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Seals, surf and the call of the warrior queen – why Sligo is so special to me

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I was told to find two stones at the bottom of the mountain, to carry them on the ascent. That it was tradition. I remember the care I took finding just the right ones, squeezing my fists to ensure they were still there as we made our way up through heather, my offering to Queen Maeve whose cairn was at the summit. I was six.

t was my first trek up Knocknarea or any mountain, my first trip to Strandhill, Co Sligo, my first time to Ireland. I know that it was late October, that I had never seen heather, that it might have rained, that I was with my father because he had come home to say goodbye to his dying father, that the higher we climbed, the windier it was. But the clearest memory is the press of stone against my palms and the first sight of Maeve’s grey stone pile as we came over the ridge.

I have made the pilgrimage hundreds of times since, came to the mountain the morning my own father died, watched my children’s concentration on this ritual, clasping wishes in their small hands. Teenagers now, they still carry the stones.

Knocknarea is variously translated as “the hill of the kings” or “the hill of the moon”. Maeve was the legendary queen of Connacht who, according to some stories, is buried like a warrior, standing, spear in hand and facing her enemies to the north.

However, she is also a sovereignty goddess, an embodiment of the land and the north west territory. Her hill looms over the village of Strandhill and is a metric of weather, time and mood.

The mountain shape-shifts, sometimes close, other times further away, contours change and colour: sombre black, purple, blazing amber-pink, every shade of grey, sometimes disappearing into a shroud of mist.

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Una Mannion on the beach at Culleenamore, Strandhill in Co Sligo Una Mannion on the beach at Culleenamore, Strandhill in Co Sligo

Una Mannion on the beach at Culleenamore, Strandhill in Co Sligo

Una Mannion on the beach at Culleenamore, Strandhill in Co Sligo

Beside us the mountain starts to feel like a sentient being. Villagers tell the time against the one o’clock stone. Every August locals and athletes from all over Ireland and farther scramble up the mountain and circle the cairn coming down the other side. It’s the Warrior’s Run, and all summer runners can be seen jogging the mountain loop in preparation. Even I have tried it.

I have returned to Culleenamore, Strandhill almost every summer of my life and now come here even in the winter. There is the mountain, the sea, walks, archaeology. In normal times there are restaurants, cafes, pubs, music, seaweed baths, ice cream.

I look at things when I am here. I pick up a shell when walking. A heron sits out on the green bank in Culleenamore and I stop and wait, watching. Out on Ballisodare Bay, the largest seal colony on the west coast of Ireland splays out on the Great Seal Sand Bank. Common seals. They are curious and at high tide might venture towards the shore to have a look if kids are out swimming or shouting in the bay, their heads popping up out of the water.

At night we can hear them, a sound like a wail carried across the water. Friends come to camp and in the morning ask if we heard a baby crying in the night. Over the years we have found seal pups and local Neil Walton from Voya Seaweed Baths rescues them, feeding them and delivering them to the seal sanctuary through a network of volunteers. The children have named them over the years, Seaweed, Periwinkle.

My son finds a stranded dolphin, young and female. She is distressed and the tide has gone out. We look for help on social media and in minutes local surfers have arrived in wetsuits to do whatever they can along with Neil.

They refloat her several times; the sun is setting and we watch her turn the wrong way and come back towards us. The last journey out with her cocooned in a sheet is done in the near dark, the temperature almost freezing, and I think about what a community this is. All these people gathered in the dark willing her to survive.

Maybe it’s the surfing culture, or the rhythmic crash of waves, the expanse of space out to sea, but here everything slows, time stretches and amplifies, and there is space to think and be. I have not done yoga on the beach, or anywhere for that matter, and I can’t surf, but I sit on a bench at the seafront and watch families or surf school classes in their wet suits face the wind and crash of waves, carrying their boards. Kids sit on the cannon or the sea wall with their ice cream cones.

I walk the shoreline between Culleenamore and Strandhill and almost every day someone has left a trace. Stone sculptures, words spelt out in the sand, shapes or labyrinths made from sea wrack. I can walk the long way around the coast from the bay to the seafront in Strandhill or cut through shell valley, surrounded by giant dunes, the echo of the waves and the suck of stones in the undertow resounding between them.

To the north of the village is Killaspugbrone which is included in the Knocknarea loop and part of the Wild Atlantic Way. The church is a ruin from the 12th century and is believed to be on the site of a 5th century church founded by St Patrick. Donegal is a blue-grey bulk and to the west, Inishmurray a muted black line. Ben Bulben seems closer than possible.

The Atlantic roars and either side of the path seagrasses and flowers survive the wind. In the summer there is harebell and buttercups. The churchyard beside the ruin is a burial ground used up until the 1960s. Ancient crosses lean at angles, weathered and salt whipped. The ground is uneven, hallowed. It is quiet and beautiful.

I walk back to Culleenamore. Shells crunch underfoot, oyster, limpet, cockle, snail, mussel, whelk, periwinkle. Sligo or Sligeach, I am told, means “the shelly place”. When my kids were young, we spent days picking cockles with spoons and buckets here on the cockle strand, listening for the click of metal against the buried shell. I showed them how to open them without cooking, wedging the two hinges together and twisting, watching their delight and disgust.

We’d bring our haul to my aunt and uncle who would cook and eat them. People have been coming here since pre-historic times for shellfish. The Culleenamore midden dates back to the Bronze age, its stacked layers of oyster shells extending several hundred metres along the bay.

This line between the earth and the sea holds so much. A friend of mine recently gave me one of Manchán Magan’s books, a collection of Irish sea words and coastal terms gathered along the western shoreline from Galway to Donegal. There is actually a word for that sucking sound of stones heard at the sea front – “súitú”. But the phrase that catches me is “Uaigneas an Chladaigh”, “the sense of loneliness on the shore; a haunting presence of people who lived and died long ago”.

Here, on this stretch of shore, I feel alive, not just to what’s gone before but to what’s right in front of me.

Una Mannion’s debut novel ‘A Crooked Tree’, published by Faber, is available online from all bookshops

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