Artists alive to Sligo’s alluring landscape and surfers drawn by the swells

While Sligo is awash with creative types, it’s also a hot spot for surfing royalty

Artist  Nick Miller, has a  studio near Benbulben in Sligo.

Artist Nick Miller, has a studio near Benbulben in Sligo.

Mon, Feb 24, 2014, 01:00

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.

‘Extraordinary landscape’
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.