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Map of Cliffoney from 1832.
Map of Cliffoney village from the first edition of the Ordnance Survey 1837.

Cliffoney - the Most Interesting Village in Ireland

Cliffoney is a small, ancient and extremely historic village in the north of County Sligo, within the Gaelic kingdom of Carbury, once ruled by the O'Connor-Sligo family. Cliffoney is located between the beautiful and scenic headland of Mullaghmore on the Wild Atlantic Way, and the fabulous glacial Gleniff Horseshoe Valley in the Dartry Mountains. There are five neolithic monuments around the village, and many fine examples of ringforts. The famous St. Brigit's Holy Well is just outside the village.

In later times, 1802 - 1865, the village and 12,000 acres in Ahamlish was the property of British politician and warmonger Lord Palmerston, who constructed the principal buildings in Cliffoney. The term 'Gunboat Diplomacy' was coined in response to Palmerston's aggressive style of dealing with other nations, as for example his treatment of China during the First and Second Opium Wars. In 1914, the Sinn Féin Priest, historian, orator, inventor and world traveller Fr. Michael O'Flanagan arrived in Cliffoney. After fifteen turbulent months, when Father O'Flanagan was transferred as a disciplinary punishment, the villagers locked the village church in a stand-off with the Bishop which was to last for ten weeks.

The Boyne Cavalcade is an ancient Irish march. The tune is played here on two Gaelic Medieval Wire strung Harps. Taken from The Bunting Collection, this arrangement by Meg Byrne. The tune is better known today as Come Out Ye Black and Tans! You can access Meg's Youtube channel here.

The name Clia Fuinne means the Ford of the Wattles or Hurdles, from the ford across the Cliffoney river at the north end of the village. This is an ancient routeway through the coastal plains between Donegal and Sligo, and has been in use since the neolithic or new stone age, when farmers from the continent began to land here in large numbers 6,000 years ago. The Sligo region was one of the first parts of Ireland to be colonized during the neolithic, and the causewayed enclosure at Magheraboy just south of Sligo Town is the earliest such monument known in these islands, dating to around 4,200 BC.

1911 OS Map of Cliffoney.
Saint Brigit's well and Cliffoney village in Carbury, County Sligo. 1911 Ordnance Survey Map.

Neolithic Cliffoney

The oldest man-made constructions in Cliffoney are the five megalithic mounments about the village, constructed in a line that closely follows the modern road. The best known of these is Creevykeel, one of the finest and most accessible examples of a full court tomb to be found in Ireland. Cartronplank is another court tomb, and was probably bigger than Creevykeel when complete, but is now quite ruined. Two more monuments are found in Creevymore, while another monument near Creevykeel was broken up to build a forge around 1880.

An aerial photograph of the huge court cairn at Creevykeel, widely acknowledged as one of the finest examples of this kind of monument in Ireland.

Cliffoney was an extremely important area during the neolithic, judging by the number of monuments. The megaliths around Cliffoney are of a very different kind to those found at Finner, Carrowmore and Carrowkeel, and would seem to have been built by a different group of colonizing farmers.

The large monument at Cartronplank was known as Toomnafearmore, the Grave of the Great Man. The name indicates that the person believed to be buried there was a giant of the Formorian race one of the early tribes who contested the ownership of Ireland with the Tuatha Dé Danann during the Second Battle of Moytura.

Wakeman's 1880 illustration of the chamber at Creeveykeel.
Wakeman' s 1880 illustration of the chamber at Creeveykeel. The imposing entry lintol was pushed over by three local brothers around 1905, and was incorrectly replaced horizontal position after the excavations conducted by Hugh O'Neill Hencken and the Harvard Archaeological Mission in 1936.

Cattle-raiding is a central theme running through every story in the canon of Irish mythology. Cattle first arrived in Ireland transported by sea from Brittany during the neolithic. The oldest domestic cattle remains come from the famous and controversial Ferriter's Cove on the coast of County Kerry. Dating to about 4,350 BC, they are extremely early given that the Irish neolithic begins about 4,000 BC. It is highly that they are the remains of a shipwreck during an early attempt to colonize Ireland.

We can be certain that when cattle did begin to arrive, they were highly prized and regularly stolen from the early farmers by non cattle-possessing neighbors. It is easy to imagine the large centrally enclosed courtyard at Creevykeel being used as a sacred neolithic cattle pen, something between a temple and a cattle market.

Saint Brigit's well at Cliffoney in County Sligo.
Saint Brigit's well at Cliffoney in County Sligo.

Early Christian Cliffoney

There are a large number of raths, ringforts and cashels, the homesteads of medieval cattle farmers in the Cliffoney region. Several of the Cliffoney forts are fine examples, being large raised platform raths with stone-lined internal chambers called souterrains. There is an excellent example close to the ruined megalith of Creevymore, close to Cliffoney bridge. The fort is an oval earthen platform, and stones from the megalith may have been used in the construction of the souterrain. This monument was used for public meetings and political orations during the Land Wars of the 1880's. Another fine example of a raised earthen ringfort is at the top of Chapel hill on the way to Ballintrillick, between a pair of bungalows on the left side of the road.

The early Christian cross-slab and modern statue of Saint Brigit.
The early Christian cross-slab and modern statue of Saint Brigit.

The largest enclosure surrounds Saint Brigit's well close to the village. This earthen ecclesiastical fort is some forty meters in diameter, larger than usual for this type of monument. The original church at Cliffoney, Tempeall Bui, was located about 200 meters to the north. The church was probably dismantled and removed sometime before the Ordnance Survey mapped the village in 1837. It is likely that the stones were used to build the extention to the Cliffoney Inn when Lord Palmerston had the village schools and church built in the 1820's.

Spinning in Cliffoney around 1900.
A fantastic image of cottage industry: spinning wool in Cliffoney around 1900. Photograph by Robert Welch © National Museums of Northern Ireland.

Saint Brigit's well was a popular place of devotion with passing pilgrims. The well is within the ploughed out ringfort, and was one of five wells within a small area. A famous cattle fair was held here since ancient times, but was stopped by the Catholic church many years ago. The cross slab bears an unusual engraving with a clockwise swastika in the top of the cross, and probably dates to the Seventh century.

Medieval Cliffoney

The mass of the Dartry Mountains cuts the ancient territory of Carbury off from the rest of County Sligo. Between the mountains and the sea, the land was covered forest and bog. There were two roads passing through this region, one hugging the base of the mountains, the other passing through Cliffoney on the coast. During the medieval period Cliffoney surely witnessed many armies passing through, as the O'Donnell's fought many wars here while laying claim to South Sligo and North Roscommon. There is a mention in the Annals of Red Hugh O'Donnell's armies camping at Carrownamadoo a few miles south of Cliffoney, during the Nine Years War (1594 - 1603). There were medieval castles at Grange, Tullaghan and Kinlough, but none are recorded in the Cliffoney area. Many of the ringforts in the area would still have been in use at this time, occupied by cattle-farming families.

Father Michael O'Flanagan, to the right of the photograph, at the funeral of O'Donovan Rossa in Glasnevin Cemetery in August 1915.
Father Michael O'Flanagan, to the right of the photograph, at the funeral of O'Donovan Rossa in Glasnevin Cemetery in August 1915.

Lord Palmerston

Henry Mount Temple, better known as the Third Viscount Palmerston (1786 - 1865), a British politician and Landlord inherited about 11,000 acres of land, which included Cliffoney, when he succeeded his father in 1802. When the young Palmerston first visited his estates in 1808, he found a wild, desolote and overcrowded area with few roads and lots of pooor boggy land. He began a programme of improvements and is responsible for many of the buildings which exist in the village today.

Queen Victoria, through her victory during the Opium Wars, became the first drug dealing monarch.
Queen Victoria, through her victory during the Opium Wars,
became the first drug dealing monarch.

The Cliffoney Boy's School (now the Father Michael O'Flanagan or Village Hall) was constructed in 1824, the Church of Saint Molaise was built between 1826 and 1828, and the hotel known as the Cliffoney Inn (today called O'Donnell's Bar) was completed in 1828. These buildings occupy three of the corners surrounding the crossroads in the village. The Cliffoney Royal Irish Constabulary barracks was built on the fourth corner in 1842, the year which saw the conclusion of the First Opium War between Britian and China. Palmerston's involvement in both Opium Wars was a contraversial and odius episode in Colonial history, when the British Government forced the Chinese Authorities, at gun point, to legalise the opium trade.

VICE World News host Zing Tsjeng delves into her own family history to remember that time the British Empire was one of the worst drug pushers in history and got China hooked on opium. Empires of Dirt is a show about Europeans getting rich at the expense of everyone else. VICE World News host Zing Tsjeng uncovers the ugly history of the European colonial empires they don’t teach us in schools. Countries around the world were looted for their treasures, people were oppressed and exploited and European powers relentlessly profited. The far-reaching repercussions of colonialism are all around us, from our financial institutions to the food we have in our cupboards at home - and it’s about time we took notice.

Lord Palmerston came to visit his Sligo estates on at least twelve occasions, always staying in his own apartments in the rear of the building, which he had named The Palmerston Arms. His record as an improving landlord is regarded as benevolent by some historians, but he is chiefly remembered in North Sligo for introducing a policy of 'Assisted Emigration', where starving tenants on his estate were offered paid passage to North America, where many arrived destitute and starving. He and his fellow Liberal politicians did the minium to assist the natives when the population of Ireland was decimated during what can only be called the Great Genocide of 1845 - 1849. Though the potato crops failed, there was plenty of food of all kinds being exported from Ireland during that period.

Unlike the Cholera pandemic, which caused the deaths of some 1,500 people, both rich and poor, in Sligo over a six week period in 1832, starvation only affected to poor when the potatoes failed.

Father Michael O'Flanagan and his good friend Patrick Pearse at the funeral of O'Donovan Rossa in Glasnevin Cemetery in August 1915.
Father Michael O'Flanagan and his good friend Patrick Pearse at the funeral of O'Donovan Rossa in Glasnevin Cemetery in August 1915. This was a stamp issued by An Post in 2015, and the image also features John MacBride and Kathleen Clarke.

Fr. Michael O'Flanagan

The Rebel Sinn Féin Priest, Father Michael O'Flanagan was a hero to older generations of Cliffoney residents, though sadly he is not so well remembered today as he should be. Fr. O'Flanagan arrived in Cliffoney in August of 1914, shortly after the outbreak of World War I. His transfer from Roscommon to Cliffoney by Bishop Bernard Coyne was a punishment for his outspoken Nationalist views. Fr. Michael soon became very popular with the people of Cliffoney. He championed their cause over the summer of 1915 in the incident that became known as the Cliffoney Bog Fight. Villagers were forbidden to cut turf in the bogs around Cliffoney, and consequencely had no fuel source. Fr. Michael led a group of 200 villagers up to Cloonerco bog where they cut and harvested turf in defiance of the Congested Districts Board and the local Royal Irish Constabulary.

The Staunchest Priest: Fr Michael O'Flanagan. Fr. Michael O’Flanagan was born in 1876 near Castlerea, Co. Roscommon. He went to school at Cloonboniffe and then attended secondary school at Summerhill College, Sligo. On graduating in 1894 he entered St. Patrick’s College, Maynooth, where he was ordained for the Diocese of Elphin in 1900. Following ordination he returned to Summerhill College and worked there as a teacher for a number of years. Between 1912 and 1914 he served in Rome. He was appointed as curate to the parish of Ahamlish in North Sligo in 1914. Shortly afterwards he became involved in the first (of many) acts of social defiance. The incident came to be known as the "Cloonerco Bog Fight" where he agitated for turbary rights for the local people against the wishes of the Congested District Board and his own bishop. In response Fr. O’Flanagan was transferred from Cliffoney to Crossna in Co. Roscommon from where he was to play a prominent role in the War of Independence during the following years. In 1917 his eloquence was a major contributory factor in the success of Sinn Féin candidate Count Plunkett in the first election contested by the republicans, which came to be known as "the election of the snows". In the Summer of 1918 he was suspended from clerical duties because of his activities with Sinn Féin. He was Vice-President of Sinn Fein from 1917 and was chosen to recite the invocation at the first meeting of the newly proclaimed Dáil Éireann in January 1919. He opposed the Anglo-Irish Treaty of 1921 but did not play a major part in the subsequent Civil War. He was president of Sinn Féin from 1933 to 1935 but he was expelled from the party for participating in a Radio Éireann (2RN) broadcast in January 1936. He was one of the few Catholic priests who defended the Spanish Republic during the Spanish Civil War, siding with such notable republicans as Peadar O'Donnell, George Gilmore and Frank Ryan. From 1932 he had been working on the preparation of County Histories in Irish and the first to be published was for his native Roscommon. "Stair na gCondae 1 – Ros Comáin" was published in 1938. The same year he was allowed to again say Mass in public and he died in Dublin on 8th August 1942 at the age of 66. He was buried in Glasnevin Cemetery on August 10th. His graveside oration was given by "Sceilg" Produced by Proinsias O' Conluain; First broadcast 17th October, 1976

Fr. Michael was an Advanced Nationalist and an ardent Republican; his father had been a member of the Fenians, and both his parebts were native irish speakers. When ther veteran Fenian Jeremiah O'Donovan Rossa died in New York in late June 1915 (coincidently the same day the Cloonerco Bog Protest erupted in Cliffoney), Fr. Michael was chosen to lead the prayers at his funeral in Glasnevin. He was removed suddenly from his post in Cliffoney in October 1915, as a punishment by the Bishop. In response, the villagers siezed the key and locked the church, thus beginning a standoff known as the Cliffoney Rebellion which lasted for ten weeeks. The church was finally reopened at Fr. Michael's request on Christmas Eve in 1915.

More details of the life of this fascinating individual can be found at

Charity second-hand stall in the Fr. Michael O'Flanagan Hall.
Charity second-hand stall in the Fr. Michael O'Flanagan Hall.

Traditional Music

Cliffoney is home to one of the longest-running traditional music sessions in the northwest of Ireland: the Father Michael O'Flanagan memorial session, held in O'Donnell's Pub on the last Saturday of each month. The Fr. O'Flanagan session attracts musicians of all ages from the nearby counties of Donegal, Leitrim and Fermana as well as Sligo Town.

Traditional music session in memory of Father Michael O'Flanagan.
Traditional music session in memory of Father Michael O'Flanagan, O'Donnell's Bar, 2015.

The evening usually begins at 7.30 pm with a slow session for beginners and improvers, followed by a faster session from 9.00 pm onwards. Dates and times for music sessions are posted on the O'Donnell's Bar Facebook page.

A swan at sunset on Bunduff Lake below Cliffoney.
A beautiful and tranquil moment: a swan in a sunbeam at sunset on Bunduff Lake below Cliffoney.