal Lughnasa Mountain Assemblies (the others being Croagh Patrick, Co Mayo; Mount Brandon, Co Kerry and Church Mountain, Co Wicklow). In the early nineteenth century the summit became the base for the Royal Engineers who spent several months there in 1826 during the commencement of the Ordnance Survey’s mapping of Ireland. The Great Cairn was partially dismantled during the construction of the 35km long Mourne Wall. This was built between 1904 and 1922 by the Belfast Water Commissioners to enclose the water catchments in the high Mournes. Today, large numbers of hill walkers visit the summit to enjoy the remarkable views with most not realising what an extraordinarily rich and diverse history the summit holds.

This book contains in-depth research into the story of the summit of Slieve Donard from its very origins geologically up to today. It focuses on the prehistory and pilgrimage aspects of its story and examines related sites around the region including the large number of megalithic tombs and other sites around the mountain, as well as St Donard’s monastery at Maghera and the church site St Mary’s near the Bloody Bridge. It offers interpretations of why the summit resonated with importance during the prehistoric and medieval periods, and hopes to raise an awareness of the diverse cultural wealth the Mourne Mountains and region in general contain. The new book contains 172 pages, with many attractive illustrations, plans and photographs and will be available from Down County Museum’s shop priced at £10. For further details please telephone 028 4461 5218.