Sligo's Gaelic name Sligeach translates to ‘bay of the shells', apt as it sits at the head of Sligo bay occupying a thin plain between the mountains of Benbulben and Knocknarea. Sligo has no heavy industries as such, it relies on farming in the lush green fields between the Ox Mountains and Benbulben which border the county to the north and southwest. It's a small county with only one real town of note, Sligo Town a busy town and port on the banks of the River Garavogue, which serves as the admin centre for the county.
County Sligo is famously associated with the Yeats family. This well to do Sligo family produced two of Ireland's most important figures in modern literature and art; the poet William Butler Yeats and his brother the painter Jack Butler Yeats. Naturally Sligo milks this association for all its worth, though in truth WB Yeats was born in Dublin, educated in London, spent most of his writing career in Dublin. He was only in Sligo sporadically as a child, but it was probably where his heart was. Sligo, with its rich folklore and iconic landscapes inspired much of the writings of the Nobel prize winning poet laureate as well as the paintings of JB Yeats and is where you will fine the last resting place of WB in the shadow of Benbulben.
My short tour of county Sligo begins with the distant and remote corner of Mullaghmore, which has an atmosphere to it almost like an the islands. A flat plain of pastureland stretching out to golden sandy beaches, Mullaghmore is dominated by the Victorian Gothic sprawl of Classiebawn Castle. Built in 1856 for Lord Palmerston, this was the home of Lord Mountbatten, before the IRA blew him up on his yacht moored in the bay, together with members of his family and a young local boy in 1979. It's a shame that somewhere so serene will always be remembered for this fact. I take in the scenery around the tiny harbour at Mullaghmore, watching the sailing boats and wind surfers in the bay, flanked by golden sands while the mighty Slieve League Cliffs stand in the distance across Donegal Bay.
After this lovely little detour I head to Sligo for a coffee and a look around. First impressions are of a bustling and busy town - very Irish in appearance. Narrow streets lined with colourful shop fronts of tall Georgian buildings and people stopping to pass the time of day with each other. The sun's out and it gives a great glint to the Garavogue that flows through the centre of the town. I drop by the tourist centre and pick up a handful of brochures, leaflets and maps, among them information on the Yeats Heritage and associated sites, the ancient sites of Carrowmore and of all things slimy seaweed baths! According to the brochure from Kilcullen Seaweed Baths immersing yourself in steaming hot seawater and seaweed has been a part of Irish homeopathy for thousands of years, used to treat rheumatism and arthritis. I decide that this last one I'll just read about and the others I'll actually explore.
I start with a drive around what is signposted as Yeats Country before heading back into Sligo Town and staying there for the night. Yeats Country is basically a drive around the scenery and places WB Yeats mentions in his poems. The route along the R286 takes me around Lough Gill, and around places like Dooney Rock, mentioned in The Fiddler of Dooney and Innisfree Island, from The Lake Isle of Innisfree. As I'm driving I unexpectedly cross into County Leitrim and stop by Parkes Castle - a typical Plantation house with a turreted tower house surrounded by defensive walls. On the lake a boat pulls up on the jetty by the castle dropping people off from the last cruise of the Lough for today - shame I missed it. To top finish off my Yeats drive I decide to head to Drumcliff to the small church where the man himself is buried.
Yeats' grandfather was once rector of the church at Drumcliff. In the Church yard is a huge Celtic cross dating from the 11th Century and in the shadows of Benbulben is Yeats' grave with the poet's own epitaph which was written in ‘Under Benbulben' inscribed on the stone;
a cold eye
On life, on death
Horsemen, pass by!
Yeats liked his poetry like that - obscure and grandiose, writing at a time of a new resurgence in Irish literature in the 19th Century as Ireland quickly went from a country repressed and occupied to one of Independence. Yeats and other writers of the time like Joyce set about moulding a new literature for a new state - Yeats by evoking the heroic figures and mythologies of the past, together with those revolutionaries of the day. One of these was the remarkable figure of Countess Constance Markievicz, born into a wealthy Sligo family the Gore-Booths of Lissadell House near Rosses Point. Despite her aristocratic background she was committed to the cause for Irish Independence and took part in the Easter Uprising of 1916. The Countess was sentenced to death but this was commuted and in 1918 she became the first women to be elected to the House of Commons in Britain and later she played a role in Ireland's first independent parliament. An exhibition at Lissadel House runs through all this and after I've took a look, I head back to town.
While in the town I walk past the Yeats Building, so I pop my head in and quickly scan the pictures and plaques on the walls and decide I've had enough of Yeats for one day - its time for a pint. I opt for the Garavogue, a trendy new waterside bar blessed with sunshine and full of after work drinkers and students and find a spot in the sun to enjoy my bottle of Bulmers with a pint glass with ice. After grabbing a bite to eat decide I'll walk around the town poking my nose into a few bars before I come across one on the corner of Castle Street with the sound of music coming from inside.
Sure enough there is a trad session crammed into the corner so I decide to stop for a pint. The band is a three piece; a bodhran player concentrating intently on the strokes of his drum, a young female fiddler and a young banjo player with long nattie dreds. I listen intently to the intricate fiddly dee music as I sup my pint. It's a relaxing feeling and though considered by some of the natives as a bit of a fop to the tourists these days, I find trad sessions interesting even though I don't know a single tune. The interaction and interplay between the musicians is fascinating. The music is seemingly organic, played with the seeming ease of breathing but with a visible intensity. There's something I've noticed at Trad sessions - there is a bizarre moment of musical conversation as the lead musicians play little pieces of what is to be the next song to each other as if saying ‘it's the one that goes fiddly diddly dee, then fiddly diddly diddly dee' and then they kind of nod in agreement and go into the tune at breakneck speed.
After draining my glass I squeeze my way out of the tiny pub and walking down the town I stop by a pub called Hargadon Bros. No music but the pub's character is entertainment enough, real 19th Century stuff, old-fashioned snugs and intriguing little nooks and crannies. The place is about half full and I get a pint at the bar, where if need be I could get my groceries and shoes fixed (well maybe not at night) and soak in the atmosphere of a real traditional Irish pub. The punters are a mix of old timers and a few younger people all chatting away to each other and there's a real local atmosphere that I decide not to encroach upon and so head off to my next pub. I pop down a narrow alleyway to a doorway, outside which people are smoking now that they aren't allowed to smoke in pubs. This little idea comes from the Irish Government's Health Minister Michael Meehan and he has certainly sealed the lid on his political career in doing so. I don't think people will ever vote the man who stopped smoking in pubs the Taosioch, but I personally think he should be commended. Anyway the pub's called Shoot the Crows, with a long narrow bar and a tiny lounge in which another band are playing this time a bit of folksie jazz with a fiddle, sax, guitar and a strange drum that I decide to investigate. What I see is a chap sitting on a box with a hole in the centre, that he is beating away on - who needs twelve piece drum kits and this even doubles as his chair!
After waking up a little bit worse for wear the next morning I decide to explore Sligo's ancient past today and what better way to start than I climb up Knocknarea, with a slight hangover. This towering hill top cairn 328m high is reputed to be the grave of legendary Queen Mab as she is known in England and Wales and Queen Maeve as she is known here in Ireland. I head out of Sligo towards Strandhill and the airport and follow sporadic road signs for Knocknarea and Mescan Meadhbha Cambered Cairn, before I come to a car park at the bottom of the hill. I walk my way up the scree to the top of the cairn it takes me about 45mins and though I'm really starting to feel my hangover, I'm rewarded with wonderful views from the top. It's difficult to know where the hill stops and the huge cairn starts with rocks piled upon rocks marking the spot where Maeve is believed to be buried. From here the panorama shows flat plain of Sligo surrounded by the bay, the ridge of Benbulben and distant peaks of the Bricklieve and the Ox Mountains. It's a view that I'd recommend anyone to take in, though maybe not after you've had a heavy drinking session the night before.
Close by is Carrowmore Megalithic Cemetery. In this location there are some 60 stone circles and passage tombs, where numerous ancient artefacts have been dug up over the years. Carrowmore is one of the largest Stone Age cemeteries in Europe and has caused quite a stir in Irish archaeological circles. I take the tour around the 2.5km square area owned and run by Ireland's national heritage organisation; Duchas. The actual area of the whole of the cemetery spreads to a further 5km sq, but this has all been swallowed up by farmland and around 23 original Stone Age sites have disappeared since they were first registered in 1839 and some of the best remains are located on private land.
Carrowmore is part of a huge complex of burial grounds interlinked with nearby sites such as the passage tombs of Carrowkeel. Interestingly Carrowmore is situated at a central point between ancient stone cairns on top of surrounding mountains and as is common these are aligned with the passage of the sun. And now for the historical intrigue - It was only until relatively recently that Carrowmore was established as predating Newgrange, Ireland's premier Neolithic burial site located just outside Dublin, by some 700 years. Until then Dubliners saw Newgrange as the main site that all others followed and took this to mean Ireland's first settlers came via Dublin and the east, giving them an extra sense of superiority. The belief was that things became more basic as they went west by a process of cultural degeneration. However Carrowmore suggests that the ‘Western Degenerates' came to Ireland first and that their art became more elaborate as they moved east, from the basic tombs of Carrowmore and Carrowkeel to that of the celebrated Newgrange, all of which kind of makes Sligo the cradle of Irish civilisation.
with that thought I leave Sligo, with the impression of a hidden
gem, rough and uncut, but none the less beautiful.
this time next month...
Conor B & Seamus.