Halloween has its origins in Samhain, the ancient festival whereby our ancestors acknowledged that, with the harvest gathered, it was time to hunker down for the Winter. Many of the games we traditionally play at this time of year, even Trick or Treat, had their origins in our Celtic past, where we believed that a window existed between our worlds through which the dead could pass. On the night of Halloween itself, October 31st, people would gather, light bonfires, pay homage to the dead and make sacrifices to both help those that had passed on and also to give themselves protection against harm.
So, with a nod to our ancestors, here are 6 walks you should get out and enjoy in the coming days. Some of these walks may have tenuous enough links with Halloween itself, but are important link to the beliefs of our ancestors.
And who knows, you might have a spooky encounter or two …. the title of each walk has a link for further information including directions on the SligoWalks.ie website.
Ballymote Heritage Trail
A beautiful walk that begins at the Community Park in the centre of Ballymote and ends at spooky Emlaghfad Church. This was built in the early 19th century and when you visit, you’ll see several crypts that over the years have begun to subside. All you need is some mist and a few bars of creepy music and it won’t take long for you to get a chill in your bones ….
The church was built on a much older site along a road which provided one of the main arteries for travel from the Middle Ages, when this part of Sligo was of great importance. This history, combines with the beauty of the overall walk, and this spooky ending, make this one you should try out this Halloween.
Home to Diarmuid and Gráinne’s Cave, which overlooks this walk. This is reputedly one of the places where tragic lovers from the folklore of na Fianna hid after their escape from Fionn Mac Cumhaill, who set off after them when Gráinne decided to elope with Diarmuid instead of marrying the much older Fionn. Having chased them all round Ireland, Diarmuid’s luck finally ran out when he was gored by a wild boar on the summit of Benbulben. Only Fionn alone had the magical powers to save Diarmuid from death. By giving him a drink of water from his cupped hands Diarmuid could be saved, but twice Fionn intentionally let the water fall from his hands. As Diarmuid lay at death’s door, Fionn’s men begged for mercy for Diarmuid and Fionn relented, but as he raised the water for the third time, Diarmuid took his last breath, and his spirit now haunts the mountains where he died.
Note that we advise walkers NOT to climb the hill towards Diarmuid and Gráinne’s Cave, as both the climb and descent are dangerous, and the walk also crosses private property.
Unfortunately in the news for the wrong reasons lately, where damage was caused to one of the cairns by some vandals, nonetheless Carrowkeel remains special. It is one of the oldest burial sites not only in Sligo but anywhere in Ireland. The building of some of the cairns may date back 5,500 years, which would make them older than Newgrange by over a thousand years. Standing beside objects that are so old, and yet have remained largely unchanged, is humbling. Add in their relatively isolated location, we recommend an early morning hike to sense the atmosphere of the place and to connect with the spirit of those who created them. It’s likely that the changes in the seasons were also of great importance to the builders of the cairns at Carrowkeel, so really for a visit, just give yourself time to sit, listen and reflect. A really special place and one we need to protect and respect.
As you head past the Courthouse, heading out of town, bear right at the Garda Station, where the road veers around towards McGlynn’s Pub, home to a lovely pint and some great music a few nights a week. A couple of doors before the pub is the house which was home to Charlotte Thornley, mother of Bram Stoker, the author of Dracula. Apparently a young Bram was told stories by Charlotte of her youth in Sligo during a terrible cholera epidemic in 1832, when people were dying in their droves, and – rumour has it – the devastation was so bad that some of the poor victims may have been buried alive before they had actually died. From these stories came the inspiration for one of the most famous horror novels ever written, its inspiration, apparently, right here in Sligo. A round plaque has been placed on a wall on the opposite side of the road from the Thornley house.
We recommend you complete the Garavogue River Walk as part of this walk – just come back towards town as far as the river, turn right and head over past Doorly Park and on to Cleveragh Park before looping back towards the town centre.
Sligo Walking Tours do a great job of describing this walk in more detail and have a guided tour taking place this October 31st.
In more modern times, Sligo’s famous poet W.B. Yeats (ok, we know he was born in Dublin, but you know where we are going with this) believed that a window to the otherworld existed in the flank of Benbulben. Through this door spirits could pass to and fro, as he wrote in The Celtic Twilight, where he says: ‘In the middle of the night it swings open, and the unearthly troop rushes out. All night the gay rabble sweep to and fro across the land, invisible to all.’ So, as you walk along the side of Benbulben, as well as enjoying one of the most spectacular views of Ireland’s famous table mountain, keep an eye out for this mysterious door, but since Yeats says that it happens in the middle of the night, we’re not sure just how much anyone will see!
This is known as the Masshill Road Walk near Lough Talt and outside of Tubbercurry, where people would gather in contravention of the Penal Laws, which forbade Catholics from celebrating Mass. These laws were enacted in the late 17th century in an effort to dissuade Catholics from practicing their religion in a heavy handed approach by the English ruling classes. The Irish had very little, but the one thing that kept them going through long periods of hunger and poverty was their faith and many people died for their beliefs. To this end, the people would find isolated locations to come together in secrecy, and a rock served as an altar where the priest would come and go in secret, often taking great risks while doing so. The punishments for those caught attending Mass during these times were severe. Mass Rocks can be found in different places in Sligo, and this one has a path along which 14 crosses were more recently installed, one for each Station of the Cross. It gives a sense of the importance of choosing a discreet location and one which would provide the priest with a change to make a quick getaway if the authorities came upon the Mass.
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