The Bridge to Connemara
By Nicholas Grundy
Despite its growing reputation of late, some people surprisingly still do not know where Galway is exactly. I always tell them: ‘Leave Dublin, head directly west for two hundred kilometres, and once you hit the ocean again you’re there.’ Resting at the head of Galway Bay, the city is not, however, quite at the extreme end of Ireland. While it can seem remote to some, Galway is rather well connected to the rest of the country while also serving as one of only three narrow entrances into the Connemara region further west. The city is squeezed between the sea to the south and the massive Lough Corrib to the north. This narrow spit of land between two great bodies of water measures only a few miles across, and at present a mere four bridges span the River Corrib, linking the rest of Ireland with Connemara.
Galway comprises a number of distinct areas. In the centre, the keen eye will still spot numerous remnants of the old town walls which roughly encompass today’s inner city. Walking westward past countless buskers down the pedestrianised Shop Street, one reaches the Spanish Arch—in fact two arches forming a bulwark jutting out where river meets sea. Extending to the south is the much-photographed Long Walk, a row of terraced houses splashed in all variety of vibrant colours.
Crossing the river atop Wolfe Tone Bridge brings you to the Claddagh, originally a seaside fishing community outside the city’s defences. Throughout summer, one can spot the area’s traditional fishing boats, Galway hookers, venturing out to sea as they unfurl their ruddy-brown sails.
Departing the namesake of Galway’s renowned Claddagh rings, a short walk further west sees the ocean emerge once more. Here lies Salthill, a stylish shoreline suburb and home to the long seafront walk known simply as ‘the Prom’. Strolling along, you will find the picturesque diving board and beach at Blackrock, as well as the magnificent Silverstrand at the city’s limits.
Back in Galway’s heart, you can trace its history northward along the river. The city’s Irish name, Gaillimh, comes from this very river, known more commonly as the Corrib in English. At the river’s mouth is the original harbour. During the Middle Ages, Galway was the central port in Ireland for all trade with France and Spain, also welcoming maritime routes from around the Scottish isles. Further north, the river’s raging waters quickly branch out into various canals and races. Hundreds of years ago, these waterways rushed beneath the city’s many mills and distilleries. At one point, Galway even became the whiskey capital of Ireland, with the amber liquid brewed in immense stone structures vaulting over the many channels.
From the thirteenth century right up until the end of the 1800s, a group of fourteen merchant families dominated all facets of life in the city. These clans eventually became known as the Tribes of Galway, and the term has certainly stuck. The local Gaelic football players and hurlers are the Tribesmen, while many of the family names can be spotted all around. After seeing the name ‘Joyce’ plastered on shopfronts and signs, one saunters down Kirwan’s Lane only to re-emerge and soon stumble upon Lynch’s Castle. The tribes also spread westward throughout Connemara, with descendant John D’Arcy of the D’Arcy dynasty founding Clifden.
One aspect presided over by the families was Galway’s social life. While the fourteen houses no longer wield their former influence, the city’s pre-eminence as Ireland’s party capital has given rise to a group of modern-day tribes vying for control of the bustling social scene. Not necessarily tied to any specific bloodline, the current clans instead relate to geographical areas, each home to their own tightly knit constellation of popular venues. In the city centre, you have Eyre Square and Shop Street, housing Galway’s largest nightclubs. Around the corner is up-and-coming Woodquay, currently hoping to reinvent itself and win back some of the revellers. Back down toward the river sits the Latin Quarter, popular among tourists and locals alike. Finally, just a stone’s throw across the river is Galway’s West End, a powerhouse for boutique pubs and eateries, even boasting one of the city’s two Michelin-star restaurants. With so much happening in such a small space, it’s easy to see why Galway is a tourist mecca.
Foreign tourists are not the only reason for Galway’s rich nightlife. Universities such as the National University of Ireland Galway and the Galway-Mayo Institute of Technology ensure a steady supply of energetic students keen to let their hair down year-round. Meanwhile, the city’s exhaustive list of annual festivals and events entices locals and outsiders alike. Spectators from Dublin, Cork, and Belfast flock to Ireland’s west in hopes of catching the Macnas street performers at one of their summer shows or the Halloween parade. Mouth-watering produce is brought in from Connemara for the yearly food festival held in April. And if that wasn’t enough, specific foods such as oysters even have their own separate festivals later in the year.
In July and August, the city is swamped with punters keen to make it big at the Galway Races. If horse racing isn’t your cup of tea, there are plenty of opportunities for the keen runner, including the Streets of Galway road race. The Galway International Arts Festival is a major hit each summer, showcasing local, national, and overseas talent. In fact, the Galway art scene is steadily reaching its boiling point, tipped to explode should it win the highly anticipated title of European Capital of Culture in the year 2020.
Galway is indeed the most bohemian of Ireland’s cities, where everyone knows their neighbourhood’s eccentric artists and other creatives. When it comes to cultural offerings, you won’t come up short here. Accomplished musicians perform in crowded taverns which host poetry readings the very next day. Brilliantly choreographed stage performers dazzle onlookers across the road from gourmet restaurateurs. Unconventional art forms are likewise burgeoning, the most conspicuous being large-scale street art installations. As a cultural hub, Galway attracts street artists from far and wide. One particular painter recently returned to announce his mission to bring colour and life to the streets. A beautiful aspect of all this is the small-town vibe still felt in this city. In other parts of the world, it’s rare that you can spot a new mural only to realise it was painted by your own neighbour.
Perhaps it is precisely this laid-back nature of Galway which is its defining feature. Unlike in Dublin, here you have both the space and the time to settle in and explore. A favourite expression among natives is ‘take it easy’, and it doesn’t take long for this approach to life to rub off on outsiders. As soon as the sun is shining, the Salthill promenade is thronged with walkers. As you watch them meander past, stopping to chat with dawdling cyclists, it is easy to understand why Galway was recently voted the friendliest city in the world by readers of Travel + Leisure.
Just one word of warning though: many a visitor has come to Galway only to become trapped in this glorious locale. So maybe just book yourself a one-way ticket for now.