A short history
an exhaustive history of Sligo is beyond the scope of this site, we
will try and give a brief outline. Several excellent books are also
available on the topic, which we will reference at the bottom of the
Although reference is made to the
place, Sligeach (Shelly River), as early as 537 A.D., it is
generally acknowledged that these references are to the river which
flows into Sligo Bay and the surrounding area, not the town itself.
In 1239, Lord Justice Maurice Fitzgerald invaded the Connaught
possessions of O'Donnell, chief of Tirconnell. Fitzgerald drove back
O'Donnell as far as Ballysodare, where he set up his quarters. Upon
O'Donnell's death, Fitzgerald advanced to Sligo, where he built the
Castle of Sligo in 1245.
As was usual, a town spring up
around the Castle, which continued to grow as the area was seen as a
strategic location, guarding the coastal passage between Ulster and
Connaught. A few years later, in 1253, the Abbey of Sligo was also
built by Fitzgerald, which he presented to the Dominicans, an order
that remains in Sligo to this day.
As was typical in these ancient
times, battles for land and power were regular events and in 1257,
Godfrey O'Donnell invaded and plundered Sligo, slaying many of
Fitzgerald's men. A final battle at Rosses Point saw both men
mortally wounded, Fitzgerald dying in Youghal, Co. Cork. For the next two
hundred and fifty years, Sligo became a target of feuding chieftains
and was plundered and rebuilt many times over. Finally in 1516, the
O'Donnells succeeded in recapturing the castle and the town of
Sligo. The Castle would finally be demolished by Red Hugh O'Donnell
in 1595 in order to prevent it falling into the hands of the English
and was never rebuilt.
In England, Henry the VIII had
taken the throne in 1509, and in 1534, he constituted the Church of
England, throwing off the church's allegiance to the Roman Catholic
Church. He then turned his attention to Ireland and the submission
of the Irish chieftains to the English throne. This marked the
beginning of a downward turn in Sligo's fortunes. For years,
insurrection and ruin marked the countryside.
One of the most famous historical
events of international interest in the Sligo region occurred in
1588 when three ships of the Spanish Armada, fleeing from a failed
invasion of England, were wrecked at Streedagh Strand, near Grange,
Co. Sligo. Over 1,800 men were lost with many being put to death by
English soldiers. The account of the wreckage and the ensuing
carnage have been documented by Captain Francisco De Cuellar.
Sligo town (including
the Abbey) was burned in 1642 by Sir Frederick Hamilton and 300
women and children were killed by rampaging soldiers. Following
Cromwell's invasion, 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 Cromwell's soldiers.
The French Revolution of 1789 fired the imagination of the Irish.
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 and defeated the British at the battle of
Carrickmagat. However, after his departure, the British took their
revenge on the Irish peasantry in a most brutal fashion.
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
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
Despite these ominous predictions Sligo did make it into the 20th
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 person 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 obscurity and immortalized
its place names in his poetry as the Land of Heart's Desire. In
winning the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1923 Yeats inspired
thousands of people to seek out that long hidden Ireland and
popularized Sligo as a place of romance and rhyme.
Today Sligo is a prosperous town, although it remains steeped in
history. Most of the streets of the town have remained unchanged for
centuries and were never intended for automobile traffic, a fact
that hinders the town's traffic planning. However, the construction
of a third bridge has helped alleviate some of these problems and
the town remains on course to reinvent itself yet again. The last
twenty years have seen a wealth of development in the town, much of
which was helped with the Irish government's decision to centralize
many of its functions to regional centres in the 1980's.
Since then, the booming Irish
economy and the emergence of the Celtic Tiger has done much to fuel
the area's economic growth. 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.