Bringing Connemara’s Culture to the World
Story and photography by Nicholas Grundy
In the second half of 2016, Galway City and County were named as Ireland’s Capital of Culture for the year 2020.
To those unfamiliar with the term, each year a few cities around the European Union are designated European Capitals of Culture for a twelve-month period. Just like the Olympics, this tradition also started in Athens, with the Greek capital holding the first title in 1985. In 2020, it is Galway’s turn to receive additional State and EU funding to put on several cultural events with a local, regional, and European focus. As part of County Galway, Connemara is also set to benefit culturally, socially, and economically. The year-long series of events will no doubt further bolster both Connemara and the Galway region as Ireland’s number one travel destination.
Galway wasn’t the only region in Ireland vying for the cultural title either. To come out victorious, a dedicated team put forward exactly why Galway deserved it more than other parts of the country. To anyone who has visited the area, however, it should be obvious. Both city and county are home to a multitude of young, up-and-coming artists and creatives. As a college town, the city is full of fresh, new ideas. This emanates outwards across the county and throughout Connemara, where tried and true practices merge with modern innovations, whether it be painting or even mussel farming.
Perhaps most importantly, the wilderness of Connemara provides Galwegians with the perfect environment for creative contemplation. It’s no wonder artists from far and wide visit or settle down here amidst its majestic mountains and undulating fields. Rivers meander beneath lazy clouds, a world away from the hustle and bustle of Ireland’s urbanized east coast. Along the jagged shoreline, the ocean offers a pristine expanse of solitude, with small islands harboring a haven to which creatives can escape. Meanwhile back in Galway City, abstract painters, musicians, and sculptors are free to experiment with their own flair in a carefree town. Artistic visionaries can be seen chatting by the rushing canals while fine art photographers tour the laneways imparting their knowledge to keen students.
Having settled here from overseas myself, what I’ve always found most surprising is how Galway and Connemara pack such a powerful cultural punch despite the relatively small population. The region won the 2020 Capital of Culture title as it could easily demonstrate its dedication towards the arts, as well as the impressive future works it will create with the additional funding. Among the area’s existing creative scene, we see talented street artists such as Finbar 247 and Shane O’Malley and ingenious wood and metal craftsmen Dan Gardner and Eugene Finnegan, as well as countless others. Out west from the city one finds self-styled “Connemartist” Gridge as well, whose rural works have started popping up along country lanes. City and county also see an array of annual events showcasing their creativity. The Clifden Arts Festival and Spiddal Craft Village bring a vibrant atmosphere to Connemara. Each summer the Galway International Arts Festival draws crowds from across Europe. Probably its most impressive spectacle is the Macnas performance troupe, who carry out an invigorating street parade complete with moving floats and costumed stilt-walkers. Their Halloween parade through the streets of Galway is certainly a sight to behold. It comes complete with a fire-breathing dragon float and street performers casting crimson light down alleyways. In fact, most Americans are unaware that Halloween originated in this very part of Ireland!
While many of the happenings of Galway 2020 will take place in the city, a series of key works and events are slated for Connemara. Three of these aim to bring increased awareness to the region and have as their goal the inclusion of spectators. Middle Island is a performance piece set to commence in the harbor town of Rossaveal. From here, both audience member and actor alike shall set sail for Inis Meáin, the ‘middle’ island of the three Aran Islands. Once arriving at their destination, the line between performer and onlooker will blur, as the crowd will be invited to help tell the story. The tale imparted will be based on the New Testament, chronicling the life of Mary after the passing of her son, Jesus. At its core, the Capital of Culture program intends to solidify the bond between Europe’s diverse lands and their peoples. As such, the performance of Middle Island will also be held on the French island of Corsica, highlighting their shared history. Although more than a thousand miles apart, both islands historically spoke languages from the Celtic family, with Aran Islanders still speaking Gaelic to this day.
Irish artist John Gerrard’s mirrored pavilions are conundrums. The rectangular structures, as long as football fields, are covered in reflective panels to help them camouflage into their surrounding environments. At the same time, the beautiful reflections of Connemara’s marbled clouds floating past will cause the pavilions to stand out boldly from their surrounds. As the work jumps out of the landscape, it is simultaneously shrouded in a cloak of invisibility. This juxtaposition offers the viewer time for introspection as they wander inside to view the remainder of the exhibition. Gerrard’s Connemara pavilion is entitled Pelt Work and will be found in the western wilds at a yet-undisclosed location. His pavilions will also feature in displays in Santander, in northern Spain, with plans to exhibit in New York and Texas as well—quite a global reach for something starting off in Connemara!
The most ambitious project tying all of Connemara together during Galway 2020 is the Galway Ghost Train community project. Long since decommissioned, the picturesque Galway to Clifden railway line now lies dormant. However, this fifty-mile tract of land is scheduled to become a smoothly paved cycling ‘greenway’ before 2020. This will offer bike riders and long-distance walkers alike the chance to reconnect with villages throughout the region. To highlight the significance of this historic route through Ireland’s west, Galway Ghost Train will entail a series of performance projects along the way. Two of the shows will occur at the line’s start and finish points—Clifden and Galway. To properly bring awareness to the importance of Connemara within Ireland, Europe, and the world, the main act will bring together a multitude of runners and cyclists along the former tracks. These local and international participants will don high-tech, remote-controlled LED suits and set off from Galway to Clifden after the sun has set. At specific points along the journey, their glowing garments will help tell various stories about the ghost train of times past as they etch a band of light across the countryside. The night skies will be illuminated, much as they already have by local artist Gridge’s light-based works. This nocturnal adventure will be captured to create a film piece for the rest of the world to enjoy.
One of the main objectives of the Galway 2020 events is to bring attention to Connemara’s influence not just on Ireland and Europe, but on the rest of the world. Connemara natives have had an impact across the globe, migrating far and wide after the mass exodus resulting from the two potato famines as well as in recent decades. Many actors, musicians, and artists can trace their heritage back to Ireland’s west coast. It is only fitting that the region’s reputation as a cultural hotspot is further cemented and highlighted on the world stage.
For more information, please visit www.Galway2020.ie