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12 Great Irish Drives: Uncover hidden woodland waterfalls on Sligo's scenic Yeats Country Loop

Sligo is home to the “lake isle of Innisfree” – along with great views, picnic spots and sea swims.

The sweeping shores of Lough Gill, Co Sligo.
The sweeping shores of Lough Gill, Co Sligo.
Image: Shutterstock

FOR SUMMER 2019, we are partnering with Allianz to bring you the 12 Great Irish Drives: the most amazing road trips in the country. Whether it’s with friends, family or by yourself these trips should give you the courage to get in the car and go explore.

This week, Paul Wilson takes on Sligo in a loop covering the length and breadth of the county, stopping at woodland waterfalls and tiny island villages.

  • Name: Yeats Country and Lough Gill Scenic Loop Drive
  • Where: Co Sligo, starting and ending in Sligo town.
  • The route: From Sligo town, head to Rosses Point, Drumcliffe, Benbulben, Lough Gill, Strandhill and back to the town. See a full map of the route here.
  • What makes it one of Ireland’s Great Drives? This is the land that inspired WB Yeats, and it’s easy to see why. Imposing Benbulben, forests on the shores of Lough Gill, and plenty of picnic and swimming spots.
  • Photo opportunities: When the pathway to Glencar waterfall suddenly opens up to reveal the crashing white water, have your camera at the ready. 
  • Journey time: 4 hrs, approx.
  • Hidden gems: From Rosses Point at low tide, you can drive or walk out to the small village at Coney Island, instead of taking the boat. Stop in Austie’s at Rosses Point for lunch first, or pack a picnic to eat on the island.
  • If you’re feeling courageous: The Gleniff Horseshoe Drive on the northern side of the Dartry Mountains is, a thrilling 10km loop of steeply-rising single lane roads.

START IN SLIGO town (with a stop at the IT Sligo Farmers’ Market if it’s a Saturday morning), and head out along the southern edge of Rosses Peninsula to Coney Island.

When the tide is out, you can drive across Cummeen Strand along a route marked by 14 stone pillars. At high tide, there’s a boat from the pier.

As the local story goes, New York’s Coney Island took its name from this one, thanks to the captain of a merchant ship sailing between Sligo and New York. Friendly locals here are happy to chat and share stories about the history of the area.

Hungry? Back on the mainland, the 200-year-old Austie’s at Rosses Point serves up incredible local food daily, like creamy chowder, homemade brown bread and crispy battered fish.

Driving onward to Drumcliffe, you’ll find the grave of WB Yeats – though it’s more of a memorial, because his actual remains were reportedly scattered in France in 1946, as outlined in the book Body Parts by Hermione Lee.

A coffin was returned to Ireland in 1948 all the same. Lee quotes the Belfast poet Louis MacNeice, who said at the time that the casket was “more likely to contain a Frenchman with a club foot”. 

Benbulben is an imposing continuation to your drive through the land of Yeats’ poetry, a flat-topped rock in the heart of the Dartry Mountains.

shutterstock_350451068 Views of Benbulben. Source: Shutterstock

At the top sits a huge cairn, Queen Maeve’s Tomb, with views of the Wild Atlantic Way below.

For the courageous, take the 10km Gleniff Horseshoe Drive: a single lane 10km loop; it twists and coils for a spectacular, foot-on-the-brake drive.

Glencar Waterfall on Glencar Lough (technically you’re over the border into Leitrim at this stage, but not for long) is the perfect place for a picnic or a few photos.

shutterstock_1392729224 Glencar Waterfall Source: Shutterstock

Onward to Yeats’ beloved Innisfree, skirting Lough Gill. Innisfree is Irish through and through, surrounded by woodland, nature trails and views.

There’s plenty to see for nature lovers and plant fans here. According to Dan McCarthy, writing in the Irish Examiner, the area is home to “an abundance of rare plants including the strawberry tree and a species of orchid.”

On the lapping shore of Bunowen Bay, Slishwood was another of Yeats’ haunts, where you’ll find towering oaks, Norway Spruces, and pine trees, with the Ox Mountains rearing up in the background.

To explore Lough Gill’s vast waters further there are daily boat tours departing from Parke’s Castle on the Rose of Innisfree.

The N4 will take you directly back to Sligo but the R277 runs the Coolera Peninsula if you wish to extend your trip with a visit to Strandhill.

At Strandhill Beach, the jewel of the Wild Atlantic Way, Dunes Bar runs a locally famous open mic night on Mondays. If it’s earlier in the day, stop in for a coffee and cake at Shell’s Café after your Strandhill swim, before hitting the road for Sligo.

Lots of choices we make in life can require a degree of courage, no matter how big or small. Whether it’s the moment you sit behind the wheel for the first time, decide to settle down, or bite the bullet and take that trip of your dreams. This is how great things happen, and at Allianz, we are proud to support people who have the courage to go forward in life.

12 Great Irish Drives: See beaches, bridges and the Dark Hedges on Antrim’s Causeway Coastal Route>

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