Newry, Mourne and Down tourism: £1.8m funding boost

By Cormac Campbell
BBC News NI South East Reporter

  • Published
Slieve Gullion
Image caption,
Slieve Gullion in south Armagh is a major attractions for tourists

The Newry, Mourne and Down District Council area has received £1.8m (€2m) of European funding to enhance the region's tourism offering.

The investment aims to increase the number of visitors through the sustainable integration of intangible cultural heritage.

It forms part of the Atlantic Culture Scape initiative.

The scheme will see the council link up with other projects in Wales, Spain, Portugal and the Republic of Ireland.

Programmes arising from INTERRREG VB Atlantic Area funding in Newry, Mourne and Down will begin to be rolled out from early next year.

'World renowned music'

Ring of Gullion Landscape Partnership manager, Darren Rice, confirmed receipt of the funding during the local winter solstice celebrations, which focus on Slieve Gullion.

"We have world renowned music that is sought all over the world and really fantastic story-telling and dance," he said.

"But Friday (21 December) is the shortest day of the year and about 4,500 years ago the people in this area built a passage tomb on Slieve Gullion and at sunset at about 4pm the sun will hit the horizon and shine into the passage and light will light up the chamber inside.

Image caption,
Darren Rice said the area could boast "really fantastic story-telling and dance"

"It is the highest surviving passage tomb in Ulster - older than the pyramids of Giza."

Darren adds: "It would have been built around the same time as Newgrange. Newgrange is the rising sun and ours is the setting sun."

En route to the summit, Darren outlines some of the intangible heritage of the area and the tomb which is named after the witch Calliagh Bearra.

"Down the country Fionn mac Cumhaill (Finn McCool) was hunting with his Fianna and one day the dogs took off up Slieve Gullion," he said.

"He said he would follow them. When he got to the lake he saw a woman crying on the lough shore.

"He asked her what was wrong. She said her ring fell into the lake. Some say it is a bottomless lake but that didn't bother Fionn who dived into the lake.

"He couldn't find a ring though and as soon as he set foot on the shore he turned in to a withered old man.

"The Fianna went looking for the old witch and found her in the witch's cave and that's where we are going today. When they got there they made her make him young again.

"So don't go swimming in the lake on top of Slieve Gullion or your hair will turn white!," warns Darren.

'A scene no matter what'

This walk begins at Slieve Gullion's top car park.

Image caption,
The passage tomb at Slieve Gullion is believed to be 4,500 years old

It's about half way up - but there is still 200ft more to climb spread over a walk of about a kilometre and a half.

On the way up the weather is changeable.

From cloudy to beautiful sunshine and back to cloudy again.

However, our guide Margaret McNamee of Gap O' the North walking club insists we will still be able to experience light entering the chamber.

"They would have been really in touch with the natural cycle when this was built," she explains.

"We grew up at the foot of the mountain and we would have heard stories about the mountain but we never really spoke of the solstice back then.

"You will get a scene no matter what because the winter solstice is going to happen no matter what.

"So it is just a question of what type of light you are going to get," adds Margaret.

Appeal of the tomb lives on

In total about 20 people reach the summit for the solstice.

Image caption,
Margaret McNamee leads tours up Slieve Gullion

We crowd into the tomb and slowly watch the light creep in.

It is not fully illuminated but the change is noticeable and the realisation that people had the expertise and knowledge of the seasons to create such a chamber so long ago is impressive.

Inside, a voice in the dark states that the chamber was nearly lost when a priest tried to destroy it in the 1920s citing its perceived links to pagan ritual.

Despite such efforts the tomb and its appeal continues to thrive.

For most of the group this was their first experience of a solstice in Calliagh Bearra's house.

Other more seasoned visitors joke that the £1.8m (€2m) funding will mean it will be harder to get in next year.

But as problems go, that's a pretty good one to have.