The Cooley Peninsula Explored

Carlingford - busiest (and most scenic) town on the Cooley Peninsula
••• Carlingford - busiest (and most scenic) town on the Cooley Peninsula. Bernd Biege 2016

The Cooley Peninsula, jutting out into the Irish Sea just below Carlingford Lough (and the border to Northern Ireland) surely ranks amongst the places you should really visit in County Louth. Yet you’ll find that many, if not most, people simply drive by on the busy M1 from Dublin to Belfast. However, one should really stop and smell the roses here. Or at least the fresh sea breeze and mountain air.

The Cooley Peninsula in a Nutshell

Despite its fame in Irish mythology, the Cooley Peninsula seems to be largely forgotten. It can be roughly described as lying east of the M1 Dublin-Belfast motorway, starting near Dundalk in the south, then finishing up at the mouth on the Newry River near Omeath. As the connection to mainland Ireland is fairly broad, there is no definite cut-off point.

The geography of the peninsula is best characterized by a fairly flat strip of land right next to the sea and Carlingford Lough, with quite impressive hills jutting out of the middle. Making driving a long-winded and curvy affair at times, but also provides for great views. By the way – driving really is the best choice of transport here (unless you prefer the sporty variations of cycling or walking), public transport by bus is sketchy and the railway has long been closed. On the other hand, driving around the Cooley Peninsula is easy – if coming from Dundalk just follow the R173, then the R175 for Greenore, then the R176 to Carlingford, where you rejoin the R173.

Straight on, and you’ll cross the border and then head into Newry, County Down.

The Legend of the Brown Bull

Along the way, you’ll come across a lot of bulls. There is one (easily missed) on the western embankment above the M1, there is a more substantial (though smallish) statue at The Bush near the old railway bridge, and yet another in a mythology-themed mini-park at Carlingford.

What’s that all about then? Well, it is all about the Donn Cuailnge, a brown bull from Cooley (then in the province of Ulster) with a definite prowess in the fertility stakes. This was wanted by Queen Maeve of Connacht, and she went to war for it … opposing Ulster’s armies and even the hero Cu Chullain. All told in the epic Tain Bó Cualigne, the “Cattle Raid of Cooley," tale worth reading.

When you look at the several bulls representing Donn Cuailnge, you’ll notice that his reproductive organs are always portrayed in anatomical detail, as this was the main reason the legendary queen wanted him. A queen who, by the way, had men fighting for her by promising them sexual favors – and thus Maeve is portrayed stark naked in Dublin.

What to see on the Cooley Peninsula?

First of all … nature! Whether the rugged hills or the long coastline, the natural beauty here is an argument on its own. Though the lower lands are being intensively farmed (and stretches of the shoreline given to mussel cultivation and harvesting), you’ll always find a quiet spot to relax.

And then there are the less natural attractions:

  • Carlingford: a bustling small seaside town which has embraced the tourist industry with a vengeance, from adventure activities (watch bankers doing teambuilding exercises on a wobbly raft and you’ll soon be cheering for the bigger waves) to simply having a good time (the town is very popular with stag and hen parties and often quite busy on weekends). So expect hormones to be thicker in the air than around Queen Maeve at times. On the other hand, Carlingford is a very historic town with several medieval buildings in the center and the massive Carlingford Castle overlooking the harbor. Good for a stroll, and you can even take in the last leprechauns of Ireland. Or, if you want a treat, a really recommended old-fashioned afternoon tea at Ruby Ellen’s Tearooms.
  • Greenore: this delightful village has seen a lot of decline since the closure of the ferry service to Holyhead and the Dundalk, Newry and Greenore Railway, but has fortunately been preserved as a living monument. It was built as a planned community for workers at the Greenore port and the railway, and still retains a lot of old-world charm in its few streets. The port is still active, and has been used to outfit pirate radio ships in the past, famous station “Radio Caroline” sailed from Greenore, as did “Radio Atlanta”. Though the sweet shop at the beach is closed (you can still see the signs), having a stroll here is recommended.
  • Proleek Dolmen: hidden away on the golf course next to Ballymascanlon House (and accessible by a walk across the course, which is no public right of way) is the Proleek Dolmen, one of the finest megalithic monuments of Ireland. The gigantic roof stone, measuring roughly 3.8 by 3.2 meters, and estimated at 30+ tons, is supported by two portal stones, each around 2.3 meters high. It is said that if you can throw a pebble onto the roof stone and it stays up there, you’ll soon be married. There are also the remains of a wedge tomb nearby.
  • Long Woman’s Grave: right up at the Windy Gap, a mountain passed reached from Omeath, is this strange monument. Reputed to be the grave of a (tall) Spanish noblewoman, it might be the remnants of a megalithic site. With the mountains surrounding it, it certainly is an enchanting place.
  • Views of the Mourne Mountains: from both Carlingford and Greenore you can have some of the most splendid views of the Mountains of Mourne sweeping down to the sea, maybe the next best thing to exploring the area itself.
  • Victoria Lock: though not strictly on the Cooley Peninsula, but next to the Newry River on the way to Newry, this is nonetheless a place for a shortstop. The fully restored locks form the connection between the river (and Carlingford Lough) and the Newry Canal running parallel to it. Interesting as a technical monument, and with a number of reminders of local maritime history to boot. Maybe a good place for a picnic?

Getting to the Cooley Peninsula

Coming from Newry: turn southwards from Bridge Street onto the street named Albert Basin (running between the canal and The Quays shopping center), then just carry straight on, and you’ll cross the border near Omeath, then straight on towards Carlingford.

Coming from Dundalk: leave the M1/N1 at the roundabout signposted for Carlingford, taking the R173 right onto the Cooley Peninsula.