Slieve Gullion, Armagh’s highest peak, is surrounded by a natural dyke, formed by a collapsed volcano, the famous Ring of Gullion. This made it a great place for outlaws and rebel locals to hide since time immemorial and a dangerous place for travelers (particularly taxmen and other officials). The dramatic pass between Slieve Gullion, and the Mourne Mountains was the traditional gateway between Leinster and Ulster, the famous Gap of the North. A narrow defile between steep slopes, it was easy to hold against an invading force. For centuries, even millennia, competition for control of South Armagh and its pass has played a major role in our history.
The Gap of the North was a focal point of conflict for centuries between local Gaels and the invading Normans and English. It has been said that during this struggle, south of the frontier wealth was measured by land, the English way, and north of it measured in cattle, the Gaelic way. South Armagh earned a new reputation during the Troubles as a redoubt of the Provisional IRA.
As one of the Department’s travelers during the Northern Ireland conflict, I would regularly drive north to meet contacts. As you crest the elevation just south of Dundalk, Slieve Gullion and the Mourne Mountains would loom ahead, the Gap easily spotted as your entry point to the north. I have a vivid memory of that skyline ominously strung with plumes of black smoke curling into the air after clashes around the parades issue in the summer of 1997. Soon you were speeding through the Gap of the North, hilly shoulders either side: on that trip heading to Drumcree, at the behest of the then Minister for Foreign Affairs, Ray Burke. When you traveled north, there was always a subtle sense of relief, of unguardedness, on the return journey as you scooted out of the Gap and were back south.
The European Union Single Market removed the need for a border and opened the way for the Northern Ireland peace process and the Good Friday Agreement in 1998. To spot where the border is today, you have to keep an eye out for a change in the colour of the road markings. Thanks to a lot of diplomatic ingenuity by the Irish Government and the EU Commission, the open border has stayed open despite Brexit.
Today, the Ring of Gullion, the Mourne Mountains and the Carlingford Lough are great destinations walkers, hikers, and day trippers. For when Covid-19 restrictions are lifted, check out its history and ways to explore it here https://www.ringofgullion.org/
Slieve Guillion’s beauty comes from its physical appearance, the conical hill of Armagh’s highest peak surrounded by crags and set beside the Mourne Mountains. Its magic comes from the fact that it is the epicentre of Ireland’s ancient saga, the Táin Bó Cuailgne, or Cattle Raid of Cooley. The mystery comes from its place name.
Sliabh is straight-forward, meaning a mountain (or moor or mountain land) and always comes with a qualifier, like mór (big) or rua (red). The spectacular Slieve League in Co Donegal is Sliabh Liag, mountain of the flagstones (Flanagan). Slievenamon in Co Tipperary is Sliabh na mBan, Mountain of the Women. However, there is no certainty as the meaning of Gullion. It appears that Gullion could mean one of three things; Culann (a name), cuillean (a slope) or cuileann/cuillinn (holly).
The uncertainty around the meaning of Gullion is all the stranger since it is so central to the action of the great Irish saga, the Táin, when Queen Maebh of Connaught launched her raid to seize the Brown Bull of Ulster from the Cooley Penninsula. To get there she and her army had to pass through the Gap of North at Slieve Gullion. She had one problem. The mythic hero, Cú Chulainn, stood in the gap determined to save Ulster and win eternal fame by defeating her army single-handedly.
Cú Chulainn got his name from Culann, the smith who forged the weapons of the King of Ulster, Conchobhar MacNessa. Culann was hosting a feast for the king and his knights at his fort and had released his ferocious hound (cú) to guard them. Setanta, the young Cú Chulainn, was late for the feast and killed the attacking hound, much to Culann’s anger. To assuage him, Setanta offered to become his hound, Culann’s hound.
Since Culann’s forge was at Slieve Gullion (pretty appropriate given its volcanic origins), it would seem logical to assume that it translates as Culann’s mountain, with Gullion an Anglicization of Culann. Not so fast.
Flanagan does not shed any light on it directly. Logaim.ie does not throw much light on it, simply noting that it is a non-validated name. Joyce, however, proposes and then disposes of the notion that Gullion refers to Culann. If so, he writes, it would be spelt Sliabh-Culainn. Rather he thinks that it is Sliabh-Cuillinn “which admits of only one interpretation, the mountain of the holly.”
Flanagan does say that Cuilleann means ‘steep unbroken slope’ and appears as Cullion in Cos Down and Tyrone. But she does not reference Gullion, even though to me it sounds close and of course as Armagh’s highest peak certainly has steep slopes. Since topography predates vegetation which predates human habitation, perhaps logic suggests that Gullion is Cuilleann. She goes go on to say that cuilleann is close to cuileann, meaning holly: “and as a result many names have been erroneously constructed as referring to ‘holly’. We may never know for sure what Gullion means but unravelling its mystery is a good way to reveal the rich heritage of this beautiful area.
Ottawa, 13 February 2021