The morning frost heralded the low January Sun to bathe its light on the neat patchwork of fields around Coolera, County Sligo. As we climbed the ancient hill of Knocknarea, Yeats words came floating over the shrill air;
“The wind has bundled up the clouds high over Knocknarea,
And thrown the thunder on the stones for all that Maeve can say”[i]
(W.B Yeats ‘The Wanderings of Oisin’)
It must be ten years or more since I last climbed this beautiful summit – its distinctive outline bookends the southern end of Sligo Bay with the majestic Ben Bulben to the north. The pathway has been well maintained and access is comfortable even for those of us with moderate fitness.
A few steep rocky climbs near the top are the only challenging obstacles that lie before the famous Neolithic Cairn that crowns the summit finally comes into view. The Cairn is the reputed burial place of the legendary Queen Maedbh of Connaught. Indeed the landscape stretched out below is abundant in ancient portal tombs and passage graves, making this area as important to archaeology as the better known Bru na Boinne on the east coast[ii].
One cannot help but feel that you are literally tracing the footsteps of our ancestors as you approach the top. The views when you get there are spectacular. The infinite expanse of the Atlantic stretches out below, becalmed today, as it laps up gently against the shore at Strandhill. Across the entrance to Sligo Bay lies Rosses Point with its famous strand, beyond that Lisadell House, home of Countess Markievicz, and Drumcliffe graveyard where Yeats now lies in eternal peace, casting a cold eye on us all. In the distance can be seen the hills of Donegal and the mighty cliffs of Sliabh League.
Inland is the aforementioned Ben Bulben, majestically carved by glacier, wind and rain into its unique undulating face. It was in the heather atop this iconic Mountain where the mythical Diarmuid and Grainne found themsleves confronted by a wild boar. As the young warrior shielded his lover (the most beautiful woman in Ireland) he fought off the boar and after a ferocious struggle killed it with his sword. Sadly the story did not have a happy ending. The brave Diarmuid in saving his lover was alas fatally gored by the Boar and died soon after in Grainne’s arms. In the further distance lie the Dartry Hills and the peaceful glens and mountains of North Leitrim, a hill walker’s paradise.
Later we drive along the northern shore of Lough Gill and view the Lake Isle of Innisfree where Yeats intended to arise and go to:-
And a small cabin build there, of clay and wattles made;
Nine bean rows will I have there, a hive for the honey bee,
And live alone in the bee loud glade.
And I shall have some peace there, for peace comes dropping slow,
Dropping from the veils of the morning to where the cricket sings;
There midnight’s all a glimmer, and noon a purple glow,
And evening full of the linnet’s wings.
I will arise and go now, for always night and day
I hear lake water lapping with low sounds by the shore;
While I stand on the roadway, or on the pavements grey,
I hear it in the deep heart’s core.
(W.B Yeats ‘The Lake Isle of Inisfree’)
We are now into County Leitrim and our first stop is at Parkes Castle which although closed for the winter is still a worthwhile stop. The building is not really a Castle as such but a 17th Century Manor House built by the Planter Robert Parke. Its main purpose was defensive as Parke had recently acquired lands confiscated from the local Gaelic Chieftains, the O’Rourke’s, traditional rulers of the Kingdom of Breifne.
A few miles on further along this picturesque lake side road lies the neat village of Dromahaire. The town sits on the banks of the River Bonet and was the seat of the O’Rourke’s and the Franciscan Abbey at Creevlea. We drive north towards Manorhamilton before turning left on the N16 and into the valley of Glencar. A few miles on we turn off and drive down to the lake of the same name and visit Glencar Waterfall. The Discover Ireland website states “while not the highest waterfall in the area, Glencar Waterfall is generally considered the most romantic and impressive”. The enchanting waters cascading into the leafy glen also inspired the National Poet:-
“Where the wandering water gushes
From the hills above Glencar,
In pools among the rushes
That scarce could bathe a star,
We seek for slumbering trout
And whispering in their ears
Give them unquiet dreams;
Leaning softly out
From ferns that drop their tears
Over the young streams.”
(W.B Yeats ‘The Stolen Child’)
The Waterfall is easily accessed from the lakeside car park along a well maintained pathway. Also at the entrance is a charming little coffee shop called “The Teashed”. The staff were very friendly and welcoming and as coffee shops go the food here was excellent and not too pricey. The fare consists of freshly baked scones and bread, various sweet goodies, a wide choice of freshly made sandwiches, wraps, paninis, salads and hearty homemade soup. There are lots of local crafts on sale. The site has a playground – useful to rid the young ones of any pent up cabin fever. This is also the perfect spot for weary limbs to recover from hiking in the hills above. The outside tables would be a lovely place to sit out in the warmer months. [iii]
All along the lake are many places where one could have a nice picnic. We caught a lovely sunset on the lake as the weak winter sun surrendered itself for another day. We began our journey home with just a further quick pit-stop for ice cream for the younger travellers, notwithstanding it was now below freezing outside! Later on, safely home, unshod, night fallen and the fire taken hold we continued to relish in the glow of a day well spent, dipping into the ancient and majestic landscape of Sligo and North Leitrim. We have many similar day trips planned. You can check out what’s on offer in Leitrim at http://leitrimtourism.com/ and in neighbouring Sligo at http://www.sligotourism.ie/ . Go and find your “bee loud glade”, its out there somewhere waiting to be discovered.[i] https://allpoetry.com/The-Wanderings-Of-Oisin:-Book-I