sligo riverside

“If I ventured in the slipstream / Between the viaducts of your dream / Where immobile steel rims crack / And the ditch in the back roads stop / Could you find me?”

Van Morrison growls the opening lines of Astral Weeks as I drive along Ireland’s N17 road to County Sligo, past sleepy villages and “gardens all misty wet with rain”. His lyrics seem to capture the nature of a place that borders two worlds; a landscape that mirrors our own human impermanence.

Most of us carry within our hearts a list of places to visit. And my list has always begun with Ireland, a country that projects a wealth of familiar imagery. The brand is cherished and worn – deeply etched in a looping Celtic font – and evokes stunning panoramas, ancient myths and legends, music and wild dancing. It promises a rough-and-ready Aran jumper of an experience – knitted together with a horse and cart clip-clopping past green fields and chalk-white cottages, a Clancy Brothers album playing as the soundtrack to a lunch of oysters and Guinness.

But as much as Ireland projects a familiar image, it is also a place you need to discover for yourself. W.B. Yeats, the Nobel Prize-winning Irish poet, and one of most important figures in 20th-century world literature, found his spiritual home in County Sligo on the west coast. His love for the area stemmed from his childhood holidays, which imprinted enduring images that inspired his most famous works, from the enfolding peace of Lough Gill and the cascading rush of water at Glencar Waterfall in neighbouring County Leitrim to the view across to Knocknarea Mountain in the evening light from the lawn at Lissadell House. And in Sligo’s rambling, grandiose mansions, half-lost in the ancient walled demesnes that still survive in their hundreds today, Yeats located tensions between states of being. In these supernatural “in-between states”, morning dew is neither rain nor seawater, the sacred mistletoe is neither a plant nor a tree, the sidhe (the mythical fairies said to rule Ireland) are neither dead nor alive, but inhabit an ancient dream state. Because I believe in magic – in old ghost stories and fairy tales – I decided to follow in the footsteps of Yeats, and set out on a journey to County Sligo with the aim of making this mystical land my own.

A soft drizzle accompanied me out of Knock airport, and as dusk fell I arrived at the Riverside Hotel, a modern, comfortable abode overlooking the Garavogue River and its five resident swans. After a dinner of fresh mussels and oysters in the hotel’s charming pub, warmed by a pot-belly stove, general manager Joe Grogan settled down next to me. Musicians struck up a traditional song as Joe told me about the nearby glen on the southwestern side of Knocknarea Mountain, a place so magical that if you were ever to chance upon fairies in Ireland, it would almost certainly be here. He also recounted the legend of the warrior Diarmuid and the princess Gráinne (Ireland’s answer to Arthur and Guinevere) who galloped across Benbulben (Ireland’s answer to Table Mountain) before fighting an enchanted boar. After more talk of extraordinary people and places, and after a fifth tray of Irish whiskies – from vintage Midletons to Jamesons, and even the artisan label Green Spot – I too felt like I was inhabiting a different realm.

I woke up to a steaming cup of Barry’s Tea and the first mist of the season. As it sheathed the lake in a golden haze, there couldn’t have been a more perfect time for a boat trip across Lough Gill, a lake that is home to a cluster of islands, including one made famous by Yeats in his poem, The Lake Isle of Innisfree. After reading his words, I wanted to experience the poetry of this mythical spot for myself.

“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.”

The stillness of the lake moved me in a way I didn’t expect, but it was tiny miracles that stopped me in my tracks: slugs crawling with small majesty through the reeds; spangled blossoms sprouting from tumbling stacked walls; thick tussocks of grass, in an emerald shade that I had never before encountered. And when the rain came in, I scrambled across the slippery stones on the lake’s southern shore with the water lapping at my boots. I took shelter in Cullentra Wood, where Joe from the Riverside Hotel lit a gas stove and rustled up a lunch of mussels steamed in white wine and Irish cream, complete with hunks of still-warm soda bread.

The rain began to subside as I drove through the pretty village of Dromahair over the county border, where the sight of a double rainbow greeted me at the ruins of Creevelea Abbey. I drove further, past brightly painted cottages with mossy slate roofs that dotted the winding country lanes, until I arrived at Lissadell House back in Sligo. Yeats spent a lot of time at this Georgian manor as a young man, and it looked like something out of a fairy tale – hidden behind sheets of ivy, its gardens covered in mist. As I entered the house as part of one of their hourly tours, I glimpsed a crackling hearth and listened to the stories of the revolutionary sisters Constance and Eva Gore-Booth. There were books, Joshua Reynolds paintings and oddments scattered about – collections of silver cigar cases, stuffed birds and precious porcelain (even a stuffed bear in the stately dining room). I left the house from the servants’ entrance, and followed the underground walkway to the walled garden that dropped down to the sea.

I imagined the Gore-Booth sisters riding through rolling hills, purple mountains and the moss and fern-clad ruins of the Wild Atlantic Way. I decided that the only way to really connect with this beautiful and remote landscape would be on horseback, so I ventured north along the coast to Island View Stables. I was soon galloping across the sand dunes and alongside lagoons, speeding past the castle of Classiebawn, which sits on top of the rocky peninsula of Mullaghmore, where the hidden coves are named after a local mermaid who is said to haunt the waters. The scenery was more rugged there; dramatic rock formations studded the coast, carved out over eons by the beating waves. I followed the coast down to Strandhill, where you look out at the ocean towards the promise of America.

But the real highlight of the area was Voya, a beachside centre dedicated to the detoxifying ritual of seaweed bathing. Here in a candlelit spa, 12 old-fashioned roll-top baths were filled with steaming water and a mixture of bladderwrack, tangleweed and sea spaghetti weeds. The algae secreted an aloe vera-like gel in the heat, and I splashed in the peaty brown water for over an hour. I plunged my head under, and thought this was the closest I’d ever get to meeting a mermaid.

“Faeries, come take me out of this dull world, For I would ride with you upon the wind, Run on the top of the dishevelled tide, And dance upon the mountains like a flame.”

From the seaweed of dishevelled tides to a mountain top, I kept Yeats’ words from The Land of Heart’s Desire in my mind as I climbed up the slopes of Benbulben. In fact, the romanticism of the poem was the only thing that kept me going. After three hours of uphill hiking, my walking boots had begun to feel like concrete, and I wondered what on earth I was doing on the edge of this enormous structure suspended in the sky. I stopped in a tiny cave near the top, pausing for a brioche and a Thermos full of tea, as my London lungs couldn’t take any more fresh air (or the altitude). I climbed the final part of the sheep’s path up to the mountain’s 1,700ft-high summit, and felt as though I’d reached the top of the world. Here, some of the freshest air in western Europe swirls with fast-moving clouds, sun showers and rainbows dancing in the sky. My guide, William, from North West Adventure, told me about his company’s nighttime hikes, where you can camp under the stars to see the constellations of Lyra and Cygnus, clear in the unpolluted sky. They say the land is so cavernous here that it is like the womb of Ireland; that you can almost feel the heart of the earth beating.

Leaving Sligo town, I found a shop opposite the Yeats museum called Angel World. Inside this New Age haven I found a collection of Catholic saints’ medallions, smudge sticks to keep evil spirits away, fairy statues, wishing jars, trays of blessed stones and a collection of Celtic jewellery. Among the incense sticks and tarot cards, I found a Claddagh ring, an exact replica of one that I had been given by a distant Irish relative many years ago, which I’d lost and for which I’d been pining ever since. My original ring displayed two hands clasping an emerald heart surmounted by a crown, and I’d looked for many years for a replacement with an emerald, but never got lucky.

Perhaps I’d become overly superstitious during my time in Sligo, but chancing upon one here felt like a sign: I couldn’t leave Ireland without it. I bought the ring and slid it onto my right-hand ring finger with the top of the heart facing inwards, for when a Claddagh ring is worn towards the wearer’s body it signifies that a person’s heart has been captured. And in that moment I felt that mine had been lost to the Emerald Isle.

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