Sligo, Leitrim and a gentle touch on Donegal
Sligo is the County Town situated on the banks of the Garavogue River, connecting Lough Gill to the Atlantic Ocean. It is the largest town in the Northwest. The busy town has good shops, traditional pubs, thriving art galleries and theatres. Benbulben forms a dramatic backdrop, flat-topped and rugged-faced it is constantly changing with the light.
William Butler Yeats called Sligo ‘The Land of Hearts Desire’ and its beauty, archaeology and folklore filled his early poetry. Throughout his youth he returned from London for holidays with his maternal grandparents and his cousins, from whose homes at Ballysadare, Rosses Point and Sligo town, he was free to roam and dream. Today, much of what inspired him remains and a day trip around Yeats’ Country illuminates the poet’s words while you discover just how powerfully those same words celebrate his beloved Sligo.
On Hyde Bridge in the town, the Yeats Society’s headquarters houses the offices of the International Summer School, the Sligo Art Gallery and a photographic exhibition on the Yeats family and Sligo – all worth a visit. Just over the bridge, outside the Ulster Bank stands a striking contemporary sculpture by artist Rowan Gillespie of the poet ‘wrapt in his words’ erected by the people of the town to commemorate the 50th anniversary of his death in 1989.
An excellent site from Sligo Tourism has several short videos covering all aspects of the county.
Close to Sligo is Rosses Point, a pleasant resort with a championship golf course. The Metal Man Light, erected in 1822 to mark the deep channel of Sligo Bay, points incoming ships away from Sruth na Mile (the thousand streams) and into the channel to Sligo. Oyster Island is parallel to the village and the larger Coney Island (which gave its name to the more famous one off New York) can be accessed by causeway from the Strandhill road during low tide.
At Drumcliffe, where St Columba founded a monastery in the 6th century, a magnificent 11th Century High Cross and the remains of a Round Tower still stand. Yeats’ great-grandfather was Rector here and a memorial beside the altar in the restored church commemorates him. In one of his best known poems, Yeats made his final wishes known.
Under bare Ben Bulben’s head In Drumcliff churchyard Yeats is laid. An ancestor was rector there Long years ago, a church stands near, By the road an ancient cross. No marble, no conventional phrase; On limestone quarried near the spot. By his command these words are cut: Cast a cold eye On life, on death. Horseman, pass by!
Yeats, after a lengthy and celebrated infatuation with Maud Gonne, later married Georgina Hyde Lees. George, as she became known, revitalised his life and poetry and also gave him a son and a daughter. George too lies buried at Drumcliffe.
Alas Lissadell House is now closed to the public, such a pity, hopefully the situation can be resolved and the house opened once more for all to enjoy. It was home to the Gore Booths since 1834. Yeats, an emerging, successful poet, met Eva and Constance, daughters of the house and was delighted to stay here in 1894. Eva was a poetess herself while Constance (later Countess Markievicz) was a leader in the Rebellion of 1916 and became an icon of revolutionary Ireland. She was the first woman to be elected to Westminster, although she never took her seat.
Creevykeel Court Tomb is a very fine, excavated tomb lies immediately E of the noisy and busy main road from Sligo to Bundoran. A Harvard Archaelogical expedition found four cremated burials, as well as decorated Neolithic pottery and stone weapons. These are now held in the National Museum in Dublin.
Bunduff Lake, near Creevykeel, is a saltwater marsh, where whooper and Bewick swans, Greenland white-fronted geese and many species of duck spend the winter.
Bundoran (Co. Donegal) is well-known as a popular seaside resort.
Kinlough Co Leitrim at the north end of Lough Melvin, an attractive village is a good places for anglers, with excellent opportunities for coarse and salmon fishing. The ruins of Rossclogher Abbey stand on the shore, and on an artificial island are the remains of the MacClancy Castle – known as Rossclogher Castle, where nine survivors of the Armada were given refuge
Manorhamilton is an unassuming village, the ruins of Manorhamilton Castle have been renovated transforming it into a tourist attraction. The Castle was erected in 1634 by Sir Frederick Hamilton who was granted land in North Leitrim by the English government. Manorhamilton Castle Heritage Centre hosts a permanent exhibition and offers guided tours of the Castle ruins and grounds.
Glencar is a beautiful lake with towering landscapes gouged by glaciers 12,000 years ago, a thundering waterfall driven back into the air by the prevailing westerly winds. While picnicking at Glencar Waterfall with his aunts, Yeats wrote:
“Where the wandering water gushes From the hills above Glen-Car, In pools among the rushes That scarce could bathe a star, We seek for slumbering trout And whispering in their ears Give them unquiet dreams”.
Keep to the upper main road (N16) and just when you think you have gone too far, turn left down to the lakeshore and the Waterfall. Reached by a paved walk, it’s easy for young and old. A spectacular circular walk takes you from the Glencar lake up a mountain road into Swiss valley, a steep-sided cleft, surrounded by peaks. It then takes you back to the point where the waterfall drops to the lake below.
Lough Gill (or Loch Gile in Irish) is a lake mainly situated in County Sligo, but partly in County Leitrim. It is about 8 km (5 miles) long and 2 km (1 mile) wide and drains into the River Garavogue near Sligo Town. The picturesque lake is surrounded by wooded hills and is popular with birdwatchers. It is overlooked by the fortified manor house, Parke’s Castle. The present castle was built in the 1600s by Captain Robert Parke on the site of the former stronghold of the O’Rourke (Uí Ruairc) clan.
The lake contains about 20 small islands, including the romantic Lake Isle of Innisfree made famous in a poem by W.B Yeats. Lonely in London and hearing water tinkling in a fountain, the poet vowed
“I will arise and go now, and go to Innisfree, And a small cabin build there, of clay and wattles made:”
Only when you have heard “lake water lapping with low sounds by the shore” in this quiet place can you appreciate just how powerfully Yeats used language. Half Moon Bay on the shores of Lough Gill is part of the Hazelwood Demense. It has forest trails and a unique series of outdoor sculptures from Irish and International artists, a quiet picnic area and beautiful lakeside views.
Dromahair an attractive village was once home to the hospitable O’Rourkes of Breffini and the remains of their Banqueting Hall can still be seen. The Castle, which has been beautifully restored, has a very interesting audio visual presentation on the entire heritage of the region and is well worth a visit.
Dooney Keeping the lake on your left you soon reach Dooney Rock. This was a favourite spot for dancing and romancing and Yeats would have seen a blind fiddler who regularly played here on Sundays. “When I play on my fiddle in Dooney, Folk dance like a wave of the sea.” The panoramic views from the top of Dooney are well worth the stiff flight of steps, and show the magnificent prow of Benbulben in the straight distance, and to the left, Knocknarea. “The wind has bundled up the clouds high over Knocknarea, And thrown the thunder on the stones for all that Maeve can say.”
Driving south from Sligo a trip around Knocknarea by Strandhill and Culleenamore is rewarding. “The old brown thorn-trees break in two high over Cummen strand, Under a bitter black wind that blows from the left hand.” If you are fit, a walk to the top of Knocknarea and the mythological burial cairn of Queen Maeve is comparatively easy and the whole of the Land of Heart’s Desire is displayed below you. I climbed Knocknarea many times as a very young child and regularly came home with a bag of mushrooms for our breakfast next day. I was staying in Sligo at the time.
At nearby Ballysadare village Salley rods were grown for basket making etc, and Yeats once heard a tinker woman sing the ballad he later reworded so delicately:
“Down by the salley gardens my love and I did meet; She passed the salley gardens with little snow white feet. She bid me take love easy, as the leaves grow on the tree: But I, being young and foolish, with her would not agree.”