Visiting Sligo Town

While I was wasting my time doing an Arts Degree and protesting Australia’s involvement in the Vietnam War in 1970, I was forced to attend lectures on ‘modern’ English poetry during some of my mornings. I was surprised that there were a few Irish representatives on the syllabus list such as Samuel Becket, J.M. Synge and W.B.Yeats. It’s not normally appropriate to mention going to the toilet as part of a travel blog but I recall doing so one Uni morning in 1970 and passing the time by reading the back of the toilet door. (It had a note in the bottom corner announcing that the door would be “out in paperback soon”.) Somebody from first year English lectures must have been to the same cubicle because written on the back of the door was an extract from W.B.Yeats famous poem, ‘Second Coming’, a poem on our study list.

Using Yeat’s cathartic and apocalyptic words to describe going to the toilet had not been one of the ideas that came up during the recent tutorial on Yeats poetry I had attended. However I always think of this overly public usage whenever I encountered this poem again over the passing years. Very few poems stay with you over 50 years but the ‘Second Coming’ has…but I am not the only one! Below is a curious extract from a 2015 article by Nick Tabor in Paris Review…

“The Second Coming” may well be the most thoroughly pillaged piece of literature in English. (Perhaps Macbeth’s famous “sound and fury” monologue is a distant second.) Since Chinua Achebe cribbed Yeats’s lines for Things Fall Apart in 1958 and Joan Didion for Slouching Towards Bethlehem a decade later, dozens if not hundreds of others have followed suit, in mediums ranging from CD-ROM games to heavy-metal albums to pornography. These references have created a feedback loop, leading ever more writers to draw from the poem for inspiration. But how many of them get it right?

Certainly the guy who pillaged it on the back of my Uni toilet door didn’t get it right. But of course I remembered the poem and the W.B.Yeats story when I found myself visiting his childhood home town of Sligo in North Western Ireland.

We were staying at Markree Castle in Sligo County when we decided we should spend the day visiting this famous city in the North-West of Ireland. We must have found a car-park fairly easily somewhere near the centre of town because as we began walking, we found ourselves near the Garavogue River that runs through Sligo. As luck would have it, right next to the corner of the bridge that crossed the river at this point was the Yeats Building. All portents were pointing to a Yeats-centred visit to Sligo. The building perched on the edge of the river in the image below is the home of Yeats Heritage in Sligo as well as a centre for promoting local arts. It houses a permanent exhibition of all things Yeats as well as running Yeats International Schools in Summer and Winter. It is a suitable memorial to Ireland’s Nobel Prize winning author/poet as well as an early senator in the Irish Free State. Across the bridge on the corner of Stephen Street is a statue of Yeats himself; I am not sure whether it is a great memorial for the Irish Nationalist poet who saw Sligo as both his childhood and spiritual home.

It wasn’t the way our tour proceeded around Sligo on the day of our actual visit, but if I were to return there today, I would continue down the street and turn up the hill and visit what is today called the Green Fort. Apart from the view the site gives you over Sligo, it begins to make clear the long history of contested human settlement here at the mouth of the Garavogue River. It is believed that Roman and Phoenician traders have been coming to this area since before the start of the first Millennium. A site perfect for fishing and trading needs to be defensible so it is believed that before the earthen Green Fort was built, there was the usual stone ring fort built here to defend the Neolithic farming families and their animals.

Early maps provide a good summary of the history of a city and Sligo has one of these from 1689. It shows not only the Earth Fort but its proximity to the medieval town of Sligo with its battlements and a much smaller stone fort. However, despite evidence of 5000 years of human settlements in the area, the town of Sligo by the 12th century CE was only a small settlement around the one bridge over the Garavogue River. It was the Anglo-Norman invasion of Ireland that saw the growth of Sligo into a large defended town but the Normans, unlike in much of the rest of Ireland, were forced out of the county by local opposition in the 13th century. This didn’t stop Sligo being a highly contested trading centre throughout the early medieval period; the local Gaelic families fought over the wealth of the site and Sligo was “burned, sacked or besieged approximately 49 times during the medieval period, according to the annals of Ireland.” (Wikipedia) It wasn’t until the Elizabethan age when Sligo became incorporated into the English dominated Ireland and central government rule held in the town. It is this history of conflict in Sligo that is captured not only in the 1689 map but in the visit to the Green Fort.

Heading back down from the Green Fort to Sligo Town you can take a turn onto The Mall and visit one of Ireland’s premier Art Galleries, The Model. It is an 1862 building that was originally a “model” school (image on left below) and it was acquired by the local council in the 1980s. If you have time to visit you will find a great collection of Irish Modern Art.

Heading to Bridge Street, you will find yourself back at the Garavogue River. Riverside living is clearly an essential part of Sligo life; there is no gap between the river and the yards of the apartments built along the banks so I’m not sure how often floods would be a problem for these properties.

As the tourist map of Sligo above illustrates, it is not far after crossing the river that the visitor comes across one of the major places of interest in town, the Sligo Abbey (Dominican Friary). One of the curiosities of the Anglo-Norman Invasion of Ireland is that after taking over the land by force and ensuring that much of the population lived in servitude to the Norman Noble families, these same families also built monasteries near their fortified homes. Whether this was from a theoretical belief in the importance of centres of prayer in their communities or just a gift of conscience to somehow recompense the Gaelic locals for the perhaps overly harsh invasion of their land. Like other Norman areas of control in Ireland, Maurice Fitzgerald, Baron of Offaly built an Abbey in Sligo in1253 and no doubt it was a centre of prayer and comfort for much of the next 600 years. At the same time, it was also a focus of ongoing depredation over the ensuing years…

  • It was burnt down in 1414
  • It was ravaged during the Nine Years War (1593-1603)
  • It was sacked during the Irish Rebellion against English Occupation (1642-1653)

William Yeats wrote a short story (“The Curse of the Fires and of the Shadows”) about an incident from the Irish Rebellion when the monks from Sligo Abbey were butchered by Parliamentarian soldiers. But like all wars ever since, there is always two sides to every story about immoral treatment of innocent non-participants. Despite the invasion force coming from England, the woodcut to the right shows a polemical image of evil Catholics slaughtering innocent English babies, thus justifying the actions of Cromwell’s crusading forces.

From the old Sligo Abbey, the walker can head up to Teeling St and turn left and have a look at the Sligo Court House, which was built in the 1870s in the French Gothic style. It would look right at home as an illustration of a fairy-tale castle where justice was dispensed by a good king when he wasn’t exhorting his beautiful princess daughters to behave themselves. The impact of this building is probably encouraged by the fact that it is situated in a street where the rest of the shops and business are particularly prosaic. Although built in the late 19th century, it is a site that has been given over to ‘justice’ over the years as it was built over a prison site, part of which has been incorporated into the building.

From the Court House, if the plan is to check out the Cathedral of Immaculate Conception, I would encourage those who were interested in the conflicted history of Ireland to go via Market Street.  This would enable you to check out the shops and then have a close look at the Lady Erin memorial that is located here. It was erected here in 1899 to mark the centenary of the 1798 rebellion. This was the doomed attempt by Irish Presbyterian and Catholic citizens, inspired by the revolutionary ideas of the time, to drive the English out of Ireland. A few days earlier we had visited Galway City where we had loitered on the bridge over the River Coribb named after Wolf Tone. He was one of the leaders of this 1798 uprising. The statue of Lady Erin represents Ireland with her hand raised in rebellion and the chains at her feet representing the hope that the chains of bondage to England would be broken. This statue was built on the site of an old Market Cross.

From Market Street you can head back towards Castle St and then on to John Street to check out St John’s Anglican Cathedral. This building was designed in the middle of the 18th century but is thought to be located on the site of a 13th century hospital and parish church. Its west tower is considered to be part of an earlier structure. If you refer back to the earlier 1689 map of Sligo, the label pointing to a church is probably pointing to the original church built in the 13th century on this site. This Cathedral has a Yeats connection as the poet’s parents were married here in 1863 and his grandparents were buried near the west door of the church.

The Catholic Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception is basically next door to St Johns. This Cathedral was opened in 1874 and its structure was modelled on a Normano–Romano–Byzantine style.

If planning a visit to Sligo, it is worthwhile setting aside a day to explore Sligo itself but to do justice to the wider county it would certainly be necessary to at least add another two to three days to the visit. Staying in Sligo itself is a good option and then designing the other days available visiting the many fascinating places along the coast as well as inland to place like Lough Gill and Drumcliffe.

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