Magic in Ben Bulben's shadow

 

GREAT DRIVES GLENIFF HORSESHOE:Yeats’ county continues to surprise with a route dotted with history as well as the site of one of the great tales of Irish mythology, writes BOB MONTGOMERY

SLIGO HAS many magical places, and I thought I had been to all of them. But on my latest exploration I discovered one that is very special indeed. The extraordinary thing about writing this series is how new drives continue to be discovered long after I had expected all the “interesting” roads to be exhausted. All of which serves to confirm what a unique island we live on and how incredibly varied it is.

Gleniff Horseshoe is actually not a horseshoe at all but in reality a 9½km loop. That may seem short but an hour or two spent along this route soaking up the grandeur of the place will, I promise, be memorable. Gleniff Horseshoe is easily accessed from the main N15 Sligo to Bundoran road. Travelling from Sligo, pass through the small village of Cliffony (about 22km from Sligo) before taking the next right turn. The start of the loop is about 8km from the N15. The loop can be traversed either clockwise or anti-clockwise but my own feeling is that a clockwise route unveils its splendour to greatest effect.

You’ll know you’ve arrived on the loop when you pass a derelict mill on your left before the landscape opens out to views dominated by Truskmore and Ben Bulben in the distance. Truskmore dominates the eastern side of the loop rising to 647metres and is topped by an RTÉ mast as well as a number of other smaller masts. At first the loop runs parallel to the slopes of Truskmore as it heads towards its most southerly point. The slopes are gentle but as the road turns to the west through an area of forest the heights of Ben Bulben’s eastern face rise up, almost blocking out all else. High on the rock face a large entrance to a cave is visible – said to be Ireland’s highest cave – and it is associated with one of our most enduring legends, the pursuit of Diarmuid and Gráinne.

The tale recounts how Diarmuid joined a boar hunt organised by Fionn, the leader of warrior band, the Fianna. During the hunt a boar mortally wounds him. Now Fionn has the power to heal Diarmuid’s wounds by giving him water from his hands but twice allows the water to slip through his fingers. By the time he changes his mind and returns with water, Diarmuid has died.

According to the tale, Diarmuid’s body was placed in the cave and was joined there by the body of Gráinne, she having died of grief.

The story seems at one with this other-worldly place, where it is easy to imagine a time when such tales were in the making.

Returning to the loop road, as one turns northeast the ruin of a large two-story building is passed, a solitary building in this magnificent setting.

I’m told it was a schoolhouse and if so it is an indicator of how this valley once supported a large population – a population which must have endured considerable hardships in winter.

Reluctantly, we leave the valley and returning to the N15 again, the cloak of magic it casts over us slowly fades away, but enough remains to keep the memory of a very special place in our minds.