Peak outrage as monuments clutter Slieve Donard summit
Increasing numbers of unauthorised memorials on the summit of Ulster's highest peak are proving unpopular with some walkers and conservationists. John Manley reports
CONTROVERSY around memorials in Northern Ireland is nothing new, with disputes usually centring on the paramilitary associations.
But atop the north's highest peaks, a different memorials row has been brewing.
With increasing numbers of memorials being placed in the Mournes, concerns have been raised over their appropriateness in an area treasured for its unspoilt beauty.
In April, a grieving Co Down mother appealed for the return of a hand-painted pink stone bearing an image of Minnie Mouse. It had left at Slieve Binnian as a tribute to her daughter, who had passed away last August aged five.
Two years previously, a cast iron heart-shaped sign with a Cupid's arrow had been left on the Brandy Pad to commemorate the engagement of "Jay + Lisa". Weeks later, it was deposited several miles away in Newcastle's Donard Park, presumably by someone who objected to its placement.
The examples show how deeply opinion is divided on the emotive issue of placing memorials in public places, especially in locations loved for their lack of human interference.
"It's great to have more people accessing and using the hills but recently it's becoming clear to me that the 'leave no trace' philosophy is either not known or being ignored," says Castlewellan man Nigel McKinney, a regular Mournes rambler.
"We all have an impact on the beautiful places we visit and a responsibility to help protect them."
Another Mournes rambler Ricky Thompson is more equivocal, believing memorials are acceptable in certain circumstances.
"If someone passed away in the mountains I wouldn't question a tribute being left but I think it's important to limit other memorials, as they can start to have too much of a visual impact," he said.
Outdoor pursuit instructor Andy McMurray, an Alliance representative, acknowledges that historically some memorials are an "intrinsic part of our mountain heritage".
"You could argue that both Donard's summit cairn and the Mourne Wall are examples of this but I don't think the recent fashion for placing memorials add to the historical heritage of our hills," he says.
"Part of the beauty and attraction of going into the wild areas is the feeling that you could be the first person there, once there are permanent reminders that someone has been there, already this attraction has gone."
Mr McMurray believes the issue needs addressed and points to the example of Scotland's Ben Nevis, where in 2006, a remembrance garden was created in an effort to accommodate the increasing number of memorials.
The partnership responsible for preserving Slieve Donard – the National Trust, Mourne Heritage Trust and Mountaineering Ireland – say they have no plans to remove the various commemorative objects from the mountain's summit, although The Irish News understands that it is under consideration.
"We appreciate that this is a sensitive matter so we are exploring alternative ways in which those who want to commemorate loved ones might be able to do so in a way which does not adversely affect these special places," a joint statement said.
"Any future plans which might include the removal of the memorials would be sensitively managed and provision made for the safe collection of them."
The groups argue that the placement of such memorials has the potential to alter the character of the mountains and change the experience of people who visit what is a designated Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty and an EU Special Area of Conservation, or in the case of the peak of Slieve Donard, an Area of Special Scientific Interest.
Sooner or later, it appears some action will be needed at the summit of Ulster's highest peak.