Making climbing Sligo’s Knocknarea an interactive experience

The Queen Maeve Trail at Knocknarea has been upgraded with 14 new directional signs giving visitors an interactive experience that is the first of its kind in the county. 

The Sligo Walks team at one of 14 new information signs on the Queen Maeve Trail, Knocknarea – photo Carl Brennan

The signs guide walkers through an 8km looped informational trail that brings them on a mythological journey telling the epic Irish story of Táin Bó Cúailnge as they travel from the Knocknarea car park to the Cairn at the summit, which is said to be the final resting place of Queen Maeve, the legendary queen of Connacht. 

Micheál Ó Domhnaill of Sligo Walks says there are three elements to the new project, which utilise QR codes to give visitors access to a wealth of extra information surrounding the mythology, biodiversity, and the natural resources of the area. 

“First, we needed directional signage because the Queen Maeve Trail has only been there a few years and there were a couple of examples of people getting lost, so we had to fix that,” he said. 

“The second aspect was the Cairn itself; it is a really important national monument which over the years has gradually eroded due to people climbing on it. People were telling us they didn’t see the sign and we wanted to make sure they were aware of the danger. 

“We also wanted to have a legacy item for the next generation. We thought of school children and mapped out 14 stops along the trail which on one side tells the story of Queen Maeve and the Táin, and on the other gives information on the flora and fauna of the area.” 

The idea of the trail is to allow people to engage with nature and Micheál says they wanted to produce something that families could enjoy together as well as allow teachers to bring students on educational nature walks. 

“I myself remember in school going on nature trails, you always knew summer was coming when the teacher brought you on a nature walk. 

“I think schools have gone away from that a little bit, now it’s more about having the big day out in Dublin, we said we’ll offer this to schools to try and engage the next generation of walkers. 

“We think this is a great way for teachers to encourage students to engage with their locality, find out a bit about the culture and mythology associated with Knocknarea, but also explore the countryside as well as study the plants and birds or to look across towards Benbulbin.” 

With the Knocknarea area being the most popular in the entire county for nature walks, bringing in upwards of 100,000 visitors every year, Micheál says Sligo Walks wanted to do something special for this one. 

“There’s about 50 walks now developed in Sligo and we wanted to do something unique for what is the most popular walk,” he said. 

Scan the QR code to bring you lots of extra Queen Maeve Trail info – photo Carl Brennan

They are hoping now to engage with schoolteachers throughout Sligo and develop resources for students that will be available free of charge to be printed out, turning the walk into an interactive experience. 

“You could have little worksheets going around that encourage students to find information, draw or colour something,” he said. 

Currently, there are QR codes on each of the 14 stops that directs visitors to the Sligo Walks website where a wealth of extra information is available from photos, to videos, to podcasts. 

The information available was provided by local nature expert Michael Bell and each stop “highlights the nature that is at your feet.” 

“You pull up the sign, and the text and photos are describing what is all around you. Each sign is different, one talking about insects, another birdlife, then plants or trees,” Micheál said. 

All the artwork on the signage was designed by award winning illustrator and cartoonist Annie West. 

This information teaches people to open their eyes to the nature that’s all around and explains everything from lichen in stonewalls that provides shelter for insects to the water that flows down the mountain which acts as an essential resource to all the creatures living in the forest. 

Central to the development of the project was Michael Carty, who oversees Sligo Walks for Sligo County Council as well as Christian Spain, from Ballast Signs, who did the layout and graphic design for the posts. 

These new features were funded by the Community Monuments Fund of the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage and Micheál stressed that if they are popular there could be scope to develop them further. 

Knocknarea and the megalithic cemeteries of Carrowmore and Carrowkeel are currently in a bid to secure status as a UNESCO World Heritage Site and as such Micheál thinks it is ripe “to develop into something much bigger down the line as that other development continues to gather pace.” 

“It’s about getting the word out there. We want people to come and enjoy this new resource, we also see it as a way to engage young people. Sometimes it can be hard to stimulate young people or the children in our families, this could be a way for people to find out a little bit about their locality,” he said. 

“I think this will make the walk a lot more enjoyable for children and they are out getting exercise at the same time.” 

Sorcha Sheehy of Sligo County Council outlined how they engaged with Gerald Love Contracts to make the Queen Maeve Trail a reality stating that they “worked with local landowners to successfully place the signs around the trail.” 

Walking the Queen Maeve Trail on Knocknarea – photo Carl Brennan

This is the top walk in the county, according to Ray O’Grady from Sligo County Council, who said for that reason “it is important to get the signage and interpretation right.” 

“This is part of the aspirational stuff we do in terms of trying to get really good quality interpretation so visitors can learn about the walks, nature, archaeology and all the different aspects you should be taking in when exploring the wonderful walks we have in Sligo,” he said. 

Micheál says these new additions to the walk intend to add to the overall experience and positively contribute to people’s physical and mental health, while at the same time managing the popularity of the area. 

“We wanted to make sure the walk was accessible to as many people as possible, but at the same time we need to manage people. We don’t want everyone going up the old traditional route, we want people to access from Rathcarrick Wood, or to come in from across the Rugby Club,” he said. 

“This means there’s a spread of people around the mountain in a way that is manageable and respective of the history, archaeology and particularly so the Cairn will not be damaged. 

“It is a very pleasant walk, sections of it are tough and you might have to stop from time to time, but we’ve also just installed new viewing platforms so people can take in the magnificent views over Sligo Bay. 

“It’s a very accessible walk, just a stone’s throw away from Sligo, it’s a good day for the county to have a fantastic resource that the public can come and enjoy as much as they want to.”

This article was originally published in The Sligo Champion in February 2022. The author is Stephen Holland.