Galway sits on Ireland’s west coast. Today it is a lively university town, a place for music and art and theater and sailing the sea, a place for speaking both Irish and English, a gateway to wilder landscapes inland and wild seas offshore.
It is also a place of history, from days when ancient folk came to live by the mouth of the River Corrib to a history in legend and in fact, a place where Spanish traders landed their goods, and later, an emigration port as famine and politics led many to leave the land. Contemporary energy and a touch of the past: you’ll find all of that when you visit Galway city.
You might begin by walking down the street — it changes names several times, but it’s one street, you’ll not get lost — from Eyre Square along to the river. Eyre Square itself has a park dedicated to John F.Kennedy, who was made an honorary citizen of Galway during his visit, and a monument featuring a Galway fishing boat which was dedicated at the city’s 500 year anniversary.
Along the street, you’ll find several of Galway’s best pubs for music and for craic. Craic is the name in Irish for that combination of conversation, welcome, and good fellowship that occurs when all things are going right. Along this street, Tig Coili and Neachtain’s are two with reliably good craic and music. If you’d like to venture away from the main street you’ll find many others, among them Roisin Dubh, which often hosts big names and international artists as well as a full roster of homegrown acts in both music and comedy, The Crane, which has a fine reputation for traditional music and has expanded its repertoire into roots and blues as well, and Malone’s, where you will hear Irish spoken.
You might hear Irish spoken anywhere in Galway, as it is right on the edge of Connemara, a large Gaeltacht area. Whether you know Irish or not, hearing the two languages spoken equally adds a bit to the atmosphere.
You’ll hear them both in song, too, and not only in the pubs. Galway is well known as a place for buskers, as street musicians are known. They might, indeed, be playing by the side of a medieval building such as Lynch’s Castle. Once the seat of powerful family, for some time it has housed a bank. The bank has a small museum inside telling of the history of the building. On the outside you can see carvings and stone work which date back 1490.
As you continue to explore history in Galway, you will want to visit Saint Nicholas Collegiate Church, where Columbus is said to have stopped in to pray in 1477 while on one of his voyages for Spain. The church is Galway’s oldest surviving medieval building. A fine time to visit is when open air markets are held in the area surrounding the church, usually on Saturdays. Down where the river meets the sea at the waterfront, there is another historic stone structure, Spanish Arch. It was built in the late 1500s as an extension the city’s walls to protect the quays where merchants, including those from Spain, offloaded their goods. Next to the Spanish Arch is the Galway City Museum where you may learn more about fishing, farming, and trade in Galway’s history. A bit further away is a memorial to the ships and people who left Galway during famine times.
What else might you do in Galway beyond exploring its history, going to an outdoor market, and listening to music?
There are bookstores: Galway has two of Ireland’s best, Charlie Byrne’s and Kenny’s. Kenny’s is in Liosbán on the Tuam Road and Charlie Byrne’s is in the Cornstore in the city center. Kenny’s has an art gallery and maps and prints in addition to adult and children’s books of all sorts. Byrne’s offers both new and used books. They both make fine places to while an hour or a day and both often host literary and arts events.
There is a world acclaimed theater company, whose home is The Druid. NUI Galway is a top university for undergraduate, post graduate, and Irish studies, with a campus which hosts art exhibits, talks, sports, and other events. Galway Crystal may not be quite as well known as is its counterpart across the island, Waterford Crystal, but it is just as interesting to see what its artisans produce.
Galway has many fine places to have a meal, too. One of my favorites is McDonagh’s, which has a fish and chips take away on one side and a sit in restaurant on the other, both equally good. Their seafood is sustainably sourced, too. Galway Bakery Company, known as GBC for short, another favorite, is as good for vegetarian stir fry as it is for all day Irish breakfast.
Galway is a city of festivals — there are ones celebrating writing, music, horses, and oysters just for starters. The place of the arts in day to day life of the city and the round of festivals no doubt have contributed to Galway being named the European Capitol of Culture for 2020.
For me, as fine as all these aspects of the city continue to be, Galway is at heart about music. Take a listen to Sean Keane, who was born in a small town not far from Galway and has made an international career with his music. He has recorded this song on the album Never Alone, a career spanning collection which shows his love and skill at bringing the touch of Irish sean nos style to country, folk, and Americana songs as well as those of his native land.
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