From the Parishes of Doe to Cloughaneely, there is an iconic part of the landscape that is impossible to miss, except perhaps on cloudy days when there’s a low cloud or fog in the way. This is the sight of Muckish Mountain.
Muckish has stood overlooking this corner of Donegal for Millenia and has watched from above the many changes of our landscape since then -from the arrival of our ancestors, the marauding Vikings and the days of the great Irish Chieftains, to the colonization under the British Empire all the way to our Independence. It has also bore witness to our tragedies; The Great Hunger, Two World Wars, the Battle of the Atlantic off the coast of Tory Island which saw the death of hundreds of sailors, and the countless lives that have drowned along our coast.
Muckish, coming from the Irish Mucais or An Mhucais (meaning “The Pig’s Back”) is a distinctive flat-topped mountain in the Derryveagh Mountains . At 667.1 metres, it is the third-highest peak in the Derryveagh Mountains and the 163rd highest in Ireland. Muckish is also the northernmost and second highest of the mountain chain known as the “Seven Sisters” by locals. The Seven Sisters include Muckish, Crocknalaragagh, Aghla Beg, Ardloughnabrackbaddy, Aghla More, Mackoght, and Errigal. A large cairn (man-made mound of stones), can be found on the summit plateau which marks a Bronze Age court tomb.
The mountain contains high-grade quartz sand that was mined on the flanks of the mountain for many years and the remnants of the quarry workings can be seen on its northern side to this day. The sand mined on Muckish was taken down the mountain on sluices and taken to Ards Pier on lorries where it was loaded into boats for export. Two of these boats were the Saxon Queen and the Gaelic. Unfortunately, the Gaelic sank after leaving Ards Pier after hitting the Black Rock off Rosguill. There was no loss of life and the ship’s remains have become a popular spot for divers.
The miners who worked on the quarry would arrive at the bottom of the mountain by foot or by lorry and make their way up the mountain by what is now known as The Miners Path. The route of the Miner’s Path is to the summit, up the northern side of the mountain. Part of this route follows the path used by the workers to reach the quarry. A less difficult route to the summit begins from the Muckish Gap on the southern side of the mountain. These miners came from the townlands and towns surrounding Muckish, with the exception of Engineer Jack Smyth who came from England. He settled in the area and became an integral part of The Anvil Ceili Band as their drummer.
In the past, families would gather at the Bridge of Tears in the foothills of Muckish to say goodbye to their family members who were leaving for a better life across the Atlantic, often never to return. Percy French, the famous poet, visited the district at the beginning of the 20th century and while staying in Falcarragh he wrote a poem called “An Irish Mother”. Once the Railway chugged along the base of Muckish, flanking its sides from Letterkenny to Burtonport, but even though the railway is gone now, it is still a very popular and expanding greenway.
Muckish Mountain has seen many changes down through the years and is now a very popular climbing route although care must be exercised as the mountain can be deceptively hard to climb. Up until recent years, a race known as ‘The Glover Marathon’ was held running along the ridges from Muckish to Errigal but this has now largely been abandoned in order to preserve the mountains from damage. The Muckish Gap is a name given to the road between Creeslough and Falcarragh on the southern side of Muckish and as well as being a shortcut to and from Letterkenny, it is also a world-famous rally stage for the Donegal Rally.
In 2000, a large metal cross was placed at the summit of the Mountain, replacing a wooden one that had been erected by the workers of Muckish Sand in 1950. The new cross was placed much closer to the northern end of the mountain, while the cairn is towards the south. Among those who climbed the mountain to put up the Cross in the year 2000 were also there when the original Cross was put up 50 years beforehand. So, next time you’re looking to Muckish, keep an eye out for the cross!