A mountain of legends in Sligo, northwest Ireland
Yvonne Gordon climbs Ben Bulben in the northwest of Ireland and learns about the area's legends.
“The hollow on the face of the mountain was said to be a portal into the underworld,” says John, as he marches ahead in the drizzle. We’re walking on the top of Ben Bulben, the iconic mountain that looks over much of county Sligo, and local hillwalking guide John Ryan is telling fascinating stories of the mountain’s legends.
“Tuatha De Dannan were the fairy people. Vanquished by mortals, they went underground into shees, entrances into the underworld. Ben Bulben was a shee,” he continues.
Ben Bulben’s iconic flat-topped shape has made it one of the most photographed mountains in Ireland. It always has an air of mystery thanks to its frequent colour changes – it will loom dark grey or black under a cloud, only to suddenly transform into a tablecloth of vivid green under the sun just seconds later.
However if the appearance is mysterious, its legends and myths - stories of Celtic warriors the Fianna, Fionn mac Cumhaill and Diarmuid and Gráinne - make it even more intriguing. In 561, St Columba fought a battle on the mountain over the rights to copy a Psalter before he was banished to Scotland. The poet WB Yeats often wrote about the mountain and is buried at its foot in Drumcliff.
John tells me about the fairy door on the north side. “It’s a hollow on the face of the mountain. When the fairy door ‘opens’ (how a shadow might fall), it’s an indication that the weather might be good for the next five days,” he says. “It’s a local tradition.”
We’ve climbed the steep north side of the mountain, as the more gentle southern slopes are cut off by private farms. We started at the foot of the mountain, walking along a noisy stream up to Luke’s Bridge and then crossing boggy marshland before starting our ascent. It’s a steep enough climb, but the views get better with each step.
Underfoot, the terrain is surprisingly boggy and wet, full of rushes and reeds. Near the top, we traverse a wide ridge and come to a cave in the mountain side, where we stop for lunch. There’s a sheer 200-foot drop down, but beyond this are superb views over the valley, down to Mullaghmore Head and surfing beach at Streedagh.
We walk across the top of the mountain to King’s Mountain – another mini-mountain on the top, like the dorsal fin of a whale. It’s another climb to the summit and here, from our 462m viewpoint, we are rewarded with more views – this time Lough Gill, the Ox Mountains and the silver glint of the Garavogue River as it snakes through Sligo. The sand-dunes of Rosses Point are stretched out before us, to the left is Coney Island, to the right is south Donegal.
It’s quiet on the mountain top. The mountain was once under oak forest but there are no trees now, no birds, no sheep, the only noise is the wind. I always imagined the top of Ben Bulben to be dry and grassy, but it’s a planet of blanket bog and we often have to jump between mounds. Looking closely into the brown bog, some mint green and burgundy coloured lichens are thriving.
John tells us that being only 340 million years old, Ben Bulben and the Dartry mountain range are somewhat of a ‘newcomer’ in the area – the Ox Mountains to the south are nearly 900m years old. The Dartry range was once underwater and fossilised remains of tiny sea creatures have been found on the mountain – just recently John found fossilised shellfish and sea cucumbers on an adjoining mountain. “There were so many, I was afraid to put my stick down in case I broke them,” he says.
I could listen to the stories all day but it’s soon time to descend, however the fairy stories don’t end there. On the way back to the main road, John shows us Fairy Hill. When a car faces down what looks like a small hill and the gears are put into neutral, the car will roll backwards up the hill, as if by magic…
The Radisson Blu Hotel Sligo arranges activity packages including group hillwalks, surfing and horse riding, see www.activitynorthwest.com. The hotel has made a commitment to reducing its environmental impact and asks guests to offset carbon emissions, save water and energy, use public transport where possible and recycle.
Getting to Sligo: Sligo is in the northwest of Ireland. Dublin, Dun Laoghaire, Belfast, Larne and Rosslare are all served by car ferry from Britain. Sligo is served by trains and buses from all over Ireland.
>> For more information about travelling to and withing Ireland by public transport, see:
How to travel to Ireland without flying.