Mourne Mountains

The Mourne Mountains, also called the Mournes or Mountains of Mourne, are a granite mountain range in County Down in the south-east of Northern Ireland. It includes some the highest mountains in Northern Ireland, including Slieve Donard at 850 m (2,790 ft). The Mournes is designated an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB) and in 2002 the Environment and Heritage Service commissioned a study on the potential benefits of establishing the Mournes as one of the first national parks in Northern Ireland, though this is yet to occur. The area is partly owned by the National Trust and sees many visitors every year. The name Mourne (historically spelt Morne) is derived from the name of a Gaelic clann or sept called the Múghdhorna.

The Mountains

Following a fundraising drive in 1993, the National Trust purchased nearly 5.3 km2 (1,300 acres) of land in the Mournes, which included a part of Slieve Donard (at 850 m (2,790 ft)) and nearby Slieve Commedagh (at 767 m (2,516 ft)), the second-highest mountain in the area.

Some of the mountains have names beginning “Slieve”, such as Slieve Donard, Slieve Lamagan and Slieve Muck, which is derived from the Irish word sliabh, meaning “mountain”. There are also a number of curious names: Pigeon Rock; Buzzard’s Roost; Brandy Pad; the Cock and Hen; Percy Bysshe; the Devil’s Coach Road; and Pollaphuca. “Pollaphuca” is derived from the words “Poll”, meaning “hole” and “púca”, which means ghost or spirit.

The Mournes are very popular as a destination for completing expeditions as required for completing the Duke of Edinburgh’s Award. However, there are also a number of walking challenges which take place in the Mournes. The Mourne Wall challenge, which is also referred to as the 7-peak challenge because it takes into account 7 of the 10 highest Mourne mountains, is advertised by WalkNI. The Mourne six peak challenge is advertised by DiscoverNI and takes hikers up Slieve Donard, Commedagh, Bearnagh, Slieve Binnian, Slieve Meelmore and Slieve Meelbeg across three days of hiking.

On clear days, The Mourne Mountains can be seen from the Isle of Man and Dublin.

The Mourne Wall

The Mourne Wall is a dry stone wall measuring 31.4 km (19.5-mile) long that crosses fifteen summits and was constructed to define and protect the 36 km2 (8,900-acre) catchment area purchased by Belfast Water Commissioners in late nineteenth century. This followed a number of Acts of Parliament allowing the sale, and the establishment of a water supply from the Mournes to the growing industrial city of Belfast. Construction of the Mourne Wall was started in 1904 and was completed in 1922.

The Mourne Wall is a listed building since 1996 and 600 repairs were completed in 2018 by Geda Construction.

Notable Forests

Tollymore Forest Park is located at Bryansford, near the town of Newcastle in the Mourne and Slieve Croob Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. It covers an area of 630 hectares (1,600 acres) at the foot of the Mourne Mountains and has views of the surrounding mountains and the sea at nearby Newcastle. The Shimna River flows through the park where it is crossed by 16 bridges, the earliest dating to 1726. The river is a spawning ground for salmon and trout and is an Area of Special Scientific Interest due to its geology, flora and fauna. The forest has four walking trails signposted by different coloured arrows, the longest being the “long haul trail” at 8 miles (13 km) long. The Forest Park has been managed by the Forest Service since they purchased it from the Roden Estate in 1941.

Donard Forest is located near Newcastle, County Down, Northern Ireland. It borders Donard Park at the foot of the Mourne Mountains. The Glen River flows through the forest where it is crossed by three stone bridges.
Rostrevor Forest is located near the village of Rostrevor, County Down, Northern Ireland. It lies between the Mourne Mountains and Carlingford Lough, in the Mourne Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. The first trees, primarily sitka spruce, douglas fir and pine, were planted in 1931.


All water reservoirs are own and maintained by Northern Ireland Water (NIW).

Silent Valley Reservoir is a reservoir located in the Mourne Mountains near Kilkeel, County Down in Northern Ireland. It supplies most of the water for County Down, surrounding counties and most of Belfast. The reservoir was built between 1923 and 1933 by a workforce of over one thousand men, nine of whom died during construction. The catchment area is 9,000-acres (3,600 ha / 36 sq. km).

Ben Crom Reservoir is a reservoir located upstream of Silent Valley near Kilkeel, County Down, Northern Ireland. Along with Silent Valley Reservoir, which is situated further down the Kilkeel River valley, it supplies water for County Down, surrounding counties and most of Belfast. It was constructed between 1953 and 1957.

Spelga Reservoir is a reservoir in the townland of Spelga located close to Hilltown in the North West of the Mourne Mountains . It was formed by construction of Spelga Dam and sits at over 1,200 ft (370 m) above sea level. The dam was constructed between 1953 and 1957. It has a volume of 2,700,000 cubic metres and a catchment area of 1,340-acres (542 ha / 5.423 sq. km).

Fofanny Dam Reservoir is located approximately 2km north-east of Spelga Dam and is a much smaller site.

Vegetation and Wildlife

Aside from grasses, the most common plants found in the Mournes are heathers and gorse. Of the former, three species are found: the cross-leaved heath (Erica tetralix), the bell heather (Erica cinerea), and the ling (Calluna vulgaris). Of the latter, two species are found: common gorse (Ulex europaeus) and western gorse (Ulex gallii). Other plants which grow in the area are: bog cotton, roseroot (Rhodiola rosea), harebell (Campanula rotundifolia), marsh St John’s wort, wild thyme (Thymus serpyllum), wood sorrel and heath spotted orchids.

Sheep graze high into the mountains, and the range is also home to birds, including the common raven, peregrine falcon, wren, buzzard, and native meadow pipit, grey wagtail, stonechat and snipe. The golden eagle, a former inhabitant, has not been seen in the Mournes since 1836.


Information and statistics on tourism to the Mournes was gathered by Tourism NI in 2014. On a survey of leisure visitors, 79% were found to come from Northern Ireland itself, 15% were from the remaining areas of the British Isles and Republic of Ireland, leaving 5-6% accounting for international visitors. Of all visitors, two thirds usually visit the Mournes on a single day trip rather than choosing an overnight trip and party sizes have averaged between 3 – 4 people.

The Mourne area and local town of Newcastle offer a range of activities for visitors. These include hiking, forest and beach walks, cycling and rock climbing, with nearly three quarters of visitors choosing the Mournes to go walking and hiking.

Possible National Park Status

It has been proposed that the Mourne Mountains be made Northern Ireland’s first national park. The plan has been subject to controversy because of the area’s status as private property, with over 1,000 farmers based in the proposed park, and also because of fears over the impact on local communities, bureaucracy and house prices.

Popular culture

The mountains are immortalised in a song written by Percy French in 1896, “The Mountains of Mourne”. The song has been recorded by many artists, including Don McLean, and was quoted in Irish group Thin Lizzy’s 1979 song ‘Roisin Dubh (Black Rose): A Rock Legend.’ Frank Baker’s famous Ulster-based comic novel Miss Hargreaves refers to it: “I’m not going to tell you much about the holiday except to say it was a grand month and we enjoyed every bit of it even though it rained much of the time. We went miles in the car, swam in the river, messed about in an old tub of a boat belonging to a farmer; and we spent a good many evenings in the hotel at Dungannon, drinking Irish whiskey and flirting with a cheeky girl Henry rather fell for. We climbed the Mourne Mountains and sang the right song on the top, though we couldn’t remember the words.”

The Mourne Mountains also influenced C.S. Lewis to write The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.
“The Mountains of Mourne” are also mentioned in John Lennon’s song “The Luck of the Irish” on the album Some Time in New York City.

The scenery of the Mourne Mountains have also provided the backdrop for a number of productions, most famously in HBO’s Game of Thrones.


“Discover Northern Ireland”, a website operated by Tourism NI, aids to promote the Mourne Mountains as a popular destination for hiking and taking in views of the surrounding landscape, including local forests and the coastline.
There are many granite cliffs, in the form of outcrops and tors, scattered throughout the range, making the Mournes one of Northern Ireland’s major rock-climbing areas since the first recorded ascents in the 1930s. The rock forms are generally quite rounded, thus often depending on cams for protection, but with good friction. The 1998 guidebook lists 26 separate crags, with a total of about 900 routes of all grades.

Railway access

The Northern Ireland Railways service and the Enterprise link into Newry railway station.

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