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Ben Bulben, Co. Sligo

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Ben Bulben is Ireland’s most distinctive mountain and known in some parts as Ireland's version of Table Mountain.

Located just north of the thriving town of Sligo, part of the range known as the Dartry Mountains, in the North West of Ireland, it presides over the town like a giant sentry monitoring the comings and goings of the people and the life with a watchful eye. Sligo County is known as Yeats Country after the great poet, William Butler Yeats, who was born there and is buried at the foot of his beloved Ben Bulben.


Ben Bulben was formed as a result of the different responses to erosion of the limestone and shale of which the mountain is formed. A hard and resistant limestone forms the upper cliffs and precipices. Ben Bulben was formed during the Ice Age, when large parts of the Earth were under glaciers. It was originally merely a large ridge; however the moving glaciers cut into the earth, leaving a distinct formation, now called Ben Bulben.

The steeper sides of Ben Bulben are composed of large amounts of Dartry limestone on top of smaller amounts of Glencar limestone. The smoother sides are composed of Ben Bulben shale. These rocks formed in the area approximately 320 million years ago. If climbed by the north face, it is a dangerous climb. That side bears the brunt of the high winds and storms that come in from the Atlantic Ocean. However, if climbed by the south side, it is an easy climb, due to the fact that side slopes very gently. Upon reaching the summit, the climber is rewarded with a magnificent view of Yeats Country.

Ben Bulben hosts a unique variety of plants, possessing some organisms found nowhere else in Ireland. Many are Artic-Alpine plants, due to the mountain's height, which allows for cooler temperatures than is normal. These plants were deposited when the glaciers that created Ben Bulben melted. Insects, wild hares, and foxes inhabit Ben Bulben.

Ben Bulben is the setting of many Celtic Legends. It is said to be the dwelling of theFianna, a band of warriors who lived in the third century. One example is a story in which the warrior Diarmuid Ua Duibhne (Diarmund) is tricked by the giant Fionn Mac Cumhaill (Finn McCool) into fighting an enchanted boar, which later kills the warrior by piercing his heart with its tusk. The mountain is said to be Diarmuid and Grainne's resting places. Also, in the 6th century, St Columba led 3,000 soldiers up Ben Bulben to fight for the right for the saint to copy from a Psalter he had borrowed from St Finnian. Many more legends and tales have been woven round the almost magical mountain that is Ben Bulben. Mysterious shady valleys dominate the landscape in this upland alpine-like region. You can easily see how this brooding mountain, which rises so steeply from the ground below, could conjure up tales of enchanted maidens, warriors and spells.





1,726 feet (526 m)


Sligo,  Ireland


Dartry Mountains


54°22′N 8°28′W  /  54.367°N 8.467°W

Topo map

OSiDiscovery 16

OSI/OSNI grid reference





William Butler Yeats (1865-1939)

William Butler Yeats, the magnificent Irish poet, dramatist and prose writer, one of the greatest English-language poets of the 20th century will be forever associated with Ben Bulben and Sligo. Although not born there, he moved to Sligo at an early age and always retained a love of the area. He is buried beneath his beloved Ben Bulben in Drumcliff graveyard.

Yeats received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1923. Between the Celtic visions of The Wanderings of Oisin (1889) and the intellectual, often obscure poetry of the 1930s, Yeats produced a tremendous amount of works. In his early career Yeats studied William Blakes's poems, Emanuel Swedenborgs's writings and other visionaries. Later he expressed his disillusionment with the reality of his native country. Central theme in Yeats's poems is Ireland, its bitter history, folklore, and contemporary public life.

William Butler Yeats was born in Dublin into an Irish Protestant family. His father, John Butler Yeats, a clergyman's son, was a lawyer turned to an Irish Pre-Raphaelite painter. Yeats's mother, Susan Pollexfen, came from a wealthy family - the Pollexfens had a prosperous milling and shipping business. His early years Yeats spent in London and Sligo, that beautiful county on the north-west coast of Ireland, where his mother had grown up and which he later depicted with much love and feeling in his poems.

In 1881 the family returned to Dublin. While studying at the Metropolitan School of Art, Yeats met there the poet, dramatist, and painter George Russell (1867-1935). He was interested in mysticism, and his search inspired also Yeats, who at that time associated Protestantism with materialism and like Blake, rejected the Newtonian mechanistic worldview. This turn was a surprise to his father, who had tried to raise his son without encouraging him to ponder with such questions, but had given him Blake's poetry to read. Reincarnation, communication with the dead, mediums, supernatural systems and Oriental mysticism fascinated Yeats through his life. In 1886 Yeats formed the Dublin Lodge of the Hermetic Society and took the magical name Daemon est Deus Inversus. The occult order also attracted Aleister Crowley. The Rhymers' Club, which Yeats founded with Ernest Rhys, he recalled it meeting each night "in an upper room with a sanded floor in an ancient eating-house in the Strand called the Cheshire Cheese".

As a writer Yeats made his debut in 1885, when he published his first poems in The Dublin University Review. In 1887 the family returned to Bedford Park, and Yeats devoted himself to writing. He visited Mme Blavatsky, the famous occultist, and joined the Esoteric Section of the Theosophical Society, but was later asked to resign.

In 1889 Yeats met his great love, Maud Gonne (1866-1953), an actress and Irish revolutionary, about whom he wrote many poems. She married in 1903 to Major John MacBride, and this episode inspired Yeats's poem 'No Second Troy'. "Why, what could she have done being what she is? / Was there another Troy for her to burn." MacBride was later executed by the British.

Through Maud's influence Yeats joined the revolutionary organization Irish Republican Brotherhood. Later an 1899, police report described Yeats as "more or less revolutionary". Maud had devoted herself to political struggle, but Yeats viewed with suspicion her world full of intrigues. He was more interested in folktales as a part of an exploration of national heritage and for the revival of Celtic identity. His study with George Russell and Douglas Hyde of Irish legends and tales was published in 1888 under the name Fairy and Folk Tales of the Irish Peasantry. Yeats assembled for children a less detailed version, Irish Fairy Tales, which appeared in 1892. The Wanderings of Oisinand other Poems (1889), filled with sad longings, took its subject from Irish mythology.

In 1896 Yeats returned to live permanently in his home country. He reformed Irish Literary Society, and then the National Literary Society in Dublin, which aimed to promote the New Irish Library. Lady Gregory first saw W.B. Yeats 1894 - "...looking every inch a poet," she wrote in her diary - and again two years later. Their relationship started in 1897 and led to the founding of the Irish Literary Theatre, which became the Irish National Theatre Society. It moved in 1904 into the new Abbey Theatre, named after the Dublin Street in which it stood. Yeats worked as a director of the theatre, writing several plays for it. Another director was the dramatist John Synge (1871-1909), Yeats close friend, whose masterpiece The Playboy of the Western World (1907) was greeted with riots and had to be performed under police protection. Edmund Wilson once said that Yeats's greatest contribution to the theatre was not his own plays, but those of Synge.

Yeats's most famous dramas were Cathleen Ni Houlihan (1902), in which Maud Gonne gained great acclaim in the title role, and The Land of Hearts Desire (1894). Yeats did not have in the beginning much confidence in Lady Gregory's literary skills, but after seeing her translation of the ancient Irish Cuchulain sagas he changed his mind. Cathleen ni Houlihan has been credited to Yeats but now it is considered to be written by Lady Gregory - the idea came from Yeats and he wrote the chant of the old woman at the end.

Ezra Pound, whom Yeats met in 1912, served as his fencing master and secretary in the winters of 1913 and 1914. Pound introduced Yeats to Japanese Noh drama, which inspired his plays. In early 1917 Yeats bought Thoor Ballyle, a derelict Norman stone tower near Coole Park. After restoring it, the tower became his summer home and central symbol in his later poetry. At the age of 52, in 1917, he married Georgie Hyde Lees, who was 26. Although Yeats first had his doubts, the marriage was happy and they had a son and a daughter. However, before the marriage Yeats had proposed Maud Gonne, but he was also obsessed with Gonne's daughter Iseult, who turned him down. During their honeymoon, Yeats's wife demonstrated her gift for automatic writing. Their collaborative notebooks formed the basis of A Vision(1925), about marriage, occultism, and historical cycles. Most readers gave it a lukewarm reception.

The change from suggestive, beautiful lyricism toward disillusionment was marked in Yeats poem 'September 1913' in which he stated: "Romantic Ireland's dead and gone." During the civil war Irish Free State soldiers burned many of Yeats's letters to Maud Gonne when they raided her house. In 1916 Yeats published 'Easter 1916' about the Irish nationalist uprising. It referred to the executed leaders of the uprising and stated: "Now and in time to be, / Wherever the green is worn, / All changed, changed utterly: / A terrible beauty is born." Although Irish politics was a central theme in many of Yeats's writings, he made clear a distinction between political and religious propaganda and art. At the start of the war, Yeats went to Oxford, but then returned to Dublin. In 1922 he became a senator in the Irish Free State. As a politician Yeats defended Protestant interests and took pro-Treaty stance against Republicans. Maud Gonne's son, Sean MacBride, was imprisoned without trial under emergency legislation that Yeats had voted for.

The Wild Swans at Coole (1917) was set on the Coole Park, the estate of Yeats's friend and patron Lady Augusta Gregory. The tone of the work is reflective, almost conversational, and occasionally the poet lets loose his bitterness and grief of the past. Yeats registers the death of Robert Gregory, Lady Gregory's son, and Mabel Beardley, sister of the English artist Aubrey Beardsley. Yeats also returns to his relationship with Maud Gonne, who rejected his love.

In 1932 Yeats founded the Irish Academy of Letters. Never a sophisticated political thinker and favoring the leadership of the few, Yeats was briefly involved in 1933-34 with the fascist Blueshirts in Dublin and wrote some marching songs for them. In his final years Yeats worked on the last version of A Vision, which attempted to present a theory of the archetypes of human personality, and published The Oxford Book of Verse (1936) and New Poems (1938).

Yeats died in 1939 at the Hôtel Idéal Séjour, in Menton, France. In 'Under Ben Builben,' one of his last poems, he had written: " No marble, no conventional phrase; On limestone quarried near the spot / By his command these words are cut: Cast a cold eye / On life, on death. / Horseman; pass by!" Yeats's coffin was taken in 1948 to Drumcliff in Sligo, but there is some doubt as to the authenticity of the bones. "The mystical life is the centre of all that I do and all that I think and all that I write."



Under Ben Bulben

Swear by what the sages spoke
Round the Mareotic Lake
That the Witch of Atlas knew,
Spoke and set the cocks a-crow.

Swear by those horsemen, by those women
Complexion and form prove superhuman,
That pale, long-visaged company
That air in immortality
Completeness of their passions won;
Now they ride the wintry dawn
Where Ben Bulben sets the scene.

Here s the gist of what they mean.


Many times man lives and dies
Between his two eternities,
That of race and that of soul,
And ancient Ireland knew it all.
Whether man die in his bed
Or the rifle knocks him dead,
A brief parting from those dear
Is the worst man has to fear.

Though grave-diggers' toil is long,
Sharp their spades, their muscles strong.
They but thrust their buried men
Back in the human mind again.


You that Mitchel's prayer have heard,
'Send war in our time, O Lord!'
Know that when all words are said
And a man is fighting mad,
Something drops from eyes long blind,
He completes his partial mind,
For an instant stands at ease,
Laughs aloud, his heart at peace.
Even the wisest man grows tense
With some sort of violence
Before he can accomplish fate,
Know his work or choose his mate.


Poet and sculptor, do the work,
Nor let the modish painter shirk
What his great forefathers did.
Bring the soul of man to God,
Make him fill the cradles right.

Measurement began our might:
Forms a stark Egyptian thought,
Forms that gentler phidias wrought.

Michael Angelo left a proof
On the Sistine Chapel roof,
Where but half-awakened Adam
Can disturb globe-trotting Madam
Till her bowels are in heat,
Proof that there's a purpose set
Before the secret working mind:
Profane perfection of mankind.

Quattrocento put in paint
On backgrounds for a God or Saint
Gardens where a soul's at ease;
Where everything that meets the eye,
Flowers and grass and cloudless sky,
Resemble forms that are or seem
When sleepers wake and yet still dream.
And when it's vanished still declare,
With only bed and bedstead there,
That heavens had opened.
                                    Gyres run on;
When that greater dream had gone
Calvert and Wilson, Blake and Claude,
Prepared a rest for the people of God,
Palmer's phrase, but after that
Confusion fell upon our thought.


Irish poets, earn your trade,
Sing whatever is well made,
Scorn the sort now growing up
All out of shape from toe to top,
Their unremembering hearts and heads
Base-born products of base beds.
Sing the peasantry, and then
Hard-riding country gentlemen,
The holiness of monks, and after
Porter-drinkers' randy laughter;
Sing the lords and ladies gay
That were beaten into the clay
Through seven heroic centuries;
Cast your mind on other days
That we in coming days may be
Still the indomitable Irishry.


Under bare Ben Bulben's head
In Drumcliff churchyard Yeats is laid.
An ancestor was rector there
Long years ago, a church stands near,
By the road an ancient cross.
No marble, no conventional phrase;
On limestone quarried near the spot
By his command these words are cut:
              Cast a cold eye
              On life, on death.
              Horseman, pass by!

W. B. Yeats




Things to do

The capital of County Sligo is an attractive town with good bars and restaurants, theatres, art galleries and delicatessens. Sligo is the largest town in the north-west, with a heritage going back 6,000 years.

Its name literally translates as 'the place of shells' - the town's prehistoric residents had a huge appetite for shellfish, and the remains of the unfortunate crustaceans can be found buried all over the area.

Sligo town makes a good base for a range of activities - horse riding, golfing, walking, cycling, fishing and water sports are all very popular.

Getting There

Sligo is the North Wests largest urban centre and is served by a number of national primary routes including the N15 from the North and the N4 from Dublin.

Nearby airports are Sligo Airport and Knock International have daily scheduled flights to Dublin and UK for onward connection to Europe and US destinations. Daily rail connections run between Sligo and Dublin and Bus connections between Sligo and a variety of destinations.

Sligo is the North Wests largest urban centre and is served by a number of national primary routes including the N15 from the North and the N4 from Dublin.

Nearby airports are Sligo Airport and Knock International have daily scheduled flights to Dublin and UK for onward connection to Europe and US destinations. Daily rail connections run between Sligo and Dublin and Bus connections between Sligo and a variety of destinations.

Where to stay

County Sligo is a place of great diversity. On the one hand you have the wild and free Atlantic Ocean, and on the other quiet rivers and peaceful lakes. You have mountains, rugged hillsides, and a patchwork of soft pasture - and everything in between. Sligo’s accommodation is just as diverse!

A warm welcome is to be found wherever and however you stay in Sligo and, given the rapid changes being experienced today by the Irish economy, the Cead Mile Failte – “a hundred thousand welcomes” - is just as likely to be extended to you today by a young lady or gentleman from Latvia, Estonia or Poland as it is from a local lass or lad.

Every type of hotel accommodation is available from resort golf hotels, beach family hotels, four-star world standard international chains to family owned family friendly local facilities. For the sybarite a number of renowned country house accommodations are available allowing you to savour elegance from times past with wonderful food and ambience. Sligo’s B&Bs provide a superb traditional accommodation base throughout the county and assure visitors of homely comforts.

If you “bring your own” there are camping and caravan parks at the coastal seaside towns. A real feature of the county is the variety, quality and bed capacity of excellent self-catering accommodation…whether close to Sligo town or dotted throughout the county. This very considerable accommodation range is further enhanced by award winning hostels catering for families or groups.

Welcome to Sligo! Enjoy your stay – and please don’t hesitate to ask any of us if we can make your stay a positive and enjoyable experience. We are only too happy to help.


Discover Sligo Ltd., Loughanelton, Calry, Co.Sligo, T 071 9147488, E

County Sligo Tourism, Fáilte Ireland North West Office, Temple Street, Sligo, Ireland, 071 91 71905,


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