Akron Irish: Don’t Pass By
By Lisa O’Rourke
Horseman pass by is a strange tourism slogan by any standard. It is probably not fair to call it a slogan, but tangentially, it is just that. The phrase is the last line the on the tombstone of W.B. Yeats.
Being the unofficial poet laureate of Ireland and Sligo native, Yeats’ readers would be drawn to his beloved County Sligo. Horseman pass by? Pass by lush, distinctive green mountains, miles of white strand beach and a lovely town center, really? Horseman slow down and stay awhile.
Despite being a piece of the rough beauty that is the Wild Atlantic Way, Sligo is not a tourist mecca. Sligo suffers from two main issues: like Donegal, it is a little off the beaten path so to speak, you wouldn’t end up there by accident; the other big issue is the weather.
Honestly, I thought that the Irish weather was universally, like a dog’s nose, cold and wet. However, the Irish see nuance as keenly as anyone and Sligo has a bad reputation with the natives too. I remember my father-in-law commenting on when he went to a boarding school there, a place called Summerhill, he used to say that “no place was more ironically named.” That about sums it up, it is way soggier mountain than summer hill.
So, we have dispensed with why it isn’t a popular destination, now let’s look at what everyone is missing. The geography itself is amazing. The county is blessed with a lot of beach frontage.
The name Sligo is derived from the Irish words meaning “many shells.” The most famous beaches are Rosses Point and Strandhill. They are both long clean strand beaches with notoriously tricky currents.
You want to know how to look at water before you jump in for a swim. Strandhill has become a low-key famous spot for surfing. There are several Australian-run shops there where a visitor can get a lesson or all kinds of swim gear. It says something in praise of the surf that they would leave Australia for “wet suits mandatory even in August” Sligo.
Then there are the mountains. Sligo is surrounded on three sides by mountains. Two of the most amazing mountains in Ireland are within view of each other here; the flat-topped Benbulben and the bun topped Knocknarea.
Benbulben has a strangely flat top that is attributed to Fionn mac Cumhaill, who apparently shaped a lot of geography around Ireland. What is called the bun on Knocknarea is actually a megalithic mound. It is the legendary burial spot of Queen Maeve, who is supposed to have been buried standing up, facing the North and in her combat regalia.
It is one of the easier mountain climbs since you can drive part of the way up and it is not too steep. The views from the top are a storybook picture of countryside on those mythical clear days.
Archeologists have neither confirmed nor denied that Queen Maeve is in the mountaintop cairn. There are a number of megalithic tombs in the area, and they all seem to be in a sightline with each other. Right down the hill from Knocknarea are the Carrowmore tombs. The Carrowkeel complex, another series of tombs, is south of Knocknarea, in Castlebaldwin.
There are multiple tombs dotting the hills here. They are accessible and impressively well-preserved mini Newgrange-type of cruciform structures. One thing that always seems to be a factor with these megalithic structures is that they are high up on the hills and visible to each other. I love these spots in Ireland. These ancient historic sites are blessedly free of fees and interpretations, and they allow you to wander and wonder.
Part of Sligo is classified as a temperate rain forest. If you are thinking wet, you are correct. We already told you that part. When you get tired of the beaches and mountains, the Hazelwood forest is the place to go.
Multiple Trip Advisor reports mention that regardless of rain, you will stay relatively dry in these woods due to the foliage canopy. This area around Lough Gill is classified as a temperate rainforest biome. Lush and green and earthy, it has a magical feel to it.
The Song of Wandering Aengus
This is the place referred to by Yeats in The Song of Wandering Aengus, “I went out to the hazelwood because a fire was in my head.” The trail through the woods would give him about an hour of walking to quench that flame.
Statistically, Sligo falls into the bottom half of the country in terms of population, county size and economics. Proximity to the North has been a blessing and a curse. It mainly affects the economy for the worse. However, there is a long history of border hopping to get the best deals on the big-ticket items like appliances.
The town is built like many, a medieval market center with roads spiking off that area. The town has had some newer development too. We really like the Riverside area. It feels very cosmopolitan, with street cafes and arty shops.
There are theatres and artists and all kinds of things to do without the congestion of its bohemian neighbor, Galway. One of our favorites is a former butcher shop, Quinn’s, where the man himself chose to turn his knife skills to wood carving.
He is very inspired by both Maeve and Yeats and wraps his carved reliefs in butcher paper and string. That is Sligo in a nutshell, evolving, interesting and lacking pretense. The influence of W.B. Yeats is incessant, from the place name references to the building murals and his statue in the town square, nicknamed “the Wank at the Bank.” Lastly, there is his humble tomb in Drumcliff cemetery.
We have made it a family habit for each traveler to say where it is that they really want to go prior to the trip. It has saved us from bad planning many times. I was surprised by the family enthusiasm for Sligo.
Don’t get me wrong, I think Sligo town and Westport are the hidden treasure of the West. But it was in writing this that I really understood the appeal. All the variety of natural beauty and the ability to take advantage of it, is a newer way to experience Ireland, beyond the shops and pubs. It is not overcrowded or inaccessible, and hey, it has a rainforest! If the day is fine, horseman stop, don’t pass by.
*Lisa O’Rourke is an educator from Akron. She has a BA in English and a Master’s in Reading/Elementary Education. Lisa is a student of everything Irish, primarily Gaeilge. She runs a Gaeilge study group at the AOH/Mark Heffernan Division. She is married to Dónal and has two sons, Danny and Liam. Lisa enjoys art, reading, music, and travel. She likes spending time with her dog, cats and fish. Lisa can be contacted at ol*****@ic****.com.
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