Sligo (Sligeach – “river place abounding in shells”) (pop. 19,000), an Atlantic port town in the old barony of Carbury, is the administrative capital of County Sligo, the largest urban area in the Northwest of Ireland, the second largest in Connacht (after Galway City) and an important regional hub for industry, commerce and community services. There are plenty of interesting places to visit in the town, and surrounding areas overlooked by Knocknarea to the west and Benbulben to the north, and a good range of pubs, eateries, accommodation options etc.
The River Garavogue at Sligo‘s Hyde Bridge (designed by local architect Sir John Benson and completed in 1853 as Victoria Bridge, later renamed after Ireland’s first President). The first such structure at Bridge Street ws put up in 1682 and is the one depicted on the old civic seal. Sligo’s second bridge Hyde Bridge was opened in 1852. More recently Hughes Bridge named after one of Sligo’s mayors opened in 1988 and and 2 footbridges span the river in 2 different locations today. (Photo © Jolanta W. Wawrzycka)
Sligeach was the old name of the River Garavogue (An Gharbhóg – “young / rough river”) flowing from nearby Lough Gill through the town to its estuarine mouth at Sligo Bay. This whole area is rich in marine resources, utilised as far back as the Mesolithic period, as evidenced by the extensive Stone Age shell middens in the vicinity. Ordnance Survey letters of 1836 state that “cart loads of shells were found underground in many places within the town where houses now stand“. At that time shells were constantly being dug up during the construction of foundations for buildings.
Some of the area now occupied by Sligo town’s suburbs was evidently first inhabited by humans a very long time ago. Regarding the early Neolithic -enclosure at Magheraboy, revealed by roadwork excavation in 2002, archaeologist Edward Danagher wrote “….. the longevity of the activity on the site indicates a stable and successful population during the final centuries of the fifth millennium and the first centuries of the fourth millennium BC.” Sligo’s first suburban roundabout was carefully constructed around a megalithic tomb.
Sligo has changed size, shape and status several times over the centuries; despite its two cathedrals, 1612 Royal Charter of Incorporation, mayor, mace and suchlike paraphernalia, it cannot claim to be a city,even less now that Sligo Borough Council is due to be axed in 2014, and is is usually referred to as a town.
Reflecting its mixed cultural heritage as a commercial port and British army base, Sligo’s streets have long displayed a rich mixture of trade, landlord, English and British Imperial names, many of the latter now replaced by those of Nationalist / Republican heroes. Most of the older urban architecture dates from the C19th, with some ugly C20th buildings offset by more elegant modern developments, particularly along the river (where swans and ducks are a common sight) and on the outskirts of the town.
Sligo town History
Claudius Ptolemy’s 140 AD map of Ireland identifies the rough location of Sligo town as Magnata / Nagnata, evidently a trading centre of sufficient importance to be known to the Romans.
Sligo Castle was erected in 1245 by Maurice Fitzgerald, 2nd Lord Ophaly, Justiciar of Ireland, known as both An Brathair (“the Friar”) and “Destroyer of the Irish”, who had played a leading role in the subjugation of Connacht in 1235, when King Henry III described him as “little pleasant, nay, beyond measure harsh in executing the King’s mandates“. He founded Sligo’s Dominican Friary in 1253. A medieval sradbhaile (‘street settlement’) soon arose, comprising a single street of rude dwellings, undefended by any wall or enclosure.
The village was burned in 1257 by Goffraidh Ó Dónaill, the first O’Donnell chieftain of Tirconnell, who had come to power with the active support of the FitzGeralds. In the same year he defeated Crown troops at the Battle of Creadran-Cille, fatally wounding Maurice FitzGerald in personal combat, but was himself severely injured. Soon summoned by Brian O’Neill to give hostages in token of submission, Ó Dónaill was carried on a litter at the head of his clan and defeated his former overlord, only to die of his injuries immediately afterwards.
In 1310 the Red Earl of Ulster, Richard de Burgo, laid out a new town and rebuilt Sligo Castle, destroyed in 1315 by the O’Donnells, whose sporadic attacks continued, culminating in a full sack of the town in 1396, together with members of the branch of the former royal dynasty of Connacht that came to be known as the Sligo O’Connors, styled Lords of Sligo into the C17th.
By the mid-C15th the port had grown in importance and prosperity, mainly owing to the proximity of vast herring shoals. One of the earliest preserved specimens of written English in Connacht is a receipt for 20 marks, dated August 1430, paid by Saunder Lynche and Davy Botyller, to Henry Blake and Walter Blake, customers of “ye King and John Rede, controller of ye porte of Galvy and of Slego“. Contemporary references to “Sligo Castle” probably mean the Tower House of the powerful O’Crean merchant family.
Between 1495 and 1566 Sligo was frequently besieged, occupied and / or sacked during the course of complicated internecine struggles involving the O’Donnells, the Sligo O’Connors, the Burkes of Clanrickard, the O’Neills, Bishop Barrett of Killala, the Costellos, the O’Rourkes and the MacDermotts. In 1567 Donal O’Connor Sligo strategically submitted to Queen Elizabeth I, for which he was knighted, and in 1579 the government ordered Sir Nicholas Malby, Lord President of Connaught, to establish “apt and safe” places for the keeping of Assizes & Sessions in each county of the province, “judging that the aptest place be in Sligo, for the County of Sligo…“, but Crown control was not secured until 1584.
The last decade of the C16th saw massive popular support for the O’Neill and the O’Donnell leaders’ Nine Years War against the Crown, which devastated Sligo. The town only began to prosper once again after 1603, and was granted a Royal Charter in 1612.
In revenge for cattle raids by the O‘Rourke clan and the siege of his castle at nearby Manorhamilton during the 1641 Rebellion, Sligo was sacked in 1642 by troops under Sir Frederick Hamilton, a retired officer in the Swedish army and Parliamentarian sympathiser who had raised his own foot regiment. (Local legend tells that on their return journey over the mountains, some of the soldiers got lost in heavy fog. A guide on a white horse offered to lead them safely across the hillsides, but intentionally directed the men over a cliff to their doom. This tale was the basis for WB Yeats’ short story The Curse Of The Fires And Of The Shadows).
Sir Charles Coote, the Parliamentarian President of Connaught, wrested Sligo from the Kilkenny Confederacy in 1645, but his campaign in western Ireland was brought to an abrupt end in 1646 when Owen Roe O’Neill’s defeated General Robert Monro‘s Scottish Covenanter army at the Battle of Benburb (Tyrone). Six years later, after successfully besieging the last Confederate / Royalist stronghold of Galway City, Sir Charles wiped out the pockets of resistance remaining in Sligo and other western towns. In 1659 he joined the Royalist party, and after the Restoration was confirmed as President of Connaught and ennobled by King Charles II as Baron Coote of Castle Cuffe, Viscount Coote of Castle Coote and Earl of Mountrath, only to die of smallpox in 1661.
Williamite soldiers under Robert King, 2nd Baron Kingston, seized Sligo in 1689, but the town was soon retaken by Patrick Sarsfield for the Jacobites, along with virtually all of Connacht, only to be surrendered two years later to the Earl of Granard by Col Teague O’Reagan after a hard battle and lengthy negotiations whereby all townsfolk wishing to leave would be granted pardon and allowed to depart peacefully with their family and belonging. The wounded were allowed to stay unharmed until they were fit to leave. The Jacobite troops marched south, only to find that the Treaty of Limerick had been signed.
For the next 100 years Sligo town was a remote and seldom visited community, without even a Dublin mail-coach, isolated from the Irish mainstream.This changed dramatically with the French Invasion in aid of the 1798 Rebellion. The local Crown garrison was defeated by General Humbert’s combined Franco-Irish force on 5th September at the Battle of Collooney / Carricknagat, with the loss of 60 dead and 100 prisoners, three days before Lord Cornwallis’s crushing victory at the Battle of Ballinamuck.
County Sligo suffered great poverty and hardship during the first decades of the C19th, partly because of a steep rise in population. Continuous rain in 1817 led to the failure of the potato and oats crops, causing famine, while typhus and even cholera spread across much of the country. In 1822 there was another and even more severe famine.
Although Sligo town began to grow in the early C19th, largely due to to a linen mart, distilling and brewing, and perhaps as a result of improved roads and communication with other commercial hubs, it also became a centre for the notorious Ribbon secret society of mainly peasant insurgents. The 1842 arrest of James Hagan, one of the most powerful Ribbonmen in Sligo, and his subsequent decision to turn informer against his comrades, resulted in the arrests and transportation of men throughout Connaught and Ulster and as far afield as Glasgow and Liverpool.
In 1832 a cholera epidemic forced 15,000 people to abandon Sligo for some months and claimed 600 lives. Some 15 years later, the Great Famine and its immediate aftermath saw over 30,000 people emigrate through the port of Sligo between 1847 and 1851. One ill-fated ship sank just outside Sligo Bay with the loss of all lives, and conditions were so bad on board the ‘coffin ships’ that many did not survive the Atlantic crossing.
The Land War led to increased sectarianism in Sligo town. In one 1886 instance, Roman Catholic agitators damaged their own brand new Cathedral in order to whip up anti-Protestant sentiment, inciting a mob to attack the Church of Ireland bishop’s palace and destroy several Presbyterian and Anglican homes.
Although hardly incident-free during the War of Independence, Sligo town witnessed considerably more violence in the Civil War, with strong resistance to Free State forces leading to the destruction by the anti-Treaty Republicans of Strand Street Barracks (the last of four built in the town in the C17th and C18th) and heightened sectarianism poisoning the civic atmosphere.
Relatively peaceful for many years, Sligo town has been in news headlines in recent times for its surprisingly high level of violent crime, mainly associated with the Cranmore district.
Sligo street with a sculpture by Rowan Gillespie of William Butler Yeats, erected in 1989 on the 50th anniversary of the 1923 Nobel Laureate’s death. (Photo by jckim)
WB Yeats‘ poetic evocations of the “Land of Heart’s Desire“, where he and his brother, the painter Jack B Yeats, spent many of their childhood years, have given rise to the growth of a thriving “Yeats Country” cultural tourism industry.
The brothers’ nostalgic memories of an idyllic youth in the watery countryside of counties Sligo and Leitrim form the basis of tours to Rosses Point and Lissadell (home of the Gore Booth sisters, including the future Countess Markievicz), Lough Gill, Dromahair, Glencar and Benbulben.
The Yeats Memorial Building, originally designed in 1899 as the Royal Bank by Vincent Craig, brother of the first Prime Minister of Northern Ireland, Lord Craigavon, was presented to the Yeats Society by AIB in 1973. It has a permanent exhibition of Yeats family photographs and memorabilia, an extensive specialist library and a good café. It hosts the Yeats International Summer School, an annual gathering of scholars from around the world, and also houses the Sligo Art Gallery, which exhibits works by local, national and international artists.
The Model Arts & Niland Centre, housed in an 1862 “Model School” designed by James H Owen and established to provide instruction for children of different denominations, is the principal arts and cultural centre for the North West of Ireland, hosting touring exhibitions and other cultural activities, including cinema, literary and musical festivals. It has a permanent collection of Jack B Yeats paintings, an attractive modern exhibition wing and an excellent café.
The Sligo Town Library and Sligo County Museum have been housed since 1955 in the former Stephen St Independent Presbyterian / Congregationalist church, a small Gothic Revival edifice designed in 1851 by architects Lanyon, Lynn & Lanyon, and the adjacent Manse (1867), with exhibits detailing Sligo’s rich history, including interesting artefacts such as a large firkin of 100-year-old bog butter, plus WB Yeats‘ Nobel Prize Medal, some of his correspondence with other Irish literary figures and displays of Yeats and Gore-Booth family memorabilia.
Sligo Town Hall, standing on the site used in the mid C17th by Parliamentarian troops for their New Fort, was designed by William Hague and built in 1861 in a very impressive Italian Renaissance style, a striking contrast to Sligo Borough Council‘s huge Cranmore complex or Sligo County Council’s ultra-modern Riverside HQ.
Sligo Port, which can handle small ships up to 3300 DWT, was long associated with decay and disuse, but is now thriving despite the current recession.
Most Sligonians today, including newcomers from Eastern Europe and the Philippines, work for the pharmaceutical or food processing industries, one of the local authorities, Sligo General Hospital, other health services, education complexes, retail outlets or the tourism and hospitality sector. Unemployment is slightly below the national average in general, but much higher in certain districts, notably Cranmore, the largest housing estate in the west of Ireland and effectively the second largest population centre in County Sligo with some 1700 inhabitants.
Sligo town education
Sligo Grammar School has existed in various forms for more than four centuries, over the years incorporating the Charter School (1752 – 1843), Elphin Diocesan School and Sligo High School, with constitutions changing to reflect the outlook and needs of Protestants in Irish society. The present co-educational establishment on the Mall has about 100 boarders and 340 day pupils.
Mercy College, a Roman Catholic voluntary secondary school for girls, traces its origins to the arrival of the Sisters of Mercy in Sligo town in 1846. It has over 450 pupils.
Summerhill College, aka The College of the Immaculate Conception, a Roman Catholic voluntary secondary school for boys, was founded in 1857 by the then Bishop of Elphin, Dr Laurence Gillooly, in Summerhill, Athlone (Co. Roscommon). It moved to temporary accommodation on Quay Street in Sligo in 1880 and to its present site in 1892. Originally a Diocesan College—an entry school for those wishing to train as priests – the school took in both boarders and day boys until the dormitories were closed in the 1980s due to economic circumstances. It curently has about 750 pupils.
Sligo has two other Roman Catholic secondary schools and a vocational Community College (which also provides adult education). Of the town’s nine primary schools, seven are Roman Catholic (including one Gaelscoil), one is Church of Ireland and one is non-denominational.
St Angela’s College, overlooking the eastern end of Lough Gill, occupies the C19th mansion and grounds of Clogherevagh House, former residence of a branch of the Wynne family of Hazelwood. Founded by the Ursuline Order of nuns in 1950, it is now a constituent college of NUI Galway, providing both undergraduate and postgraduate level training in Nursing and Health Studies, Home Economics and Education.
The Sligo Institute of Technology, a modern campus founded in 1970 on the outskirts of the town, hosts 6000-odd students attending Science, Engineering, Business and Humanities courses, comprising most of Sligo town’s lively (and sometimes rowdy!) third level student inhabitants.
(The “Tech” should not be confused with the Sligo Literary & Polytechnic Institute, an arguably enlightened organisation that created sectarian tensions between 1860 and 1864 by allegedly engaging in covert evangelical proselytizing).
Perhaps due to its large youth population and its wide range of pubs, many of them regular music venues, plus several nightclubs, Sligo has a double-edged reputation as a good party town where revelry sometimes gets out of hand.
Sligo town’s best live trad/folk music venues are McGlynn’s (called “Dudes” locally- the Dude himself plays on Sunday nights), and Foley’s (very knowledgeable owners and tons of regular old school sessions). Jazz places include The Factory and Tobergal Lane. More modern bands play upstairs at McGarrigle’s on O’Connell St, which has comfortable old-style snugs on the ground floor and also serves good food.
Connolly’s pub on Markievicz Road and Holburn St, where CS Parnell himself supped, is widely considered the top traditional Irish bar in Connacht, despite stiff competition from several other old-fashioned pubs, notably the respruced Hargadon Bros on O’Connell St. (Photo by Noel Kennedy)
Spike Milligan (1918 – 2002), the comedian, writer and TV actor of Goon Show fame, was born at 5 Holborn Street, now marked by a plaque.
Other famous Sligonian entertainers include puppeteer Eugene Lambert (1928-2010), film director Neil Jordan (Michael Collins, The Crying Game, Interview with the Vampire), comedienne and author Pauline McLynn, and three members of the recently split up popular boy band Westlife.