“The land of fairy, where nobody gets old and godly and grave, where nobody gets old and crafty and wise, where nobody gets old and bitter of tongue…”
Maybe W.B. Yeats was writing about this magical fairy glen, hidden from sight under majestic Knocknarea mountain, where raindrops gather on early holly and the beardy spagnum moss clings to ancient crumbing wall and weeps eternal tears. The gate is broken so hold your breath and sneak in around the knobbled old tree, ducking and diving through the overgrowth overhead along the pocked and mucky path less followed. The dense green thicket disguises any noise from the road down here and the recent rain runs in rushing rivlets past your feet, wear good boots, you’ll be very glad you did. We, very stupidly, had little choice that day.
County Sligo is not the birthplace of my favourite poet W.B. Yeats but it is the original birthplace of campervanning in Ireland and it remains van-busy to this day. All along the shelly coast (for Sligo means Shelly Place) you’ll find vans of all shapes and sizes, old and new, adorned with decals and stickers and decorated inside with knitted woolen blankets and soft throws and strings of colourful handmade bunting. With surfboards and kayaks and paddleboards strapped tight to poptop roofs, these vans are filled with brave surfer souls, ready to hit the world famous west Irish coast waves. Apparantly the swell is Sligo is most consistent of anywhere in Europe, the conditions perfect to practise the sport and the longer the beach the greater the swell hence places like Inniscrone, Easkey, Strandhill, Mullaghmore and Streedagh have become synonymous with surf. We’re not surfers (yet) but we definitly admire their fearlessness, having wasted hours of our lives sitting back on the vanbed and watching through the windows as seal slick surfers on brightly coloured floats roadeo ride the wild waves, slipping in and out of view, tossed like flotsam into the foam and rising and falling, rising and falling, always going back in for more.
Every year we make the pilgrimage to Sligo to complete Dixies roadworthiness test. Called a CRT for a car, DoE for a van, the equivalent here in Ireland of a UK MOT. Sligo is about 2 hours 45 mins from our little house by the sea in County Mayo. Why drive past two other DoE centres to get to this one? Lots of reasons really. It seems to be some kind of tradition now, an assumption, that’s just where we go. Sligo is a great day out and we always have good craic there, walking the banks of the winding Garavogue, Ireland’s shortest river which feeds from Lough Gill just two miles away and like a rushing grey ribbon splits the town in two. I love the packed racks of Sligos charity shops, the many and varied veggie friendly cafes and the bright street art on every corner. The girl at the counter in the DoE centre is very friendly, she remembered us and welcomed us back warmly, that’s reason enough to return to any business we believe. There are tea and coffee making facilities in the waiting room, plugs for our use during the 45 minute wait and the centre itself is nestled into the side of an incredibly beautiful mountain. More importantly, the mechanics and testers there have proven themselves quite professional at breaking bad news to unfortunate failures like us. I wonder are mechanics trained to deliver devestating terminal diagnoses to poor drivers, “I’m so sorry Mr Duffy, but it appears the engine/exhaust/entire van has siezed/is missing/is on fire. You’d better prepare yourself for the fact that Dixie might not make it through the night”. Maybe they read Yeats, and thread softly, knowing they thread on our dreams.
That big white building? That’s the test centre, as seen from the top of Knocknarea mountain. I told you it was a beautiful place. We highly recommend you take that way-marked climb to the top of Knocknarea but first, back to the magical fairy glen. Although parking and signage are non-existent, The Glen is well-known locally, however, when we visited on a crispy cold October morning we had the strange and wonderful place all to ourselves. The walls were wet with moss and we skipped and hopped as lightly as possible from fallen broken branches to stone islands floating in the muck, desperate to save the only pairs of footwear we had brought with us. Thats a foolish mistake to make, hiking around in autumnal Ireland, to forget to pack more shoes. In a messy little clearing, several trees had grown up woven together, their trunks intertwined at impossible angles. Sunlight streamed in slivers through the leaves overhead and lit up the perfectly peaceful scene.
Things have changed significantly in The Backwards Van since we bought our home. Having a base to leave our stuff in makes vanning so much easier and Dixie feels lighter, more organised and even spacious now that we are not carrying every single item we own around. No more packing up extra bedsheets and bulky blankets and storing snow boots in June, no more tripping over things we rarely (or never) need to get to what we do. But on the downside, it means we are now part-time van dwellers, weekend warriors, we trip off for a few days or and return to catch our breaths and do our washing. It is not the same as living on the road, not at all, the sense of constant movement, the unknown adventure, the unsure future. Now we plot and plan our journeys from the comfort of our kitchen table, we take only what we need (sometimes less than we need, in this case our footwear) and every adventure has an end date, we know when we must return, when the plants in the house (and the plants in the garden) need to be watered.
County Sligo, in our opinion, has some of the best sunsets in Ireland. On Strandhill, keen photographers in heavy weatherproof coats pointing heavy weatherproof cameras line up alongside excited tourists with their snapping cameraphones to capture stunning images of the sun slipping from the Sligo sky and sliding into the sea. Strandhill Promenade is a very busy spot for dogwalkers, exercisers and wave watchers alike. For us, less people-y parkups are ultimately preferred and just five minutes down the coast is the golden Culleenamore Strand, an absolute favourite place of ours in any kind of weather. Sun, sea, sky and, but for the whispering waves licking the shore lightly at our door, silence.
As we were in Yeats Country, (he visited Sligo from Dublin at an early age) we couldn’t drive through pretty Drumcliffe village without stopping to pay our respects to the man himself at his rather humble graveside. Yeats died in France in 1939 and wasn’t always buried here, not until 1948 in fact, an interesting story which saw the war get in the way of his repatriation. His self penned epitaph, etched on smooth grey stone reads “Cast a cold eye on death, on life, Horsemen pass by”. What a lovely view of Benbulben mountain which he requested as a final place to rest his bones. If they even are his bones…
You’ll find Yeats lyrical lines graffitied all over Sligo, adding colour to the slate grey walls and a uniqueness to the city centre. Statues, signposts, posters and plaques sell the story of Sligos literary first son and where his inspiration lay, all around this shelly place. On Hyde Bridge, The Yeats Building and nearby Sligo County Museum are free to spend some time in and contain volumes of interest from the whole Yeats family, generations of stories, sketches, paintings, letters, scribbles and scrawls. We spoke to the staff and volunteers in both places at length and learned of the rich and interesting history of the Sligo sufragette Constance Markeivicz, Yeats unwavering loyalty to his soulmate Maud Gonne whom he persued for 28 years, his work founding the Abbey Theatre, his time served as senator and so much more. Jack Yeats, W.B.s brother, won Ireland’s first ever Olympic medal, a silver for one of his paintings called The Liffey Swim in the 1924 Paris Olympics. Back then, art inspired by sport was an Olympic category in itself! That’s cool, we agree it should be brought back.
After a noisy night spent by the sea in Raghly, with the wild grey Atlantic knocking on our windows and rattling our vents, we sought out the sanctity of a forest for a change and a long walk through some trees. Our little house in Erris is on a thin sandy peninsula so wave-whipped and wind burned there are no trees for many miles and we both agreed on the drive up here that we missed the woods. Native Irish woodlands are truly mystical places. The sudden temperature drop as we step into a forest still makes me hold my breath, the smell is something else, something ancient, something mouldy and smothing new too, growth, decay and every stage in between. The calm and constant drip drip drip all around as unseen droplets bound from somewhere on high to crash to the brown leafcarpet ground, the strange humidity under the canopy, regardless of the weather or the season or even the time of day, the unmistakably thick and jungley air. Gortnarowey Recreational Park at the base of Benbulben is a great stop (and overnighter) and in spite of the cloudy grey skies threatening us from above, we embarked upon a late afternoon walk around the misty mountain.
Forgetting things is an issue we didn’t have when we lived in Dixie. Whatever we owned was right there somewhere. On a quick trip to Galway recently we neglected to take the tray we always use in bed and that was sorely missed, I lost count of how many cups of coffee were sacrificed to the blankets that weekend. Bedsheets can be difficult to deal with when you live in a van, carry a spare for sure but sometimes with 3 or 4 weeks between laundry stops and the potential for a nice hot meal being accidentally dumped into your duvet so high, these disasters are bound to happen. Now we don’t carry spare sheets, we don’t have to, if things ever go that bad we can always drive home.
We took the middle route around Gortnarowey which led first through thick canopy and then out across wide golden open fields and about halfway around the rain decided to join us, heavier mist at first, settling on our heads and hoods and we laughed and quickened our pace but soon the clouds were spitting straight down and by the time we got back to Dixie we were well and truly drenched, boots and all.
Sligo is full of fascinating natural sites like ancient stones, dolmens and megaliths, including Carrowmore, a massive complex filled with more than 50 Iron Age sites and tombs. We have not explored there yet, like Ladies Brae, the caves at Keshcorran and the Coleman Music Centre, we have to save some of Sligo for Dixies next test next year and the inevitable random one night stop offs in between. This lovely limestone formation below is called Eagles Rock. (I have since learned Eagles Rock is technically in County Leitrim but I’m willing to ignore the boundary line it straddles if you are) Ireland’s tallest freestanding tower at 330m, the rock has only ever been scaled twice. In the designated car park there is just one spot level enough for sleeping and William found it so we settled in to have some dinner and read about the history of neighbouring Glenade and the Darty Mountains. There is a network of almost inaccessible caves under these mountains in which bones of brown bear and their cubs were found, dating back to 2000BC. Imagine an Ireland inhabited by bears! We spent a very quiet evening, completely undisturbed beside the great rock, and I had a long cosy dream I was hibernating with a host of furry, snoring bearcubs, I did not want to wake up.
In the morning we set off for another hike, damp boots and all. Dixie struggled a little up the steep hill but was rewarded for her hard work with a large, flat gravel carpark halfway up Knocknarea mountain in which to rest awhile while we climbed to the mound on top, Queen Medbs Cairn. A brisk and windy day to be climbing anything, onwards and upwards we forged nonetheless on the wellbeaten scree path, carved out by thousands of footsteps over thousands of years ascending to this ancient site. According to mythology, Queen Medb was once queen of Connacht, she was supposedly the inspiration for Shakespeares fairy queen Mab and best known for starting the Cattle Raid of Cooley in the epic Tain Bo Cuailnge. The mound is an impressive 10 metres high and 55 metres wide. Archaelogists date the site to about 3,000 BC and note the ‘middens’ (stones and rock arrangements) scattered around as evidence the site was well used. The guidebooks call this hike ‘easy’ and I honestly can’t understand how, it was steep and slippery and I fell upwards more than once, scrambling amongst stones and battling with the fierce wind to keep myself upright. I’m not particularly out of shape but I am quite small and many times I clung onto Williams coat to stop myself blowing away, it felt like some epic battle of me versus the mountain wind, all the way up the hillside. As soon as we set foot on the sprawling summit surrounding the mound the wild wind dropped, the clouds parted and we were treated to some incredible panoramas of the county from some 327 metres above the sea, well worth my trials. They say Queen Medb is buried here, upright, facing her enemies in Ulster. Other warriors may be in there too. It is considered very bad luck to move a stone from the mound or to rearrange them, not that that stops those awful balancing stone stacks from appearing, what a blight on the many ancient landscapes we have visited they are. We kicked them over as we passed, returning the stones to their piles, and walked on, there are many other stone sites to see up here and a few alternative routes (those all looked not so steep) back down again. After an hour or so of wandering, the blue skies began to darken and we retraced our steps, slower now in our wobbly descent, the wind always at our backs, relentlessly pushing us away from the tomb and down down down to the ever-waiting Dixie.
Queen Medb, the proud Irish warriorwoman, died after being hit between the eyes with a piece of cheese fired from a slingshot across a lake. What a way for a fierce warrior to die. William prepared cheesey veggie burgers in the carpark while I soaked my wrinkly feet and we ate, sitting side by side on the step while darkness fell on the city like a blanket and the lights of Sligo blinked and flickered and twinkled on, one by one.
I’m not really interested in surfing, I’d rather watch from somewhere warm and dry and maybe write about it. William decided he’d like to try. To get up on a surfboard before he turns 50 in May, to take a few lessons and see if he enjoys riding the waves. He could surf closer to home in Mayo too. We will look at surf schools for beginners and plan something so his birthday might be a fun one spent on the water! How could we NOT chose Sligo for that adventure?
Enniscrone, pictured below, is home to some amazing seaweed baths we were lucky enough to try out a few years back and can highly recommend. A lovely seaside town with all the facilities vanners need, even a cool family leisure centre with a waterslide. What I like about the pool is the changing village, we are not segregated and can share the shower which is important when you share shampoo and almost everything else for that matter. There is flat parking by the beach which is mostly empty at night in our experience, save for a handful of stalwarth vanners, waiting quietly for the sun to rise to board their boards and head off to the horizon.
Sligo is packed with incredible (and free) park ups, just check out our map below. From Pollacheeny Harbour (lots of stones and almost no shelter), Tra Bhui (with sand as golden yellow as the name suggests), Dunmoran Strand (a great flat carpark overlooking the waves) to Hawks Rock (deep in the forest, no internet signal), Hazelwood Forest (some lad banged on our van at midnight here and he happened to guess correctly exactly where my head was resting at the time and I jumped a mile but otherwise it is a lovely spot), we also slept opposite the rowing club, and on a slipway in Lough Gill, and at Rosses Point and by the ancient cemetery in Carrowkeel. There is not enough time in the day to tell you about them all, you’ll just have to go to Sligo and see the surf for yourself.
Back in the magic fairy glen, scraps of cloth, ribbons and rosary beads flutter from a low hanging branch. 65,000 people call Sligo home and so far that day we had met none. Such solitude so near a big town is priceless. Sligo tourism use the tagline “let your spirit free” and down here below the road, hidden under auburn leaves, it somehow seems right.
Yeats wanted his body buried in France. He left instruction to wait until the furore died down and secretly repatriate his bones to Sligo. As I mentioned, a world war put his post humous plans on hold and it was almost 10 years before he lay in Irish soil. Years later, a rumour circulated that the bones at Drumcliffe were not Yeats after all, rather those of an Englishman, and doubt remains to this day. If Yeats bones are still in France I think it matters not. He has stamped his words all over this county, from the Lake Isle of Innishfree to Under Benbulben and the whole county is his shrine, no bones necessary. Not bad for a man who never even lived in Sligo.
We came to learn in timely fashion that surfing is making its debut in the 2020 Olympics. We will take that instead of Jack B.s “Art Inspired By Sports” category and the more we read, the more we like Irelands chances in this cool competitive sport. We have several world class surfers like Gearoid McDaid and Kerry Larkin, both who hail from Sligo and world champion Easkey Britton, a Donegal native named after the famous surf spot to represent us. It might be a little late for William to pick up an Olympic medal, but he can start by picking up the basics.
Unsurprisingly, for all the fun we had in Sligo, Dixie failed her test. No major defects, nothing fatal, just a couple of niggling little fixes and none financially devastating either. The softly spoken mechanic let us down gently and professionally, as predicted, and we sighed, paid the bill and patted the old van tenderly on her head, as you would a beloved and elderly dog. Another appointment was arranged for two weeks later, we bid our goodbyes and hit the road home, despondant and sad.
Our route home took us back through the bog. Driving in silence, lost in our own thoughts, Dixie chugging along as usual, the autumn sun was setting early behind the Ox Mountains and throwing up a magical pinkish purple colour into the air. Around one bad bog corner Lough Easkey appeared, wide and still and calm, reflecting the sunset upwards like a mirror. William, driving in still damp boots, pulled the van close to the shore and took the keys to hang on the hook. We were not even halfway home but we couldn’t ignore this scene. Not a single car passed us on the road and the stars seem to explode to life in the inky fabric of the sky as we drank our tea and watched the night and decided to stay one more. There is no signal at Lough Easkey, for phone or internet, there are no lights visible in the whole black valley, just us and the stars and the still silent lake. No problem with Dixie that can’t be solved we agreed, pulling the doors closed and tucking ourselves in, and our boots will dry eventually. And weren’t we glad now that we saved some of stunning Sligo for next time!