Soaring birds of prey, fallen angels, cosy snugs and tumbling waterfalls are just some of the magical discoveries of Sligo, says Pól Ó Conghaile. Photography by Ronan Lang
The avian encounter
Standing in a field in Sligo, I watch a dark blob approach from the horizon. The blob heads directly for me and, as it gets closer, I can make out the wings, and, ultimately, the black eyes of a whopping white-tailed eagle. It passes close enough to give me a haircut.
The raptor's name is Lynda, and she's one of several on show at Eagles Flying, Ireland's largest birds of prey centre (€9/€5.50). "She could take the nose out of your face," says its director, Lothar Muschketat, (pictured above with Lynda) fixing a lamb's heart to a leather lure. "But why should she?" Demonstrations here aim to educate. As Himalayan vultures, hawks and a stunning, amber-eyed owl glide around us (a Saker falcon even lands on my bare arm), I get a feel for the power of these birds and the powerful myths that surround them. They really are awesome creatures.
Details: Ballymote, Co Sligo. Tel: 071 918 9310; eaglesflying.com.
Last chance to see
Arriving at Sligo's Model gallery, I find a scene cordoned off with police tape. A large figure lies on the ground, covered in a blue cloak. One of its knees is bent; one of its wings broken.
It's an art installation, of course: 'The Fallen Angel' is the centrepiece of 'Angelology' by Ilya and Emilia Kabakov. Securing this exhibition is a real coup for the north west -- the visual arts equivalent of enticing Leonard Cohen to sing at Lissadell.
Imagine a large-scale made-and-do with paintings, installations and sculptures all probing our imaginative relationships with angels. I particularly like the telescope pointing out a window -- look through it and you'll see a group of angels huddled inside a building across the street.
Details: Runs to Jan 16. The Mall. Tel: 071 914 1405; themodel.ie.
The pre-theatre meal
You know there's an economic correction in full swing when you can eat three courses cooked by Conrad Gallagher for €23.95. The venue? Conrad's Kitchen in Sligo town, the controversial chef's new (and very much under the radar) opening at the Model gallery.
I start my pre-theatre treat with a Caesar salad doused in 80-day-aged dressing. It comes as a massive portion of baby cos, quail eggs, Parmesan and confit tomatoes, and the dressing delivers a spicy kick several seconds after the creamy, garlicky intro. For dinner, a daube of beef falls apart at the flick of a fork, and a pert mix of vegetables is softened with parsley Hollandaise and celeriac purée.
The restaurant is built into the original Model schoolrooms, and though its gastro/gallery shtick smacks a bit of the Celtic Tiger, the prices and service are very much here and now. When I leave my coffee lingering a little too long, the waiter offers to replace it with a fresh cup.
Details: The Mall. Tel: 071 911 9401; conradskitchen.com.
The fiddler's forest
Sligo and Leitrim were a keen influence on Yeats; this I know. What surprises me is just how much of the landscape evoked in his poetry survives today.
Take Dooney Rock Forest Park, which features in 'The Fiddler of Dooney'. Driving along the R287 towards Ballintogher, I pull in at the car park here, clamber over a ditch and, within seconds, am standing in a magical little woodland bowl. It's early morning, ducks are sleeping among the reeds of Lough Gill, and the rock itself is plonked like a meteorite in the middle of everything. The 1.2km trail winding through the woods is an easy one for all ages, and the reward is a view from Dooney Rock that stretches all the way to bare Ben Bulben's head.
Details: Dooney Rock, Co Sligo; coillteoutdoors.ie.
The golden apples of the sun
Wandering Aengus went out to the hazel wood because a fire was in his head. I'm in a more peaceful mood, but when I spot Hazelwood demesne signposted alongside Lough Gill, I make a detour. A short skirt along the water brings me to Half Moon Bay, where I find a small parking area spotted with picnic tables and preening ducks. A swan sails by, neck bent like a question mark.
Hazelwood House, dating from the 1700s, was once the seat of the Wynne family. It is closed to the public, sadly, but you can follow a 3km trail that takes in views of the lake islands and a distant Dooney Rock. The Wynnes are gone, but the spirit of Wandering Aengus remains.
Details: Hazelwood, Co Sligo; sligotourism.ie.
The waters and the wild
Glencar waterfall is one of those natural phenomena that speaks for itself. A short walk from the lake and information point brings me right up next to a thumping torrent of white water. It roars loudly on this rainy day, dunking 50ft down into a horseshoe-shaped pool.
But why let nature speak for itself when WB Yeats can speak for it? This enchanting hideaway is name-checked in 'The Stolen Child' ("Where the wandering water gushes/From the hills above Glen-Car/In pools among the rushes/That scarce could bathe a star"). If you're anywhere near Sligo or Manorhamilton, pay a visit. It's magic.
Details: Glencar, Co Leitrim; leitrimtourism.com.
The lake isle of Innisfree
It's not as easy to arise and go to Innisfree as Yeats suggests. This is a lake isle, after all, and it's smaller than you'd expect -- a mere molehill in Lough Gill. You can forget about building a cabin too, even if it is from clay and wattles. We're in recession, remember?
To get a view of the famous island, I take a lake tour on the Rose of Innisfree (€15pp, with a minimum of four people). Gliding along the glassy surface, sights such as Hazelwood demesne, the 17th-century Parke's Castle and autumnal alder and willow serve as a prelude to the island itself.
Innisfree measures just one-quarter of an acre, but the lake water does indeed lap with low sounds by its shore. It's easy to see how Yeats, stuck in the urban hubbub of Sligo, was inspired to escape here, even if only in his imagination, in 1893.
It hasn't changed a jot.
Details: Five Mile Bourne, Co Leitrim. Tel: 087 259 8869; roseofinnisfree.com.
The tech-savvy tour
It was far from iPhones that Yeats was reared, but stopping by the Sligo Tourist Office today, you can download a free audio tour straight to your phone. It's delivered via Bluetooth, which means there are no data rates involved, and you can grab the download when the office is closed, too.
It's a great idea (the audio comes from navigatour.ie; the app from ziggiapps.com), and it makes for a warmly enjoyable tour of the town. Local gems such as Sligo Cathedral, Connolly's pub and the Yeats Memorial building all feature, and there plenty of anecdotes along the way.
My favourite comes at Rowan Gillespie's sculpture of the poet outside Sligo's Ulster Bank. The piece was erected here, we're told, due to a quip made by Yeats while receiving his Nobel Prize for Literature in 1923. Stockholm's Royal Palace, he said, reminded him of the local bank!
Details: Temple Street. Tel: 071 916 1201; discoverireland.ie/sligo.
The overnight stay
The Sligo Park Hotel may not be the "landmark luxury hotel" its website proclaims, but it is a four-star workhorse with good ideas, observant staff and a keen eye for package breaks.
I'm impressed by the receptionist who sorts me out with a reliable cab, and a breakfast waiter who offers a free paper and manages to be chatty without being intrusive. There's a decent, 16m pool with Jacuzzi and sauna too, and my room makes good use of a pretty compact space -- I like the neat, dark-wood shelving and intuitive menu on the flat-screen (not as common as it sounds).
One the other hand, tiring decor in the public areas, breakfast juice from concentrate and bits of newspapers thrown about the leisure-centre reception aren't exactly snappy.
All told, it's an affordable and chirpy base for holidaying families. Diversity is the name of the game in this recession, and you'll find carvery lunches, Christmas parties, Brendan Grace and movie nights all lined up over the festive season. Two nights' B&B plus one dinner is available from €99.
Details: Pearse Road. Tel: 071 919 0400; sligoparkhotel.com.
The perfect pint
These are hard times for Irish pubs. But for me, that makes stumbling across a humdinger such as Hargadon's -- hidden away in the heart of Sligo town -- even more special.
Hargadon's dates from 1864, and a recent refurbishment thankfully retains the original fixtures, fittings and dark, conversational atmosphere.
The minute I step inside, it feels unique. The snugs are like railway compartments. Old dispensary drawers abound, oily shelves buckle under the weight of ancient stout bottles, and the flagstone floor has been worn to a concave.
I sink a pint of Guinness (€4), and make a mental note to return for eats.
Food is served up to 9pm, with fresh mussels in saffron and chive sauce (€8.95) and pork and leek sausage with red wine and mushroom gravy (€8.50) suggesting value as old-fashioned as the establishment.
Details: 4 O'Connell Street. Tel: 071 915 3709; hargadons.com.