Its landscapes inspired the Chronicles of Narnia and perhaps, the legends of the children of Lir. In bygone times, smugglers traveled its roads. In Victorian days people came to its seasides, as they do today — and as they did in prehistoric times. Saint Patrick walked here, and so have other makers of legend, story, and song. This is County Down, Northern Ireland.
Down is just a bit to the south and east of Belfast. Many of its attractions may be seen as day trips from Belfast, though you’ll be doing yourself a favor if you take a bit longer to explore this aspect of the island of Ireland.
Newry town, inland at the head of Carlingford Lough, is a crossroads town for shoppers and travelers these days, and it has been a place for connection and commerce through the ages. A fine place to learn about this is the Museum of Newry and Mourne, housed in a historic building which turned out to be built on the even more historic site of Bagnel’s Castle, which dates from the 1500s. You may look down at the a bit of the castle’s remains at one place inside the museum. You may also want to follow Newry’s own walking history trail through the town. The folk at the museum will gladly give you a map to this.
History is, in fact, ever present in County Down. C.S. Lewis, who wrote the stories of Aslan and the Chronicles of Narnia, once remarked that he could easily imagine giants poking their heads up over the mountains which help define Down’s landscape. That is just as true today: the Mourne Mountains and the Ring of Gullion (both of which merit articles by themselves, stay tuned for that) invite contemplation of legend, myth, and history, whether you climb up to one of their summits, walk lower down on the slopes, or wonder at them from the roadside.
While you’re on your way — or thinking about traveling — through County Down, take a listen to this classic song, Star of the County Down. The tune (the melody part, that is, without words) has made its way from traditional music through jazz, to country and into church music as well, while the best known version of the words was written in the nineteenth century. Canadian singer and fiddle player Lizzy Hoyt shares both aspects of the song, which she has recorded on her album called Home:
Mountain and sea connect in County Down, and that aspect of the county lends itself to several of the most interesting scenic drives in all of Ireland. The route from the town of Newry over to the fishing port of Kilkeel is one well worth the taking.
This drive winds along the shores of Carlingford Lough past what remains of the Narrow Water Keep, built in the thirteenth century, and Narrow Water Castle, dating from the 1560s (which became the site and namesake of harsh events during the Troubles, as well) to the town of Warrenpoint, a bit of a resort town these days which among other things was the site of a monastery in the sixth century. Irish Central recently pointed to Warrenpoint as one of the top destinations for Americans to consider when moving to Ireland, as well, mainly for its beautiful location.
The people of Rostrevor, which you will come to next, make their homes where forest, mountain, and sea meet, a place where people have been gathering since prehistoric times and where you may find ancient stones as well as contemporary places to eat and shop, and a working port as well. Kilbroney Forest Park in Rostrevor is a fine place to stop and take in the beauty around you and the views up to the Mournes and across the lough to Slieve Foye and the Carlingford Mountains as well, and if you should be there in autumn, to take in the subtle beauty of changing colors across the mountains as well. Should you plan to visit in summer, you’ll want to know that Rostrevor is the place for a very fine traditional music festival called Fiddler’s Green.
While we are speaking of music and Rostrevor, you will also want to know that it is the home town of one of Ireland’s top families of music, the Sands Family. Tommy Sands wrote the song County Down, performed here by the band Danu with Muireann Nic Amhlaoibh singing lead. They have recorded the song on their album called Road Less Traveled.
Continuing on the journey, you’ll come to Greencastle, and you’ll understand why people in Anglo Norman times chose to build stronghold in this spot: Greencastle has been commanding the entrance from the Irish Sea to Carlingford Lough and hence up the water to Narrow Water, King John’s Castle across the lough in what is now the Republic of Ireland, on to Newry and beyond since the 1200s.
Should you be making this drive in the warmer months, you’ll no doubt find folk enjoying the beach at Cranfield, known as one of the best beaches for water quality in Ireland. When autumn and winter blow in and holiday makers have gone home, the seaside carries with it a sense of how remote this part of the world was in times past — and to a certain extent is still.
Next on the journey is Kilkeel. It too is a waterside town set between sea and mountain, facing out to the Irish Sea. There’s a fine Maritime Museum, and a Cookery School, as well as restaurants where you may try very fresh catch. Kilkeel is one of the busiest fishing ports in Northern Ireland, in fact, with a legacy of maritime trade that goes back to the days when ships under sail were the main callers at the port.
It makes a fine place to finish up this trip, and if you would be heading back to Newry or Belfast, that could be done readily — but again, I’d advise you to take your time.
This is but one way to explore the landscape and history of County Down and the Mourne Mountains. As our time here at Perceptive Travel continues, I’ll take you further into the landscape, history, and present day of County Down and other parts of Ireland, as well.
Photographs of the Mourne mountains over Rostrevor in snow and of King John’s castle by Kerry Dexter; photographs of working boats at Warrenpoint, autumn leaves in Rostrevor, and Kilkeel fishing sign by and courtesy of Albert Bridge. Thank you for respecting copyright.
Kerry Dexter is one of six writers who contribute to Perceptive Travel’s blog. You’ll most often find her writing about travels in Europe and North America in stories that connect to music, history, and the arts, including such things as an evening in Belfast and Julie Fowlis singing of her home in Scotland’s Western Isles
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