Bustling SLIGO town rose to prominence following the Anglo-Norman invasion of Connacht in 1235, its strategic importance linked to its location at the point where the River Garavogue enters the sea. A Dominican friary was founded here in 1252, but the town’s shape was largely developed following the building of a castle by Richard de Burgo in 1310. However, this edifice lasted but five years before it was destroyed by the O’Donnell clan which retained control of the burgeoning settlement over the next few centuries. The town’s prosperity owed much to the the neighbouring herring shoals, though it was undermined by Cromwell’s invasion and assaults by both sides during the Williamite war.
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After the terrible times of the Great Famine, Sligo re-emerged as a busy port and mercantile centre in the late nineteenth century and nowadays is a thoroughly absorbing place. The town has long been renowned for its traditional music, but is also firmly on the tourist trail thanks to its numerous associations with the poet W.B. Yeats, a lively arts scene (which spawns several festivals) and its location as a splendid base for exploring the county’s numerous attractions.
On Sligo's Mall stands one of Ireland’s finest art galleries, The Model. Behind a drab Victorian facade, the spacious and airy modern extension houses a range of temporary exhibitions veering towards the experimental, as well as selections from the Niland Collection, including works by Jack B. Yeats and Paul Henry. There’s also a small theatre-cum-cinema and an excellent café.
Around Sligo town
West of Sligo town lies the famous surfing beach at Strandhill, a grand base for exhilarating coastal walks, while inland is one of Europe’s most significant collections of passage graves at Carrowmore Megalithic Cemetery. Both the resort and the graveyard are overlooked by the numinous Knocknarea Mountain, on whose summit sits the mystical Medb’s Cairn.
Seaside STRANDHILL, 8km west of Sligo town, remains remarkably unexploited despite its gorgeous position, the village and its beach set against the backdrop of the looming Knocknarea Mountain. On the way into the village look out for Dolly’s Cottage, a tiny thatched dwelling named after its last occupant, Dolly Higgins, who died in 1970. Maintained as it was, with a turf fire and a tiny pouch bed, the cottage now sells various handicrafts, as well as home-made jams and preserves. Strandhill’s beach is its most renowned feature, a wild stretch pounded by huge Atlantic breakers. Though it’s absolutely unsafe for swimming, it’s massively popular with surfers and regularly witnesses the Sligo Open Championship over the first weekend in August.
Carrowmore Cemetery and Medb’s Cairn
Four kilometres southwest of Sligo town, Carrowmore Megalithic Cemetery presents a remarkable array of some thirty megalithic passage tombs, one of the biggest prehistoric graveyards in Europe. This oval-shaped cluster of monuments spreads out within a 1km-by-600m field and ranges from the most basic, a small circle of stones surrounding a central roofed chamber, through to the largest, known as Listoghill, covered by an impressive rounded cairn. Excavations have uncovered cremated human remains as well as jewellery carved from bones and antlers; it’s suggested that some of the tombs were created as far back as 3800 BC, though they continued to be used for burial over the next three millennia.
Carrowmore is made all the more atmospheric for being set below one of Ireland’s most significant burial places, the massive Medb’s Cairn, standing on the summit of Knocknarea Mountain – 60m wide and 10m high, and surrounded by a three-metre-high earthen bank. Whether Medb, the legendary queen of Connacht and one of the protagonists of the Táin Bó Cúailnge, is actually buried here is unknown, since the site has not been excavated, but it’s well worth making the trek, not only for views of the cairn itself, but for spectacular outlooks north to Donegal and west to Mayo. To get here from Carrowmore head west for 1km, take a right turn at the junction with the R292, then left at the first crossroads – after another kilometre a lane leads right towards the car park at the base of the mountain, from which it’s a steep four-kilometre hike to the summit. On your way up to the top pick up a stone and leave it by the cairn, making a wish as you do so and, as local legend has it, the force of Queen Medb may be with you.