County Sligo is often overlooked by tourists in the rush to its more renowned neighbours, Donegal, Mayo and Galway. Yet its landscape, history and cultural offer are every bit their equal and well worth a detour or pause along the Wild Atlantic Way. Working temporarily in nearby County Leitrim, I headed there for a day, to see it for myself.
The name Sligo, (pronounced SLY-goh), comes from the Gaelic for “abounding in shells”. The county town of the same name is long established through the trade of shellfish, on a coastal plain facing the mighty Atlantic Ocean. As I approached the town surrounded by mountains, it was hard to take my eyes off the spectacular interplay of light and cloud on the landscape.
To the south-west lies Knockarea, the Hill of Kings. Although looking from a distance, atop this striking landmark the outline of the great cairn, Queen Maeve’s Grave, is clearly visible. Legend has it that Maeve, the legendary queen of Connacht is buried underneath the massive heap of stones. The area around Sligo town has one of the highest densities of prehistoric archaeological sites in Ireland, which are associated with the coming of agriculture and hence the first farmers in Ireland.
Greek, Phoenician and Roman traders are known to have come to the natural harbour in Sligo town. It currently still handles some cargoes of coal, timber, fish meal and scrap metal but once was of much greater importance on the west coast. The Great Famine between 1847 and 1851 caused over 30,000 people to emigrate through the port of Sligo, mainly to Canada and the United States.
The Norman knight Maurice Fitzgerald, the then Lord Chief Justice of Ireland, established the medieval town and port, building a castle here in 1245. However, the Normans lost control and Sligo is unique in having been in almost continuous Irish control throughout medieval times, until the Elizabethan conquest in the late 16th century.
I parked up beside the ruins of Sligo Abbey, a Dominican Friary, in order to explore the town. Sadly, it is the only medieval relic left in the town, but still an impressive sight. Much of the structure, including the choir, carved altar (the only one in situ in Ireland) and cloisters remains but the Friary was burned in time of siege and finally ruined by Sir Frederick Hamilton’s parliamentary army in 1641.
Much of Sligo is signposted as “Yeat’s Country”, for its connections with the talented family of artists, the most famous being poet William Butler Yeats. Having long been a lover of his poetry, I had to continue my earlier pilgrimage, spent in Galway, while here. The first point of call was The Yeats’ Society in Sligo town, which houses a small, but very well presented exhibition, an art gallery of local talent and a coffee shop named after his sisters, “Lily’s and Lolly’s”.
My pilgrimage was to have taken me to Lissadell House, but sadly it was closed for the winter. Lissadell is famous as the childhood home of Constance Markievicz, her sister Eva Gore-Booth and her brother Josslyn Gore-Booth. Constance was one of the leaders of the 1916 Rising, and was the first woman to be elected to Dáil Eireann, where she served as Minister for Labour (thus becoming the first woman minister in a modern Western European democracy), and was also the first woman to be elected to the House of Commons at Westminster, London (where she declined to take her seat). Eva was a poet of distinction and an active suffragist, clashing with the young Winston Churchill over barmaids’ rights in 1908. Josslyn created at Lissadell one of the premier horticultural estates in Europe. The great poet W. B. Yeats was friendly with the Gore Booth sisters and stayed at Lissadell in 1892 and 1893.
Yeats was not the first and will not be the last to be inspired by this beautiful county. There is speculation that Bram Stoker wrote his famous novel Dracula, inspired by stories told by his mother who grew up in the area at the time of a cholera epidemic. More recently, a blue plaque has been unveiled at the former family home of Goon Show star and writer Spike Milligan.
If The Arts are not your thing, Sligo has plenty more to offer. It’s exposed coastline has long been the destination for keen surfers. I paused on my drive up the coast, for my dog and I to stretch our legs on the beach as the high tide sent rollers crashing towards me on the sands at Rosses Point. Judging by the proliferation of holiday cottages and seaside tourism paraphernalia, this is a popular destination in season. Rory McIlroy has played golf on the courses here and there is Pitch and Putt for those not of his championship standard. Other popular sports on offer include Horse racing, Athletics, Boxing, Martial Arts, Rowing, Swimming & Tennis.
For me, a good walk will suffice, but first, my pilgrimage took me to pause further up the coast in the tiny village of Drumcliffe. Here lies the surprisingly inconspicuous grave of W B Yeats, close to the church entrance but unremarkable amongst the other gravestones. He died in France in 1939, but the second world war delayed his interment here until after the war. His headstone is very simple, as he requested, but marked with his self-penned epitaph “cast a cold eye on life, on death, horseman, pass by.” As this has become a tourist destination, due to it being on the Wild Atlantic route and near to 6th Century monastery and high cross, there is also a coffee and craft shop close by.
Turning the car east and driving back just over the border into county Leitrim, as the late afternoon sun played winter colours on Ben Bulben’s face, I had one, more natural site left to visit before the sunset. Glencar waterfall is well sign-posted and an obvious place for coach parties to pause for “tea and a pee” beside the natural beauty of Glencar Lake. The 50-foot waterfall is a short walk from the road, along a smoothly paved and electrically lit path, with all facilities close to hand. I paused here for a look at a very nice, if unspectacular site, but this was not my ultimate destination.
Just three minutes drive from here, a shallow layby and small interpretation sign are easily missed. What I really wanted to see was The Devil’s Chimney! Non-existent in dry weather, but spectacular after heavy rain, Ireland’s tallest waterfall is just visible from the road, but better seen after a walk up the steep track towards it. At 150metres high it is listed on the World Waterfall database. Its name arises from the phenomenon, during certain wind conditions, of the water being blown up and back over the cliff from which it falls. I was happy just to have wheezed my way up, with elderly dog in tow, to catch sight of it.
The reason the lesser of the two has become more visited is, of course, the celebrity link phenomenon. Glencar is said to have inspired W B Yeats and featured in his poem The Stolen Child:
‘Where the wandering water gushes
From the hills above Glen-Car,
In pools among the rushes
That scarce could bathe a star,’
This has long been the favourite of mine and many others, also inspiring a favourite song by Irish band The Waterboys, which brought others to know the poem and appreciate the works of its author. Yeats called Sligo “The Land of Heart’s Desire” and its wonders filled his early poetry. As I drove the winding road back to Ballinamore I vowed to return to Sligo, perhaps not for my heart’s desire but at least to relish its natural wonders and breathe deeply of its magical properties, as many have done before me.