The Ring of Gullion, which was designated in 1991, is regarded as the as the finest expression of a ring dyke in the British Isles and was the first ring dyke in the world to be geologically mapped. Slieve Gullion mountain lies at the centre of the AONB, which takes its name from the encircling ring of lower rugged hills. Rich wildlife habitats of heath, bog and woodland contrast with the neatly patterned fields and ladder farms. Slieve Gullion's reputation as Ireland's mountain of mystery arises from its associations with Irish legends and myths.
A Management Strategy
We are keen to ensure that there is a robust management strategy in place so that the area makes progress in a sustainable way, whilst keeping its special landscapes and those features that make it of national interest.
AONB landscapes are intended to be vibrant places with thriving communities, so it is important that the people of the Ring of Gullion are involved in managing its future. A management strategy is currently being developed.
Further information can be obtained on the AONB by visiting http://www.ringofgullion.org/
Geology within Ring of Gullion AONB
The Ring of Gullion is the most spectacular example of a ring-dyke intrusion in the British Isles. The rocks of the area are complex and have featured in international geological debate over the past 60 or so years. The site has attracted geologists from all over the world and featured in a number of theories that have been put forward to explain the unusual rock relationships. Some of these theories have now become an accepted part of geological science.
The oldest rocks in the area formed in an ancient ocean more than 400 million years ago during the Silurian period. Masses of molten granitic rock or magma were later intruded into these rocks, which underlie Newry town and much of the Slieve Gullion area. These granites are some 390 million years old and date from a major period of mountain building in Ireland.
In the Tertiary period, commencing some 65 million years ago, the area once again became the centre of volcanic activity. The sequence of events is complex but probably began with the development of a very large volcano of which little now remains. Volcanoes also erupted in the south of the area and the remains of volcanic necks can be found in the hills around Forkhill. Along the contact zone between the Silurian rocks and the Newry granite a roughly circular fracture developed into which was intruded a series of acidic lavas. These cooled to form very hard granophyre and felsite rocks - in fact two 'rink dykes'.
Slieve Gullion itself is more recent than the ring dykes and is made up of layers of granitic and basaltic rocks. There has been some debate as to their origins. One suggestion is that a huge explosive eruption of the volcano created a vast crater, or caldera, into which lavas were excluded in layers. Another more plausible explanation is that the lavas were extruded in layers. There is evidence of many highly unusual features developed by the interaction of basic and acidic magmas.
In more recent times the landscape has been shaped by the action of glaciers during successive Ice Ages. Glaciers exploited existing weaknesses in the rocks (faults and softer rocks) to erode deep valleys through the Ring of Gullion. The upstanding hills were glacially scoured leaving craggy outcrops (roches mountonnees), boulder strewn slopes and rocky ridges and hollows. The valley bottoms were in-filled with glacial deposits forming rounded drumlins, streamlined by the flowing ice. The 'tail' of Slieve Gullion, which itself forms the 'crag', is seen at Dromintee, and is a ridge of boulder clay deposited in the wake of Slieve Gullion as it was overrun by ice moving from the north.
Natural Heritage of Ring of Gullion AONB
Within the Ring of Gullion trees and small woods are significant landscape features and valuable wildlife habitats. In the farmed countryside small groups of trees in shelter belts or hedges provide beneficial shelter for stock and help to screen farm buildings. On the steep slopes of valleys and hillsides small semi-natural woodlands of hazel and ash with sycamore, oak, rowan and willow are notable features. Willow, birch and alder scrub is typical of cutover peatland in the valley bottoms. The most mature woods are those which have been planted in old estates notably at Killevy Castle, Hawthorn Hill and Forkhill. Forestry covering about 6% of the area, is a major land use and is of mixed coniferous species - mainly sitka spruce, lodgepole pine, japanese larch and scots pine. The variety of species planted in irregular blocks with areas of unplanted hillside and pre-existing broad-leaved trees combine in many cases to produce attractive landscape features and pleasant areas for forest recreation.
Only small fragments remain of the once extensive lowland bogs of the Ring of Gullion. These bogs were formed on water-logged sites where bog moss accumulated, building up to form thick peat deposits. The bogs so essential to rural life in the past have been much disturbed by centuries of turf-cutting, drainage and reclamation. Those that survive contain mixtures of bog mosses with drier banks of heather and bilberry often being colonized by willow or birch scrub. Some areas of abandoned cutover bog contain deep pools. The small fragments of remaining bog are valuable wildlife habitats whose conservation is clearly dependent on continuing environmentally sensitive farm practices.
The craggy hills of the Ring of Gullion, with thin acidic soils overlying granitic rocks, have an extensive cover of heathland making up over 12% of the area. The purples of heather, yellows of dwarf gorse, and oranges of bracken in the autumn, create rich mosaics of colours which contrast markedly with the many greens which are the dominant hues of agricultural fields and hedges. The heaths themselves are very variable. Slieve Gullion is by far the largest area of heather moorland and consists of a fairly pure stand of ling, with scattered bilberry. Other areas around the lower hills of the ring-dyke, as at Mullach Bán Mountain, Ummeracam and Ballard, have a much greater diversity of habitats and plants. Drier heaths are characterised by ling heather and western gorse. Cross-leaved heath is more typical of wetter areas, forming wet heath communities with deer grass, bog asphodel and cotton grass.
Cam Lough (camloch - crooked lake)
While this meaning is at odds with its present appearance, the lake's shape was much less regular in the past before its level was raised by the embankment built in the late 19th century. Along the banks, marsh and scrub provide cover and nesting sites for many birds including mute swan, great crested grebe, moorhen, heron and warblers. The largest lough in the area, it is probably the best example of a glacial 'ribbon' lake in Northern Ireland, and supports a good coarse fishery.
Cashel Lough - upper and lower
These two loughs are important habitats for wildlife. The Upper Lough is an attractive upland- type lake with clear unpolluted water containing water plants such as common reed, water horsetail and white water lily. The Lower Lough is surrounded by an extensive fringe of reed swamp and scrub woodland with alder and willow.
The Newry Canal
The canal is a major feature on the eastern edge of the Ring of Gullion. Not only has it been a very important navigation route into Newry port and the canal network within Ulster but it has an attractive woodland fringe. It also supports a good coarse fishery.
Slieve Gullion Forest Park
Slieve Gullion Forest Park is owned and managed by Forest Service of the Depart of Agriculture and Rural development. Public facilities in the park include the Courtyard Centre, an 8 mile scenic drive, woodland trail, an ornamental walled garden and toilet facilities. There is also a waymarked trail, from the scenic drive to the summit of Slieve Gullion (1894 ft high). From here there are striking views of the countryside including the surrounding ring-dyke hills.
Cultural Heritage of Ring of Gullion AONB
Farming is a major activity in the Ring of Gullion with small farms predominating. The best soils in the area are those of the glacial deposits which run in rounded ridges through the lowlands between Slieve Gullion and its ring of hills. In these areas farmland is divided into strips of rectangular fields, each strip originally worked as one farm. In the past many farms would have grown some crops of oats and potatoes but now grassland and cattle dominate. Half of all farm businesses are classified as mainly beef cattle but sheep have become important. The grassland has seen many years of intensive use and very few fields retain a natural diversity of plants, though some wet flushed fields on the lower slopes of the mountains support species rich grassland with marsh and butterfly orchids. Current agricultural policy emphasises the need to achieve a balance between the promotion of a successful agri-food industry and the conservation and enhancement of the countryside. The remarkable countryside of the Ring of Gullion area was designated the Slieve Gullion Environmentally Sensitive Area (ESA) in June 1994 and is run by the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development. ESA designation is a voluntary scheme which provides financial encouragement for farmers to adopt farming practices which maintain and enhance the landscape, wildlife and heritage of their land holding.
People and places
Distinctive landscapes, such as the Ring of Gullion, are often the product of a distinctive cultural heritage, an intermingling of the people, their ways of life and the countryside, through history. The people of the Ring of Gullion, in their virtually enclosed frontier position, share cultural traditions closely identified with their home territory. Such is the natural complexity of the area that local areas within the Ring - Mullaghbane, Forkhill, Jonesborough and Killeen - have their own particular characteristics of trade, tradition, folklore, poetry and language. Much can be attributed to the past difficulties in communication between townland communities often separated by mountain, bog or stream. The independent community spirit, most clearly identified with the ceilidh (Irish folk music and singing and folk dancing and storytelling), helped the people through difficult times by sharing labour, pooling resources and providing entertainment. From late medieval times and probably earlier the whole of South Armagh was a notable centre of Irish poetry, and Creggan churchyard is famous as the burial place of poets. Although the use of English was increasing by the 18th century the area was still know as Ceantar na n-Amhran (The District of Songs) and also as Ceantar na bh-Fill (The District of the Poets). Today there is a marked revival of interest in the Irish language, folk singing and storytelling. It is one of only a few small areas in Ireland to have so clearly retained its local identity. People have lived in the area for over 6,000 years and have expressed their feelings about the landscape through the ages in local literature, poetry, music, folk history and art. This thriving cultural heritage has survived to the present day. The shared traditions of the people, in their virtually enclosed landscape with its historic frontier, have forged a unique culture which is warm, friendly and welcoming.
The Ring of Gullion has associations with Irish legends and myths. In the Táin Bó Cuailgne (the Cattle raid of Cooley) CuChulainin is reputed to have defended Ulster, single-handed, against the hordes of Queen Maeve of Connacht - a battle traditionally associated with the Gap of the North. In another tale, Fionn Mac Cumhaill was bewitched by Miluchra on the summit of Slieve Gullion at the Lough of calliagh Bhirra. To this day the superstition survives that if you bathe in the lough your hair will turn white.
Built Heritage of Ring of Gullion AONB
People have lived in the Ring of Gullion for over 6000 years and surviving today is a rich inheritance of historic monuments. The area contains the remains of 20 or so large stone tombs. Many of them such as Ballymacdermot are situated in prominent positions with magnificent views over the surrounding countryside. The King's Ring at Clontygora, and the Ballymacdermot tomb are two of the best examples of Court Tombs in Northern Ireland. The monument at Ballykeel is also an outstanding example of a Portal Tomb and the South Cairn on the summit of Slieve Gullion has the distinction of being the highest surviving Passage Tomb in Britain or Ireland. Excavations at several of these burial monuments have uncovered stone tools, pottery and human remains.
The Dorsey (Doirse - Doors or gates)
Dating from the Iron Age period is the Dorsey 'enclosure' located on the western edge of the Ring of Gullion. The Dorsey, two roughly parallel massive earth bank and ditch ramparts over a mile long lie astride an old routeway to Eamhain Macha (Navan Fort, near Armagh - the ancient capital of Ulster). Recent evidence dates part of the monument to around 100BC, contemporary with a major phase of activity at Navan and lending support to the tradition that the Dorsey was once the 'gateway' to Ulster.
Kilnasaggart Stone (Cill na Sagart - Church of the Priests)
A long Irish inscription on the Kilnasaggart Pillar Stone records the dedication of the place by Ternoc, son of Ceran Bec under the patronage of Peter the Apostle. As Ternoc's death is recorded in the annals of 714 or 716, the stone can reasonably be dated to around AD700, making it the earliest dated cross-carved stone in Ireland. It marks the site of an early Christian cemetery and a church was probably located close by.
Killevy Churches (Cill Shléibhe - Mountain Church)
Killevy is the site of one of Ireland's most important early convents, founded by St Mo-Ninne (otherwise known as Bline or Darerca) in the 5th century. Although plundered by the Vikings in 923 monastic life continued and the site was occupied by Augustinian Nuns until 1542. The large tree lined graveyard is still in use.
In 1600 Lord Mountjoy secured the Moyry Pass or gap of the North for the Crown. The next year he built Moyry Castle on a natural rocky hillock overlooking the pass. The castle, now in ruins, is a three storey tower with rounded corners and gun loops. The railway line to Dublin opened in 1852, follows the ancient route through the Gap of the North and passes close to the Castle ruins.