Sligo town Sights
Sligo Abbey was built to replace the original Dominican Friary, accidentally destroyed by fire in 1414. (Photo by FoekeNoppert)
The Abbey was pillaged and burned by Frederick Hamilton’s soldiers in 1642, when its famous silver bell was thrown into Lough Gill; according to legend, only those free from sin can still hear it ringing from the depths.
Much of the structure remains, including an elegant belfry and cloisters, the choir, a very fine C15th carved stone high altar (the only one of its kind remaining in situ in any monastic ruin in Ireland) and a rare surviving Rood Screen (partly reconstructed).
Interesting tombs include those of Tighernen O’Rourke, king of Breifne, who died in 1418, and successive chiefs of the O’Conor Sligo Clan. The elaborate altar tomb of the O’Creans, reputed to be the wealthiest family in Sligo in the 16th, bers interesting carvings. A wall monument commemorates the Lord of Sligo Sir Donagh O’Connor and his wife Lady Elinor (née Butler), whose influence with Queen Elizabeth I saved the friary from Dissolution – on condition that the friars became secular clergy.
Although the Abbey was used as a Courthouse from c.1640 onwards, some friars remained in Sligo town until 1760, when they moved to the nearby Holy Cross Priory in High Street, which survives to this day, commonly aka the Friary.
The site also contains a ruined townhouse, erected c. 1700.
Sligo Abbey continued to be used as the town’s official Roman Catholic burial ground until an 1894 newspaper editorial denounced decaying skulls and human bones exposed to public gaze; a new cemetery was opened early in the C20th.
(Bram Stoker, whose mother came from Sligo, cited ghost stories about the abbey as part of his inspiration for Dracula).
Sligo’s Green Fort, a medieval stone bastion standing on an an elevated position thought to have been an ancient site of strategic importance in the townland of Forthill, was in poor condition until reinforced in the summer of 1690 by the Jacobite leader, Col Teague O’Reagan, but the Corkman’s best efforts could not save Sligo town from 10,000 Williamite men under Lord Granard. Following the war the fort was again allowed to fall into disrepair. Now partially landscaped, the bastion commands fine views of the town and surroundings, Benbulben, the Daltry Mountains and the Glencar Pass, Sligo Bay, Knocknarea and the Ox Mountains.
St John’s Cathedral
The Cathedral church of the Virgin Mary & St John the Baptist (CoI), believed to occupy the site of a C13th monastic Almshouse, was built in 1730 to a design by Richard Cassels (who came to Sligo to build Hazelwood House), but is somewhat spoilt by additional C19th Gothic features.
The 1637 tomb of the first Governor of Sligo, Sir Roger Jones of Banada, can be seen against the west wall. The Yeats and Pollexfen families are commemorated inside the church and in the graveyard, where Dracula author Bram Stoker’s mother Catherine (née Blake Thornley) is also buried. Interestingly, the church grounds contain a peculiar kind of clay, said to prevent the decay of bodies and instead convert them into adipocere, a soft waxy substance that can last indefinitely.
St John’s is one of two cathedral churches remaining in the United Dioceses of Kilmore, Elphin and Ardagh. The Dean of Elphin and Ardagh is based here, as the original cathedral of Ardagh, Co. Longford had been destroyed by military action in 1496 and the original diocesan cathedral of Saint Mary’s, Elphin, Co. Roscommon was damaged by a storm in 1857 and abandoned in 1861.
Calry church (CoI), an elegant structure with a handsome spire, was designed in 1824 for a growing Anglican community by local architect John Lynn, as was the adjoining Glebe House. The churchyard contains the grave of Elizabeth Cribbins, mother of the Canadian-born Edward Doherty (1840 – 1897), an American Civil War officer who led the posse that killed Abraham Lincoln‘s assassin, John Wilkes Booth, in a Virginia barn 12 days after the US President was fatally shot in 1865.
(The parish of Calry (Calraidhe – “the territory of the descendants of Cal”) includes Sligo town’s North Ward and takes in the slopes of Keelogyboy and Castlegal mountains. Saint Patrick mentioned in his Tripartite Life that he had visited the districts of Callrigi Tremaige).
Sligo Town’s remaining Presbyterian church was erected on the College Road in 1828, and the Presbyterian school was built next door in 1883. The ? rst Presbyterian minister of whom anything is known was Rev Samuel Henry, who came to Sligo in October 1694 from Edinburgh.
Sligo Town’s Methodist Chapel was built in 1832 to replace an earlier building with “an exceedingly low thatched roof ”in Bridge St dating from 1775, Founder John Wesley visited Sligo 14 times between 1758 and 1789.
The Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception (RC), erected in 1874 as the new episcopal seat for the Diocese of Elphin by by the then Bishop, Dr Laurence Gillooly (1819-1895), was the only Romanesque Cathedral built in Ireland during the C19th. Designed by London architect George Goldie, it dominates Sligo Town’s skyline and has a magnificently illuminated interior, which can seat 4,000 congregants. Sligo town also has two modern Roman Catholic churches.
Gillooly Memorial Hall, the grimly ornate edifice opposite the cathedral, historically aka Temperance Hall, was designed by local architect P J Kilgallen and built c. 1895 to commemorate the recently deceased bishop by furthering his campaign against alcohol; his statue over the entrance bears the slogan ‘Ireland sober is Ireland free‘. While the interior retains its classic Victorian leaded glass and polished mahogany, the original main hall and assembly rooms have been adapted for use as a community centre and venue for concerts, amateur drama productions etc.
Another old building of religious significance is the former Masonic Hall, designed in 1895 in the Arts & Crafts style by Belfast architect Henry Seaver. (The first Freemasons’ lodge in County Sligo was inaugurated in 1760).
(Sligo’s Baptist church is an attractive modern structure at Cartron Hill, and the town also has Pentecostal and Mormon congregations).
Sligo Courthouse (1879), designed by Dublin architect J Rawson Caroll in the Gothic Revival style (unlike the neo-Classical courthouses erected in most rural Irish towns during the C19th), was once described as “the most impressive High Victorian building outside Dublin” and has been magnificently restored. It includes a number of exterior features modelled on London’s Law Courts and incorporates part of an C18th gaol.
Directly across Union Square are the former offices of a firm of solicitors called Argue & Phibbs (1919 – 1944), who reputedly considered taking on a third partner named Cheetham, putting them on an equal footing with Private Eye magazine’s Sue, Grabbitt & Runne.
Sligo Gaol, nicknamed the Cranmore Hotel, was open from 1823 to 1959. Male prisoners were forced to undertake “hard labour”. including rock breaking, wood chopping. shoemaking, carpentry, glazing etc. while female inmates had to sew, knit and wash clothes. The final public execution here occurred on 19th August 1861 when the “Ballymote Slasher”, 26 year old Mathew Phibbs, was hanged for murdering William and Fanny Callaghan and a servant girl Anne Mooney eight months earlier. The last person to be hanged within the prison was a Mr Doherty of Carrick-on-Shannon (Co. Leitrim) in 1903 for murdering his son. On 26th June 1920 some 100 IRA volunteers raid the gaol to free their O/C Frank Carty. A number of German spies were held in Sligo Gaol throughout “the Emergency” (WWII); of ten released in September 1946, eight chose to remain in Ireland. The prison is now used as a storage facility for Sligo County Council and as the headquarters for the Sligo Fire Brigade. (Photo here)
St Columba’s Lunatic Asylum, a large Elizabethan style building designed by architect William Deane Butler, took over six years to complete, officially opening its doors in 1855. Described by Sir John Forbes as “one of the finest public charities I have ever seen“, the mental hospital introduced radical new treatment methods in 1883, by abolishing patient restraints where possible, and allowing the inmates to roam freely through the grounds. With up to 1,100 patients, it was among the most popular places to work during the early to mid C20th in Sligo. One man who spent 43 years as an employee recalled “Some patients were never visited, some stayed there for over 40 years, others died there, some committed suicide, but thankfully they were few.” The hospital was closed in 1992, and was allowed to fall into dereliction until rescued by the Choice Hotel Group, who built The Clarion Hotel behind its original façade at a cost 45 million Euro.
Sligo Railway Station, designed by John Skipton Mulvany and opened in 1862, long served as a destination for passengers and goods traffic on the Midland Great Western Railway from Dublin, the Sligo Leitrim & Northern Counties Railway from Enniskillen, and the Waterford & Limerick Railway, which operated on the Claremorris – Sligo Town section of the Limerick City line. All trains used the double tracks of the time to the small village of Collooney, where the three companies had different stations on their own railway lines to their various destinations. Badly damaged by arsonists during the Civil War, and renamed in 1966 in honour of County Leitrim-born 1916 Rebellion leader Seán Mac Diarmada, the station is nowadays the terminus of an Intercity train service run by Ianród Eireann from DUBLIN
In Stephen Street Car Park there is a monument honouring Bernardo O’Higgins (1778 – 1842), Chile’s 1817 independence hero, illegitimate son of Ambrosio O’Higgins, originally from Ballinary in County Sligo, who enrolled in the Spanish imperial service under King Carlos III, becoming Barón de Ballinar, Marqués de Osorno, Captain General and Governor of Chile, founder of the city of San Ambrosio de Ballinary (now Vallenar) in 1789 and later Viceroy of Peru (Nueva Extremadura Province, comprising present-day Peru, Chile, Bolivia, Northwest Argentina and parts of Western Brazil) between 1796 and 1801. Bernardo ruled as Chile’s first dictator for six years before being deposed by Ramon Freire, and died in exile.
Another Sligonian with Chilean connections was William Cunningham Blest (1800-1884), politician, creator of the first Chilean School of Medicine and father of the novelist Alberto Blest Gana.
The Lady Erin Monument, designed by the Dublin sculptor Herbert G Barnes, was unveiled on 3rd September 1898 in front of a crowd of several thousand people. She stands over 16ft tall on the site of the former Market Cross, still a busy shopping area, and is regularly vandalised. Behind her is the quaint C19th Cosgrove’s grocery shop, delightfully reminiscent of a bygone age, while just to her right is a remarkable pub and music venue called Shoot the Crows, which features painted murals on the front window and inside has skulls surrounding the bar.
The Famine Memorial beside the Garavogue River is one of a suite of three sculptures honouring the victims of the Great Famine. A plaque in the background, headed ‘Letter to America, January 2, 1850’ tells one family’s sad story: “I am now, I may say, alone in the world. All my brothers and sisters are dead and children but yourself… We are all ejected out of Mr. Enright’s ground… The times was so bad and all Ireland in such a state of poverty that no person could pay rent. My only hope now rests with you, as I am without one shilling and as I said before I must either beg or go to the poorhouse… I remain your affectionate father, Owen Larkin. Be sure answer this by return of post.”
The striking former Bank of Ireland building, designed by architect Ralph Byrne, was built in 1918 on the site of the Macari & Co ice cream parlour, and is said to be haunted by the ghost of a 30 year old Italian woman called Rosa Di Lucia, who had been living in Sligo Town for only 2 years before she was brutally murdered in December 1912 by her husband Angelo Di Lucia and a 17-year-old Ballymote girl called Jane Reynolds.
Hawk’s Well Theatre, named after a play by WB Yeats and founded in 1982, is a highly regarded 340-seat centre for the performing arts with a regular programme of home and visiting productions of drama, music and dance. Sligo town has a long tradition of amateur drama societies, and as long ago as 1750, according to Wood-Martins’ History of Sligo, “her Majesty’s servants from the Theatre Royal, Crow Street …. visited Sligo, even during the Dublin season, showing that in those days the townsfolk appreciated the Drama, for in some instances the company remained during several months”.
The Gaiety is a modern 12-screen Multiplex cinema on Wine St.
The Sligo Champion, founded in 1836 and published every Wednesday, is considered one of Ireland’s leading regional newspapers, with a good online edition. A statue of its Nationalist owner, PA McHugh, elected Lord Mayor of Sligo for five successive years and MP for North Leitrim in 1892, was erected outside the handsome main Post Office (1901) and now stands in front of the Town Hall.
Sligo has three GAA clubs, with major Gaelic football & Hurling matches taking place since 1955 at the County grounds at Markievicz Park, which has a current capacity for 18,550 spectators. The town is home to 2012 League of Ireland Premier Division soccer champions Sligo Rovers FC, who since their 1928 foundation have had their HQ at The Showgrounds (aka the Showgies), with a current capacity for 5500. There are a number of other local soccer clubs, plus facilities for basketball, tennis, hockey, athletics, boxing, Martial Arts, cycling, horse riding, rowing, sailing, swimming, surfing & golf.
Sligo Racecourse at Cleveragh, 1km from the town centre, has operated since 1955, continuing a tradition of racing in the area dating back to 1781 (at Bomore on Rosses Point until 1898, and Hazelwood until 1942), halted intermittently because of faction fighting and/or political turmoil. The programme at all meetings is comprised of Flat and National Hunt (jump) races. Many top-class horses have run at Sligo. (Photo – www.goracing.ie)
Sligo town’s Peace Park, one of several modern amenity areas, is a pleasant place to relax during school hours, but can get rowdy on summer evenings and weekends.
Doorly Park, formerly part of the Clogherevagh House demesne, is a wetland area transformed in the C19th by Colonel WG Woodmartin, and now features a semi-wild landscape with a nature trail linking the best wildlife observation spots. Highlights include reedbeds, native woodland and splendid mountain views. Named after a dead bishop, the amenity is due to be connected to the proposed Cleveragh Regional Park by part of the North West Trail, a signposted 333 km circular cycle route passing through Counties Sligo, Leitrim , Fermanagh,Tyrone and Donegal.
Carns / Cairns Hill Forest Park, just outside Sligo town, contains two cairns, traditionally held to be the tombs of two friends Omra and Romra, who fought to the death after Omra saw Romra’s daughter Gille bathing in the river. Gille’s nurse is said to have drowned herself in grief in the lake formed by her tears.
The Wild Rose Water Bus provides a leisurely return trip via the Garavogue River across Lough Gill, past Hazelwood House, Inisfree and Church Island to the C17th Parkes Castle. Passengers listen to recitations of WB Yeats’ poetry and some witty and lively commentary while enjoying refreshments on board during the cruise.
The MV Spirit, formerly used as a lifeboat, offers a range of tours in and around Sligo Harbour and Sligo Bay, including , trips to the local islands, wildlife observation and fishing excursions.
Coney Island at the mouth of Sligo Harbour, one of several islets around the British Isles labelled with the old English dialect word for “rabbit” due to numerous resident floppy-eared rodents, is supposedly the original after which the captain of the merchant ship Arathusa named the more famous Coney Island in New York, a mere 5000 km / 3077 miles away across the Atlantic waves.
Historically aka Inishmulclohy and later Dorrin’s Island, the 400-acre island has been inhabited since Mesolithic times. One of only three silver mines in Ireland was worked here in the C19th.
Coney was home to 124 people in 1862, with 45 children attending the local school. At the beginning of the C20th there were still five resident families, with the heads of households listed as Lighthouse Keepers, but the island now has only one family of permanent inhabitants (traceable back to the 1750s) but has many other temporary residents, especially in the summer months. The island was finally connected to the national electricity grid in 1999.
Path to St Patrick’s Chair (Photo – www.tripadvisor.ie)
St Patrick’s Well on the western side of the island is said to have been dug by Ireland’s patron, who also installed a seat: pilgrims who drink at the well for nine days may sit on the huge rock chair and make a wish – but only once a year! There are also stories and legends of faeries, mermaids and spirits on Coney Island
Modern day trippers to Coney Island like to frequent the local pub, visit Carty’s Strand (the secluded beach to the rear of the island) for a swim, look for prehistoric shell middens, explore the ringfort and the Napoleonic-era star shaped fort, inspect a washed up whale skeleton or walk around spotting rabbits.
Commanding fantastic views of Sligo Bay, Knockarea and Benbulben, the atmospherically flat island can be reached by boat from Sligo port or Rosses Point and by car / on foot at very low tide from near Strandhill.
Knockarea and Benbulben, the two impressive summits overlooking Sligo Harbour, feature prominently in the poetry of WB Yeats, who wrote in The Celtic Twilight:
But for Ben Bulben and Knocknarea,
Many a poor sailor’d be cast away.