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A landscape carved with legends

Ireland is a nation of storytellers, and few regions are as steeped in literature and history as County Sligo. It's a place of ancient cairns and a warrior queen, where 2,000 monks died defending a book – and where Yeats drew inspiration for his influential poetry

One of W.B. Yeats’s his final poems was Under Ben Bulben, about the limestone ridge that rises in Sligo County.

One of W.B. Yeats’s his final poems was Under Ben Bulben, about the limestone ridge that rises in Sligo County.

Arthur Ward/failte ireland

Beneath the cairn that crowned the hill above me, a Celtic queen was buried. Or so it was said. Local lore held that deep within the 12-metre-tall, flat-topped mound on the summit of Knocknarea, Ireland, the warrior Queen Maeve of Connacht – one of the most feared warrior queens in Celtic history – still stood with spear in hand, facing her enemies in Ulster.

Maeve wasn't just any Celtic queen. As dangerous as she was beautiful, she insisted that she be the equal of her suitors – including in wealth. After discovering that her husband, Ailill, was richer than she was by a single stud bull, she tracked down the only animal that could rival his. When negotiations to buy it broke down, she raised an army to take the bull by force.

Words alone provide the only evidence for any of this. Queen Maeve's infamous raid, the Cattle Raid of Cooley, is a tale in the famous Ulster Cycle, first written down around the seventh century. Even the queen's legendary cairn hasn't been excavated, perhaps surprising for a Bronze Age-era tomb. But even more than 1,800 years after she was supposed to have lived, William Butler Yeats wrote about "the cairn-heaped grassy hill/Where passionate Maeve is stony-still."

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W. B. Yeats, whose grave is seen above, wished to be buried in County Sligo.

W. B. Yeats, whose grave is seen above, wished to be buried in County Sligo.

Lukasz Warzecha/fáilte ireland

In Ireland, stories have always been more than mere fiction. They have been the way that people understand their past and shape their present. Even the landscape is carved with legends: There is a myth behind every mountain, a tale to match every stream. And few regions in Ireland are better for discovering that amalgam of imagination and memory, literature and history, than County Sligo.

As well as being rich with legend, Sligo is rich with scenery. Glaciers kneaded their way through this northwestern county some 20,000 years ago, leaving in their wake sparkling rivers and lakes, green valleys and dramatic ridges – all along a toothy Atlantic coastline.

Now, on Knocknarea, I could take it all in. From the 327-metre summit, glimmering green grasses and purple heather, patchworked with hedgerows, stretched below. To the southwest, Ballisodare Bay sparkled blue. The cairn at the top was even larger than I'd expected, towering over the sheep that stopped and watched me warily, like guards, as I approached.

A view from Rockwood Parade on the banks of the Garavogue River in Sligo Town.

A view from Rockwood Parade on the banks of the Garavogue River in Sligo Town.

Stephen Duffy/fáilte ireland

Little surprise that the area has attracted settlers – and stories – for centuries. Sligo's Coolera Peninsula alone, which stretches just eight kilometres from the coastal town of Strandhill to the county capital of Sligo, was one of Ireland's major ritual centres in the Neolithic era. It has some 60 passage tombs, Queen Maeve's included. Sligo is also home to the Carrowmore megalithic cemetery, the largest and one of the oldest groupings of megalithic tombs in Ireland, dating back as far as 3700 BC.

Then came the Christians. The Ox Mountains, in southern Sligo, have been nicknamed St. Patrick's Mountains for the saint who gave his name to churches and wells here; just off Sligo's coast, the island of Inis Muirigh has one of the most well-preserved early Christian monasteries in Ireland, founded by St. Molaise in the sixth century. It was Christian missionaries such as Patrick who introduced writing to the island – before that, storytelling was a purely verbal art.

To see how stories morphed from oral legend to written texts – and to objects that someone could actually own – I paid a visit to Cooldrumman, 15 kilometres north of the town of Sligo. The spot is home to the world's only military battle over a book's copyright. In 561 AD, St. Columba refused to give St. Finian back a copy of a psalter he had made from Finian's original. Columba took up arms against him. In the ensuing battle, more than 2,000 monks died.

Today, Cooldrumman is a spread of farms and hedgerows along country roads. I peeked over a rose-covered gate toward the spot where the battle would have taken place, trying to imagine armed monks fighting over a psalter's copyright. It was difficult. Unless you knew the early history of copyright law (or, like me, had come across Cooldrumman by chance in a book), you wouldn't know there was any history here at all – literary or otherwise.

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Sligo's other links with storytelling are better marked. There are Ballymote Castle and Abbey, where the Book of Ballymote, one of the keys to an ancient Irish script, was written in the late 14th century. Crumbling Castle Firbis was the stronghold of the McFirbis family, who were famed sennachies – professional storytellers of family histories and legends.

The Carrowmore megalithic cemetery, the largest and one of the oldest groupings of megalithic tombs in Ireland.

The Carrowmore megalithic cemetery, the largest and one of the oldest groupings of megalithic tombs in Ireland.

Fáilte Ireland

But it is a far more recent writer who is the county's favoured literary son: Yeats. Although he never lived in Sligo, Yeats visited his grandfather here each summer. "The place that has really influenced my life most is Sligo," he once wrote in a letter.

Details from the area pepper his writing. Sligo Abbey featured in two of his stories; he wrote a poem in homage to the Lake Isle of Innisfree and another with memories of Lissadell, where he befriended the daughters of the family who had built the historic Lissadell House and gardens in the 1830s. Today, the county refers to itself as the "Land of Heart's Desire," a line taken from Yeats's faery-filled play of the same name.

And it was in Sligo that Yeats wanted to be buried. One of his final poems was titled Under Ben Bulben, in honour of the dramatic limestone ridge that towers over the flat pastures and woods below. The last verse left no confusion about what he wanted:

Under bare Ben Bulben's head

In Drumcliff churchyard Yeats is laid,

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An ancestor was rector there

Long years ago; a church stands near,

By the road an ancient Cross.

No marble, no conventional phrase,

On limestone quarried near the spot

By his command these words are cut:

Cast a cold eye

On life, on death.

Horseman, pass by!

The church of Drumcliff, where Yeats's great-grandfather had been an Anglican rector, started as a monastery in the sixth century. All that's left is a round tower and a ninth-century Irish cross, its timeworn carvings telling the stories of Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel.

The church itself, built in 1809, is small and lovely. But it's the grave just outside that attracts some 100,000 visitors each year: a nondescript headstone that reads, simply, "Cast a cold eye/On life, on death./Horseman, pass by."

It's an understated message for a man of so many words.

Later, I found myself in the little village of Strandhill, walking along the rocky beach. I haven't come here looking for artistic expression: The town is best known for its surfing and sport, and right now, I'm just here to take in the view. The Atlantic is gemstone blue; the dusk light is turning the stones on the beach tawny. A knot of families and tourists sit on benches. As I grow closer, I realize that they're listening to music. Behind the crash of the waves, a man is playing the banjo, singing Irish folk tunes. People are entranced: Hardly anyone moves until, four or five songs later, he stops playing to pack up.

I learn that he travels across Ireland, singing songs – some classics, some original – in pubs and streets. Centuries ago, travellers who wrote and sang poems were bards. Today, they're buskers. Some things have changed. But one thing has not: More than a millennium after locals told tales of Queen Maeve, more than a century after W.B. Yeats, Sligo is still a place where you can find words in the most surprising corners – and in the most magical of ways.

A statue of Yeats overlooks a street in Sligo.

A statue of Yeats overlooks a street in Sligo.

Chris Hill/fáilte ireland/Chris Hill/fáilte ireland

If you go

What to do

Diehard W.B. Yeats fans can't miss the Sligo County Museum. The free museum displays memorabilia, photographs and manuscripts from the writer's life and paintings by his artist brother Jack – as well as exhibits about the region's history.

The Carrowmore megalithic cemetery is the largest megalithic burial ground in Ireland. It's also one of the oldest, with its boulder circles and dolmens dating back 5,800 years.

After hiking Knocknarea, reward yourself with Ireland's only indigenous spa treatment: a seaweed bath. Try a contemporary spin on the tradition, which has been popular since Edwardian times, at Strandhill's VOYA, which uses organic seaweed hand-harvested from the Irish coast.

Where to stay

Built in 1774, Coopershill House has been in the same family for eight generations. Nestled on a 500-acre private estate (one that happens to be famous for its venison), the luxury inn has six rooms with antique furniture, electric blankets and tap water from the estate's very own spring – plus a restaurant serving up that same venison (and more) on the family silver. There's a self-catering cottage, too. From $285 (for two in a double in low season).

The Glasshouse is an antidote to all that Irish tradition, with 116 spacious, funky rooms in a rainbow of colours (think lime-green walls, Gatorade-orange bedspreads or aqua-blue patterned carpets). But the real winner is the location in the heart of the town of Sligo (some rooms have views of the river). From $142.

The warm, friendly owners are why the visitors at Ross House – a 19th-century farmhouse turned three-star B&B – give it such rave reviews. But the comfortable rooms, ample Irish breakfasts and pastoral surroundings don't hurt, either. From $130.

Where to eat

When it comes to food, you don't get a better Irish pub experience than at the town of Sligo's Hargadons, which opened in 1868. The fireplaces, cozy nooks and dark-wood panelling feel historic, but the menu – with mostly local, organic offerings like Irish smoked salmon with salad from Sligo's Ballincar Farm – is what really puts a tasty twist on tradition.

The fresh-off-the-boat seafood at Eithna's by the Sea is reason enough to visit the coastal town of Mullaghmore, all the more so because of the menu's unique options – think free-range Irish chicken with homemade red-onion marmalade and an organic herb and seaweed pesto.

The reputation of Mammy Johnston's Ice Cream Parlour & Café in Strandhill has spread so far, we know locals who will drive two hours just for a scoop. The owners – who both studied gelato-making in Bologna, Italy – make their artisanal ice cream from Irish dairy in a variety of mouth-watering flavours (don't miss the honeycomb).

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