A Quiet Day in Sligo

GlenColumbKille, Co. Donegal, Republic of Ireland

It was an interesting day.

I met Matt and Alan, two young American backpackers, at the pub last night. We had a great time sharing stories about our travels so far and the differences we’ve noticed between Ireland and the States. We planned on heading out of town together this morning. They didn’t show.

I thought about going snorkling out in the cove this morning. I want to review the area before I jump in with all my dive gear only to find out that there’s nothing to see and no depth for 10 km.

Instead, it decided to rain today. Its the first rain I’ve really seen since I arrived in Ireland. Up until today, the weather has been spectacular. But the rain was great, too. If you know me, you know that I prefer this weather anyway. This happened to be a storm, though, and the ocean was rocking something fierce. Far too agressive for SCUBA diving, let alone snorkling.

So, off to Sligo I go. Sligo I go. That’s funnier to me than it should be.

Sligo is a pretty large city in Irish terms. It’s about an hour or more drive from Donegal town which is about an hour from the cottage. No major highways along the way. Just main thoroughfairs and a few narrow two-lane roads. Add heavy rain and you get nowhere quickly.

Once I arrived in Sligo, I was rather disappointed. Its just another tourist trap like Donegal only larger. There’s tons of “It’s Great to be Irish” crap, the type of stuff family brings back to you when they traveled around. Trinkets, mostly. Also known as dust collectors. Then there’s the typical pub which Sligo is well stocked with. They don’t do me much good since I’m the one driving back.

That leads me to an interesting point about traveling alone. It blows. First off, it’s pretty damned lonely. There’s no one standing next to you to share some of the beautiful scenery with. There’s no one to agree with you when you state, “wow, that’s really friggin’ old!” or “does it ever warm up around here?” or “will you start that damned fire already?”. No one is there to agree with you when you state that the food sucks and wouldn’t it be nice to get a real pizza?

There’s also no one to trade off driving with. I’ve missed a lot of scenery (and some important signs, which I’ll get to soon) because I have to pay close attention to the roads and traffic.

Another side note: straight roads do not exist in Ireland. Period.

So, I don’t recommend traveling completely alone if you can avoid it. I know that it was my intention originally. It would be really nice to have someone else to share it with. I know where this is going now. I’ll stop there.

I’m just glad you’re all sharing it with me through via the Internet. Perhaps that’s why posting these stories has become so important to me. The void is unfilled – as it always will be – but, this does help.

Needless to say, I became bored with Sligo quickly. Until I found the Abbey.

Insert “Wow, that’s really friggin’ old” here. Not to mention it was absolutely beautiful. Like most images I’m posting, they don’t do the real thing justice.

The Sligo Abbey was founded in either 1252 or 1253 C.E. People still believed the world was flat then (a.k.a. “the Medieval period”). It is apparently misnamed because the Abbey was in fact a Dominican Friary. According to the tour document, “‘friar preachers’ reside in a friary, whereas ‘monks’ live in an abbey. Friars invited the public to worship in their church and went on preaching pilgrimages. In contrast, public access to abbeys was restricted and monks generally confined their vocation to worship through prayer and meditation.” Evidence that it was in fact a friary can be found by the presence of the rood screen. And the fact that friars lived here.

Most of the building dates from the 1200s and the cloisters and integrated architecture date to the 1400s and later. The medieval work was completed after a fire in 1414.

You’ll notice the presence of grave markers everywhere. Nearly all of the floor space has been converted into tombs, indicated by massive engraved slabs. The friary was in continual use as a cemetary throughout its history. Both the grounds and the friary interior became the official town cemetary in the 1700’s and the friary ground level has been raised several feet to accommodate further burials.

What you might also notice is that I did not photograph any of the markers directly. I will not do so unless there is a particular historical or personal value of the marker. I have an intense respect for the sanctity of a cemetary and its residents. While this may seem to conflict with the presence of the photos of the Belfast cemetary, I took those with the sole intention of presenting a historical record of both the hunger-strikers and impact – in human lives – the Troubles have had. Whenever possible, I will try to capture the image without indicating the name of the entombed unless that person’s name is crucial to the image’s value. So, I wouldn’t take any photos of the slabs here in the Abbey just because they were old. In light of this, I have actually removed some of the images I initially posted taken both from the Belfast Cemetary and the church outside of Sligo, which I will get to in a minute.

Granted, the markers were fascinating to read. The descriptions were lengthy and occassionally misspelled. There was one in particular that is known as the “Mystery Gravestone” placed in the late 1700s. The marker is for a man named James. His last name and the full name of his mother, who financed its placement, were gouged out by a skilled stonemason. While the official reason for the defacement is unknown, possible explanations include:

  • James was exhumed and re-interred with his family elsewhere. (Unlikely, in my opinion. The marker would have most probably been removed and the space reused unless local social rules governed otherwise)
  • he and his mother brought shame on his family – perhaps he was born out of wedlock

The word body is spelled incorrectly on James’ marker (it’s engraved as “boby”). According to the literature, it was not uncommon for stonemasons to be illiterate, resulting in such mistakes.

There is an altar that was built in the 1400s. It is the only sculptured altar to survive in any monastic church. The front panelling is carved with foliage, grapes and a rose. It remains in spectacular condition. There are detailed images available here and here.

The friary suffered considerable damage over the centuries. There was the fire in 1414. In 1642, the armies of Sir Frederick Hamilton, a Cromwellian (e.g. Oliver Cromwell – a man who ransacked Ireland and had his own soldiers testify that the Irish were lesser humans, so far as to state that they had “tails”) attacked Sligo town. An edict of banishment was imposed on the friars in 1698 when the property was seized by the Crown. In the early 1700s, a local merchant quarried the friary for building materials to construct houses nearby. The friars were in residence up until the 1760s, after which they relocated to another friary nearby. The Order is still in town today.

The self-guided tour of the Abbey was worth the time. I was the only one on the grounds and found them to be well maintained and approached with dignity. This is a cemetary of considerable historical value and it appears that the docents and organization in charge of its care have done what appears to be a fine job. This didn’t strike me as a tourist trap, really. I can see that someone probably said early on, “Look, this is not only the remains of a legitimate church but also a cemetary. What do you say we go easy on the gift shop?” In fact, there was no gift shop. I applaud those responsible for that decision.

The Abbey left me in a rather meditative mood. I felt comforted by it. I also learned something new and saw a piece of history far older than any I’ve experienced before.

I left Sligo with a surprisingly full bladder.

I stopped just outside of town at some tourist location. I knew that it would have restrooms. While on site, I noticed a church and a sizable cemetary. I should point out that this was of some concern, though I didn’t pay too much attention to it at the moment. There was a gift shop and an art center outside the church grounds. I didn’t understand why until a few minutes later.

The church was of unusual design. I assume it may have been of the Church of Ireland. The altar was overshadowed by a massive mural, lacking any depiction of Christ. Also note the raised pulpit on the left. If anyone has any ideas, drop me a note.

There were what I currently believe to be memorial plaques set in the walls. I don’t believe that they are tombs or mosoleum slots. That’s a first for me and I would appreciate any comment that someone might have in regards to their historic/social nature.

Outside, to the left of the front door in the picture, I wandered around the cemetary and almost immediately noticed one marker that explained everything.

It was the grave of William Butler Yeats, an Irish author born in 1865 and passed in 1939. His epitaph was striking:

Cast a Cold Eye
On Life, on Death.
Horseman, pass by.

George Yeats, possibly William’s son, is also buried as indicated by a small concrete slab on the plot.

I have abstained from posting images of the plot out of respect for any surviving family members.

Unfortunately, this is a tourist trap. The same respects I offer to the care-takers of the Abbey are not made to those in charge of the visitor’s center and the church in general. I accept that both the gift shop and the art center are not on the proper church grounds, nor should they be. I would recommend avoiding the numerous Yeats-named cafes and pubs on the outskirts of Sligo. That’s just tacky.

When I returned back to the cottage, I noticed once again the poster of 12 Irish authors on one of the bedroom doors. I hadn’t paid much attention to it in the past, in particular because it only lists men. I have a difficult time believing that the only notable authors born in Ireland since the 17th century were male. But, as many of you know, I’m not a prolific reader of fiction or poetry. Life is far richer, and certainly more tragic, than fiction.

Yet, I wondered if Yeats was shown. He most certainly was. And the included quote struck me:

Come away, O human child!
To the waters and the wild
With a faery, hand in hand,
For the world’s more full of weeping than you can understand.

           – The Stolen Child

How absolutely appropriate for this day in my journey. I think I’ll pick this book up the next time I see it. Let me know if you can recommend any female Irish authors to balance.

Until then,

Yours in silence,



Recommended Listening:
Etta James – This Bitter Earth
Otis Redding – Sittin on the Dock of the Bay
Gordon Haskell – How Wonderful You Are
I’d like to recommend Ronan Keating’s tune, If Tomorrow Never Comes, but I can’t. I saw the video in a pub and had to leave. It sounded like a great song. Unfortunately, the few moments I saw and heard tore me to shreds.