October 2004 Newsletter
October 2004 Newsletter
With a population of about 18,000, Sligo is second only to Derry when it comes to being the Big Town of the North West. Situated on the small ford that separates Lough Gill from the Atlantic Ocean, the town lies astride the broad River Garavogue and is overshadowed by the mighty mountains of Benbulben, Knocknarea and the Dartry Range. Sligo is a delightful and lively town, populated by a remarkably youthful people and a regular stop off point for surfers heading to the Atlantic Coast, Stone Age fans seeking to explore County Sligo's exceptional Neolithic ruins, devotees of the Yeats Brothers and the Gore-Booth sisters, and ramblers, horse-riders, golfers and others who simply wish to enjoy the county's extraordinarily beautiful landscape. Sligo Town is home to the annual Yeats summer school every August, an arts festival every May and a choral festival in November.
Sligo is first mentioned in the annals as being plundered by Norse pirates in 807 AD. I'm not altogether sure who lived here at the time - Saint Muiredeach founded his monastery on Innishmurray (which the Vikings also sacked and destroyed) 150 years earlier, so I assume the area was populated by a hotchpotch of socially confused cassock-clad monks wielding prayer books and hairy-nosed fishermen hunter-gatherer types who hung out in crannogs and thatched mud huts. If the discovery of the megalithic tombs and burial sites at Carrowmore and Carrowkeel are anything to go by, I guess people had been living in these parts since the time of De Danaan and the Little People.
Maurice Fitzgerald & the Middle Ages:
At any rate, during the Medieval Age, the Anglo-Norman invaders had sussed out that control of this small coastal ford was essential to control of the region. The French-speaking pioneer into these remote lands was one Maurice Fitzgerald, Earl of Kildare, who set the next five centuries in rhythm by building a fortress here in 1245. Why the earl of Kildare should move to the Atlantic Coast, I am not altogether sure. Perhaps he was into surfing. After all, the Vikings who attacked Sligo in the 9th century came from a country where children liked nothing better than to skate around on ice with the aid of elk-bone skates.
Fitzgerald's castle, located on what is now Castle Street, was a sturdy one and managed to survive all manner of onslaught over the centuries. The warring O'Connor and O'Donnell clans in the 14th and 15th centuries could not destroy it. Nor could those most destructive of louts, the Parliamentarian forces of Oliver Cromwell, during their sack of Sligo in the Ulster Rebellion of 1641. Indeed, the Castle defied the odds to become the last of the western garrisons to capitulate to the might of King Billy's army in the aftermath of the Boyne in 1691. Thereafter, it fell into disrepair and is now a mere skull and bone of what it once was.
Fitzgerald, like many of the Anglo-Normans, was essentially a Good Christian in a Holy Land. One would have thought Holy Anglo-Normans and Holy Irishmen would have had the sense to sit around the dinner table with a case of cider and have a good chat about the Ten Commandments, but I guess it just wasn't that simple. Instead, casting aside those emphatic lines about loving thy neighbour, they followed the time-honoured precedent of beating each other up.
That said, in 1252 - seven years after his castle was completed - Fitzgerald established a Dominican abbey on the banks of the Garavogue River, the remains of which are to found on Abbey Street. Like the castle, the abbey had a long and unhappy history of being attacked and looted by whoever fancied some free bread and wine, being finally destroyed by a Parliamentarian force commanded by Sir Charles Coote in 1645. The Abbey has hardly been touched in the 35 decades since but the ruins nonetheless make a fine spot for a picnic, incorporating a number of lancet windows, oak panelling, elaborate pillared cloisters and some fine murals dating from the 13th - 16th centuries.
18th Century Onwards:
As it happens, the ruins of Fitzgerald's abbey and castle are all that's left of Sligo's medieval heritage. Skip forward to the 18th century and that's when Sligo as we know it began to come to life. The Great Famine did not spare Sligo, when upwards of a third of the population disappeared into coffins and famine ships over the course of the 1840s, but the town slowly managed to find its feet over the rest of the 19th century and, with Derry still developing, started life in the 20th as the busiest market town in the northwest.
W.B.Yeats famously described Sligo's architectural heritage as having "a kind of dignity in their utilitarianism". Among the more impressive structures are the Sir Roger Jones's 17th century St. John's Church, the adjoining Romanesque Catholic Cathedral (erected 1869 - 1874), the Gothic Carly Church (1823), the Holy Cross Dominican Church (1845) on High Street, the Italian Renaissance style City Hall (1864), the Courthouse (1878) and the Gillooley Memorial Hall (1903). I am particularly intrigued to locate a 1960s housing estate built around a stone circle on the south bank of the Garavogue River, which I read about in a yellowing newspaper at the bottom of a dusty old wardrobe in Scotland.
Out & About:
Michael Quirke's sculpture studio in an old butcher's shop on Wine Street is an honest and successful attempt to preserve the cultural aims of Yeats and Lady Gregory through beautifully sculpted windfallen woods that bear images and scenes from Irish mythology.
Sligo has a stack of very good pubs and restaurants to gorge out in, and is well catered to by B&Bs and hotels. The Factory Theatre and Hawk's Well Theatre generally have interesting shows, while if you want to get jiggy with it, then consider taking the plunge and diving into the dishko-inferno of Toff's Nightclub on the John F. Kennedy Parade.
The Model Arts Gallery on The Mall has, for a provincial town, managed to acquire a well above average collection of paintings. No doubt the Yeats connection helps as both the Nobel Laureate's talented father, John (1839 - 1922) and brother Jack Butler Yeats (see special feature), an internationally acclaimed artist, are exhibited here as part of the famous Niland Collection - but there are also evocative works by modern Irish artists like Evie Hone, George Russell (alias AE) and Paul Henry to feast your eyes upon.
Sligo is of course celebrated for its associations with the great Nobel Prize winning poet, William Butler Yeats. (See separate feature). For more academic Yeatseans, the Yeats International Summer School held down the road in the Yeats Society HQ at Douglas Hyde Bridge every August ought to hit the spot. Alternatively, the Sligo Museum and surrounding shops have so far courageously fended off the more fickle side of commercialism. Aye, but one wonders how long it will be before Sligo turns itself into a regular little shopping mall flogging pocket-sized pop-up poetry books, W-B-Y base-ball caps and knick-knack paddy whack toothbrushes that tootle about the Isle of Inishfree whenever you pick ‘em up.
Should tackiness take over - and in a world more full of weeping than you can understand, it often does - and you want to be at one with Yeats, the silk kimonos and stolen children, then I suggest you steal away to the middle of nowhere with the Complete Works and don't come back until you've finished.
I often wonder what Yeats and Douglas Hyde and the other founding fathers of the Gaelic Revival 100 years ago would make of 21st century Ireland. For them it was all about the resurrection of the Osianic epics of Diarmuid and Grainne, Cuchullain and Queen Maeve, momentous sagas that we memorised as children and have barely contemplated since. Today, the international face of the Great Irish Bard struggles amid a ceaseless onslaught of unprintably dire boy bands. This is a ferocious shame and, please understand, there are many here among us who grieve daily on this catastrophe. TB©
until this time next month...
Conor B & Turtle.