Sligo is located on the north west coast of Ireland. Hemmed in between mountains, Lough Gill and the Atlantic Ocean, the town was founded in the 13th century on the river Garavogue which drains into Sligo Bay.
Sligo in 1832 was far different to the town we know today. Some key streets that give the town its current character had not yet been built and many buildings we recognise now did not exist. The Mail Coach Road was still relatively new having been opened around 1805, Sligo Gaol had been partially built by 1818 and Calry church was newly constructed on the Mall in 1823. The Methodist chapel on Wine Street had been built in 1832 and works had begun on a new road now known as Temple Street.
Indeed, much of Sligo in 1832 still had the skeletal layout of the old medieval town from the 13th century. Some buildings in the story of the cholera epidemic of 1832 are still standing in Sligo: the medieval Abbey stood, still a ruin, but without iron railing-topped wall; and St John’s cathedral was in use. The Sligo Fever hospital had been built in 1822 on a site behind the current Sligo University Hospital, it is no longer in existence having been demolished in the 1970s.
One of the oldest streets in Sligo is Old Market Street. It still retains its distinctive winding shape, but in 1832 continued uninterrupted onto the junction of Castle Street. Pearse Road was not yet built and instead of branching off at that point, Old Market Street was one long continuous street including what is now known as Teeling street, where Sligo courthouse now sits.
This lower part of Old Market Street was in the early nineteenth century known variously as Correction Street or Gaol Street. This is because it was the location of the old courthouse, the old gaol and the old RIC (Royal Irish Constabulary) barracks. Because Charlotte Thornley’s father was an RIC officer this is where many speculate she was born in 1818 and may have lived with her family in 1832: the building that currently occupies the site of the old barracks (Louis Doherty’s Antiques) and this contains a plaque commemorating her.
By 1832, Sligo still retained the urban layout of a medieval town, and many of its buildings did not face the river Garvogue rather the whole town had ‘its back turned to the water’. Throughout the eighteenth many Irish towns had been redeveloped to ‘face’ their rivers, for example Dublin gradually turned to face the river Liffey with many of its major public buildings, such as the Four Courts and Customs House, facing the river surrounded by handsome Georgian buildings.
Aesthetics aside, it was also a time of poor sanitation and most towns that had been built, like Sligo, on a river, took their water from, and drained most of their waste back into, that river. Town residents took their drinking water from pumps which contained untreated water from the river and from wells which contained stagnant water.
In 1832 Sligo had a small number of short sewers which drained into the river and in the water supply (Wood-Martin, 1882). It was not until the 1890s that a modern sewage scheme was laid out and piped water was brought to the town.
“Being without pavement, without sidewalks, and with runnels of muddy water, which have been since covered, flowing over some streets, as Market Street, and Old Market Street, the passer-by had to pick his steps, when moving along” (O’Rourke, 1889).
Many of the buildings on Old Market Street were thatched cabins and people lived in crowded conditions in these. The cabins would have had a pile of waste or ‘middens’ located outside that contained the domestic waste from the home.
Sligo in 1832 with its poor sanitation and people living at close quarters, was ripe for the devastating cholera outbreak to come.
Much of what we consider the be the ‘old’ buildings Sligo were not yet in existence in 1832. The grand public buildings that form pivotal identifying reference points had not yet been constructed: the town hall and railway station did not come until 1860 and the Sligo RC cathedral was not built until 1874; the ‘new’ courthouse in 1875. Hyde Bridge (at the Glasshouse) did not yet exist and neither did ‘the line’ or Markievicz road (where Thomas Connolly’s now is).
For a much more comprehensive study of the history of Sligo’s streets see the excellent book by Fiona Gallagher, The Streets of Sligo: Urban Evolution Over the Course of Seven Centuries (2008).