History of Sligo

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The earliest people of Sligo were a group of hunter-gatherers who lived around the shores of Lough Gara and the first farming communities were established in the same area around 4,000 BC. According to legend the first settlers were the Firbolg who were defeated in a great battle by the Da Dannan 2000 years before Christianity and seven hundred years before Troy. The last resting place of these warriors can be seen in the famous megalithic cemetery of Carrowmore with its stone circles, cairns and sepulchre chambers. Sligo has the largest group of megalithic remains in Ireland.

Carrowmore stands in the shadow of Knocknarae the mountain, which is reputedly the last resting place of Queen Maeve. Maeve, the star of the Irish sagas, attained the status of Celtic goddess in the first century AD. Sligo is rich in interesting archaeological remains, and since Ireland was the only country in Western Europe not colonised by Rome, the ancient infrastructures remain intact, uninfluenced by Roman towns, roads and systems of organisation.


St Patrick made two visits to Sligo, spending around seven years in the area. He walked over the mountains and around the lakes blessing wells and establishing Christian communities. The earliest churches founded by St Patrick were at Killnamanagh and Killala. Sligo was not immune from Viking raids, being easily accessible by the ancient sea routes. Many of the early Christian churches and communities were destroyed in 807 when 5,000 Vikings landed in northeast Sligo. They were a constant source of unrest until Brian Boru finally defeated them in 1014 at the Battle of Clontarf.

The town of Sligo has its beginnings in the Anglo/Norman occupation of Ireland when Maurice Fitzgerald built the castle of Sligo in 1239 and the Dominican Abbey was founded in 1252. The area also figures prominently in the golden age of monastic Ireland symbolised by the Tara Brooch, the Ardagh Chalice and the Book of Kells. Some of the great source books of Irish history and genealogy were compiled in the county of Sligo. Poets were established as the aristocrats of early Irish society and many, including the O'Dalys, the O'Rourkes and the O'Higgins originated in the Sligo area.

The submission of the Irish chieftains to the English throne in 1500 marked the beginning of a downward slide in the fortunes of Sligo. Insurrection and ruin marked the countryside. Sligo town - including the Dominican Abbey - was burned in 1642 by Sir Frederick Hamilton and 300 people were killed by rampaging soldiers. In the Cromwellian destruction woman and children were the main targets of genocide. Irish Catholics were forbidden to own land, the dispossessed were shipped to the Caribbean as slaves to the West Indian sugar plantations, and 63,000 acres of Sligo land were handed over to Cromwellian soldiers.


The French Revolution of 1789 fired the imagination of both Irish intellectuals and peasants. Poverty and exclusion created perfect conditions for a similar event in Ireland and this found its expression in the rise of the United Irishmen in 1798. The French, eager to export their particular brand of revolution, looked to Ireland to provide the opportunity to harass the ancient mutual English enemy. A French expeditionary force landed in Killala Bay in 1798 under the command of Major General Humbert. The subsequent events of the defeat of the British at the battle of Carrickmagat and the terrifying aftermath of the British revenge on the Irish peasantry is retold in the novel 'The Year of the French' by Thomas Keneally. A monument of Captain Teely (the Irish soldier who was aide-de-camp to Major General Humbert and who was executed by the English) overlooks the battlefield.

The Act of Union in 1800 consolidated British rule in Ireland and while poverty was widespread, the density of the population also ensured the growth of towns like Sligo. The new merchant and landlord class established the industries of brewing and distilling and the rope, linen and leather trades ensured the growth of the town's infrastructure. The port of Sligo developed rapidly and a railway arrived in the town in 1860.

Disaster struck again with cholera epidemic in 1832 causing more deaths in Sligo than anywhere else in Ireland. People were left dead in the streets and whole families were wiped out. Bram Stoker (the author of Dracula) had his macabre imagination fired by his mother, a Sligo woman, who told stories of coffin makers knocking on doors in the night looking for corpses and of victims being buried alive.

The Famine of 1847 exacerbated this situation when the potato crop failed and no other alternatives crops were made available to the starving peasantry. Again bodies lay in the streets and the emigration ships filled as the countryside emptied. Sligo became a haunted land with no children in the schools and fields that lay bare for years. A journalist at the time coined the phrase 'Sligo is no more'.


Despite these ominous predictions Sligo did make it into the twentieth century. The new resurgence in Irish nationalism and self-confidence began in 1916 with the Easter Rebellion and the rise of Sinn Fein. This found its reflection in Sligo in the persona of Countess Markievicz who, as a native of Sligo, was granted the freedom of the city in 1917. Sinn Fein, meanwhile, polled 82% of the vote in south Sligo in the 1918 General Election.

However the most famous name associated with the resurgent romantic nationalism is that of William Butler Yeats. Although he was born in Dublin it is with Sligo that Yeats is most associated. He spent his school holidays in Sligo with his grandmother and listened to her many stories of the ancient Ireland of myth and legend. Following in the Sligo tradition that preceded him, his poetry and storytelling breathed life into the stone monuments and the legendary figures of Irish mythology. He rescued Sligo from oblivion and immortalised its place names in his poetry as the Land of Heart's Desire. Names already intrinsically beautiful gained extra sparkle in the setting of a Yeats poem ' Lissadel, Glencar, Knocknarae, Ballisadare and Innisfree somehow evoke the magical essence of the place. In winning the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1923 Yeats inspired thousands of people to seek out that long hidden Ireland and popularised Sligo as a place of romance and rhyme.

Today Sligo is a prosperous town, which is sharing in the new economic growth of twenty first century Ireland. This prosperity demonstrates how an area that was once so devastated can rejuvenate and renew itself. Many are choosing to locate themselves in the area, drawn by its natural beauty and emerging opportunities. Without losing its charm or forfeiting its romantic past, Sligo is positioned to grow and develop both culturally and economically as the gateway to the north-west of Ireland.