Sligo Diary 1999
And my father?
William & Isabella Moore
He came from Sligo!
By Sharon Emslie Jameson
Dad was born in Sligo, Co. Sligo, in the north west corner of the Irish Republic. Sligo derives from the Gaelic Sligeach meaning shells, and is surrounded by Knocknarea, the Ben Bulben Mountains and the Ox Mountains. Street signs are written in both English and Gaelic. The old streets are narrow and now crowded with ever increasing numbers of cars. They were obviously not designed to handle such traffic and one can easily imagine a horse and cart, or more likely someone pulling a hand cart as my Grandfather did in the 1930ís and 40ís, as the main mode of transportation. On the pavements only two can walk abreast comfortably. During the midday traffic the place is a hive of activity. The houses are small and mainly terraced. My fatherís birthplace was only one block away from the main business area. Here he lived with his six brothers and sisters, his parents and his grandmother. According to my cousins who still live there, they would have been more well off than most of the folks at that time. This I found daunting as, to me, they did not seem to have much at all! This was my first trip to Sligo, I had only known my father a short time, he died when I was 17. I donít really recall him speaking very much of his homeland and so had no oral history to go on when I began my research into my Irish ancestry. This trip was a combination of trying to discover the essence of my father and of his family and also of trying to extend the small branches I had already located on this side of the tree. I recorded a journal each day to keep the memory of my trip alive. These are some excerpts.
First Impressions of Sligo
Sleeping WarriorI remember the emotion that overtook me as the plane left Dublin airport. I was going to Dadís hometown and the tears welled in my eyes. The plane was only a small one. I looked around at my travelling companions and saw one elderly passenger whom I thought typical of what one would expect to see in an Irish gentleman. He was not very tall, of slim build and wore a cap pulled down over this brow. He had on a tweed jacket and corduroy pants. His hair was white, as was his beard, and his eyebrows were so bushy they grew down past his eyes, in fact they almost met his beard! In no time at all we were landing, the trip had only taken about half an hour. I peered out the window for my first glance of Sligo. The plane made its descent from over the ocean. Below the waves appeared as hills on a landscape, except each one had a white crest as the wind whipped foam from the top. Suddenly the plane banked and there was Sligo, just as I imagined it - rugged, wild, remote. The landforms on the horizon were barely visible through the mist and waves crashed against rocky cliffs and over stony beaches below. The runway at Strandhill, the nearest airport to Sligo, was right alongside the beach. As the plane came to an abrupt halt I looked out the window and there was a ruin of a small church, just the walls left standing now, and around it were scattered half a dozen gravestones. Perfect!A huge stone monolith stands behind the airport and Strandhill. It is Knocknarea, knock meaning hill and Rea meaning King or Queen, the Queenís Hill. On the top of the mountain appears a small bump. This is a stone cairn, the megalithic tomb of Queen Maeve. The feeling of actually being in Sligo was just wonderful!
KnocknareaThe drive to Knocknarea was peaceful in the early morning. The almost deserted roads meandered through small country lanes lined with high hedges that were kept trimmed by the passing traffic. The incline is almost imperceptible, yet when I looked back the view extended for miles out over the emerald green pasturelands neatly divided by irregular stone fences. Small villages of cream coloured houses gathered around the church, its spire standing erect amongst them. There is a parking area about half way up the mountain. After this the journey is by foot. The pathway to the summit is rocky and rivulets of water from recent rain were running through tiny gullies that made it a little treacherous under foot. The track is bounded on each side by stone fences fringed with tall grasses. An occasional bluebell grows amongst the grass and just beyond the fence cows grazed contentedly. The climb is steady at first but then flattens out a little - I was pleased, as I needed to catch my breath. About half way up was a turnstile, which had a private property sign beside it. Beyond this the climb grew even steeper. There are the remains of a cottage set in against the hill, just one back wall complete and the two sidewalls disappearing into the grass in front. The view is spectacular, out over the Sligo valley, the green pastures, pine forests here and there, Sligo Harbour on one side and Ballysadare Bay on the other. Hills and mountains further in the distance appeared in different shades of greens and blues, depending on where the sun was shining at the time. There was heather growing on the side of the mountain also - I did not realise that heather grew in Ireland!
Lough GillFrom Carrowroe we drove out around Lough Gill, home of Yeatís famous Isle of Innisfree. The route is lined with signs indicating that one is in Yeats country. The road takes you directly through the Ox Mountains. Up close they are truly unique, the vegetation is sparse, just some grasses and heather, but they are literally covered with big white boulders, from a distance giving the impression they are patches of snow. They would certainly have been volcanic in nature as they are very rounded on the top. I would say this whole area has seen volcanic activity as the rock stratas are visible in a few places and it is very easy to see evidence of past movements within the earth. I was reminded of a series I saw called Written in Stone where it traced the history of Ireland when it was undergoing metamorphic and structural changes resulting from volcanic activity.The countryside is rural. Pastures are a vibrant green with little cottages dotted about here and there, painted in the now familiar tones of cream and yellow. Occasionally the roof of a cottage is thatched. Some thatch looks older, as if it has been like that for years. On other it appears fresh and new, as if the present owner is trying to maintain a traditional theme. Among them are the ruins of other cottages marking the passing of previous generations. The trees are wide and spreading, I donít know what species, but certainly deciduous. They create canopies over the road that go for miles. Small shafts of sunlight shine through the leaves painting patterns on the road below. Sometimes it was so shady under the boughs that it was almost like night. Near the Lough we crossed a small wooden bridge. It spanned a shallow stream that bubbled its way over a bed of smooth brown pebbles. A lonely graveyard was set high on the hill. As I walked around I could actually feel the tranquility that was there. Although the grass had recently been cut one still had to tread carefully. Pieces of rock and stone lie hidden and most of the graves had a border around them. A ruined church is encircled by the graveyard, miles away from anywhere. I looked on the map to see what town it served but there are just a couple of little villages here and there. I suppose it was just for the surrounding countryside in general. The gravestones are worn, so many were hard to read. This did not matter though, I loved roaming around and wondering what life would have been like for the people who lived there. One particular grave comprised a raised platform and beneath was a pile of stones. Could this be a cairn of some description? I will never know as the inscription on the stone has long gone.I touched the walls of that church; they were made from hundreds of tightly compacted stones. Some still remain the same - you cannot see what is holding them together. In other areas just the slightest touch brings the stones tumbling down. How old was this church? The graves appeared more recent, the last hundred years at least. Somewhere in that ground would have been graves that had long since lost their markers - all that history and now no one will ever know. Have some of those now sleeping there been through the hardship and suffering of the Famine years? If so, I hoped that at sometime in their lives there would have been happiness also.Further down the road was a tiny thatched hut, originally used for storing turf. There was evidence of turf cutting in the fields. The soil was black and nearby was a Fairy Fort, Could this have been an ancient burial mound? Another grave from another era - makes you realise how old Ireland really is!The waters of Lough Gill appeared pale, not quite grey and yet not quite blue, the sky overhead was cloudy and reflected in the water below. To the left was the Isle of Innisfree, just a small island, not far from the bank and covered in trees. It brought back memories of the Irish songs that used to play in our house on Sunday mornings. Across the waters of the lake, Parkes Castle stands on the shore and on the horizon is the Sleeping Warrior. He is formed by the hills in the distance; one forms his head, another his body, a longer flat one his legs and finally a bigger one for his feet. A band of lighter coloured stone appears as a waistband around his middle. He looks so serene, lying there, asleep for thousands of years. A cool wind was blowing; it created little ripples across the lake as it caught the surface of the water. A lone fisher boat slowly made its way from one side to the other, its wake forming a trail behind.Another little lake, Little Glencar Loch, was tucked away further up the road. From the viewing point it seemed tiny, encircled by green where the trees grew to the waterís edge or yellow where small bands of sand lay. The pastures stretched up the side of the hills surrounding the lake and once again little houses were perched among the hedges and groves of trees on the hillside. A small cemetery far below stood beside the waterís edge, but there was no evidence of a church or town nearby.
Rosses PointRosses Point is directly opposite Sligo Bay from Strandhill. It is truly picturesque; the bay sweeps around in a wide flat arch, the view extends for miles. The tide was going out and small waves were breaking on the creamy sands. A lone swimmer waded out into the water. Beyond, high mountains tapered off to small hills the further back you looked. The mountains were shrouded in a blanket of mist. Lighthouses stood at strategic points along the Bay. People were walking along the track that meandered by the waterís edge and past the local yacht club. Up on the hill, well maybe just a high dune, covered in grass, was the ruin of an old house. It felt good to be by myself, walking through the grass, the wind blowing gently across the bay. A small boat was making its way ashore, white wash trailing behind. Gulls flew overhead and settled on the stony beach. In the distance was a row a fishermenís cottages, a contrast of the present and the past. I walked towards the ruin on the hill.Thoughts crossed my mind about what it would have been like to live there, the only house around the area, so different from today as it looked to be a trendy area for tourists. Winter would have been desolate, strong winds blowing in from the sea, whipping up the spray from the water, possibly a dusting of snow covering the ground.All that is left standing are the walls; the roof is long gone. Ivy hung from of the back wall. Another crumbling wall surrounded a single side window. The wall overlooking the ocean has two small porthole windows. Could this have been a place to keep watch at some time? Did their size reflect an effort on the part of the builder to keep the weather out? The door is at the back, perhaps sheltered from the winds and the rain. I walked round the walls and through the doorway, stepping into the past. There is a marked difference in the two types of stonework; the older type is rougher and more random in shape in contrast with the regular size, shape and colour of the newer ones. Someone had repaired the cottage at one time, adding the round windows at the back and a newer doorway. An old window beside the door had been bricked up also. A fireplace was positioned against the back wall, now only stones and blackberry bushes spill from it. In times past it would likely have been the only source of warmth for those who lived there. Who did live there? It was so small, maybe ten feet by eight. Here, one or more persons, would have eaten, slept and lived their lives. Was the place deserted because it was no longer needed? Did someone live here who was affected by the Great Famine and either died of starvation or perhaps emigrated to another country in the hope of a better life? I will never know.
Hazel WoodHazel Wood was incredibly beautiful just by its simplicity. The trees are just so green and so tall; the branches and leaves formed a canopy overhead that allowed very little daylight to penetrate. In places one needed to use headlights as it was so dark. There were vines and ferns growing underneath the trees and more vines encircling the tree trunks, giving the appearance of being in another world. Someone had placed wooden carvings here and there. At the entrance is a fisherman, his rod is missing now and closer to the picnic area is a monk, green with moss, stooping to look to the ground, as if in search of something.The picnic area lies beside the lake. The emerald green grass grows up to the edge of a small stone beach, a few stones stretch out further into the water. There, ducks sat contentedly on the stones while others kept four swans company a little further out. There is an air of serenity about Hazel Wood, one could sit for hours and just admire the view out over the water to the hills beyond.My experiences in Sligo went far beyond that of a tourist. Yes, I saw beautiful Sligo Bay, climbed Knocknarea, drove through Yeats country and around Lough Gill, but it felt also that my father accompanied me on this journey. The bond that appeared to have been lost in the years since his death was resurrected, and in my mind he was very much alive. Cousins I did not know existed twelve months previously, greeted me at the airport, made me welcome in their homes and took me to places that had special meaning. They gave character and personalities to a family who, for me, had only ever existed on a pedigree chart. As the plane banked over Sligo for one last time, I knew that this was where my Irish roots lay and I managed in some small way to bring them to life.contributor:
Sharon Emslie Jameson