Exploring Yeats Country in Sligo, Ireland
October 26, 2017
This fall, Nathanael and I returned to Ireland to explore some of the places we missed previously. Just like last time, we started our recent trip to Ireland by getting lost. Chalk it up to jet lag but after arriving at the Sligo bus station, we soon found ourselves going the wrong way to our B&B. Turning around, we re-traced our steps and tried again. "Ok, it looked like we had to turn here, but maybe it was actually there...". Setting off on our new route, the streets started to match my Google Maps screenshot. After several minutes walking, we paused to confirm we were still on track. "By any chance, are you Andrea and Nathanael?" a man called out his car window. "Yes...?". He pointed down the street and indicated he would meet us. Our B&B host Liam had gone out looking for us when we were late arriving to check in! When we told him where we'd been, he replied "Oh, people end up there all the time. You're lucky you weren't driving, because there isn't anywhere to turn around."
After settling in, and armed with an annotated map from Liam, Nathanael and I went out to get the lay of the land. Composed of charming small shops, narrow streets, and a scenic walkway along the Garavogue River, Sligo city made a good first impression despite getting lost. Actually, it was probably getting lost that first made us feel like we were back in Ireland - it's an inevitable part of the experience, for us anyways!
Over the next couple of days we explored Sligo, both the main city in the county and some of the surrounding area known as Yeats country. Almost immediately we wished for more time here. The city is compact and pretty, especially along the river, but the landscapes just beyond town are undeniably the inspiration of poets and photographers. Yeats country mostly refers to the Dartry mountains, the area around Drumcliffe where his grave lies, and his former holiday home in Rosses Point. Admittedly, we spent our time in Sligo city proper, and on the other side of the bay from Rosses Point, at Knocknarea but it was so stunning there too that I am including it loosely as "Yeats country". I don't think he'd mind.
However, Yeats is not the only literary claim to fame in Sligo. Bram Stoker's mother, Charlotte Thornley, was born in the city and her stories of the 1832 cholera outbreak had a great influence on Stoker's writing career. According to legend, during the cholera epidemic there was such panic to prevent the spread of illness that some of the diseased were hastily buried alive, and Thornley's memories of this time ultimately inspired Stoker's novel Dracula. Some of Stoker's family are buried in the cemetery at St. John's in Sligo.
And sadly, cholera was not the only tragedy to strike Sligo. Like so much of Ireland, Sligo also suffered during the potato famine. There is a famine memorial with the distinctive and haunting forms of the famine figures, and "Letter to America" at Sligo Harbour.
Leaving the harbour, we found our way uphill towards the Green Fort. This was once a Celtic ring fort, and later a strategic military defence for Sligo as it has views over Sligo Harbour, Benbulben, the Dartry Mountains, and Knocknarea. Surrounded by homes and playing fields today, there is a movement to protect and restore the area for historical significance and tourism. I hope they are successful!
Walking is the name of the game, and what would one of our trips to Europe be without a walk up a mountain? Our second day in Sligo, Nathanael and I hopped on the local bus which runs along the bay between Strandhill and Rosses Point. Heading in the direction of Strandhill, we asked the friendly bus driver to let us out at Knocknarea, a local small mountain. The trailhead, Queen Medb's Trail, starts right at the road, and you can either catch the bus back to Sligo directly across the street or walk into Strandhill village and catch it back from there. You could go with an organized tour if you want a guide (I think they climb from the other side) and more history. But for 5,20 EUR return per passenger for the bus, this suited us just fine! The trail is scenic and well-marked, and there is a narrow, reinforced boardwalk through the forest. As long as you are good with hills, and bring some water you'll do great.
This uphill hike is well worth it for the views every step of the way. Through field and forest you can see Benbulben, the most distinctive of the Dartry mountains, to one side, and inlets and villages on the others. And for the rugby club located across the street, the hill must be great for training! And of course, at the top is, according to legend, Queen Medb's (Maeve's) cairn, surrounded by fields of heather, 9 smaller passage tombs as old as 3,600BC, and views for days. In Irish mythology, Medb was a warrior queen, jealous and fierce. Legend has it that her passage tomb is hidden inside the cairn. It is forbidden to climb the cairn of course, but incredible to walk around the hilltop and look for clues or imagine what sorts of rituals might have happened up there roughly 5,000 years ago!
Travel notes for friends and future: Spend at least 4-5 nights in the area. Personally, I would hike Knocknarea again in a heartbeat, and wander around Sligo city taking photos (I didn't have much luck with the weather). I would like to spend time strolling Strandhill and Rosses Point, which are easily connected by the bus, exploring the prehistoric site at Carrowmore, and hiking up Benbulben to see how it looks from the top! Oh, and if I wanted any downtime, I would add an extra night in the area, maybe for a seaweed bath.