Galway City prides itself on being the bohemian Irish city, where people can let their hair down.
Galway is Ireland's city that never sleeps, alive with cultural heritage and celebration. With a population of about 65,000, it is considered one of the fastest growing cities in Europe. It is also the ancient capital of Connaught province, and the current capital of what is known as the Hidden Ireland. Galway stands in contrast to some of Ireland's eastern cities, which many say have been "Europeanized" by recent development efforts.
Galway City has earned the distinction as the keeper of the traditional customs and culture of Ireland. Here Gaelic football and hurling far surpass soccer in popularity, and traditional music thrives. Folklore, music, and dance are kept alive in the many festivals held here, and at University College Galway, many students complete their studies entirely in the Irish language.
The city maintains a perfect balance between modern progress and the traditions of the past. It is a favourite residence and gathering spot for artists, writers and musicians, and citizens enjoy the performances of several internationally recognized theatre companies.
The centre of the city lies at Eyre Square, where four roads meet. The road leading north goes to Lake Corrib and then turns west to the ancient village of Claddagh. The peaceful lakes and blue skies of the region around Oughterard are a paradise for trout fishermen in May.
The road west leads to the wild beauty of Connemara, where fishing was and to some extent remains the prevailing lifestyle. The Oyster Festival in Galway city is held each autumn to celebrate the world famous oysters from Galway Bay. Life here is a law unto itself. Poitin- a variety of moonshine with a taste echoing essences of heather and the bog - is still made, even though it is illegal.
American student walks through streets of Galway and talks about why she has fallen in love with the city
In the thirteenth century, Anglo Norman settlers arrived at the mouth of the River Corrib and set up a merchant and shipping economy on the site of Galway City. The city became known as the "City of Tribes" because of 14 native families who inhabited the surrounding area.
The family names included in this designation were Athy, Blake, Bodkin, Browne, D'Arcy, Dean, Font, French, Kinwan, Joyce, Lynch, Morris, Martin, and Skerret. Barred from participation in the prospering Galway business world, their chieftains staged regular raids on the town.
The Anglo Norman settlers, mainly wealthy merchants, built Town Castles, or fortified houses capable of withstanding these repeated attacks. Over the following centuries, Gaelic and Norman influences combined to produce a style of medieval architecture still visible today in the narrow lanes and winding staircases of the old town. The prosperity of the merchant economy of medieval times ended with the invasions of Cromwell in 1652 and King William in 1691.
Environs of Galway
The road south heads toward Clare and Limerick, and passes through verdant fields and wooded hunting country. The road to the east heads to the River Shannon through the villages of Tuam and Loughrea, centres for Gaelic football and hurling. Along the way is Ballinasloe, where the annual horse fair remains among the largest in Europe. Thousands of horses are bought and sold, and travellers gather for boxing bouts to crown the annual "King of the Tinkers". The Horse Fair is historically popular across Europe, and the Czar of Russia sent emissaries to buy horses for the army 200 years ago.
The road east from Galway city also goes to Ballybrit, home of the Galway Races, held each year at the end of July. This week long festival of racing draws tens of thousands of visitors. It is filled with merry making, street fun, wagering and high stakes card games, all to celebrate the culmination of the summer tourist season in the area. The harbour area of Galway city dates back to the 1200's. The Spanish Arch and surrounding buildings still display the vestiges of the Spanish influence established through bonds formed by a flourishing wine trade. Other small architectural oddities visible around the city include:
- Footscrapers - small protrusions seen outside hotels and city homes designed to scrape the muck of the city streets, common before pavement existed, from boots before entering.
- Jostle stones - positioned at corners to keep carriages from taking the turn too closely and destroying their wheels, only a few remain in Galway city.
- Mermaids - many carvings of this mythical creature appear around the city, considered symbolic of a variety of things, including bad luck.
Galway waterfront. Image by Gary Tanner