By Shelley Marsden
It’s not just the upcoming Fleadh Cheoil – the week-long jamboree of top-class music, song and dance – that attracts visitors from the rest of Ireland, the UK and beyond to Sligo. It’s also a great place to explore, with other key events and places of interest that attract international visitors year in, year out.
The Wild Atlantic Way
If you feel the need to reconnect with nature, then the Wild Atlantic Way, Ireland’s first long-distance driving route is one pretty dramatic way to do it. Stretching from the Inishowen Peninsula in Donegal to Kinsale in County Cork, it offers an opportunity to discover the wild, west coast of Ireland – including County Sligo.
If you have time, wind your way through the three counties of Donegal (the surfers’ paradise), Sligo and Mayo. If time does not permit, even taking time out to experience the small yet scenic stretch of coast in Sligo – aka Yeats Country – is well worth the while.
Make sure to stop in your tracks and enjoy the view at beach and surfing and holiday hotspot Mullaghmore Head, Ireland’s premier big-wave point for surfers with some gorgeous swells to marvel at, as well as the generally beautiful view.
Another point of interest is Queen Meaves Tomb, an enormous cairn atop Knocknarea. Folklore says it was built for the mythical Iron Age Queen Maeve, whose father, the high king of Ireland, gave her Connacht as a gift. Archaeologists believe it may actually date back to 3000BC, but who is to say that Queen Maeve was not tucked into an existing monument? It’s considered bad luck to remove a stone from the cairn, and good luck to take one up the hill with you to deposit on it. It’s a 45-minute climb from the car-park up Knocknarea to view Maeve’s tomb.
Yates Summer School
Always a big attraction in this part of the world is the Yeats International Summer School (July 27-August 8), which celebrates its 53rd edition this year. If W.B.Yeats is to be studied in an international context, you could argue that he is best studied in Ireland, the country of his deepest attachment – and specifically in Sligo, where he commemorated the landscape in his poetry (he once said: “The place that has influenced my life most is Sligo”).
Though he would reminisce and write about it often, from the end of the 19th century until the end of his life, Yeats spent precious little time in Sligo. He lived in Dublin, in Thoor Ballylee near Galway, in London and on the French and Italian Rivieras, dying in the French village of Roquebrune in 1939.
But his heart, it would seem, never really left. Yeats asked his wife George that he be buried immediately in France upon his death, but not permanently, and without fanfare. George is reported as saying: “His actual words were ‘If I die here bury me up there [in the Roquebrune churchyard] and then in a year’s time when the newspapers have forgotten me, dig me up and plant me in Sligo.'”
The summer school, which this year includes a Tribute to Seamus Heaney, boast a roster of lecturers which includes Maud Ellmann, Edna Longley, Lucy McDiarmid, Francis O’Gorman, Daniel Karlin, Patricia Coughlan, David Dwan, and Herbert Tucker. Sam McCready will lead the drama workshop, and Sinéad Morrissey will conduct the poetry workshop. Special events will include readings by Sinead Morrissey, John Kavanagh, Michael Longley, Donal Ryan, and Joan McBreen.
The longest running summer school in Ireland presents its unique blend of learning, art, and fun, in beautiful Yeats Country. In conjunction with the Tread Softly Arts Festival, Fleadh Cheoil na hEireann, the Riverstown Music Festival and other arts events, the town invites all to discover the power of the imagination through the work of Ireland’s preeminent poet. See www.yeatssociety.com.
The Yates Memorial Building is a fascinating stop-off point in itself. Centrally located on Hyde Bridge, in Sligo Town Centre, it was donated to the Yeats Society by the AIB Bank in 1973. You can check out an audio visual exhibition called Yeats and his Circle, browse the Yeats Reference Library and take in the Yeats Exhibition (open Mon-Fri 10am-5pm), comprising of a large photographic display and including acclaimed film, Yeats Country.
In recent years, the beaches and seaside villages of Sligo have become a haven for both local and international surfers and body-boarders who come to visit and make the coastline their full time home.
Steeped in history and surrounded by an amazing landscape of ocean and mountains, Strandhill has become a mecca for such thrillseekers. Nestled under the foot of Knocknarea mountain outside Sligo Town, Strandhill to those in the know is generally considered one of the best beach breaks in the country, and over the years has consistently produced Ireland’s top surfers.
If you have never surfed and fancy giving it a go, you can take a lesson with one of the surf schools in the area, where all equipment is provided. Check out Strandhill Surf School for starters (www.strandhillsurfschool.com).
For experienced surfers, Strandhill is the perfect base. With swells anywhere between 1ft and 4ft, the beach serves up fantastic waves which can be ridden on either a shortboard or longboard according to the tide.
The Strandhill Open surfing competition takes place every August bank holiday weekend – always a great spectacle, regardless of whether you fancy getting your feet wet or not.
County Sligo Surf Club is located on the second floor above Voya Seaweed Baths and has changing and shower facilities. Due to county regulations, it is not possible to rent surfboards in Strandhill and swimming at the beach is also forbidden due to strong currents.
For more on what’s on in the region, accommodation and more see www.sligotourism.ie.