Friday 24 January 2020

Pól Ó Conghaile: Why Sligo’s Knocknarea is a stroll with soul

'There's something magical about that mountain,' Pól Ó Conghaile discovers on a walk near Strandhill, Co Sligo

Knocknarea, Sligo. Photo: Alison Crummy/Fáilte Ireland
Knocknarea, Sligo. Photo: Alison Crummy/Fáilte Ireland
Eva Costello of Failte Ireland, with, Aoife Porter, David McCoy, Neil Walton and Allan Mulrooney, members of Strandhill Community Development Association in County Sligo, who were announced as the Irish winner of the 2019 EDEN (European Destination of Excellence) Award. Photo: James Connolly
Pól Ó Conghaile

Pól Ó Conghaile

It's easy to ignore treasure on your doorstep. Think of Dubliners who haven't seen the Book of Kells; or Parisians who put off visiting the Louvre.

But I've just visited a place where there's no danger of that happening. It's Strandhill, Co Sligo, and the treasure on its doorstep is the punchy, poetic limestone hump known as Knocknarea.

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"It's one of the best places to get to know people," said Aoife Porter, who lives locally and invited me to join her there on a walk. "The truth serum descends. You wouldn't get it in a face-to-face conversation."

Like many Strandhill souls, Aoife is a blow-in. Hailing from Cork, she runs a digital-marketing company in the town. Also like many, she's completely smitten by this lovely, fierce, changeable lump on her doorstep.

"There's something magical about that mountain."

I've always been intrigued by Knocknarea; by the thought of Queen Maeve baked into its cairn; by Yeats' evocative Land of Heart's Desire; by the sheer charisma of the thing, curled up like a big cat against the town.

I also love that idea of walking's truth serum - the fourth dimension you slip into when devices are pocketed, fresh air is flowing, boots go clump and squelch and conversation frees up. So I jumped at the chance.

On the hill, we were joined by Barry Hannigan of Northwest Adventure Tours (another blow-in) and Dave O'Connor of Wild West Sailing. Queen Maeve's Trail is a two-hour walk leaving from the town, but we took the old route from the southeast.

A stream of water bled down a blackened path, and up we went past the remains of a deserted village, stooping to examine fossilised coral ("it's a slam dunk that this was once a seabed," Barry says), pausing to look out on drumlins, before heading to the 320m summit.

There, we wolfed down sandwiches from Shell's Cafe, Barry lit a stove to make coffee, and we marvelled at the cairn's stones and stories about what may lie beneath. It was a clear day, and we could see a glassy Lough Gill, the Devil's Chimney waterfall and a low winter light moving over Ben Bulben and, more faintly, Slieve League.

"The weather is very different to the east," Barry mused. "Here, it moves fast. It can be vicious. But you couldn't ask for a better day to climb a hill."

Strandhill is on a roll, having won a European Destination of Excellence (EDEN) Award for its health and wellbeing tourism, and a National Surf Centre is due to open this autumn. From surf to seaweed baths, hiking and yoga, it feels both like a place and a pinch of positivity you can tap into, even on a fleeting trip.

Don't ignore its treasure this year. Maybe the mountain will speak to you, too.

For more info, see sligotourism.ie.

NB: The cairn at the top of Knocknarea is a Neolithic burial place that has been damaged by walkers climbing it. Please respect the signs and don't climb the cairn, or disturb its stones.

Take 3: Sligo walks


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