History of County Sligo

A Colourful Past

A Short History of County Sligo

County Sligo has a long history of human habitation, dating back to the Neolithic period. The region is home to some of the oldest Stone Age cemeteries in Europe, such as Carrowmore, which is a significant archaeological site. Other evidence of early settlements can be found on Inishmurray Island and at Drumcliffe. These ancient sites offer a glimpse into the lives of the early inhabitants of County Sligo and their burial practices.


Neolithic Monuments and Megalithic Tombs

County Sligo is renowned for its neolithic monuments and megalithic tombs, which provide fascinating insights into the lives of the early inhabitants of the region. Carrowmore, located near the town of Sligo, is one of the oldest Stone Age cemeteries in Europe. It consists of over 60 monuments, including passage tombs, dolmens, and stone circles. These monuments serve as a testament to the rich cultural heritage of County Sligo and provide evidence of early settlements in the area, including the oldest currently known causewayed enclosure in Britain and Ireland at Magheraboy. Other notable megalithic tombs in the county include those on Inishmurray Island and at Drumcliffe.


Celtic Tribes and Their Influence

During the Celtic period, County Sligo was inhabited by various tribes, including the Goidelic-speaking Celts. These tribes had a significant influence on the cultural and linguistic landscape of the region. County Sligo is known for its rich tradition of traditional Irish music, which has been passed down through the generations. The stunning Ox Mountains, located in the southern part of the county, served as a natural barrier and played a role in shaping the cultural identity of the region.


The Arrival of Christianity

Christianity arrived in County Sligo during the early medieval period and had a profound impact on the region. Saint Patrick, the patron saint of Ireland, is believed to have had a connection to Sligo. The spread of Christianity led to the establishment of numerous monastic sites, which became centers of learning and spirituality. These monastic sites played a crucial role in preserving the region's cultural and literary traditions.


Saint Patrick’s Connection to Sligo

Saint Patrick, the patron saint of Ireland, is said to have had a connection to County Sligo. According to legend, he visited the area and performed miracles. He is believed to have baptized converts and established churches in Sligo. The presence of Saint Patrick in Sligo is commemorated by various landmarks and sites associated with his visit. His influence on the region's religious and cultural landscape is still felt to this day.


The Spread of Monastic Sites

The arrival of Christianity in County Sligo led to the establishment of numerous monastic sites, which became centers of learning, spirituality, and artistic expression. These monastic sites, such as Sligo Abbey and Drumcliffe Abbey, played a crucial role in the spread of Christianity and the preservation of the region's cultural and literary traditions. The monks who resided in these monastic sites contributed to the rich literary tradition of County Sligo, producing manuscripts and poems that are still celebrated today.


Norman Invasion to the Present


Norman Invasion and Its Impact

The Norman invasion of Ireland in the 12th century had a significant impact on County Sligo. Norman castles and fortifications were built throughout the county, including Sligo Castle, by the Norman knight Maurice Fitzgerald. These structures served as symbols of Norman power and contributed to the changing landscape of the region. The Norman invasion also brought about changes in land ownership, as the Normans established their authority and introduced a new system of governance. The legacy of the Norman invasion, led by Fitzgerald, can still be seen in the architecture and history of County Sligo.


Sligo Castle, built in the 13th century, is one such example. It stands as a testament to the Norman presence in County Sligo and the architectural legacy of that time. Other Norman castles and fortifications, such as Ballymote Castle and Ballinafad Castle, can also be found throughout the county, offering visitors a glimpse into the medieval history of the region.


Changes in Land Ownership

The Norman invasion of County Sligo brought about significant changes in land ownership. The Normans introduced a new system of land tenure, which shifted power and authority from the local Gaelic families to the Norman settlers. With the enactment of the Local Government Act, the governance of County Sligo was further consolidated under Norman control. The Normans established their authority through the construction of castles and fortifications, which served as a reminder of their power and influence. The impact of the Norman invasion can still be seen in the land ownership patterns and historical landmarks of County Sligo.


The Gaelic Resurgence

Despite the Norman presence, Gaelic culture and traditions continued to thrive in County Sligo. Gaelic families, such as the O'Connor and O'Hara clans, played a prominent role in the region's history and politics. These notable Gaelic families contributed to the cultural and social fabric of County Sligo during the 14th century. In modern times, the Gaelic resurgence is celebrated through various cultural events and the promotion of Irish language and traditions. The county council actively supports and preserves the Gaelic heritage of County Sligo.


Cultural and Literary Flourishing

County Sligo has a long-standing literary tradition and has been home to many renowned writers and poets. One of the most famous literary figures associated with County Sligo is the poet and Nobel laureate, W.B. Yeats. Yeats drew inspiration from the natural beauty of the county and its rich cultural heritage. His works reflect the landscapes and folklore of County Sligo, and he is buried in Drumcliffe, a village in the county. The literary tradition of County Sligo continues to flourish, with a vibrant arts scene and cultural events that celebrate the county's literary heritage.


Conflicts and Conquests

County Sligo has seen its fair share of conflicts and conquests throughout its history. From the Norman invasion to the struggles for Irish independence, the county has been a backdrop for many significant historical events. The conflicts and conquests have shaped the cultural identity and landscape of County Sligo. The legacy of these historical events can still be seen in the architecture, monuments, and cultural traditions of the county.


The Nine Years' War

The Nine Years' War was a significant conflict that took place in Ireland from 1594 to 1603. It was fought between the native Gaelic Irish lords and the English crown. At the time, County Sligo was part of the Ó Conchobhair Sligigh confederation, which was aligned with the Gaelic Irish. The war had a profound impact on the county, as it experienced battles, raids, and skirmishes at places like Collooney between the two sides. The conflict eventually ended with the defeat of the Gaelic Irish and the imposition of English control, leading to the colonization and plantation of the region by settlers from England and Scotland.


Cromwellian Conquest and Plantations

During the 17th century, County Sligo faced further upheaval with the Cromwellian Conquest and subsequent land plantations. Oliver Cromwell, the English military and political leader, launched a campaign in Ireland to suppress rebellion and assert English control. Sligo, being strategically located on the west coast, was a target for Cromwell's forces. The local Irish population faced displacement, and their lands were given to English and Scottish settlers as part of the plantation scheme. This dramatic change in land ownership and power dynamics had long-lasting effects on the county's social, political, and economic landscape, including the appointment of a sheriff to enforce English common law.


Industrial Development and Emigration

Industrial development and emigration played significant roles in County Sligo's history. In the 19th century, the county experienced rapid industrialization, with the establishment of factories and the construction of public buildings, including the town hall and courthouse. This period of rapid industrialisation brought significant changes to the county's economy and landscape. However, it also saw waves of emigration, particularly during the Great Famine in the 1840s. Many people left County Sligo in search of better opportunities and a chance to escape poverty and starvation. The impact of emigration on the county's population and culture was profound, with thousands of Sligo natives finding new homes in the United States and other countries.


The Growth of Sligo Port

One of the key drivers of industrial development in County Sligo was the growth of Sligo Port. Situated on the coast, Sligo Port provided a gateway for trade and commerce. It became a hub for exporting agricultural produce, such as grain, livestock, and dairy products, as well as for importing goods, including coal, timber, and textiles. The port's strategic location and rapid industrialization fueled economic growth in the region. The table below provides a snapshot of the growth of Sligo Port during the 19th century.


Total Tonnage (Imports and Exports)


38,000 tons


68,000 tons


96,000 tons


134,000 tons


County Sligo in the 20th Century

The 20th century brought significant changes to County Sligo, both politically and economically. The county experienced the impact of Ireland's struggle for independence from British rule, which culminated in the Irish War of Independence and the subsequent establishment of the Irish Free State. County Sligo also faced the challenges of the Irish Civil War, which resulted in political divisions and tensions within the community. Economically, the county grappled with various challenges, including agricultural changes, urbanization, and population shifts. Despite these challenges, County Sligo continued to evolve and adapt to the changing times.


Economic Challenges and Growth

County Sligo faced economic challenges in the 20th century, including shifts in agricultural practices and population changes. The county's agricultural sector experienced changes with the mechanization of farming and a shift towards larger-scale operations. The rural population declined as people moved to urban areas in search of employment and better opportunities. Despite these challenges, County Sligo saw pockets of growth and development, particularly in tourism and cultural sectors. The natural beauty of the county, along with its rich history and literary heritage, attracted visitors from Ireland and abroad, contributing to the local economy and cultural vibrancy.