Breathtaking beauty spot that became 'Bandit Country' during Troubles is given £1m tourism injection
For years it was the most militarised zone in western Europe, a place of breathtaking natural beauty which became forgotten during the Troubles.
The giant Army watchtowers which peered out over the stunning South Armagh countryside overshadowed – quite literally – one of Northern Ireland's hidden treasures.
But now part of the area once known around the world as Bandit Country will be turned into a major tourist attraction.
It is all thanks to the Heritage Lottery Fund, which has awarded £980,000 to Newry and Mourne District Council to protect the Ring of Gullion.
One of the island's last great wildernesses, the Ring is the remnants of a huge volcano formed 60 million years ago with the magnificent Slieve Gullion, long celebrated in song and story as Ireland's Mountain of Mystery, at its centre.
The grant will help the Ring of Gullion Landscape Partnership preserve and protect the scene and create trails for people to access parts of this historic landscape for the first time.
Much of the area used to be occupied by the Army.
At one time there were 3,000 troops based throughout the area, which has a population of around 24,000, with watchtowers, fortified barracks, helicopter landing pads and checkpoints dotting the countryside.
However, the watchtowers were abandoned in 2001 and later demolished, with efforts now being made to encourage more visitors to a region, which for decades was a no-go area.
The project will put in place a training programme and offer courses for walking leaders, budding natural historians, archaeologists and Ring of Gullion heritage ambassadors.
Paul Mullan from the Heritage Lottery Fund said the organisation invests heavily in the conservation of distinctive landscapes across the UK.
"In Northern Ireland alone we have granted £11.8million through our Landscape Partnerships programme," he said. "We believe this is important and exciting work because it opens up beautiful areas for public access, helps us to conserve traditional skills and makes an important contribution to the economy, including the tourism industry.
"The projects we are supporting combined cover an area of 1,923 square kilometres – this is roughly five times the size of Lough Neagh, 14% of Northern Ireland or 320,500 football pitches. The Ring of Gullion is one of the most significant investments to date – not least because of its huge historical and geological importance.
"We believe that our grant will help local people enjoy the heritage on their doorsteps and boost visitors to one of the most beautiful natural sites in western Europe."
Environment Minister Mark H Durkan welcomed the Heritage Lottery Fund contribution.
"I congratulate all those who worked in partnership to achieve this positive outcome for one of our most spectacular landscapes, which has been rightly designated an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty," he said.
Newry and Mourne mayor Daire Hughes said it was fantastic news for the Ring of Gullion and the district.
"The Heritage Lottery Fund's grant, together with our own and the Northern Ireland Environment Agency's contribution, will help us to conserve, restore and make our heritage accessible to all."
Five facts about Ring of Gullion
- The Ring of Gullion is an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty stretching to 15,329 hectares. It is one of nine such areas in Northern Ireland.
- It is the most famous ring dyke in the world, having featured in geological debate and theory over the past 160 years. At the centrepiece of the volcanic landscape is Slieve Gullion, rising to 573m.
- The area has been a place of pilgrimage for some of Ireland’s greatest writers, including WB Yeats. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries Slieve Gullion became a platform for prominent political leaders such as Charles Stewart Parnell, Arthur Griffith and Michael Collins.
- Renowned for the wealth of Megalithic and early Christian monuments, the Ring contains the remains of 20 or so large stone tombs.
- The Ring of Gullion has rich associations with Irish legends and myths. In the Táin Bó Cuailgne (the Cattle raid of Cooley) Cu Chulainn is reputed to have defended Ulster, single-handed, against the hordes of Queen Mebh of Connacht – a battle traditionally associated with the Gap of the North.