North of Border – Northern Ireland

Christopher Moriarty crosses into Northern Ireland to find many interesting places.

From Dublin Mountains on a clear day you can see Mountains of Mourne – sweeping down to sea. And to their left an isolated, round-topped hill rises. Its name is Slieve Gullion and on its slopes lies one of most beautiful mountain drives in Ireland. What is more, it is only an hour’s run from center of Dublin’s fair city. It is even closer to Drogheda in neighboring County of Louth, where we ended our last trip.

Before crossing Border for County Armagh, we spend a while in a small but important corner of Louth. This we approach by taking exit for Faughart from marvelously complicated roundabout of same name. In a couple of minutes world of motorways and fast transport is left behind and replaced by gentle byways bordered by hedges of hawthorn. This is land where great St. Brigid was born and reared before she moved south to establish a nunnery beside Curragh of Kildare.

Just after you pass beneath railway line a signpost shows way to her shrine. There a modern oratory stands on green hillside, backed by a beautiful grove of ancient beech trees. Little streams of clear water flow down hillside, and parts of these are marked for special veneration by attachment of pieces of cloth to bushes. Usually a place for solitary meditation, shrine caters for throngs of devotees at time of saint’s festival in February. Turn left after leaving shrine and next right to find hilltop cemetery which contains an impressive array of memorials carved in 18th and 19th centuries.

Across road from cemetery a large earthen mound can, with some difficulty, be seen through a gap in hedge. This is a motte, built to command their territory by first Anglo- Norman warriors to settle in Ireland nearly nine hundred years ago. But better by far than either tombstone or motte is view that this hill commands over great plains around Dundalk and away to sea at Clogherhead. The Motte is a reminder of strategic importance of spot. It is southern entrance to Gap of North, a vital pass between provinces of Ulster and Leinster and scene of numerous encounters between armies both legendary and historical. Among historical personages was Edward Bruce, slain here in 1318.

Go back to T-junction and turn right, drive northwards for a mile and look out for Moyry Castle on left. A green gateway, almost hidden by hedge, gives access. Built to order of Elizabethan general Lord Mountjoy, in an effort to keep men of Ulster out of fertile plains to south, it was a strictly functional fortress, standing on a rock outcrop but commanding a wonderful view over Gap of North and away to Slieve Gullion itself. Then down hill past castle and turn right where road forks, once more pass beneath railway line and then stop and park at gateway opposite a junction on left. Walk eastwards along hedge until you meet an enclosure in third field. That is home of most ancient known Christian stone monument in Ireland. Seven feet tall, Kilnasaggart Pillar Stone bears an inscription in Irish to memory of a gentleman named Ternoc, son of Bic, who died round about 716 AD. Its design is unique, main pattern being a collection of inscribed crosses, most of them with arms ending in curlicues.

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