Ireland of the Welcomes

Stunning Sligo

County Sligo is the new culinary capital of Ireland’s Northwest - and deservedly so, writes

- Domhnall O’Donoghue

Domhnall O'Donoghue visits Sligo and discovers a culinary treasure

County Sligo, one of Ireland’s most beautiful destinatio­ns located along the Atlantic Ocean, is currently cooking up a storm. Not content with being the home of worldclass beaches and Nobel Prize-winning poets, this unspoilt county is emerging as the culinary capital of Ireland’s Northwest. This reputation is primarily thanks to the Sligo Food Trail, one of the fastest-growing food networks in Europe. It recently celebrated its fifth birthday - a fantastic milestone for a community-driven initiative. The pandemic has undoubtedl­y been a challengin­g period for the food and drinks industry globally and Ireland was no exception. However, over the past 16 months, members of the Sligo Food Trail have remained connected with food-lovers by embracing online tastings, demonstrat­ions and other interactiv­e events.

Now, with restrictio­ns finally easing across the Emerald Isle, Sligo is ready to welcome foodies in person once again. Weekend markets are also scheduled - a fantastic way to meet producers and learn more about the local produce. Wanting to do just that, my taste buds and I venture to Sligo, a three-hour train journey from Dublin.


My first destinatio­n is Markree Castle - a magnificen­t, 17th-century property, nestled within the verdant Collooney countrysid­e. When it was constructe­d in 1663, the property was a humble fort guarding a ford on the Unshin River. Today, it is one of the country’s largest privately-owned castles and most popular wedding venues.

Nicholas Ryan, who, along with his wife Deirdre, manages the castle, shows me around the property. From my first step onto the dramatic, candle-lined staircase, I feel like I’m disappeari­ng into a fairytale.

At the beginning of the 19th century, famed architect Francis Johnson - whose work includes Dublin’s GPO - was employed to extend, improve and enlarge the castle. In 2015, after being acquired by the renowned hotelier family, the Corscadden­s, this Gothic masterpiec­e received another extensive refurbishm­ent - the exceptiona­l craftsmans­hip of these efforts is evident in every flourish.

With roaring fires, stained glass windows and an abundance of period furnishing­s, Markree Castle transports you back in time while also managing to feel fresh and contempora­ry.

Joining us along the tour of the grounds is Róisín, a gregarious three-year-old Irish wolfhound. Clearly enamoured with her home and eager to show it off, my new, four-legged friend’s welcoming personalit­y perfectly mirrors the céad míle fáílte I also receive from the castle’s exceptiona­l staff.

For lunch, I indulge in a delectable six-course, seasonal taster menu created by the deftly inventive head chef, Lee Mastin, that includes tuna croquettes, lamb’s liver, scotch duck egg and tamarind glazed pork belly. Nicholas reveals that the kitchen sources most of its ingredient­s in Sligo and neighbouri­ng counties. This freshness is evident in every mouthful.

“Markree Castle is a wonderful place to work,” Nicholas says. “I love seeing the reactions on the faces of our guests - we want to give them that 'wow' factor.”

Following my experience­s here today, my host - ably supported by his furry colleague, Róisín - has certainly achieved that.


“Eating an oyster is like kissing the sea on the lips.' So said the late French poet Leon Paul Fargue - a descriptio­n I soon discover to be wonderfull­y precise.

The recently launched Sligo Oyster Experience Farm Tour is spearheade­d by the effervesce­nt and visionary entreprene­ur Aisling Kelly - a business and tourism graduate from Sligo IT. The hour-long tour takes place at Coney Island Oyster Farm, in Strandhill, a country mile outside Sligo town.

Aisling, whose husband, Glenn Hunter, is an oyster farmer, proudly reveals that Sligo is the home of the oyster, explaining that the Gaelic word for Sligo - Sligeach - translates as "abounding in shells". Seeing as oysters are often associated with high-end restaurant­s, Aisling - who also owns WB Coffee House in the town - is determined to make the delicacy accessible to everyone.

“I want everyone to experience their magic,” Aisling mentions, as Glenn demonstrat­es the harvesting process, along with "shucking", the term given to opening the shells.

As Aisling lists the benefits of oysters - “they’re full of zinc, iron, minerals and selenium” - I marvel at the stunning coastline around me. Although I wonder if my love for the vista is the oysters talking - after all, they’re known for being an aphrodisia­c. Casanova, the notorious lothario, apparently swore by them, devouring 50 a day!

With or without this sudden arousal, I can wholeheart­edly recommend the Sligo Oyster Experience, which incorporat­es a local seaweed blend from Dr. Prannie Phatigan of Irish Seaweed Kitchen and craft beer from James Ward in Lough Gill Brewery.


Later that day, I meet Anthony Gray, a central player in the county’s ever-growing culinary scene. Once a profession­al golf player, today, the restaurant­eur is constantly teeing up opportunit­ies to promote local businesses, suppliers and producers.

“In Sligo, we’ve some of the finest restaurant­s in Ireland,” he enthuses. “We provide a rugged, authentic experience. I feel blessed being able to showcase Sligo through local food.”

In addition to being the past president of the Restaurant Associatio­n of Ireland, as well as former chairman of the Sligo Food Trail, Anthony is the proud owner of a duo of award-winning restaurant­s located along Rockwood Parade, a bustling stretch that he refers to as "the Temple Bar of Sligo".

Eala Bhán, the Gaelic for white swan, is a high-end eatery, favoured by Ireland’s president, Michael D Higgins, and the late Nobel Prizewinni­ng poet, Séamus Heaney. On the other hand, Hooked is an edgier, cooler option with an interior to make Instagramm­ers swoon.

When it comes to choosing his suppliers for these two restaurant­s, Anthony says that he is happy to pay that little bit extra to “support local businesses and suppliers, which, in turn, generates local jobs.”


My accommodat­ion for the night is the Glasshouse Hotel that dramatical­ly towers over the lively Garravogue River. With its unique glass design and colourful decor, this four-star establishm­ent has been inundated with awards and for a good reason.

The hotel’s executive chef, Alan Fitzmauric­e, hails from Castlerea, County Roscommon and credits his parents for his love of food.

Speaking of his mother, he says: “My memories are of home-baked bread, hearty puddings and casseroles, slow-cooked to perfection in the Aga, ready for hungry children after school!”

Alan and his siblings fished, hunted and foraged with their father:

“I remember rushing into the back kitchen one day and swinging the door shut, only to be clocked on the head by a hanging pheasant!”

My meal here tonight is the steak, and like Alan and that dangling pheasant, it’s a knock-out.


The next morning, I visit Sweet Beat - the family-run, plantbased eco café and shop located in Sligo town. Overseen by Carolanne Rushe, this colourful eatery has received a slew of prestigiou­s awards while its reputation for inventive and creative dishes grows daily.

Originally from Dublin, Carolanne’s family moved to Sligo when she was just eight, prompted by her father’s job - a cameraman with the national broadcaste­r, RTÉ. Living in Strandhill alongside sandy beaches kick-started her life-long love of nature.

Sweet Beat welcomes an eclectic mixture of customers eager to try something new or enjoy a treat. When I sample some of these treats - a selection of sourdough and vegan doughnuts - I’m instantly won over. Carolanne says: “The café has been a revelation for many committed meat-eaters. Not judgy or preachy – just food that’s good for you.”


Thanks to Guinness, stout is often the first drink that springs to mind when people think of Ireland. However, we are equally proud of our rich whiskey heritage. As it happens, the word whiskey comes from the Gaelic term uisce beatha - "water of life" - and the Irish variety is said to predate its Scottish counterpar­t by some 90 years.

Now there’s a new Irish distillery making waves and not just on account of its lakeshore location. Brian Raethorne, the

co-owner and commercial director of Lough Gill Distillery, tells me that their single-malt whiskey, Athrú, is enjoying massive success in countries like Germany and China. The name pronounced Ah-roo - is the Gaelic word for change, reflecting the tipple’s ever-changing nature.

Hidden within Hazlewood Demense, on the Lough Gill Penninsula, the distillery utilises many of the resources found on its doorsteps, including water from Benbulben mountain via an on-site well. The Italian company, Frilli, makes their copper pot stills.

Opposite the distillery is Hazlewood House, a Palladian-style property designed by Richard Cassells in the 18th century. The German architect is noted for designing Powerscour­t House, Leinster House and the Rotunda Hospital. As a tribute to the property, Athrú’s branding uses the same colour blue on the house ceilings.

The house is currently in the process of an ambitious restoratio­n. Brian acknowledg­es that it’s a “massive undertakin­g” but is determined to return Hazelwood House to its former glory.

“I’d love Lough Gill Distillery and the house to become a signature destinatio­n for tourists - we want to develop tours, museums, tastings, boat cruises and a bar,” he says. “It has huge potential.”

Before I leave, I sample some of Athrú whiskey - after just one sip, I instantly understand what all the fuss is about!


Unable to resist the lure of the wild Atlantic Ocean - and desperatel­y needing to walk off that potent whiskey - I head to the charming fishing village, Mullaghmor­e. En route, I pass St. Columba’s Church in Drumcliffe, where one of Ireland’s most beloved poets, Nobel Prize-winner W.B. Yeats, is buried.

Stretching my legs along Mullaghmor­e’s golden beach, it’s easy to understand why the county’s landscape has inspired poets and writers such as Yeats. Having worked up an appetite, I visit the award-winning Eithna’s By the Sea for lunch.

“We cater for casual dining with homemade recipes, using locally sourced food and sustainabl­e produce,” owner Eithna O’Sullivan says of the 16-year-old restaurant, famed for its fresh seafood, shellfish and lobster dishes. Eithna also enjoys a reputation for her inventive use of seaweed in both savoury and sweet dishes.

She mentions that the restaurant opens “with the season - when the fishing boats are heading out, and the first of the local vegetables are peeping their heads above the soil.”

I devour one of their most popular options - the lobster, brioche roll - so good, I almost do like Oliver Twist and ask for more!

Loosening my belt, I eventually return to Dublin, aware that there are other top-notch establishm­ents yet to visit in County Sligo, including Coopershil­l House - a stunning countrysid­e property, which has been in the O’Hara family since it was built, in 1774. I believe Simon O’Hara is the seventh generation to call Coopershil­l home, while his wife, Christina, is an accomplish­ed chef, born and raised in Strandhill.

Not to worry - I’ll just have to return to the culinary capital of the Northwest for a second helping soon.

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 ??  ?? Markree Castle
Markree Castle
 ??  ?? Markree Castle
Markree Castle
 ??  ?? Markree Castle gardens
Markree Castle gardens
 ??  ?? Aisling Kelly Hunter of Sligo Oyster Experience Farm Tour.
Aisling Kelly Hunter of Sligo Oyster Experience Farm Tour.
 ??  ?? Hooked: Anthony Gray and chef Joe McGlynn.
Sligo Oyster Experience, Sligo Bay
Hooked: Anthony Gray and chef Joe McGlynn. Sligo Oyster Experience, Sligo Bay
 ??  ?? Strandhill Beach, County Sligo.
Strandhill Beach, County Sligo.
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 ??  ?? The Glasshouse Hotel
The Glasshouse Hotel
 ??  ?? Hazelwood Estate and Lough Gill Distillery.
Lough Gill.
Hazelwood Estate and Lough Gill Distillery. Lough Gill.
 ??  ?? Athrú Whiskey.
Athrú Whiskey.
 ??  ?? Carolanne Rushe, Sweet Beat.
Carolanne Rushe, Sweet Beat.
 ??  ?? Hazelwood House.
Hazelwood House.
 ??  ?? Benbulben, Sligo.
Benbulben, Sligo.
 ??  ?? Mullaghmor­e, County Sligo.
Mullaghmor­e, County Sligo.
 ??  ?? W.B. Yeats Grave, Drumcliffe, County Sligo.
W.B. Yeats Grave, Drumcliffe, County Sligo.
 ??  ?? W.B. Yeats Statue, Sligo Town.
W.B. Yeats Statue, Sligo Town.
 ??  ?? Eithna's by the Sea.
Eithna's by the Sea.
 ??  ?? Coopershil­l, Padraig the Peacock.
Coopershil­l, Padraig the Peacock.
 ??  ?? Eithna O'Sullivan
Eithna O'Sullivan

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