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