Banner: Knocknarea at Sunset.
Looking south to Benbulben's tabletop from the megalithic court cairn at Gortnaleck near Grange. There are many megalithic structures, mainly court cairns and wedges, scattered around the base of the Dartry Mountains.


The Ben Bulbin country in County Sligo is one of those rare places in Ireland where fairies are thought to be visible, and our first witness from there claims to be able to see the fairies or 'gentry' and to talk with them. This mortal so favoured lives in the same townland where his fathers have lived during four hundred years, directly beneath the shadows of Ben Bulbin, on whose sides Dermot is said to have been killed while hunting the wild-boar. And this famous old mountain, honeycombed with curious grottoes ages ago when the sea beat against its perpendicular flanks, is the very place where the 'gentry' have their chief abode.

Even on its broad level summit, for it is a high square table-land like a mighty cube of rock set down upon the earth by some antediluvian god, there are treacherous holes, wherein more than one hunter may have been lost for ever, penetrating to unknown depths; and by listening one can bear the tides from the ocean three or four miles away surging in and out through ancient subterranean channels, connected with these holes. In the neighbouring mountains there are long caverns which no man has dared to penetrate to the end, and even dogs, it is said, have been put in them never to emerge, or else to come out miles away.

Evans-Wentz, Fairy Faith in Celtic Countries, 1911

Benbulben is Knocknarea's only rival for the most dramatic mountain in County Sligo. It's steep buttressed western extreme and flat top looms over the road from Sligo to Donegal like a huge barrier or mythological beast. The hulking outline of Benbulben is visible from all around Sligo and it dominates the landscape to the north of the county.

View to Benbulben from Streedagh.
View to Benbulben from Streedagh.

Benbulben is part of the range called the Dartry Mountains, named after an iron age tribe who inhabited the area. The other heads and peaks of Dartry are Kings Mountain, with it's fantastic Pinnacle Gully, Truskmore, which is the highest part of the range, now crowned by a series of tele-communications masts, Benwisken, a beautiful ridge shaped like a frozen wave. The highest cave in Ireland, Diarmuid and Grainne's cave is located at the top of the cliffs at the rear of the beautiful Horseshoe valley behind Benwisken. Tievebawn has another cave, a pothole called Cormac Reagh's Hole, high up on it's slopes.

The Highest Hill in Sligo, a reel by Ed Reavy.
Ed Reavy, a fiddle player who was born in Cavan and lived in the States composed many fine tunes. This reel was named by his son after Benbulben, the highest hill in Sligo.

Benbulben is named after a Gaelic chieftain and means Gulban's Head. It is the western point of the Dartry Mountains, a large and bulky collection of heads and valleys and forms the main physical barrier between Donegal and Sligo. The mountain is formed from Dartry limestone, a hard limestone filled with the fossels of sea creatures which lived some 300 million years ago. The dramatic and unusual shapes of Benbulben, Benwisken and Eagle's Rock were sculpted by glaciers during the last ice age.

The Great Cave at Gleniff.
The Gleniff Cave, Ballintrillick, County Sligo.

Fairy Folklore and Mythology

The Benbulben area had long been regarded as a haunt of the Gentry or Good People as the people of the Otherworld were known in north Sligo. W. B. Yeats and A. E. brought the American anthropologist W. Y. Evans-Wentz to the Grange and Ballintrillick area to conduct research for his study, The Fairy Faith in Celtic Countries, published in 1911. Yeats had been collecting folklore in the area since about 1890, was very struck by the Otherworldly mountain of Benbulben.

Sligo is, indeed, a great place for fairy pillaging of this kind. In the side of Ben Bulben  is a white square in the limestone. It is said to be the door of fairyland. There is no more inaccessible place in existence than this white square door; no human foot has ever gone near it, not even the mountain goats can browse the saxifrage beside its mysterious whiteness.

Tradition says that it swings open at nightfall and lets pour through an unearthly troop of hurrying spirits. To those gifted to hear their voices the air will be full at such a moment with a sound like whistling. Many have been carried away out of the neighbouring villages by this troop of riders.

I have quite a number of records beside me, picked up at odd times from the faithful memories of old peasants. Brides and new-born children are especially in danger. Peasant mothers, too, are sometimes carried off to nurse the children of the fairies. At the end of seven years they have a chance of returning, and if they do not escape then are always prisoners. 

W. B. Yeats, 1890.

The Fairy Door in Benbulben.
The Fairy Door in Benbulben.

There are many megalithic monuments scattered around the skirts of Dartry mountain, and a few more on it's peat-covered top. They are mostly court and wedge monuments, built by Ireland's first farmers. Many are in pretty ruinous condition, condition, having been used as quarrys for building-stones and walls.

The village of Ballintrillick is named after a collapsed dolmen near the National school, called the Trillick; another dolmen, since destroyed, was removed from the mouth of the Horseshoe valley in 1950 during quarrying operations. The monument below, a dual court cairn, is south west of Ballintrillick village and is located right under the magnificent backdrop of Benwisken's dramatic frozen wave.

The impressive double court cairn in the townland of Moneylahan just south of Benwisken.
The impressive double court cairn in the townland of Moneylahan just south of Benwisken.

As well as being an impressive physical reminder of Sligo's ancient past, blocking the way to the north, Benbulben is a dominant mythical landmark; the mountain is well known in Sligo's folklore tradition. There is a patch on the east side of the north face known to the people of the area as the Fairy Door. This is a black patch on a bare hollow on the side of the monntain. When the door opens the weather is bound to be good for the next few days.

The view north to Benbulben in County Sligo.
The view from Queen Maeve's cairn on Knocknarea, north to Benbulben, in County Sligo.

The Fairy Door

There is a similar door on the south-side of the mountain, which seems to be the Fairy Door Yeats is referring to. The south door is a patch of white rock high up in the cliffs of Kingsmountain.

Click below to hear John Carty and Brian Rooney play Ed Reavy's tune, the Highest Hill in Sligo.

The Highest Hill in Sligo.

There were many local traditions about the mountain which regarded it as a major Sidhe of the Túatha dé Danann, and the young Evans-Wentz collected stories around the mountain in 1911, accompanied by Yeats and AE. Fionn MacCumhail and the Fianna loved to hunt in Sligo, and Kesh Corran and Benbulben were two of their favourite hunting grounds.

A barrow on the slopes of Benbulben.
A bronze-age barrow high up on the slopes of Benbulben.

There is a tale where Fionn falls in love with a bewitched woman, Siadbh, who had been changed into a deer by a powerful and malevolent druid. Fionn rescues her and they live together for seven years before she is recaptured by the enchanter. Fionn searched for Siadbh for many years, but to no avail. While hunting on the top of Benbulben on day several years later Fionn discovered a young boy who turned out to be his son Oisin, who became one of the most famous members of the Fianna.

History of Benbulben from the Ordinance Survey of Ireland

St Columba's well at Kintogher.
St Columba's well at Kintogher. The well is located on the ancient route-way around Benbulben, which crosses the strand to the west of Drumcliff. The well is covered and uncovered by the tides each day.

Diarmuid and Grainne

Benbulben is also the setting for the final tragic scene in the saga of Diarmuid and Grainne. Fionn had spent sixteen years hunting the lovers - Grainne had run away with Diarmuid instead of marrying Fionn. Eventually, having supposedly gotten over it, Fionn allowed them to live in peace and they dwelt at Grainnemor near Kesh Corran.

The view up to Diarmuid and Grainne's cave in the back of the Ballintrillick or Gleniff Horseshoe.
The view up to Diarmuid and Grainne's cave in the back of the Ballintrillick or Gleniff Horseshoe. This is one of the highest caves in Ireland and is one of the beds of the fleeing lovers in the Fenian mythical cycle.

However, Fionn grew jealous again and set Diarmuid up by enticing him to a hunt on Benbulben, knowing well that it was likely to be the death of Diarmuid. There was a geas or spell on Diarmuid that he could not hunt boar, and he was fatally gored by the green-eared boar of Benbulben, who tossed him up on it's back and galloped up to the river Drowse and back. Diarmuid lay dying and Fionn could have saved him by giving him a drink of water from his hands, but his heart couldn't forgive and he let him die. Grainne died by her own hand soon after.

Bare Benbulben's Head.
Under Bare Benbulben's Head.

The tale of Diarmuid and Grainne has given rise to many monuments being named Labbys or Leaba Diarmuid agus Grainne, after the fleeing couple, with a good example, the Labby Rock at Moytura in South Sligo. They had to sleep in a different place each night for fear of the wrath of Fionn MacCumhal, who chased them for sixteen years. Labbys were often places where unfertile couples would go and attempt to conceive children.

A lone raven flying above the crags of Benbulben.

William Butler Yeats

Today, Benbulben, like most other things in Sligo, is closely associated with the poet W. B. Yeats who chose to be buried under Bare Benbulben's Head. Yeats died in France in 1939, but a decade passed before his remains were collected and returned to Ireland for reburial in Drumcliffe churchyard in 1948. The poet's grandfather had been rector here at this modern Church of Ireland structure built on the site of an earlier monastic site.

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!

Benbulben from the air: image taken from Bing Maps.
Benbulben from the air: image taken from Bing Maps.