County Sligo (Contae Shligigh) is on the Irish coast in Northwest Ireland and Lakelands. It's a small county, little developed beyond Sligo town, and with a haunting scenery of limestone scarps that often feature in the poetry of WB Yeats. Its main attractions are that scenery, and its many prehistoric monuments.
- 1 Sligo is the obvious visitor base: it's a transport hub with accommodation and other amenities. Within a few km are Carrowmore neolithic cemetery, the brooding mountains of Knocknarea and Benbulbin, and loughs Gill and Glencar.
- 2 Strandhill is a beach resort south side of Sligo Bay, best known for its Atlantic surf.
- 3 Rosses Point is the beach resort north side of the bay.
- 4 Grange is a village on the main road 15 km north of Sligo. It has few amenities, so see Sligo for Streedagh beach, Mullaghmore Head, and the island of Inishmurray.
- 5 Ballymote is a small town with a 14th century castle, but the main draw is Carrowkeel and other prehistoric sites in that area.
- 6 Tobercurry (or Tubbercurry) hosts the South Sligo Summer School of trad Irish music in July. There's accommodation but no other reason to linger here, though it's the second-largest town in the county.
- 7 Enniscrone is a beach resort to the west near the boundary with Mayo.
Ancient Ireland's skies and mountaintops thundered to the conflicts of the gods and other supernatural beings, according to Irish legends, such as the Second Battle of Moytura fought east of Ballymote. Almost as powerful and quarrelsome were the mortal races of warriors and heroes that followed, such as Queen Méabh or Maeve (Shakespeare's Queen Mab), who fled from Ulster into Connacht there to battle with all and sundry, and to lay any likely man left over. Alas she was killed by a sling-shotted piece of cheese, an iconoclastic first. Tis said Maeve is buried on top of Knocknarea near Sligo town - her legend is from the Ulster Cycle supposedly set in the first century AD; the real burial monuments on Knocknarea are 3000 years older.
Another body of legend, the Fenian or Ossianic Cycle, is mostly set in Munster, but the eloping lovers Diarmuid and Gráinne legged it here to settle in Keshcorran near Ballymote. Diarmuid was warned that he will be killed by a boar yet what does he go and do? - he joins a boar hunt. (Perhaps he'd misunderstood, and was on his guard against some prat with a voluminous knowledge of Game of Thrones.) Sure enough he and the boar deal each other mortal blows. Yet his former love-rival Fionn, who just happened to organise the hunt, has the power to heal Diarmuid by letting him drink water from his hands. Twice Fionn deliberately lets the water slip through his fingers; he's threatened with violence and conveys the water third time, but it's too late to save Diarmuid. And that in a nutshell is the problem of surviving on limestone terrain like Keshcorran, where the rainwater slips away through cracks in the bedrock before it can nourish your vegetables.
The county of Sligo was formed in 1603 at the end of the Nine Years' War, an all-too-real conflict which broke Irish resistance to English Tudor rule, and sparked the chain of events leading to the Partition of Ireland. Sligo town developed as a port and became the county seat, but the region's agriculture was poor and it didn't attract industry. This preserved its natural and prehistoric heritage, which elsewhere was obliterated by farming or building. In early modern times a major export was people heading to North America, even before the horrors of the Great Famine. They left behind a bleak landscape of cloud-wraithed mountains, bogs and stones. But what their eyes had seen as wasteland, in the 19th century became romanticised and re-populated with myths, legends and other-worldly beings. A leading figure in this was the poet WB Yeats (1865-1939), who spent childhood holidays in County Sligo and wove the landscape (such as Innisfree) into his poetry. A friend here was Constance Gore-Booth (1868-1927), later known as Countess Markievicz, the republican activist. When Yeats wrote of the Easter Rising of 1916 that "a terrible beauty is born", part of that beauty was born in County Sligo.
Six trains per day run from Dublin Connolly, taking 3 hr 20 min to Sligo town via Drumcondra, Maynooth, Mullingar, Longford, Dromod, Carrick-on-Shannon, Boyle, Ballymote and Collooney. See Irish Rail for fare deals.
Bus 23 runs every 2-3 hours from Dublin Busáras and Airport to Sligo, taking four hours. There are also buses from Galway, Donegal and Derry.
By road from Dublin follow M4 / N4.
All the towns are small enough to walk around, but you need wheels to reach the sights scattered around.
Buses run from Sligo to Strandhill and to Rosses Point.
- The horse that comes from the road / The rider, the birds that range / From cloud to tumbling cloud / Minute by minute they change - Yeats
- Knocknarea is a slab of limestone 327 m high, just north of Strandhill but usually climbed from the southeast towards Sligo. The cairn and other grave markers around its summit are believed to date from 3000 BC.
- Carrowmore megalithic cemetery below is part of the same Neolithic ritual landscape, as the Knocknarea markers are aligned with it.
- Heapstown Stone Cairn is a 7 m tall megalithic mound close to Lough Arrow. Other nearby prehistoric monuments include Labby Rock.
- Carrowkeel is another collection of ancient graves further south.
- Benbulbin or Ben Bulben is a prominent table mountain that dominates the landscape to the north.
- Coney Island is a tidal island just north of Strandhill, you can walk or drive across, but think about the getting back.
- Surf at Strandhill, which has surf schools and equipment.
- Boat trips of Lough Gill take in Beezie's Island, Parkes Castle, and the frankly disappointing Lake Isle of Innisfree: it's just a woody outcrop. Trips usually start from Sligo.
- The Wild Atlantic Way is the tourist name for the motoring route that hugs the west coast from Donegal all the way south to Cork. The route across County Sligo is fairly obvious. From County Donegal N15 crosses a sliver of County Leitrim into County Sligo; at Cliffony turn up the side road for Mullagmore, and at Grange turn off for Streedagh Point. Continue on N15 past Benbulbin and Drumcliffe and detour to Rosses Point before coming in to Sligo town. From here take the loop of R292 through Strandhill before returning to the main road at Baladrihid, then take N59 west as far as Shemagh, branching onto R297. Follow this west then trending south through Enniscrone to reach Ballina in County Mayo.
- Look up your Irish ancestors: Sligo was a major port of emigration to America, and the town has a good genealogy centre. Mike Pence (US Vice President from 2017) had a maternal grandfather from the county; his maternal great-grandparents were from County Clare. Also from Sligo was the father of Bernardo O'Higgins (1778-1842), founder of the nation of Chile; and the father of Spike Milligan (1918-2002), who grew up in India before his showbiz career. When Spike sang of "walking backwards for Christmas, across the Irish Sea" he evoked a pilgrimage as spiritual as any made by early saint or friar.
- Golf: courses are dotted around, but the prestige course is the Championship links at Rosses Point.
- Seaweed: walk across a stony beach uncovered at low tide, the crinkly dark stuff that goes "pop" under your feet is bladder-wrack. Its alginates make it slippy, and you could easily skid and land in a cold pool of it, probably venting a cry of Fucus vesiculosus! to acknowledge its scientific binomial. People actually pay money to do so, reckon €30 for a 50 min soak. There are seaweed bath companies in Strandhill, Enniscrone and elsewhere. Their websites bandy words like "organic", "de-toxifying", "anti-ageing" and even "cancer" while ever-so-artfully avoiding any statement such that the regulatory agencies could ask "prove it?"
- Warriors Run is a 15 km race from Strandhill to the top of Knocknarea and back. It's in late August.
Every village has a Centra or similar convenience store, but Sligo is the place to stock up and re-fuel the car.
- Sligo town centre has the best choice. Well-regarded places are Fiddlers Creek, Bistro Bianconi and Coach House.
- I have drunk ale from the Country of the Young / and weep because I know all things now - Yeats
- Shoot the Crows pub in Sligo is still going strong, but the bartenders no longer accept dead crows as payment as they did in 1876. It's probably pointless to offer them bitcoin.
- Lough Gill Brewery east edge of Sligo town produces a range of beers, plus mead. They don't offer tours.
- White Hag Brewery is in Ballymote. No tours.
- Athru is the only distillery in the county, producing Irish malt whiskey. It's by Hazelwood House near the outflow of Lough Gill east of Sligo. Opened in 2019, they don't offer tours but plan a second building to accommodate visits from 2021.
- There are many B&Bs throughout the county, several mainstream hotels and a few hostels, see individual towns.
- The Glamping Village in Enniscrone brought a Boeing 767 all the way from Shannon Airport to serve as accommodation. The venture flopped so there it sits idle by the roadside.
- Strangest by a distance is the Gyreum Ecolodge, listed in Ballymote though it's nearer to the edge of damn-all.
Usual precautions about road safety, valuables in cars, and aggressive drunks. The mountains can be cold, windy and rain-lashed but are of no great altitude.
- County Donegal to the north has a wild Atlantic coastline but is well-developed for tourism.
- County Mayo to the west is rugged and little developed. In 1798 it saw the last armed invasion of Britain, the "Year of the French".