Monday, January 17th, 2011

Today, on the way home, the nearly full moon hung in a clear azure sky. For a moment it was framed in front of me at the end of a country road lined with bare winter trees. The sun shone dazzlingly bright at me in my wing mirror, and at that exact point the lyrics to a Palwort song rang out, “……a beautiful trace……….. of time and space……”

The Brandy Pad is a popular route through the Mourne Mountains and, as the name suggests, it was the route popular for smuggling in the eighteen hundreds. The story was that it was used to smuggle items from the coast; coffee, tea, silk and …..brandy. It is said that the smugglers would have made their way into the mountains via the Bloody Bridge area, and apparently there is a cave along the coast that was used to bring the contraband to shore. Then they would have used the Brandy Pad to cross the top of the two valleys until, upon reaching the Hare’s Gap, smaller groups would have dispersed in different directions to get out of the mountains and into the surrounding lands. That is just one story, but the path has many.

As you walk along the same path the smugglers used, you walk in beside the mountain of Slieve Donard and then the Mountain of Slieve Commedagh. Slieve Commedagh means the ‘Mountain of Watching’ (although an older local name is Slieve Kivitar). It is believed that in times of war when clans fought and attacked each other for land and cattle, that Slieve Commedagh was the point were people watched for attacks. In these times there is a story about a beautiful girl called Kathleen. Kathleen was in demand as a potential wife and her family had it arranged for her to marry their choice; a man she had never met. Kathleen refused and the family did not take this decision well and banished her to live in a cave on the slopes of Commedagh facing the Annalong Valley. One day she bumped into a fairy at the head of the valley. He was in distress as his coat was torn and, once she discussed it further, discovered he was quite down about it and believed that no fairy woman would ever have him as a husband in his condition. Kathleen promised to help the fairy by repairing his coat. However, she didn’t repair it. She felt so sorry for him that she made a magnificent new coat. The fairy was beyond happy when he discovered his new coat and promised the young Kathleen that he would return the favour one day.

from ‘Peter and His Tales of the Wee People’

A long time later, years maybe, Kathleen bumped into the fairy and his new wife one day by the Blue Lough. Kathleen was now the one in distress, believing she would never marry, and instead become a witch living in a cave. The fairy decided it was time to return the favour and left her to travel to the Glens of Antrim and then Donegal. He returned with a hoard of fairies all carrying hammers and chisels. They transformed her cave on the slopes of Commedagh into a castle of turrets and walls. Kathleen was overjoyed and soon forgot her spinster predicament until some time later when a handsome man returned to the Mournes after spending years away. The castles caught his eye and he discovered Kathleen. The short story is that they fell in love and it even ended up that he was the man her family had chosen for her in the beginning. It is said that they lived out the rest of their days in the Castles of Commedagh, built by the fairies of Ulster.

Standing with your back to the Fairy Castles of Commedagh you can see the glorious Annalong Valley. Looking down the valley the first mountain on your right is Slieve Beg, which means ‘the little mountain’. A gouge runs from the top of this mountain and is known as the Devil’s Coach Road, locals believed that it was from here that the devil would come up from the Underworld to cause havoc amongst us.

Following along the Brandy pad and past Slieve Beg you pass another valley, known as the Silent Valley. Although for this valley there are older names. Before it was turned into the reservoirs that feed Belfast with water, it was known as the Happy Valley and a more ancient name before this, was the Glen Setanta. The same Setanta who became the heroic Cúchulainn. Cúchulainn may have sought solitude in the peace and quiet of the valley for a period of a year after the only defeat of his lifetime by Conrigh. When Conrigh defeated Cúchulainn he tied his hands and feet, then cut off his hair, leaving him unfit to appear in public until his hair grew back.

This map is not for navigational purposes. Seriously! I forgot to name Bernagh and I misnamed two mountains before I reverted to the little arrows to fix them. Also, the solid line is supposed to be the Mourne Wall. Again, NOT FOR NAVIGATIONAL PURPOSES.

On past the valley you come to the end of the Brandy pad at the Hare’s Gap. In Bernard Davey’s Mourne, Davey suggests that it may have taken its name from a local farmer called O’Hare or a smuggler called O’Hare, or both. This leaves the very minor mystery of why it is the Hare’s Gap and not O’Hare’s gap. This missing letter is due to the fact that the gap has an older name; the Mare’s Gap. This name was earned by the gap, not in ancient history but, on the 6th of January 1839. On this day Ireland saw its worst storm in memory. This storm threw a rider and his spirited young mare through the gap to their death. This was only one death amongst many in ‘the night of the big wind’. The destruction of the storm was felt all over Ireland. It is said that on the night of the big wind all the fairies left Ireland and on that night many believed the world was coming to an end. Apparently, when pensions were introduced in Ireland, one of the things used to establish whether someone was eligible, was the details they remembered about the night of the big wind. This was a useful gauge of age, as birth certificates did not exist and many people had no idea of their date of birth.

Heading away from the Mare’s Gap down into the Trassey Valley there is a small path on the left that runs along the side of Slieve Bernagh. This path is somewhat wider than it was a decade or so ago, but if followed, it will take you around to the col between Slieve Bernagh and Slieve Meelmore, a place that some know as the Pollapuca Gap. The word Pollapuca (I have heard it pronounced both as polla-poo-ka and polla-vu-ka) means the place, or hole, of the Púca. The Púca is a type of fairy that is sometimes helpful and sometimes nasty, depending on different parts of Ireland or the Púca’s temperament on any given day. The Púca is a shape shifting fairy who changes into different animals, but always a black animal. A black horse, hare, fox, raven, etc. In November it is probably unwise to eat the fruit of the hedgerows, such as blackberries as they are more likely to be ridden with mould. In older times the wisdom was that on the night of Samhain (Halloween) the Púca would be out and about up to no good and spitting on all the blackberries. Maybe the safest time to bivvy or camp in this area is on Samhain when the Púca is otherwise distracted.

From the Pollapuca Gap you can walk down towards a place in the Mournes that is said to be haunted; Lough Shannagh. A long time ago there was a great hunter called Sheelagh, the daughter of one of the Clan Chiefs. On a hunt in the area around the Mournes she chased a fox. Such was her skill as a rider that she broke away from the rest of the hunt and was able to chase the fox into the high Mournes. The rest of the hunt tried to keep up but she was soon on her own and kept chasing the fox. The mist closed in and the visibility dropped to nothing. The fox ran straight into the lough and the woman followed only to see the fox disappear. The woman tried to find a way out of the lough, only to get deeper and deeper in until she died, with her horse, sinking to the bottom. The rest of the hunt were said to have searched in the mist for many days but never found her. The lough is now known as Lough Shannagh or the ‘Lough of the Fox’. Apparently, when the mist closes in, the woman can be seen haunting the lough; on her horse, chasing the fox into the lough.

This ghost story did not seem to deter one man from Lough Shannagh. Apparently there was once a man, called Dermody, who used the area around the Lough as a sight for making potcheen. He is said to have set up his still in this remote location to keep it hidden from the authorities. It is also said that one day the authorities were onto him and launched a search of the area for the still and its owner. The darkness played a part in this story, as the man pushed his still into the lough and then used it to float himself out onto the lough and where he could not be seen until he took the opportunity to escape.

I am not making this up Sources:

Legendary Stories of Carlingforn Lough District, by Micheal George Crawford

The Ring of Mourne, by W. Haughton Crowe

Peter and His Tales of the Wee People, by Sam Girvan

The Night of the Big Wind, by Peter Carr

re-posted on NI-Wild