Writer Kevin Barry had them in stitches a few years ago at the John McGahern International Seminar when he drolly outlined the problems for a young scribe of residing on the margins of “McGahernland” , with (Dermot) Healyland just up the road in north Sligo.
Students and academics had been pondering how a writer can colonise his surroundings, and Barry ruefully pointed out that while living in a former barracks on the edge of a lake (in his case at Ballinafad, Co Sligo overlooking Lough Arrow) might suggest unique fodder for the muse, “some old coot in the arsehole of Leitrim” had got there before him.
Since then, of course, Barry has brought a slew of awards, not least last year’s International Impac Dublin Literary Award, home to “Barryland”, adding somewhat to the image of Sligo and the northwest as a magnet for creative types.
Over 20 years ago the artist Nick Miller and his wife, Noreen Cassidy, spent their honeymoon looking out over Lough Arrow having come to house-sit for friend and fellow artist Barrie Cooke at his home beside the mythical battlefield of Moytura.
Miller was enthralled with the “extraordinary landscape” in that part of south Sligo and was soon living down the road from Cooke in Kilmactranny, most famous as the childhood home of Douglas Hyde.
Some years ago the artist moved closer to Sligo town and now has a studio under Benbulben which of course has had more than its fair share of literary attention thanks to one WB Yeats.
London-born Miller doesn’t have any romantic notions about what woos the artistic community to Sligo. “One of the attractions in the 1990s was that it was cheap and doable. We really wanted to get out of Dublin. Temple Bar, where I had a studio, was being developed and I wanted to escape from all that.”
However, he concedes that having artist friends such as Cooke and Patrick Hall close by was a comforting foil to the isolation that can come with the lifestyle.
To the outsider Sligo fizzes with creativity. Dermot Healy would never presume to refer to Ballyconnell, his patch on the edge of the Atlantic in north Sligo, as “Healyland” because it is also home to fellow writer Leland Bardwell – who lives in a cottage once owned by the Gore-Booth family – and artist Seán McSweeney.
McSweeney was born in Dublin but Sligo has been his adopted home for many years, and he has said that the changing light on the mountains, the sea and boglands is part of the attraction for him.
Unlike Miller and Cooke, he has Sligo roots. His mother once attended the national school in Ballyconnell which is now his studio. It’s impossible to ponder the pull Sligo has for artists and writers without reflecting on the Yeats connection.
McSweeney must think of it too, but admits that he did once see Jack Yeats but was too shy to say hello.
“There seems to be a cohort of creative people who chose to live in the northwest, not just in Sligo but also in Letirim,” Miller remarked. Some come to Sligo just to soak up the Yeatsian landmarks such as the mountains and the former Pollexfen properties owned by the poet and artist’s maternal grandfather, while other visitors come for the music.
Rory O’Connor co-founder of Sligo Live festival pointed out that musicians come and some stay so high is the standard of what is on offer locally.
“They know that any night of the week in pubs like Shoot the Crows, Hargadons, Fureys or McGarrigles they will find really strong traditional, Americano bluegrass or folk,” he said. Steve Wickham of Waterboys fame was one of those who came and stayed, and in Sligo is associated with the band “No Crows” named after their local, Shoots.
He and locals such as Seamie O’Dowd and former Sligo GAA star Kieran Quinn have helped Sligo’s music tradition to endure and with this year’s All-Ireland Fleadh heading to the town, its attraction for those in search of a good session can only increase.
The surfing royalty is also in love with Sligo. Last month Mullaghmore made headlines around the world when international big wave surfers including Britons Andrew Cotton and Tom Butler, Nic Von Rupp from Portugal and New Yorker Kurt Rist came to tackle the big swell created by storm Hercules. Clare man Peter Conroy, a Dublin-based firefighter, was last year nominated for an international Billabong XXL award, dubbed the “Oscars of the surfing world”, for a wave he caught at Mullaghmore.
When this year’s winners are announced in California on May 2nd, Tom Butler and local surfer Easkey Britton will be among the contenders, thanks to their recent adventures at Mullaghmore.
Big wave surfers have been coming to Mullaghmore for over a decade since jet skis became popular for accessing its barrel waves. “Mullaghmore is now classed as one of the best waves in the world” Conroy pointed out. The cliche of the surfer’s sun-streaked hair, bronzed body and board shorts has been well and truly killed off in the northwest of Ireland where wet suits are vital.
“There were swirls of snow the last time I headed to Mullaghmore and there was frost on the windows in the morning,” Conroy recalled. That was February 1st and while the dolphins were out in force, there weren’t too many other sightseers as is often the case on this headland.
“Some of the international surfers have moved here to be close to the waves,” said Conroy. “It’s not just Mullaghmore of course. There’s Streedagh, Strandhill, Easkey and Bundoran. There are about 100 waves on this coastline and the surfers know them all.”