Knocknarea and Strandhill on the Cúil Irra Peninsula (Photo by T0mt0m42)
Cúil Irra (‘the remote angle’), the narrow 2km-long peninsula south of Sligo Harbour, has long been anglicised as Coolera. The name has long referred to the district comprising the old parishes of Killaspugbrone and Kilmacowen, but in medieval times encompassed a much larger area.
Carrowmore (Ceathrú Mhór – “Great Quarter”), the largest megalithic cemetery in Ireland, and perhaps the oldest, extends over a number of green pastures and townlands covering 3.8 sq km (1.5sq mi) east of Knocknarea on the Cúil Irra Peninsula.
Carrowmore once comprised some 100 ancient monuments, first surveyed and numbered by George Petrie in 1837. Although William Gregory Wood-Martin was the first to make recorded excavations in the 1880’s, various unauthorised digs carried out by overenthusiastic Victorian antiquarians did almost as much damage as modern gravel quarrying vandals, leaving only about 65 sites. Nevertheless, the atmosphere remains quite extraordinary.
Carrowmore Cairn # 7. (Photo –www.sacredsites.com)
The majority of tombs are a mixture of small passage-tombs and dolmens, usually surrounded by a stone kerb and constructed with the large rounded granite boulders of the area. The monuments, each on its own little eminence, are spread out in a roughly 1 km x 0.6 km oval “satellite” pattern around the largest monument at the highest point at the centre, a cairn called Listoghil (now restored). There are several examples of what appear to be stone circles but which are, in fact, the kerbing stones of vanished cairns.
Carrowmore – like Newgrange and Loughcrew in Co. Meath – is classified as part of the Irish Passage Tomb tradition. Swedish excavations from 1977 to 1979 suggested that the small, simple tombs were probably very early burial-places of immigrant farming families. While Professor Göran Bürenhult has controversially dated one of the tombs to 5,400 BC (before the supposed advent of agriculture in Ireland), most researchers place the bulk of the Carrowmore megaliths at between 4300 and 3500 BC – still unusually early.
Almost all the burials at Carrowmore were cremations, with inhumations being only found at Listoghil. It is apparent that the dead underwent a complex sequence of treatments, including excarnation and reburial. Grave goods include antler pins with mushroom-shaped heads and stone or clay balls, a fairly typical assemblage in the Irish passage tomb tradition.
There has long been debate about how the different tomb types – ‘passage tombs’, ‘court tombs’, ‘portal dolmens,’ and ‘wedge tombs’ – all of which occur in County Sligo – should be interpreted. Are they indicative of different ‘cultures’ / peoples, or of different functions for a single community? Perhaps research into DNA or other techniques of the future will finally resolve these questions.
The megaliths remained focal points on the landscape for long after they were built, and were sometimes reused and reshaped by the people of later times, e.g. one tomb was demolished when Late Bronze Age / Early Iron Age peoples reorganised the site as a ritual enclosure about 680 to 490 BC.
The Carrowmore Visitors Centre, a small farmhouse converted by the OPW, provides guided tours and multi-lingual self-guide options for the megaliths.
The Gibraltar Rocks, long one of Sligo’s premier seaside attractions, where families would go on fine days to enjoy a picnic and / or bathe in the outdoor sea-water swimming pool, is now run down and neglected.
Knocknarea / Knocknaree (Cnoc na Riadh – ‘hill of the kings / the moon /execution’ or ‘smooth hill’) (329m / 1078 ft) dominates the narrow 2km-long Cúil Irra Peninsula, dotted with ancient monuments. There are several tombs on the flat hilltop, notably a huge unexcavated cairn (55m in diameter and 10m high), traditionally believed to be the grave of the legendary Queen Maeve of Connacht (said to have been killed by a sling shot of hard cheese fired by her nephew), buried upright on her horse in full battle regalia and facing her enemies from the north.
The Knocknrea Cairn / “Queen Maeve’s Tomb”
Cars have no access to the summit, but the climb is not too difficult, and well justified by the view of the Atlantic and what Prof Stefan Bergh of the University of Stockholm styled the Landscape of the Monuments in his learned 1995 book on the area.
The Glen, a remarkable chasm cut into the limestone rock on the south facing slope of Knocknarea, was probably formed a very long time ago by an earthquake or eruption. Running almost three quarters of a mile into the mountainside, the chasm has rock faces towering up to 60ft high on each side of a (frequently muddy) 40 – 50ft wide floor. Far from claustrophobic, it is a peaceful beauty spot filled with sycamore, beech, Scots pine, oak, hazel, holly, honeysuckle, bramble bushes, ivy and extremely tall ferns and nettles creating a Jurassic Park feeling; fortunately, the largest animal one is likely to encounter is a fox, and the place is filled with birds, butterflies etc.
Rathcarrick House, a recently restored Georgian mansion with Victorian alterations, long known to locals as ‘Walker’s Seat’, was the home of Roger Chambers Walker (1806 – 1854), a landlord, barrister, and leading Sligo antiquarian, whose many visitors included George Petrie, William Wilde and Thomas Carlyle. Much of his considerable private collection is now on display at Alnwick Castle, Northumberland, and in the NMI.
Rathcarrick park, part of the former Walker estate on the slopes of Knocknarea, offers wonderful views, forest walks and a picnic site.
St Anne’s church (CoI), built in 1843 with funds raised from “Protestants of the Empire” (mainly local gentry) to serve the small rural parish of Killaspugbrone, was extended in the mid-1860s with the architects, WeIland and Gillespie, adhering to the Gothic Revival design of the original building. Although not seen at its best from the new road going past it, this handsome edifice has interesting features best externally and inside, including ornate fittings, memorials and pews bearing names scratched by pupils of Primrose Grange School, which was situated in the parish until 1906 when it merged with Sligo Grammar School. Following restoration work, the church was rededicated in 2011. The grounds command fine views of Sligo Bay.
Seafield / Lisheen House
Seafield House, originally built in 1798 by William Phibbs, was used as a summer residence after it was inherited by his son Owen Phibbs, an eminent archaeologist who lived mainly in Dublin. However in 1842 Owen’s son William began to live permanently at Seafield and commissioned John Benson (later knighted for his designs for the Dublin Exhibition of 1853) to construct a much larger Classical house nearby, leaving the old Gothic house to fall into ruin. As a landlord, Phibbs was notorious for stiff rents and harsh treatment of tenants, evicting 31 families from his estate during the Great Famine and destroying their mud cabins.
Owen Phibbs began to fill the new house with ancient treasures from the Far East, Syria, and Egypt. The objects were housed in a long gallery on the first floor which became known as ‘The Museum’.
Trouble started soon afterwards with horrid supernatural manifestations. A strange figure was often seen on the stairway at night, and terrible loud crashes heard throughout the house, with broken pottery and ornaments found the next day. On one occasion the whole edifice shook violently, causing everyone in it to flee in terror. After this servants refused to stay overnight inside the house. Shortly after this a gardener was terrified by a tall dark shadowy figure seen disappearing into the sea laughing diabolically. The gardener was also said to have fled in terror, never to return.
The Phibbs changed the name of their residence to Lisheen House to try to conceal it’s past history, but its haunted reputation remained. Eventually a group of Jesuits were asked to celebrate Mass daily for some weeks on the premises in an attempt to exorcise the poltergeist, but the priests also fled in disarray.
Unable to rid the house of it’s infestation, DW Phibbs finally sold the property in 1940. Shortly afterwards the house was dismantled and left as a roofless ruin, now severely overgrown but by all accounts still creepily atmospheric – see e.g. here.
Strandhill (Co. Sligo)
Strandhill (An Leathross – “the half promontory”) (pop. 1500) is a popular seaside resort/ surfing Mecca at the western end of the Cúil Irra Peninsula, with a camping ground, a caravan park, B&Bs / guesthouses, pubs, eateries and a Seaweed bathhouse.
Strandhill is famed for its long sandy beach, with dunes commanding great views of the Atlantic and inland towards Knocknarea. The beach was long a popular bathing place, famous for glorious sunsets and the large ocean waves that now attract surfers from all over the globe; however, swimming is no longer allowed due to shifting sands and strong underwater currents. The dunes are popular for walking and horse riding.
(At the beginning of the C19th this entire coastline was in motion due to ferocious winds. The most damage occurred between 1816 and 1835 when thousands of fertile acres were overwhelmed and cottages and mud cabins disappeared beneath tons of sand. The inhabitants of the seashore village of Strandhill had to move up the slopes of Knocknarea to a more sheltered area. Coastal erosion is an ongoing problem).
St Patrick’s church (RC) was built c. 1920 on a site donated by Benjamin Murrow, a businessman responsible for promoting Strandhill as a resort by opening the famous Seaweed Baths and constructing holiday homes, as the journey to Ransboro was too far for tourists to travel.
Dolly’s Cottage, the traditional thatched residence of the late Dolly Higgins, was bought by the local branch of the ICA when she died in 1970. Originally erected c.1800, the two-room dwelling has survived almost without alteration, and still has an old pouch bed in the chimney corner. Luxurious features included stone instead of mud walls, a loft and a proper chimney / fireplace rather than a hole in the roof to let out smoke from a hearth in the middle of the floor.
Hamilton Park is the HQ of Sligo Rugby Football Club. Strandhill also has a soccer club named Strand Celtic FC, while Coolera/Strandhill GAA club fields a hurling team.
The Strandhill Lodge & Suites won awards in 2013 as No. 1 Small Hotel in Ireland and 13th Best Small Hotel in the World.
The Warriors Run, held annually, takes participants from the beach at Strandhill up to the cairn at the top of Knocknarea and back.
Sligo Airport is a relatively small regional airport with a single runway that ends alarmingly just metres from Sligo Bay. In 2003, a Euroceltic Airways Fokker F27 overshot the runway and the nose dipped into the sea, but fortunately the accident caused no casualties.
Sligo Airport is the home of the Sligo Aero Club and the northwest base for the Irish Coast Guard, who fly helicopters from here to respond to distress calls and use the area for training. Private aircraft flights, skydiving ascents and charity parachute jumps are all operated from the airport. Aer Arann runs regular flights to and from Dublin.
Cummeen Strand is the point of access to Coney Island, reachable on foot / by car at very low tide only via a “causeway” route marked by 14 stone pillars for a distance of 1.5km. This part of Cummeen, called Dorrin’s Strand after William Dorrin, the early C19th owner of Coney Island who was drowned by the fast rush of the incoming tide while returning home in March 1823, is nowadays a popular site for charity runs etc
Killaspugbrone (“the church of Bishop Brón / Bronus”) is the site of ruined C12th stone church standing on the extremity of the peninsula. Its former name Caisle Irrae suggests it was most likely enclosed by a circular stone cashel – typical of an early Irish monastic settlement. The original foundtion was probably established in the C5th AD, and reputedly visited by Saint Patrick, who lost a tooth here that became an important relic, enshrined in the C14th by Thomas de Birmingham, Lord of Athenry, in a golden casket, later acquired by the Abbot of Cong and nowadays displayed in the NMI. The church was used for Anglican worship until the C18th. The old multi-denominational cemetery, in use until 1961, contains the graves of many local gentry, plus hundreds of simple grave markers and unmarked burial sites. Behind the church is a small sandy beach facing Coney Island.
Culleenamore Strand at the mouth of Ballysadare Bay is a seal sanctuary and also provides diverse habitats for other creatures, especially wintering birds. The tidal movement here is remarkable, with sandbanks completely exposed at low tides and fully submerged only hours later. Lovely walks can be enjoyed along the massive sand dunes, including one through the hidden Shelley Valley. Huge “kitchen-middens”, mounds of oyster shells buried under the soil and sand, show that ancient people gathered oysters along the shore and cooked them nearby. The Culleenamore Oyster Beds, once celebrated in restaurants in London, Paris and even New York, were largely destroyed by illegal dredging in the C19th. A long old tradition of horse races on the strand at Culleenamore has been revived in recent years.
Coolera House, run by the Woods family for over 40 years, became one of the better-known pub venues in the North West in the 1970s for its wild nights with the likes of Marianne Faithful, Christy Moore, The Wolfe Tones, Johnny McEvoy, Planxty, Brendan Grace and Midnight Well.
Coolera Dramatic Society, founded in 1974, is one of Sligo’s most prolific community drama companies, regularly producing one and three act plays and presenting Sligo’s Annual Christmas Pantomime since 1979
The church of Our Lady Star of the Sea (RC) at Ransboro was inaugurated in 1967 to replace its mid-C19th predecessor, now a private house. The first post-Penal Law era Roman Catholic church in the area, said to have had a thatched roof constructed in the ribs of a whale, served the former parishes of Killaspugbrone and Kilmacowen, now joined in the present day parish of Coolera / Strandhill.