Slieve Gullion

Meigh, Co. Armagh

Slieve Gullion

“Slieve Gullion is perhaps the most mystic of our Irish mountains. It is forever linked up with Irish literature through the ‘Chase of Slieve Gullion’…Cuchullain, Ossian, Finn, the Calliagh Bhirra, and many other legendary figures live in the old tales still told on its slopes…On the mountain somewhere, there is a well of wisdom and magic meather [mead], from which if we only knew the recipe, we could go to that marvelous ale, that once tasted — ‘age could not touch us, nor sickness, nor death.’”

T.G.F Paterson, Country Cracks – Old Tales from the County of Armagh, 19391


Drag within the image to explore Slieve Gullion in virtual reality.
An interactive map will appear when you click the button to enter full-screen mode.
This seven-node VR begins across the valley from the mountaintop tombs.
Click here for the tablet version.

This mountaintop plateau might have been conjured out of pure pixels, from the imagination of a Hollywood set designer. Who else might have put a magical lake on the summit of a mountain, with a dragon lurking in its depths, mysterious prehistoric burial mounds at each end, the larger one the home of a legendary witch, who matched wits there with the fabled Irish warrior Fionn Mac Cumhaill (Finn McCool)?

Slieve Gullion, at 573 m (1,894 ft) the highest point in Co. Armagh, is the long-eroded remnant of a primordial volcano. Nearby, at the Gap of the North, according to the Táin Bó Cuailnge, the hero Cúchulainn single-handedly defended his Ulster armies from the forces of Queen Medb.2 The area’s historic features can be explored on a 15 km (9.3 mi) hike, or the less athletic visitor can drive up most of the distance on the meandering Slieve Gullion Forest Park drive, stopping and parking at its highest point for a much easier half-hour trek to the top.

The wild area around the mountain has served as a shelter for fugitives from both justice and injustice, from the seventeenth century outlaw band of Redmond O’Hanlon to St. Oliver Plunkett, who found shelter nearby in 1674.3

Kevin Murphy video

Kevin Murphy recounts the legend of Finn MacCool and the Hag of Beare that takes place atop Slieve Gullion (1998).

The virtual-reality environment (left) begins with a view of the mountaintop from a few miles away, near the village of Forkhill. Hotspots lead to the passage tomb at the south of the plateau (Calliagh Berra’s House), its interior, and ultimately to the lake and the north tomb. From the position atop the passage tomb a hotspot can switch the camera to a telephoto view, from which the distant landscape—from the Mountains of Mourne to the peaks of Donegal—may be appreciated. The Loughcrew Passage Tombs (Slieve na Calliagh) to the southwest in Co. Meath may also be noted on the horizon.

The passage tomb on Slieve Gullion is the highest monument of its type in Ireland and England.4 In the medieval manuscripts the area is known as Sliabh Cuilinn, where Cúchulainn spent his childhood years. The mountain’s most evocative appearance in legend, however, may be in the traditional Fionn Mac Cumhaill story, repeated by uncounted generations of bards, called “The Hunt of Slieve Cuilinn [Gullion].” This story (recounted below), in which the great Celtic hero-giant suffered from the evil enchantments of a notorious witch who lived in the passage tomb, was so strongly embraced by the peasantry that a letter in 1788 describes how

“…some peasants, expecting to find out this old woman, (who, however, has at no time thought proper to appear) threw down her house, and came to a large cave, about twenty feet long, ten broad, and five deep, covered with large flags, in which either the dame or money was expected, but only a few human bones were found.” 5

The enchantress who foiled Fionn Mac Cumhaill’s hunt was none other than the Hag of Beare, in Irish the Cailleach Bhéara. This powerful, but ultimately tragic creature, appears in both Irish and Scottish tradition. She may at times be either benevolent or malevolent, in accordance with her mood.6 The Hag of Beare is considered in more detail in our entry about the Loughcrew Megalithic Cemetery, or Slieve na Calliagh (Hag’s Mountain). But “The Hunt of Slieve Cuilinn,” as related by Lady Gregory in 1904, is here:

“Finn was one time out on the green of Almhuin, and he saw what had the appearance of a grey fawn running across the plain. He called and whistled to his hounds then, but neither hound nor man heard him or came to him, but only [the hounds] Bran and Sceolan. He set them after the fawn, and near as they kept to her, he himself kept nearer to them, till at last they reached Slieve Cuilinn, in the province of Ulster. But they were no sooner at the hill than the fawn vanished from them, and they did not know where she was gone, and Finn went looking for her eastward, and the two hounds went towards the west.
It was not long till Finn came to a lake, and there was sitting on the brink of it a young girl, the most beautiful he had ever seen, having hair of the colour of gold, and a skin as white as lime, and eyes like the stars in time of frost; but she seemed to be some way sorrowful and downhearted. Finn asked her did she see his hounds pass that way. ‘I did not see them,’ she said; ‘and it is little I am thinking of your hounds or your hunting, but the cause of my own trouble.’ ‘What is it ails you, woman of the white hands?’ said Finn; ‘and is there any help I can give you?’ he said. ‘It is what I am fretting after,’ she said, ‘a ring of red gold I lost off my finger in the lake. And I put you under bonds, Finn of the Fianna,’ she said, ‘to bring it back to me out of the lake.’
With that Finn stripped off his clothes and went into the lake at the bidding of the woman, and he went three times round the whole lake and did not leave any part of it without searching, till he brought back the ring. He handed it up to her then out of the water, and no sooner had he done that then she gave a leap into the water and vanished.
And when Finn came up on the bank of the lake, he could not so much as reach to where his clothes were; for on the moment he, the head and leader of the Fianna of Ireland, was but a grey old man, weak and withered.
Bran and Sceolan came up to him then, but they did not know him, and they went on round the lake, searching after their master.

Caoilte and the rest of the chief men of the Fianna set out then looking for Finn, and they got word of him; and at last they came to Slieve Cuilinn, and there they saw a withered old man sitting beside the lake, and they thought him to be a fisherman. ‘Tell us, old man,’ said Caolite, ‘did you see a fawn go by, and two hounds after her, and a tall fair-faced man along with them?’

Then Finn told them the whole story; and when the seven battalions of the Fianna heard him, and knew it was Finn that was in it, they gave three loud sorrowful cries. And to the lake they gave the name of Loch Doghra, the Lake of Sorrow.”

[The Fianna dig into the passage tomb (Calliagh Berra’s House) and take the antidote from the fearsome hag.]
“…And no sooner did Finn drink what was in the vessel than his own shape and his appearance came back to him. But only his hair, that used to be so fair and so beautiful, like the hair of a woman, never got its own colour again…” 7

The north cairn and Hag’s Lake.

Local schoolteacher Kevin Murphy in the 1998 video, above right, tells an abbreviated version of this story, with a twist at the end.

The tales of Fionn Mac Cumhaill and his band of warriors, the Fianna, are set in the third century CE. The earliest references to these Fenian Cycle stories are found in texts from the eighth or ninth centuries, but most are from manuscripts from the twelfth century or later. While the Fianna were subject only to their own laws, they came to be seen as defenders of the country, with adventures that moved them around Ireland and Scotland, in both natural and magical realms.8

Fionn Mac Cumhaill was the hero of the common man; his tales were told by the peasant’s fireside, in contrast to the stories of Queen Maeve and Cúchulainn, whose Ulster Cycle stories were recited by the bards in the kings’ palaces.9 The re-tellings of the Fenian legends, with their exaggerations and accretions, resulted in Fionn and this soldiers becoming in the popular imagination more giants than men.10

In his birth legend Fionn’s father, Cumhall, abducted Fionn’s mother after her father refused the liaison. In the battle that ensued Cumhall was killed, but not before Fionn was conceived.11 In folk tradition, it is said that immediately after he was born he fell into a pool of water. But instead of drowning he emerged holding an eel in his hands. Water also figured in the story of how he got his name: when as a young boy he was challenged by some older youths swimming in a lake, he drenched them all by jumping in. The boys told everyone that “Fionn [the fair-haired one] did it.”12

“Finn McCool Comes to Aid the Fianna,” Stephen Reid, 1932

In Old Irish, the original form of the hero’s name was Find, which is first noted in a text that may date from as early as the sixth century. By then he was thought of as a historical figure, with a rich oral tradition. He may have his roots in a divine figure of wisdom for the ancient Celts, which may explain the origin of his signature magical feat—his ability to gain knowledge by biting on his thumb.13 The Fionn of legend may have evolved from an ancient child deity, as stories were invented to explain the seeming incongruity of a great warrior making use of a childhood practice—putting the thumb in the mouth—in order to access his special magical knowledge.14 In one story his magical vision is thwarted when Diarmuid, who steals away with Fionn’s intended bride, Gráinne, hides from the great warrior’s extra-sensory perception by sleeping each night under the capstone of a dolmen. In many localities such a monument is known as Leaba Diarmuid agus Gráinne (Diarmuid and Gráinne’s Bed).

Fionn became the leader of his Fianna at the early age of ten, when he arrived at the court of the High King at Tara. It was the harvest feast of Samhain, but the king was terrified of the hideous beast called Aillen, who came each year at that time and set the castle on fire while making music that lulled everyone into a trance. Fionn overcame the beast’s magic, and “put his finger in the cord of his spear and gave it a strong accurate throw. It struck Aillen high in the back, putting his heart out through his mouth as a dark mass of blood.”15

The Fianna, led by Fionn, were known in all the stories as great athletes, hunters, and especially, fighters.16 They were men living in the wilderness, outside the bounds of normal society, in close contact with the natural world, and by extension, with the spirit world. The legends of the Fianna very likely reflected an actual social group in the early Christian era, independent bands of warriors who were subject to laws allowing “permissible acts of plunder.17 The Christian authorities were not entirely comfortable with the latitude allowed the Fianna; an eighth-century text complained that ‘It oppresses territories, it increases enmity, it cuts off life, it lengthens torments.”18 Yet the powerless peasant, holding no authority or position that was threatened by that of the Fianna, celebrated Finn and his legendary band. As a thirteenth century poet wrote:

“He was a poet and a prince,
He was a king over every king,
Fionn the Fianna prince,
He was a king over every country!
He was a great whale on the sea,
He was agile on the trail,
He was a dexterous hawk in the wind,
He was a wise man in every skill!
His skin like chalk,
His cheek like a rose,
Clear and bright was his eye,
His hair like the gold!” 19

With the sky reflected on its surface, and its deep-amber peat-colored water, the lake can seem full of magic.

Two hundred years after the passage tomb at the summit of Slieve Gullion was ransacked by treasure-seekers, the cairn was further disturbed by American soldiers training there during the Second World War. Foxholes were dug into the passage tomb and into the smaller cairn at the north end of the lake.20 In an 1804 report, the surveyor could not enter the passage tomb to explore its interior.

“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.” 21

The modern scientific exploration of the site in 1961 encountered obstacles unique to this tomb, the highest major excavation yet undertaken in Ireland. In contrast to the usual method of deploying workers each day to the dig site, here they established a 30-person camp of “student labour” who “braved bad weather and difficult and dangerous working conditions” just 600 ft below the top of the mountain.22 Preparing for the excavation, the workers first had to remove trash and the stones tossed into the open top of the chamber, perhaps by local farmers wishing to prevent it from becoming a mountaintop trap for their sheep.23

They found the chamber to be 3.66 m (12 ft) wide, with a corbelled roof as much as 4.3 m (14 ft) above them, which has now mostly been replaced by concrete slabs. The outside diameter of the cairn is 30 m (97 ft), with a height of 5 m (16 ft). An “annex” cairn was found on one side, added after the construction of the main cairn. They discovered in the center of the passage tomb two large blocks of stone, evidentially used as basins, with shallow depressions hammered into their natural shapes.

Passage tomb diagram. (Adapted from Collins, A.E.P., and B.C.S. Wilson. “The Slieve Gullion Cairns.” Ulster Journal of Archaeology Third 26 (1963). 23.)

An earlier investigator had found a third, smaller basin, cracked into two pieces. These may be seen here in a drawing by the excavators. Some pieces of worked flint as well as a barbed-end arrowhead were also discovered, the meager remnants that survived the centuries of tomb raiding.24 Radiocarbon dating from the tomb’s excavation suggested its construction dated from c. 3500-2900 BCE. 25 The entrance to the tomb is aligned with the sunset of the winter solstice. Photographs of the event on December 23, 2011 may be seen here.

The smaller cairn, to the north of the Hag’s Lake, is of later, perhaps Bronze Age construction. Not a passage tomb, it instead was found to contain two cist burials, with one containing fragments of burnt bone, likely the remains of a single adult individual. Some sherds of food vessels were also discovered,26 as well as brass cartridges tossed in by the occupants of the tomb’s foxholes during the war.

While the allied soldiers using the tombs in the 1940s may have had no such worries, local folklore provides any number of accounts of bad fortune befalling those who came too close to the Calliagh Beara’s House on the top of Slieve Gullion. In his 1945 collection of tales from Armagh, T.G.F. Paterson related how people saw lights on the top, with “wee people” “desporting themselves round the bonfires.”27 The lake was reputed to contain a fearsome dragon, which would travel between there and the King’s Stables more than 30 km (18.6 mi) away by means of a hidden passageway.

“Sure it’s been seen twice in recent years, once by old O’Rourke who was mowing with his back to the lake when he heard a hiss ‘tween a screech an’ a whistle that nearly caused him to fall head over heels in the water. He saw the face of it and, sunk in the middle of the lake…It gave him such a fright he never went back, and the water was that disturbed, the very wee water hens, they up and away too. And he with them and glad to go.” 28

In the VR environment a hotspot in the lake permits this magical transport to the King’s Stables site.

One account has Fionn Mac Cumhaill meet his end when a hag gives him a magic potion and then persuades him to jump over a rock to his death.29 But the Fionn Mac Cumhaill of popular culture underwent continuing, if evolving, vitality. Fionn’s son, Oisín, was made into a veritable publication industry by the whole-cloth inventions set in Scotland and spun by James Macpherson in the 1760s. Reams of poetry attributed to Ossian (Oisín), but actually from the pen of Macpherson, were published to much acclaim. In the nineteenth century many of the translated stories of Fionn and the Fianna took on a more humorous tone, perhaps in keeping with the denigration of the Irish language and its cultural treasures. But while this may have been true of the Fionn Mac Cumhaill that was presented in English, in the original Irish Fionn remained a character of adventure and genuine drama.30

In 1858 the revolutionary Irish independence group known as the Irish Republican Brotherhood took on the name of “Fenians,” a name derived from Fionn’s army.31 The modern centrist Irish political party Fianna Fáil is usually translated as “Soldiers of Destiny.” Fionn Mac Cumhaill has had many lives, both in his legendary history, first told in the Iron Age, and in his various incarnations in the popular culture of today.32 When, in 1988 famed Irish folklorist Dáithí Ó hÓgáin wrote his exhaustive study of the Gaelic hero, he observed that “Fionn has never been in history, has been only by necessity in books, has cut a fine figure through words, and has always had his true realm in the mind…” Ó hÓgáin was moved to author his personal poetic tribute to the age-old warrior:

“From this hill over across the expanse,
by a clump of trees, by land, by a stream,
the contoured face of Fionn mac Cumhaill of the hounds,
and the deer racing softly through the morning….”

“Between a view so free
and my step of fatigue….” 33

Click here to see all the notes from this page.

Slieve Gullion, Co. Armagh
Nearest Town: Newry
Townland: Meigh
Latitude: 54° 7′ 36.8″ N
Longitude: 6° 26′ 12.8″ W


external links:

Full texts of Fenian Cycle stories
Slieve Gullion Forest Park
Detailed hiking information