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Hooley in Cooley – a rarely visited area

A new bus route has been launched which will take tourists from Dublin to the Cooley Peninsula.

Michael Ring, Minister of State in the Department of Tourism Transport and Sport unveiled a joint trade initiative in the mediaeval village of Carlingford at the end of May.

The local newspaper that serves the Cooley Peninsula, the Argus, reports that the twice daily “will open up the Cooley Peninsula to a potential three million international tourists” — but don’t worry about it being too crowded because of this twice daily bus service; the buses are only 57-seaters.

Bus Éireann’s ‘Dublin to Carlingford and Mourne’ Bus Tours will convey its 57 passengers from Dublin to the Carlingford and Mourne region.

Now most of you will have heard of Mourne, or at least the Mountains thereof. But the Cooley Peninsula? You’re probably vaguely aware of it, but are unlikely to be able to point it out on the map with any degree of certainty.

On the very odd occasion it features on RTÉ, it’s usually referred to as “a very remote part of north Co. Louth”, yet it’s just over an hour from Dublin Airport.

Of course, millions of people worldwide who have a specific interest in ancient history will have heard of the Cooley Peninsula — through the ancient saga the Táin Bó Cuailgne, or in English, the Cattle Raid of Cooley.

Not content with forming the basis of the great Ulster sagas, these early mediaeval stories also made their way to Iceland: “The Irish brought to Iceland their literature and their learning – of which the Scandinavians had nothing,” Halldéor Laxness Iceland’s Nobel prize says. “The sagas are our cultural foundation. Without them we would just be another Danish island.”

It would be fair to say that the whole area stretching from the Cooleys across Carlingford Lough is steeped in mythology, as well as boasting everything form breathtaking scenery to high class cuisine.

Carlingford and Mourne Region Ltd and Bus Éireann now want to capitalise on the charms of this unspoilt corner of Ireland, and are promoting the geographical areas from Dundalk to Newcastle, Co. Down as a single destination.

Full packages offered will include events (from music and culture to sport), walking, adventure (from rock-climbing to horse-riding), genealogy, golfing, workshops, activity (a huge variety of watersports are available) and cookery and cuisine courses.

But if you just want a sample of the area next time you’re home, just hop on the bus in Dublin, and for €20 you’ll get a stop-over in the old town of Dundalk, tour the Cooley Peninsula, then on to the Carlingford, and a terrific tour round the Mournes. The tour also visits Newcastle in Co. Down and the Cooley Distillery.

The Highlights of the Carlingford-Mourne Area…

Carlingford

The Carlingford area was raided by the Vikings in the 8th and 9th centuries, followed by the Normans in the 12th century, and on through the centuries with all the usual suspects. During English rule, this was the last outpost of the Pale — beyond King John’s Castle lay Gaelic Ulster and goodness what sort of antics.

Relics of this past remain everywhere – two castles, a couple of fortified town houses, a Mint (a real licence to print money), a Tholsel and a Dominican Friary. Not bad going for a place of only a population of 700 or so.

Today it also boasts some of the finest restaurants on the east coast of Ireland, included the famed Ghan House, which has continued to gain prominence as a centre for culinary excellence, with not only a fine restaurant but for its innovative cookery courses.

The Cooley Mountains

The Cooley Mountains rise directly, and steeply, from Carlingford. Basically, you just have to step out of Savages the butchers (great name, lads) and you’re on the trail that leads straight up Slieve Foy. From the top — two thousand feet of it — you can see most of the Six Counties to the north, as far south as the Great Sugarloaf, and in the east the Isle of Man and Scotland.

Jaw-dropping views, legends, stories and walks through idyllic countryside — and despite claims that 3 million international tourists may descend on the area, in reality if you meet more than a couple of people out on the mountainside, that’s a busy day.

According to legend Cú Chulainn’s dog Bran is buried in one of the many cairns scattered around the area. That is serious mythology, that is.

Dundalk

Dundalk has in its time fallen under the influence of Celts, Vikings, Anglo-Normans, Cromwellians, Confederate Catholics, Jacobites, Williamites etc. Rubbing along with your neighbours has always seemed something of an exotic concept hereabouts, and accounts for the area’s rich culture and folklore.

Seatown Tower just off the centre of town dates back to the 13th century, while the ancient keep adjoining Castletown House on Castletown Hill, dates back to Norman times.

The imposing St. Patrick’s Cathedral dominates the end of the town where Bill Clinton made his farewell speech to Ireland. Check out the amazingly rich mosaics inside, adorned with gold and depicting biblical tracts. The doric-style Court House is also worth a visit. All in all, a delightful place to wander about whether your president, resident or visitor.

Noted Dundalkians include St. Brigid (disputed), Cú Chulainn (disputed), the Corrs (undisputed). Other notable citizens of the parish (dec’d.) include Robbie Burns’ sister Agnes who is buried in St. Nicholas Churchyard near the centre of the town. Her tombstone is unmissable — it’s the largest in the cemetery. Incidentally, one of Thackeray’s relatives, Elias Thackeray, was Vicar of Dundalk from 1771 to 1845.

Edward the Bruce, brother of Robert (and no, they didn’t call themselves Bobward) fetched up here in the 14th century before being crowned Ard-Rí, or High King of Ireland. The Arctic explorer Sir Francis McClintock was born here in 1819 — so, with all that history going on you’ll be unsurprised to hear that there’s a cracking good museum in the town, just by the public library on Jocelyn Street www.dundalkmuseum.ie

They even have an old Heinkel bubble car — this supremely unpractical vehicle was manufactured in Dundalk in the 1960s. If you only visit one museum every year this is the one —reckoned to be easily the best local museum in Ireland.

Newcastle

“It might have been in County Down, / Or in New York, in Gay Paree, / Or even London Town.”

Thus sang Frank Sinatra, probably the first time those four locations have occurred in the same sentence.

Whether Frank ever made it to one of the true gems of Co. Down, Newcastle, is unclear. It’s a shame if he didn’t, because here is one of the great resorts of Ireland. There’s enough of the 1950s about it to make for a truly nostalgic seaside holiday: but the bucket-and-spade shops selling ice-cream and candy floss jostle for space with high-end restaurants; one of the North’s finest hotels, the Slieve Donard Hotel overlooks the long sandy beach; and the world class golf course, the Royal County Down, continues to attract the games champion players.

The Main Street in Newcastle is actually lapped by the waters of the Irish Sea during spring tides; above the town the Mountains of Mourne provide a spellbinding backdrop. It’s a view, you could imagine, which might support an entire postcard industry.

Walk, cycle or trot on your horse far enough along the six mile strand and you’ll reach Dundrum.

Harry Ferguson – the County Down pioneer of the modern tractor – made good use of this strand, making the very first aeroplane flight in Ireland. In 1909 he took off in a monoplane he built himself. A large inscribed stone on Newcastle Promenade commemorates the event. Inexplicably, Ferguson decided there wasn’t much future in flight, so turned to the tractor and his famous ‘three hitch system’, necessary in the tight drumlin country of County Down. Perhaps had he been born in a flatter area of the world we would today be flying about in Ferguson 747s, and farmers would be using Massey Boeing tractors.

Food for thought as you wander through Donard Park to the path that leads up the highest peak in the ancient province of Ulster — Slieve Donard. It’s a ‘here I am, here I stand” sort of mountain, reaching some 2789 feet. As you’ll be positioned at one foot above sea level in Donard Park, you’ve only 2,788 to go.

Tollymore Forest Park

Narnia may have been filmed in New Zealand, but the inspiration for Belfast man CS Lewis was much closer to home – Tollymore Forest Park, just two miles from Newcastle on the foothills of the Mournes. Poet Edward Lear also took to the place. “Full of beautiful ruins and bridges and trees and hills and mills and lawns and laurels,” he said, before going off to write the Owl and the Pussycat. Probably.

Tollymore Forest is festooned with monumental follies (literally) – Gothic outrages, geometrical curios, grottos, obelisks, and barbicans. Enough to activate the muse in anyone.

Even the avenue leading to the car park could make you believe you’re entering an enchanted land where even the Evil Queen of Narnia herself. A two mile road lined with towering Lebanese cedars passes through dark forests, innocent looking pastureland, Victorian follies, strange monuments, huge gated barns and walled gardens. There’s an arboretum with arboreal A-listers from all over the world, two salmon rivers, the Shimna and the Spinkwee, rushing down from the Mournes, and everything from gentle walks through the oak grove from where the wood for the main staircase of the Titanic was culled, to mountain walks that lead you out onto the Diamond Rocks on the Mournes; 24 carat spoiler alert— you won’t find any diamonds, but you might find smoky quartz crystals hiding in the crevices of huge granite boulders. Totally worthless, but the search for them utterly priceless.

The Mourne Mountains

The Mountains of Mourne make up one of Ireland’s most spectacular hiking and climbing areas, and uniquely for a mountain range, most of the summits are grouped together in an expanse only seven miles wide. The 26-mile Mourne Way is almost entirely off-road as it traverses the foothills of the Mournes from Newcastle on the Irish Sea to Rostrevor on Carlingford Lough. A spellbinding route.

The going can be relatively easy in the Mournes – as long as you choose the right route. It means you get a chance to savour, not just the scenery, but some of the wonderful names hereabouts: Slievefadda, Slievemoughanmore, Pot of Pulgarve, Wee Slievemoughanmore and The Creaghts. Just like Belfast poet John Hewitt said:

“I’ll take my stand by the Ulster names

Each clean hard names like a weathered stone

Tyrella, Rostrevor are flickering flames

The names I mean are the Moy, the Mourne

Strabane, Slieve Gullion and Portglenone.”

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