I have been a regular visitor to Northern Ireland over many years, visiting the town of Ballymena, County Antrim. And anyone familiar with the approach to Ballymena will recognise Slemish. Towering over the surrounding flat landscape, Slemish is unmistakable and, when the mists clear, unmissable. It is also St Patrick’s mountain.
The story goes like this: at the age of 16, the teenager who would become St Patrick was captured in England and brought to Ireland against his will. For the next 6 years he was forced to work as a swineherd on Slemish, looking after his pigs on the lonely and exposed mountain. It was during this period of solitude and loneliness that, they say, he became closer to God and developed into the saintly man he would become.
But what is Slemish? What makes it so striking in a landscape that is otherwise lush, but unremarkable? Well, the answer is millions of years old. Slemish is a volcanic plug, formed when magma forced its way out of the earth’s crust and solidified into rock. Over the millennia the surrounding softer rock eroded away, but the harder volcanic rock remained, and now stands proudly above the landscape.
Is it a mythical mountain? Probably not. Is it inextricably linked to Ireland’s history? Very much so.
Plan your visit to Slemish
Slemish can be visited all year round, although caution should be taken in wet or icy weather as it can be slippery. I drove most of the way up until I reached the exposed rock; from there it is possible to pick your own path to the summit. The round trip takes about 90 minutes, depending on the weather and your fitness levels. Be prepared for a steep scramble.
Because of the association with St Patrick, it is especially popular to climb Slemish on St Patrick’s Day (17 March). If you do the same, expect plenty of company – but expect also to participate in a local tradition that is deeply rooted in Irish myth and legend.
How to get there
Slemish lies approximately 5 miles to the east of Ballymena in central Co. Antrim. Follow signs for Broughshane and make a right-hand turn in the centre of the village. Brown road signs point the way, but these are hit-and-miss so a map or GPS will be helpful.
St Patrick’s Trail
Slemish is part of the St Patrick’s Trail, a 92-mile driving route linking sights across Northern Ireland associated with St Patrick.
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