Last Updated: Friday - 09/24/2010
Week of January, 2003
In search of saints at Sligo
Saints and sinners weave throughout this Irish abbey's spectacular history
St. Dominic - Feast Day - August 8
St. Asicus - Feast Days - April 14, 27
By TED FITZGERALD
Special to the WCR
The oldest structure, and the only medieval one in the city, is the ruin of the Dominican Friary of Sligo. Its broken walls and arches have witnessed almost a millennium of devotion, intrigue, pathos and destruction on the banks of the placid Garavogue River.
The weathered stones are a memorial and tribute to an age when monasticism was the core of Christianity in Ireland and abbeys important elements of the economy.
This one belonged to the Order of Preachers, founded in 1216 by St. Dominic (feast day Aug. 8). It was an innovative mendicant society that would enjoy enormous success in 13th century Europe.
By the time of Dominic's death in 1221, his friaries had spread to England and he had already been canonized when an abbey was established for his followers in northwestern Ireland at Sligo 31 years later.
Maurice Fitzgerald, second Baron of Offaly and grandson of Norman-Welsh adventurer Maurice Fitzgerald who landed in Ireland in 1169 built the friary.
There seem to have been more sinners than saints associated with the abbey. Feuding Irish clans, the O'Donnells and O'Conners, considered it the spoils of war.
Once its wooden roofs were removed to build siege machines to attack the nearby Fitzgerald castle and later, it served the area as a handy stone quarry. The complex survived fires, the slaughter of its friars in 1641 and a later eviction in 1698.
Fitzgerald's castle is long gone, but the town of Sligo has prospered over the years. A major port, it saw much emigration activity during the 19th century potato famine in Ireland. It has become a popular tourist destination, particularly for disciples of poet W.B. Yeats, whose family resided here and whose Lake Isle of Innisfree is a short distance up the river.
Today, tours of the old abbey can be had for a nominal fee with excellent, knowledgeable guides. And although a ruin for centuries, the basic configurations of the chapter room, refrectory and dormitories can all be identified.
The church itself consists of nave, tower, choir and a south transept, all in various states of survival. Later tombs, set into the walls, include elaborate carved sepulchres memorializing the O'Craian family (1506) and the O'Conner Sligos (1624).
Today, the people of Sligo worship nearby in the grand Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception, re-opened following renovations in 1975. It was built in 1875 by Bishop Gillooley of Elphin in County Roscommon after he moved the diocesan seat to the larger city of Sligo. It is of Romanesque Revival style, of cut limestone with round-headed windows and arches and a soaring, steepled bell tower.
It is said to possess one of the finest 19th century church interiors in Ireland. The expansive nave, illuminated by 67 spectacular stained glass windows behind massive pillared arcades, leads to impressive artifacts - an alabaster statue of the church's patron, the finely chiselled limestone altar and lectern.
Its origins lost in antiquity, another cathedral treasure is a wooden statue of fifth century St. Asicus (or Ascicus or Tassach, feast day April 14 or 27). First bishop and patron of Elphin and monastery abbot there, he was an early disciple of St. Patrick. Asicus was a coppersmith by trade and is said to have made religious items for his mentor. His artisanship is recalled in the cathedral's shamrock-patterned, beaten brass altar screen.