Walk for the Weekend: Cooley Mountains, Co Louth

Hiking the storied landscape, where Maeve marched her army to steal a brown bull

I met a young Frenchman high up on Croaghaun Mountain on Achill last August. He was just standing there, taking in the islands and shining sands, and the wide bays embracing a lazy Atlantic swell. He was so overcome that he could only whisper to me that I “lived in the most beautiful country”! And of course, he was right. There is nowhere like the West, and especially the incomparable wild places of Connacht.

But now we were venturing into the perhaps less spectacular, but more storied, landscape of the Cooley Mountains in Ireland's Ancient East. Situated beside the ancient provinces of Midhe and Ulaidh and the long-contested Gap of the North, this is a place rich in legend and history, and the stony signatures of prehistory. Maeve, Queen of beautiful Connacht, marched her army here on a mission to steal a brown bull, and in so doing graced the Cooley Peninsula with perhaps the greatest epic story in old Irish literature. The mountains here will richly reward the hiker, in terms of surprisingly wild topography and great views, and a prior visit to their intriguing stories and a range of excellent looped walks at Carlingford and Cooley Peninsula is a must.

‘Spine’

We came on a late March day to walk, more or less, the “spine” of the mountains, from Ravensdale Bridge to beautiful Carlingford village. My companion’s brother kindly delivered us to the start, in disappointingly misty conditions. But soon a hint of sun, as we progressed up Ben Rock from Anaverna, was warming the dusty browns of last year’s ferns, broken by winter wind, snow and trampling animals. An envelope of bright shining mist on Clermont Cairn didn’t encourage a hangout, and we struck south-south-east down a sinuous mountain spine towards cairned Carnawaddy and the Windy Gap. A high blue sky soon lifted the mist and mood and encouraged a fast, elated pace over the easy underfoot terrain of this first section of our walk; along the way, we noted with relish that bold, rocky outcrops dominated the next mountain section from the Windy Gap; this would require care, and a challenge in keeping to the “spine”, all the way to Slieve Foye (589m).

Having paid homage at the unfortunate “Long Woman’s Grave”, we entered this section on a discernible path, mostly skirting “the Foxe’s Rock”, “the Ravens’ Rock”, “the Split Rock” and “the Eagle’s Rock”. All the time now, we were really enjoying the sunshine and the feel of the dark sun-warmed gabbro rock, the views down into the great, one-time glacial fjord of Carlingford Lough, and across to the nearby Mournes.

After Slieve Foye, some signage seemed to direct us down a gully west-north-west of Carlingford village. After initial care in the gully, a clear sunny evening and firm ground eased us quickly and pleasantly down to our car, and a fruitless search for chips! However, definite care, in terms of route-finding and footwork, is required on this descent, especially in wet, low visibility conditions.

Walk for the Weekend: Cooley Mountains, Co Louth

Map: OS sheet 36
Effort: 1200m, 15km, 5/6hrs
Start: Ravensdale Bridge on R174 19km from Greenore (alternative start Lumpers Pub parking at Ravensdale, follow Tain Way to pass at 430m, then to Clermont)
Finish: Carlingford village
Suitability: high level of fitness; mountain navigation skills essential

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