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Now more than ever people have been exploring the Mourne Mountains as an escapism from their daily lives.  Whether it be by walking, running or cycling, the mountains are a popular tourist destination regardless of weather or season and, as a recognised Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, it is not hard to see why.

A postcard showing the Silent Valley Reservoir shortly after it was completed. Newry and Mourne Museum Collection
A postcard showing the Silent Valley Reservoir shortly after it was completed. Newry and Mourne Museum Collection

The Mourne Mountains were formed over 50 million years ago.  Comprised of granite, they were carved by glaciers which produced the present day Mourne skyline.  Slieve Donard’s dramatic granite peak dominates the range and, standing at 852m, is the highest mountain in Northern Ireland. The two cairns on the summit of Slieve Donard are both recorded prehistoric archaeological monuments.

Badge worn by participants in the Mourne Wall Walk which was established by the Youth Hostel Association of Northern Ireland in 1956. Walkers walked the entire length of the Wall and it increased in popularity over the years until it was halted in 1984 due to damage to the environment. Only small groups are now allowed to walk the route. Newry and Mourne Museum Collection
Badge worn by participants in the Mourne Wall Walk which was established by the Youth Hostel Association of Northern Ireland in 1956. Walkers walked the entire length of the Wall and it increased in popularity over the years until it was halted in 1984 due to damage to the environment. Only small groups are now allowed to walk the route. Newry and Mourne Museum Collection

When a future source of water was being investigated for Belfast, the Mournes were chosen because of the quality of the water available and it’s purity. In 1904 construction started on a boundary wall to define the catchment area and prevent animals roaming onto the land.  The famous Mourne Wall is now a listed monument.  It stands at three metres high and one metre wide, stretching for 22 miles and runs over the seventeen peaks of the Mourne Mountains.  Work on the Wall was carried out between April and October and provided much needed employment to people in the area.  The Wall was finished in 1922, taking eighteen years to build, and was a testament to the skill of the men who built it.

A rare postcard from the early years of the 20th century showing the Silent Valley before construction of the Silent Valley Reservoir. Newry and Mourne Museum Collection
A rare postcard from the early years of the 20th century showing the Silent Valley before construction of the Silent Valley Reservoir. Newry and Mourne Museum Collection

Next was to be built was the reservoir at Silent Valley which was started in 1923.  ‘Watertown’ was built on the western side of the valley with wooden houses to accommodate families and foremen, and dormitories for single men.  A small hospital with a doctor and a nurse was available to the sick and a recreation hall provided entertainment, such as dances, boxing and snooker competitions.  Shops ranged from grocery and hardware to boot menders.  A blue van, the ‘Tin Lizzie’, would take people to Kilkeel on Fridays and Saturdays for anything extra they needed.  A generator provided the first ever street lights in Ireland.

Hill farms on the Head Road, near Kilkeel, pictured in the 1970s. These farms, on which sheep are farmed and potatoes grown, are typical of the Mourne area.  Newry and Mourne Museum Collection
Hill farms on the Head Road, near Kilkeel, pictured in the 1970s. These farms, on which sheep are farmed and potatoes grown, are typical of the Mourne area. Newry and Mourne Museum Collection

Between 1947 and 1951 a tunnel was built through Slieve Binnian to carry water from the Annalong River to the Silent Valley Reservoir. Men worked on the tunnel using power tools and simple chisels.  Two groups worked towards the tunnel’s completion, from either side of the mountain, meeting in the middle only five cm apart. The Slieve Binnian Tunnel was officially opened on 28th August 1952. 

In 1954, five kilometres upstream from Silent Valley, work started on the Ben Crom Reservoir and took three years to complete.  Unlike Silent Valley, it had a core of mass rock and huge boulders and was founded on solid rock. 

Sheep being driven along a road high in the Mournes in the 1970s. Newry and Mourne Museum Collection
Sheep being driven along a road high in the Mournes in the 1970s. Newry and Mourne Museum Collection

Many generations have worked the land in the Mournes and continue to do so in rain, hail or shine. The area is famous for sheep farming and also for potatoes in the area around Kilkeel.   The mountains have inspired musicians, poets and authors such as C. S. Lewis who wrote The Chronicles of Narnia after spending time there. More recently, the Mournes have formed the dramatic backdrop for many scenes in the Game of Thrones, the popular television series. The Mourne Mountains continue to be a source of livelihood, leisure and adventure for many in south Down area and others from farther afield. 

Newry and Mourne Museum is temporarily closed.

by Dympna Tumilty

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