Dis­cov­er­ing Sligo

Neil Mcal­lis­ter trav­els the Wild At­lantic Way through this stun­ning Ir­ish county . . .

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IT never fails to amaze how close Ire­land is. In the time it takes to drive from home to Corn­wall, we can be en­joy­ing the Emer­ald Isle. Our trip to Sligo was easy, as we made our way from Cum­bria, choos­ing Stena Line’s Cairn­ryan to Belfast route.

We had barely opened the news­pa­per and savoured our free re­fill of cof­fee be­fore we were back on the road, en­joy­ing a scenic drive through beau­ti­ful County Fer­managh to reach the shores of Done­gal Bay.

There never seems to be any traf­fic on Ire­land’s mi­nor roads, mak­ing driv­ing a real plea­sure.

Mul­lagh­more was our first stop on the Wild At­lantic Way, the net­work of coastal roads which hug the ocean, giv­ing ac­cess to some of Europe’s most spec­tac­u­lar scenery.

Our early start meant that we ar­rived at Mul­lagh­more har­bour when the fish­er­men moored by the long quay were get­ting their craft ready for high tide.

We have Lord Palmer­ston to thank for the lob­ster-pot­lined har­bour.

As lo­cal landowner, he planned to make the vil­lage an ex­port cen­tre, but he com­pleted the project in 1841, just in time to deal with the coun­try’s big­gest ex­o­dus as peo­ple forced from their mother coun­try by famine fled to Canada and Amer­ica.

Eithna’s By The Sea restau­rant is the vil­lage’s most un­miss­able build­ing.

Its front is painted like an un­der­wa­ter scene, with waves crash­ing above, con­trast­ing with the sur­round­ing prop­er­ties.

At Grange, we fol­lowed a tiny road back to the coast, be­fore join­ing an even nar­rower lane sign­posted Streedagh.

Just be­yond a me­mo­rial to three ships from the Span­ish Ar­mada which foundered on the coast, we came across an idyl­lic empty bay.

Some peo­ple col­lect stamps, but Hazel has a fas­ci­na­tion with in­ter­est­ing peb­bles. Whilst she scoured the strand, I chat­ted to two Man­cu­ni­ans at­tempt­ing to fix a satel­lite dish on top of their camper van.

“What a fan­tas­tic place to stay,” Hazel said, nod­ding at the mo­torhome, as she showed me a small black stone which ap­peared to be filled with fos­silised plant stems. “It’s a bit like the Outer He­brides here, but with even fewer peo­ple.”

Most of the time, es­pe­cially on mi­nor roads and lanes, we seemed to be the only ve­hi­cle, es­pe­cially as our road con­tin­ued through Bal­ly­con­nell to Raghly and on to Drum­cliff, in the shadow of Ben­bullen, the al­most sheer moun­tain, which rises above a site of lit­er­ary pil­grim­age.

As a stu­dent, I con­nected with two writ­ers, Dy­lan Thomas and W. B. Yeats.

Sligo is Yeats Coun­try, and be­side St Columba’s church we found the poet’s grave.

You can’t miss the church, as an old round tower stands be­side the road, but seek out the an­cient high cross, dec­o­rated with Celtic carv­ings, which has stood be­tween church and road pos­si­bly for more than a thou­sand years.

There are plenty of places to stay in Sligo city. We had cho­sen to rest in the Glasshouse, be­side the Gar­avogue River, with a very con­ve­nient car park.

As we stood be­side the Hyde Bridge, Hazel spot­ted a heron un­der the arches.

“You don’t of­ten get wildlife in a busy city cen­tre,” she mused.

With so much glo­ri­ous coun­try­side and coast­line it would be easy to miss the city’s de­lights, so we set a day aside.

Armed with a map from the tourist of­fice, we me­an­dered around, guided vaguely by the her­itage trail, which takes in the most at­trac­tive and in­ter­est­ing sights.

The trail passes (but doesn’t in­clude) some tra­di­tional old places in O’con­nell Street, like Mul­laney Bros, out­fit­ters, and Wehrly Bros, jew­ellers, whose signs are of a style which van­ished from Bri­tish high streets 50 years or more ago.

Har­gadon Bros Bar is an ex­er­cise in nostal­gia, which has changed lit­tle since it opened its doors in 1868, with crooked shelves, cosy al­coves and good food.

Lyons, near the im­pres­sive City Hall, is an­other de­light­ful shop with a won­der­ful carved sign, but the old-fash­ioned ex­te­rior con­ceals a mod­ern de­part­ment store and, next to the café, a bak­ery filled with tempt­ing pas­tries.

Any­one who comes to shop is well served by na­tional stores in places like John­ston Court, but far more in­ter­est­ing are the lo­cal en­ter­prises.

Despite its tiny frontage, Michael Cos­grove’s shop has been putting food on Sligo’s plates since 1898 and has to be the city’s best-stocked, most in­ter­est­ing em­po­rium, with shelves groan­ing with ed­i­ble de­lights.

Even older are the abbey ru­ins. The clois­ters sur­vive in­tact and are very at­trac­tive as light streams through be­tween the pil­lars, but the high­light must be the O’crean Al­tar tomb, beau­ti­fully dec­o­rated in tra­di­tional me­di­ae­val style.

Following the trail to the city’s south side, past the im­pres­sive court­house, it passes a suc­ces­sion of re­li­gious build­ings in­clud­ing a Do­mini­can fri­ary, Angli­can church and the city’s Vic­to­rian cathe­dral, whose tall tower, capped by a small spire, is a lo­cal land­mark.

It is pos­si­ble to walk the trail in half a day, but if, like us, you pause to di­vert into shops, stop to chat or en­joy a leisurely lunch, it will take much longer.

To make a day of it, visit the Model, an arts cen­tre which holds the Ni­land col­lec­tion of Ir­ish art, part of which is on dis­play at any time.

When we called in, a room was de­voted to a col­lec­tion of pam­phlets edited by artist Jack But­ler Yeats, the poet’s brother.

Pub­lished be­fore World War I in edi­tions of 300, each four-page pub­li­ca­tion con­tains po­ems and hand-coloured il­lus­tra­tions.

The pam­phlets we saw

were from a com­plete col­lec­tion dis­cov­ered in an Amer­i­can at­tic!

The rest of our time we de­voted to drives out from the city, first on a loop to Strand­hill, paus­ing first to en­joy Car­row­more Me­galithic Ceme­tery, the most an­cient at­trac­tion.

This huge site is cen­tred around an im­mense stone cairn, but con­tains stone cir­cles, dol­men and other such an­cient graves, all within sight of Maeve’s Cairn, Ire­land’s largest, which stands on top of Knocknarea moun­tain.

Af­ter a brief stop at Culleen­amore Strand, we ar­rived in Strand­hill, where chil­dren clam­ber on the seafront can­non and surfers ride the waves.

Be­side a stone bearing a Yeats poem, a lo­cal lady was try­ing to light a cig­a­rette in the wind.

“The beaches here are lovely – you don’t have to go to Tener­ife!” She laughed. “If you are think­ing of go­ing to Coney Is­land, it’s beau­ti­ful, but don’t use the low tide cause­way in your car – it will ruin it,” she ad­vised. “You’ll find a boat from Rosses Point is much safer.”

Our route around Sligo Har­bour took us past Dolly’s Cot­tage, the tiny tra­di­tion­ally thatched house that hosts a small mu­seum.

As in much of ru­ral Ire­land, many old homes stand derelict as na­ture takes over.

Mod­ern peo­ple ap­pear to pre­fer mod­ern houses, although the old fam­ily home is of­ten left for mem­ory’s sake.

Rosses Point, north of the nat­u­ral har­bour, is a pop­u­lar hol­i­day des­ti­na­tion, with coach tours keep­ing the large seafront ho­tels full.

On a bench over­look­ing Coney Is­land we dis­cov­ered three vis­i­tors from over the bor­der, in­clud­ing Iris An­drews, from Moira.

“We may have dif­fer­ent re­li­gions, but we all breathe the same air,” she an­nounced.

Kath­leen Sloane is a long-time “Friend” reader from Belfast.

“If I don’t get my copy ev­ery week, I might as well lay down and die,” she de­clared dra­mat­i­cally.

Sea­mus Mo­nan, oc­cu­py­ing the end of the bench, claimed re­spon­si­bil­ity for the weather.

“It’s glo­ri­ous to­day – we brought it with us,” he joked.

Our friend in Strand­hill had ad­vised that Sligo’s beaches were bet­ter than any for­eign ones.

“The sea is such a blue – you have to see it,” she’d said.

Rosses Point’s huge stretch of sand proved the point.

Stretch­ing as far as the eye could see, it seemed to be oc­cu­pied by a pair of dog walk­ers and few other peo­ple.

The view, con­tin­u­ing over a golf course to Ben­bul­ben and the Dartry Moun­tains in the dis­tance, is world-class.

If scenery floats your boat, wan­der­ing across the bor­der to Leitrim gives ac­cess to Glen­car Water­fall, and a lit­tle fur­ther south, on the banks of Lough Gill, is Parke’s Cas­tle, home of an idyl­lic Ir­ish life in the words of W.B. Yeats.

“I will arise and go now, and go to In­n­is­free,

And a small cabin build there, of clay and wat­tles made;

Nine bean-rows will I have there, a hive for the honey-bee,

And live alone in the bee-loud glade.” n

Pur­ple and white va­le­rian grow­ing wild near Lock­aan Bay.

Wild flow­ers grow­ing around a rough stone cir­cle at Car­row­more.

Blue skies above fish­ing boats op­po­site Coney Is­land

Sit­ting amongst his­tory at Car­row­more Me­galithic Ceme­tery.

The Yeats Me­mo­rial Build­ing and Hyde Bridge in the heart of Sligo.

Yel­low flag iris at the base of Knocknarea Moun­tain.

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