MARKREE CASTLE: While staying in Sligo County we decided we would treat ourselves to some castle-based comfort by staying at Markree Castle. Any fortified House or castle that we encountered on our trip around Ireland was always linked into the fraught history of Ireland’s noble classes fighting over power and land. Markree Castle today is almost surrounded by the twists and turns of the River Unsin. It would have been a fortified site guarding the ford across the river for a long time before it entered historical records as being one of the spoils of the victors who shared Cromwell’s conquest of Ireland in 1663. The victor was one Edward Cooper but became more prominent in Irish History by marrying the previous owner’s wife, Marie Rua or Red Mary (for her flaming red hair) whose exploits in marriage and fighting the English are well known in the Irish history of the period. The castle stayed in the family for centuries and has only moved on from the Coopers in recent years. It was a gorgeous place to stay both for its accommodation and the beautiful interiors of the castle. It was a great place to use as our base for exploring Sligo County
LAKE ISLE OF INNISFREE: Over our days in Sligo County, Markree Castle was a great base for exploring some of the wonderful places within reach of our castle base. Given that the poems of W.B.Yeats was one of the themes of our visit to the county, an easy choice was to go for a drive to Lough Gill and gaze upon, if not visit, the Lake Isle of Innisfree. This poem is a perennial favourite of Yeats’ fans, not so much for its dramatic insights into the human condition, but for its portrayal of an idyllic lifestyle within the natural environment, free from the stressors of the modern world. It’s a beautiful poem and it was great to visit the lough that was the inspiration for one of Yeats’ early poems when he was finding his Irish voice. He, like the rest of us, had to return to the “pavements grey” with only the memory of the Lake isle.
PARKE’S CASTLE: From the Lake Isle of Innisfree it is not far around the Lough to another reminder of Ireland’s long history, the restored Parke’s Castle. In order to reach the castle, the traveller has to cross the border into Leitrim County but it is still only 12kms from Sligo Town. While Markree Castle where we were staying harks back to Oliver Cromwell’s era, Parke’s Castle and its predecessor on the site at the northern end of Lough Gill is described as a ‘Plantation Era’ Castle. The original Gaelic Castle on the site came into the possession of Sir Roger Parke who built a fortified manor House on the Site finishing in 1628. The Nine Years War (1594-1603) was the final nail in the coffin for the colonisation of Ireland by the Tudor monarchs of England where they were able to break out of the ‘Pale’ and subdue much of the rest of Ireland. In 1607 the so-called ‘Flight of the Earls’ occurred where so many of the Gaelic lords of Ulster fled from Ireland looking to gain support from Spain and other European powers to assist with driving the English out. The Earls died in exile.
The map above illustrating the land holdings of the three separate groups that made up Ireland’s ruling classes before the Nine Years War shows that the O’Rourke family were the Gaelic lords controlling the land around Sligo and Leitrim. The O’Rourkes had a tower house at the end of the lough before the war and excavations in the early 1970s revealed this structure beneath the courtyard of the castle. A story has come down to us that a shipwrecked Spanish Armada officer was entertained here by the O’Rouke family. The tower house also harboured many Irish Lords during the Nine Years war. A visit to Parke’s Castle today highlights a significant period in the region’s long and complex history.
TOBERNALT HOLY WELL: A visit to the other end of Lough Gill was part of our plans for another of our days in Sligo County. As per the map earlier in this account, this is where the Tobernalt Holy Well is to be found, the waters coming out of the cliff and slowly making its way down to the lake. The 19th century photo on the left shows an aged man relaxing at the well. The phenomena of Holy Wells occurs all over Ireland and is known to have sacred associations that precede the arrival of Christianity in Ireland. These wells were clearly associated with Druidic practices in pre-Christian times and while St Brigid is one of the Christian patron saints of Ireland, it is well known that there was a ‘Brid’ worshipped in the Druidic religion as a much loved Goddess of Fire. The movement into new forms of worship in the fifth century in Ireland seems to have been reasonably seamless. For example, St Patrick appears to have come to the Tobernalt Holy Well and baptised converts in the waters of this well. In the century after the Nine Years War when priests and Catholic Services were banned all over Ireland, the thousands of Holly Wells in Ireland became secret meeting places for Catholic masses.
What ever your views on sacred sites, this holy well at the end of Lough Gill is a beautiful place to visit and spend some time enjoying the atmosphere generated by hills, the lake and the spirituality of place that permeates Tobernalt Holy Well.
NEOLITHIC SITES on the road to Strandhill: You could spend many days around Sligo and to me there seems to be a logical link between visiting the Holy Well at the end of Lough Gill and then taking the road to Strandhill before reaching Sligo town and visiting the ancient sites that date well back into Neolithic times. It is claimed that the area around Sligo town has the highest densities of prehistoric archaeological sites in Ireland. There are two famous sites on the peninsula heading out to Strandhill between the bays of Sligo and Ballysadare. The one that stands out in the landscape is the hill called Knocknarea and at the summit is a large cairn that, although it remains unexcavated, we know was erected around 3000 BCE. It is clear evidence of the spirituality of the early Irish farmers, well before they were gathering at sacred wells. Tradition holds that it is the burial site of Queen Maeve who is a famous character in Irish stories that date to the time before Christianity arrived in Ireland. Maeve features in the tale entitled the ‘Cattle Raid of Cooley’ which describes the results of a bitter argument between Queen Maeve and her consort as to who is the richest person in the land. There are quite a number of other smaller tombs lined up on top of Knocknarea which weren’t as successful in escaping the shovels of 19th century amateur archaeologists.
Walking to the top of Knocknarea is not just for those interested in Irish pre-history, it is also for those interested in a great walk and the opportunities to take in the great views out to sea and the surrounding landscape, particularly down towards the next important pre-history site, Carrowmore. The hiking in this region is well worth a holiday by itself. The image below has been taken on the other side of Ballysadare Bay back towards Knocknarea.
The image below is taken from the site of the Carrowmore Megalithic Cemetery, looking back up towards Maeve’s tomb on top of Knocknarea. Carrowmore is the largest cemetery of Megalithic tombs in Ireland.
There are 30 ‘monuments’ here dating from the 4th century BCE, preceding the building of the pyramids in Egypt. The tombs contain the remains of many individuals along with everyday artifacts buried with them. Radiocarbon dating indicates that the tombs were used around 3750 to circa 3000 BC. In recent years DNA research has revealed kin relationships between the farmers buried here and other passage tomb centres in Ireland such as New Grange. Genetics of ancient people show these people originated in Anatolia. The Carrowmore cemetery seems to be an older tradition than the spectacular site that overlooks it from up on top of nearby Knocknarea.
APPENDIX 1. Inishmurray: Clearly County Sligo has too many interesting places to visit and I have already covered a lot of these in this article. However the image above of Sligo Bay taken from Knocknarea raises the prospect of when you head north of Sligo Town, you have the option of visiting Inishmurray, a small Island off the coast a little north of Sligo Bay. When the Vikings first started wandering down the West Coast of Ireland, looking for monsteries to loot in795, they found Inishmurray waiting for them. A monastery had been founded here in the sixth century by a friend of St Columba, but I am not sure if the pickings were worthwhile two centuries later for these unfriendly visitors. It is a beautiful place as the photos below show, so if your thing is ancient monasteries on Irish offshore Islands, Inishmurray is the place to go.