Tour of Sligo's Castles

Sligo has over 30 sites with names which include the word ‘castle’, 8 of which are in private hands and are well preserved and documented. Of the rest, although they lie in ruins, about a dozen are worth searching out, as they have either substantial remains or interesting associations. Sadly the rest have long since decayed to rubble, their valuable stone having been taken long ago to construct bridges or other buildings. I say ‘search out’ because unless you know where to look, some are hard to find, which is a shame. Just a few more signposts (and information boards at the sites themselves) would enable many more people to enjoy this part of Sligo’s heritage.

A good starting point is Ballymote Castle, right in the heart of the county, one of the easiest to find as it is situated in a public park next to the railway station. Here are the imposing remains of a fortified and originally moated castle built by Richard de Burgo, the ‘Red’ Earl of Ulster, in 1300. Its walls are 3m thick with 1m passages inside, and it had 6 towers, a 46m square courtyard and large accommodation areas on the north side. The castle changed hands many times – the English, Rory O’Connor, Sir Richard Bingham and the O’Rourkes all holding it at different times, but it came back into the possession of the McDonaghs time and again and it was they who sold it to the O’Donnell clan in 1598 for the sum of £400 and 300 cows. It was from this spot that Hugh Roe O’Donnell set out on his ill-fated march to Kinsale in 1601. An information board is displayed at the ruined gateway to the castle. Location: N 54° 01·566’W 008° 20·139’.

From here, drive south to Gurteen, and join the R294 Ballina–Boyle road for 5km (towards Boyle) to Mullaghroe. 50m before the sign ‘Monastarden 6’, turn left onto a minor, unmarked road, and after about 1km, on rising ground ahead lie the extensive ruins of Moygara Castle, which is in a relatively good state of preservation. It was an ancient stronghold of the O’Garas, princess of Coolavin, and in its time was one of the best examples of a castellated building in Sligo. About 57m square, with a battlemented 12m high tower at each corner and 1 in the centre of both east and west walls, it must have been impressive. The walls were loopholed for firearms, and there was extensive accommodation on the western side, although the portcullis sadly no longer remains on this wall. In 1581 it was burned by the Governor of Connacht. A sycamore tree in the south eastern corner of the castle is said to be the shoot of one on which O’Gara hanged miscreants. The castle is surrounded by pasture land, but farm lanes extend around almost all four sides. Location: N 53° 58·821’W 008° 27·850’. From here, continue towards Boyle, 10km away, and take the N4 Sligo road in the direction of Sligo, which crosses the Curlew Mountains. At the foot of the descending slope, turn right into the village of Ballinafad, and park in the castle grounds. The four towers of Ballinafad Castle are clearly visible on a mound overlooking the village and the main road. This is to do with birds – curlew comes from the words meaning ‘rough mountains’ and the castle was indeed built to command the pass over the Curlew Mountains. Location: N 54° 01·566’W 008° Rejoining the N4, continue towards Sligo, and travel about 7km to the village of Castlebaldwin, and turn right onto a minor road. At the first junction, take a lane to the right, which encircles the site of Castle Baldwin and eventually rejoins the N4. The castle here was an L-shaped fortified house built in 1650 which subsequently belonged to Edward Nicholson, High Sheriff of Sligo. It was constructed after the traditional 'castle' had gone out of fashion and fortified houses were the style, but along with its high gables, chimney stacks and basement it had gun loops flanking the fireplace and a walkway at roof level – so defence was still very much in mind! An information board has been erected by Duchas about 300 metres from the front of the castle ruin. Location: N 54° 04·746’ W 008° 21·980’.

Our next stop is Moymlough Castle (pronounced 'Meemlagh'). To reach this site, continue on the N4 to Collooney, turn left at the second roundabout, and almost immediately right to bypass the town. Cross the river and then take the first left, signposted ‘Coolaney 8’. 1km onwards, the road crosses the disused railway line and after another 2km turn left, re-cross the railway line and traverse an S-shaped bridge over the river. After 1.5km the ivy-covered ruin of Moymlough Castle comes into view. Another tower house, it replaced the ancient castle of the O’Hara’s built in the 15th century. Although only 3 storeys remain, it was probably higher and measured 9.4m by 5.5m. Features which can clearly be seen from the road are the intramural staircase and the distinct ‘batter’ to the lower two metres of the outer walls. Part of a garderobe is also visible. Moymlough continued to be one of the strongholds of the O’Hara Buidhe, the lords of Leyney. Sadly its sister castle at Coolaney has entirely disappeared, having been recycled to build the new bridge in 1833. Location: N 54° 10·334’ W 008° 33·806’.

Proceed for 0.5km and turn right to Coolaney village, cross the aforementioned bridge, and continue over the Hungry Rock pass to join the Sligo–Ballina N59 near Beltra, then turn left to Skreen. Take the right turn signposted ‘Dunmoran’ for 1.5km, then right over a small bridge and uphill, passing a sign for Dunmoran Strand. At the first junction over the hill, turn right. The ruin of Ardnaglass Castle stands about 200 metres along this road, in a field on the left. Ardnaglass was one of the many castles of the O’Dowds, lords of Tireragh. It is said that the last wild wolf in Ireland was killed by a wolfhound belonging to the O’Dowds. A stone carving commemorating this event was inserted into the castle wall, but is now in the museum of the Royal Academy of Ireland. Location: N54° 15·322’W 008° 42·436’. The McFirbis family, historians and bards to generations of the O’Dowds, lived at Kilglass near Enniscrone and wrote The Yellow Book of Lecan there. A plaque there commemorates them and their manuscript, which is in the care of the Royal Irish Academy – a nice memorial, and one which all Sligo’s heritage sites deserve!