Sligo Town & Environs
Sligo (Sligeach – “river place abounding in shells”) (pop. 19,000), an Atlantic port town in the historic barony of Carbury, is the administrative capital of Co. Sligo, the largest urban area in the Northwest of Ireland, the second largest in Connacht (after Galway City) and an important regional hub for commerce and community services. There are plenty of interesting places to visit in the town and beautiful surroundings, and a good range of pubs, eateries, accommodation options etc.
Sligo street with statue of poet William Butler Yeats. (Photo by jckim). The 1923 Nobel Laureate’s nostalgic evocations of the “Land of Heart’s Desire“, where he and his brother, the painter Jack B Yeats, spent many of their childhood years, has been the basis for the growth of a thriving “Yeats Country” cultural tourism industry.
Sligo has changed size, shape and status several times over the centuries. Nowadays, although usually referred to as a town, and sometimes as a city (!), it is technically a borough, with a charter, a mayor, and a very impressive Italian Renaissance style Town Hall designed by William Hague (1861) – a striking contrast with Sligo County Council’s ultra-modern Riverside HQ.
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.
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) (Photo © Jolanta W. Wawrzycka)
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.
Most of the town’s older urban architecture dates from the C19th, with some ugly C20th buildings offset by more elegant Celtic Tiger era developments, particularly along the river.
Reflecting its mixed cultural heritage as a commercial port and British army base, the streets have long displayed a rich mixture of trade, landlord, English and British Imperial denominations, many of the latter now replaced by the names of Nationalist / Republican and international heroes.
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 wars against the Crown, which devastated Sligo. The town only began to prosper once again after 1603.
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 over the mountain, 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, shortly before the Treaty of Limerick.
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.
Although Sligo town began to grow in the early C19th, 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.
The Great Famine and its immediate aftermath saw over 30,000 people emigrate through the port of Sligo between 1847 and 1851.
The Land War led to increased sectarianism in Sligo town. In one 1886 instance, Roman Catholic agitators damaged their own 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 and heightened sectarianism.
Relatively peaceful for many years, the town has been in news headlines in recent times for its surprisingly high level of violent crime.
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.
The Sligo Institute of Technology, a modern campus founded in 1970 on the outskirts of the town, hosts 6000-odd young people attending Science, Engineering, Business and Humanities courses, comprising most of Sligo town’s lively (and sometimes rowdy!) third level student population. It is not to 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 proseltysing.