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Galway City, County Galway, Ireland

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A picture of an Irish high street in the shape of Ireland

Galway is the most westerly city in Europe, and in recent years has also been Europe's fastest growing. This was largely due to a spate of investment by (mostly American) multinationals drawn in by an aggressive marketing campaign run by the Industrial Development Agency1 focussing on Ireland's three strengths: tax incentives, an educated English-speaking workforce and alcohol.

Galway's position on the edge of the continent has had its advantages and disadvantages down the years. It has been at the heart of transatlantic travel, from Christopher Columbus to Alcock and Brown2, and the city has been built and rebuilt on the strength of its location, which has been important in both military and economic terms.

On the down side, an awfully large amount of water evaporates off the Atlantic each year, and Galway is the first bit of land on which it gets a chance to fall, an opportunity it seizes with relish. The county experiences roughly twice as much rainfall as even the eastern half of Ireland, not exactly a parched desert itself. Galway is also remote from many of the more advanced trappings of civilisation, meaning that a trip to Dublin is required to enjoy anything from a gig by the biggest bands to shopping for designer clothing.


Galway City was founded, as with most ancient cities, because of its access to water. Fresh water is provided by the River Corrib, which flows in from the lake of the same name, located a few miles north of the city. Salt water is also to hand in the form of Galway Bay, providing relatively safe and sheltered access to the Atlantic Ocean. There is evidence that people have been living in Galway for almost 10,000 years. Stone monuments on the nearby Aran Islands date back as far as 2000 BC, and there was even a Stone Age axe-head found there which was dated at over 300,000 years old, though debate is still ongoing as to how it got there. The fort of Dun Aengus, which was built on a cliff - and half of which has now fallen back into the sea - dates from around the time of Christ.

Outside the city, Galway also gives its name to the county in which it is located, an area of some 2350 square miles (6000km2) and with a population of around 190,000. In Irish it is called Gaillimh, worth knowing in the areas to the north west of the city where the Gaelic tongue is the first language of many residents and the only one to be found on most of the road signs. County Galway is itself part of the province of Connaught3.

During the Golden Age of Irish saints and scholars, many monasteries were built around the area as centres of learning and wisdom in an otherwise barbaric Europe. This attracted the attention of the Vikings, who had a vested interest in keeping Europe barbaric, and they used to drop by regularly to raid the monasteries. Being learned and wise, the clever monks built round towers (which dot Ireland to this day) as a place to hide out with their precious artefacts during such raids.

Galway began as a fishing village, but after an invasion by the Anglo-Norman forces of Richard de Burgo in the early 13th Century, it developed into a walled town. Elevation to city status followed with the granting of a royal charter by Richard III in 1484. Around this time, 14 wealthy merchant families ruled the city, giving Galway the nickname it still bears today - 'City of the Tribes'. The tribes ruled over a wealthy and cosmopolitan city for the next 170 years, with particularly strong trade links to Spain - including a visit by a young explorer named Christopher Columbus. Maxwell's, a restaurant in the city today, claims that:

  • It was open as an inn during the time of Columbus.

  • Columbus went for 'a few drinks' with the locals there, and...

  • He managed to catch the tide the next morning despite a terrible hangover.

The city's untroubled prosperity lasted only until Cromwell's forces laid siege to it in 1651. Galway surrendered, and the tribes lost all their power to the English invaders. Although the locals rebelled and temporarily regained control of the city, this was soon lost again at the Battle of Aughrim. Ireland in general was having a particularly bad time around then, its population having been reduced in various atrocities from 1.5 million before the arrival of Cromwell in 1649 to a mere 500,000 by the time of his death in 1658. Cromwell's famous saying 'To Hell or to Connaught' was used to evict Catholics from their land for repossession by Protestants, and make them move to parts of Connaught and Galway in the west where the land quality was poorest.

The 18th Century was a particularly hard time for the natives, with oppression of the Catholic majority and over 93% of Irish land held by Protestant landlords. There was even a famine in 1740 called, appropriately enough, 'The forgotten famine'. Galway was in steady decline during these years, and in 1841 lost its classification as a city. However, it did maintain some strong trading links, and in 1845 Queen's College Galway was founded by Queen Victoria. This still stands, although it has been renamed as the National University of Ireland, Galway.

The late 1840s were also the time of the Great Famine, when tens of thousands died in the city and the surrounding area, and many more left for the New World, especially America. To this day the locals still point out that 'Boston is just the parish next door'. By 1899, the population of Galway had been halved due to deaths and emigration. There were various risings using direct force against the British throughout the country during all this time, the most recent of which in Galway was instigated in 1916 by Liam Mellowes. They all failed.

Recent History

Galway became an urban municipality again in 1937 and the city's fortunes took a turn for the better in the 1960s with the expansion of tourism and industry in the country. It has since become the technological and 'clean' industry centre for the west of Ireland, its population passing that of Limerick in the last few years. Current estimates put Galway's population at about 60,000 and predict a year 2010 population of at least 70,000 people.

It is a university town, with the local branch of the National University of Ireland, together with the Galway-Mayo Institute of Technology enrolling over 12,000 students for the 1998/99 term. The university, too, is growing at an impressive rate, with several shiny new buildings constructed for its IT, Biotechnology, Language and Communications departments over the last few years, and more are on the way.

The economy is doing so well there are labour shortages in many areas; culminating recently in 1,000 workers being flown in from Newfoundland to make up the summer shortfall in areas like hotels, catering and tourism.

This impressive growth has brought its own problems, however. In the last five years, whenever a plot of land has become available anywhere near the centre of town, the developers have moved in. The existing buildings have been torn down and replaced with modern blocks of apartments: fair enough, but some of the builders around the town feel compelled to paint the outside of these new buildings in bright primary colours, turning them into eyesores. Galway was always known as a colourful place with narrow medieval streets, and these builders are presumably carrying on the tradition. Alternatively, it may be that they are trying to distract people from the uninspired architecture of their buildings. If so, someone should tell them that it's not working.

Fortunately, all the old buildings around town are protected under law from this rampant construction, and the city has managed to retain much of its charm. The city centre was recently pedestrianised, much to the annoyance of many a taxi driver, and the main streets of the shopping district paved over.

Another problem rapid growth has brought is the management of the city's waste products: the city dump is full, and rubbish4 has to be shipped 40 miles to Ballinasloe. Proposals for an incinerator are being strongly fought on environmental health grounds. Furthermore, for decades there have been arguments about where to locate a badly needed sewage treatment plant: environmentalists were objecting to it being built on an island in Galway Bay, but a solution was finally arrived at last year, involving the building of the plant on an island in Galway Bay5.

The environmentalists should really have been more worried about the state of the water in the bay itself which, although very scenic, is not recommended for swimming in immediately around the city. Salthill, the beach in the city, is a beautiful place for a stroll; but traces of salmonella were found in the water there last year. If you really must go for a swim - remembering that this is the North Atlantic - then go out west as far as 'Silver Strand', five miles or so down the coast, where the water is clear of the city's influence (and effluence).

Galway Today

The traditional hub of Galway City is Eyre Square, a small park with the bus and railway station on its south side and the main shopping district to the north and west, and is the place from which John F Kennedy gave an address when he was granted the freedom of the city in 1963, shortly before his assassination. The Eyre Square Centre can be found on the western side of the park. Unusually, it has enough local and individual shops not to have abandoned all attempts at personality, and is even more noteworthy for containing a substantial and well-preserved section of the ancient city wall. The new Edward Square shops have no such redeeming features and might be in any city in Ireland, or indeed Britain.

Williamsgate Street leads off Eyre Square and down to Shop Street, a pleasant and characterful pedestrianised street whose name tells you most of what you need to know. Shop Street contains central Galway's best-preserved ancient building, Lynch's Castle, which was home to the first mayor's family and whose thick stone walls today protect the cashiers and vaults of the local branch of the Allied Irish Bank. While Lynch was mayor of the city in the 1490s, he became one of those rare Irish people whose name has been adopted as a verb - along with a certain Protestant landlord called Boycott. When Lynch's son murdered a Spanish traveller staying with the family: Lynch put his duty as mayor - or possibly his greed for the profits to be made from trade with Spain - before family sentiment, and hanged his son from the window of his home, which overlooks the main street.

At its lower end, Shop Street becomes Quay Street, an area where in recent years many restaurants and bars have sprung up, particularly aimed at the 'young and trendy' market. One more traditional eating-place to have survived the changes is MacDonagh's, a fish restaurant which has won many awards and recommendations, though recent experience has been of a place trading on a reputation without trying too hard, producing over-greasy food and thronged with busloads of tourists. Still, for a cheap and filling lunch, stay to the left of the shop and enjoy plain old cod and chips seated at one of the long wooden benches, which are shared at peak times.

The river Corrib runs past the bottom of Quay Street, and here there is a small monument to Columbus' visit. Ironically, just behind this statue commemorating Spain's most famous emissary6 is another memorial, this time to the efforts to stop the Spanish from invading. The Spanish Arch is the last remnant of a defensive wall built by the English landlords against the threat of the Spanish Armada in the 1580s, an armada that many of the local population would have welcomed as liberators if Sir Francis Drake and the weather had not conspired to sink it instead.

Walking upstream along the Corrib from the Spanish Arch brings the traveller to the Salmon Weir Bridge, where tonnes of Atlantic salmon are caught each year in huge nets, a nice money-spinner for the city corporation. There is a constant battle between those catching salmon en masse in the city and the licensed fly-fishing enthusiasts based further upstream, and also to strike the right balance between getting the maximum return without reducing too much the number of salmon reaching the spawning grounds and providing the next year's catch. The weir and the pond above it were also used as a water supply for many of the city's traditional industries, including - this being Ireland - a brewery and a distillery.

At the salmon weir, the river is split in two by Nun's Island, formerly the home of the city's convent and now the site of its cathedral. Galway's cathedral is modern, having been completed in 1965, and not ornately decorated. It does, however, have a great deal of charm through having been built of rough local stone and decorated with Connemara Marble, one of the region's finest and most traditional exports. The cathedral has a very relaxed, comfortable feel to it with no gloomy corners, and is a great place for a quiet pause to reflect after a hectic morning's shopping.

Across the river from the old city you will find Claddagh, the site of the original fishing village from out of which Galway eventually grew, but nowadays considered part of the city itself. This was traditionally home to the fishermen who kept the city fed, and home to Richard Ioyse, or Joyce, who is traditionally credited with having created the classic design of the Claddagh Ring7 - two hands holding a heart, with a crown above it - though the concept it represents of a 'faith ring' dates back to Roman times. Wearing the ring on your right hand with the heart facing outwards and the crown in indicates that the wearer is available; with the crown on the outside, then the wearer has someone in mind as a potential love. When the ring is worn on the left hand and with the heart pointing inwards, look elsewhere - that person's love is irrevocably committed; the ring may even be acting as a wedding ring.


Situated at the mouth of a wide bay, this gateway to the Gaeltacht - the Irish-speaking region - has an eclectic charm. It is regarded as Ireland's most vibrant city, due in part to the boom it is undergoing and the young university population, but also because although it is a progressive modern place, it still values its historic culture and tradition, and the university population mixes well with the large group of artisans who make their home in the area, and with the continuous supply of foreigners who come to see Galway for themselves.

A Dublin newspaper columnist recently wrote of Galway, that whenever he goes there he thinks it's a great place, but he gets the urge to just pick the city up and shake it and tell it 'for God's sake, would you ever get a proper job'. The pace of life in Galway is easier than in the other Irish cities, with more emphasis placed on your leisure hours than on your working hours. The large number of students in the town keeps the city colourful and Bohemian during the autumn, winter and spring months, and in the summer the visiting population from every corner of the globe gives the city a very cosmopolitan feel. Strolling down the main street you will see a never-ending supply of people busking on tin whistles, fiddles, accordions, guitars, bongos, didgeridoos and bodhrans8; juggling knives or flaming torches, performing feats of acrobatics, riding unicycles, lying on beds of nails, or generally making performance art out of whatever they found they were carrying when they arrived on the street with the munchies.


There has long been a festival mentality in Galway, with festivals held for any old reason from March until October. There is the Festival of Literature, the Galway Film Festival, and many high profile DJs are flown in for various dance festival weekends, the Heineken Weekender being just one of these.

The Galway Arts Festival, held in July, and at the time of writing in its 23rd year always has something for everyone, with performers from all over the world flying in to take part. Widely regarded as Ireland's most popular showcase for the performing and visual arts, over 300 separate performances are carried out over the 12-day festival, running from morning time until the early hours of the following morning, drawing crowds of over 40,000 people. Macnas, the community-based arts and theatre company, put on a parade during the festival which is always very impressive, and which draws even larger crowds. A recent innovation was to hold the parade at night, to take full advantage of the fact that it was a good excuse for people around town to play with flame-throwers in the street while dressed as monsters 20 feet tall.

Usually, just after the Arts Festival has finished, the Galway Races start up. Running since 1869, this is another two weeks of madness around town, with huge crowds of Irish tourists, locals and foreigners alike flocking to the track to place a bet and retiring to a bar in town with their winnings. Around this time of the year Shop Street and Quay Street in particular are transformed at night as the bars are unable to contain the huge numbers out enjoying themselves, and crowds of people standing around drinking in the street build up to densities that would make any nightclub owner proud. This is peak tourist season in town, with accommodation at a premium9 and restaurants packed every night.

In September and October, the Clarinbridge Oyster Festival and Galway International Oyster Festival are held, again drawing in the rich and famous, and the not so rich and famous, for a weekend of oysters and Guinness. Tickets are hard to come by but allow the fortunate ones to mingle with many famous people from around the country, enjoy sampling the delicious seafood, and most importantly to join the locals in taking full advantage of the free bar.

Crusties: Not a Breakfast Cereal

Even outside of festival season there is plenty to do, as Galway's centre is riddled with shops, bars and restaurants. Reflecting the high concentration of artistic types who live there, there are four theatres around the town, although the Druid theatre has been playing successfully on Broadway for some time now instead of at home. Some 'crusties' (as New Age Travellers are called when they move to the west of Ireland), congregate in the Galway region each summer from all over the UK to get away from the establishment, man, and to draw Ireland's generous unemployment benefit. These are often unpopular with the Gardai10 as some of them are not averse to supplementing this income by selling marijuana, and most of the rest of them certainly aren't averse to partaking in the occasional smoke. For some reason, many of the local college students seem to get on well with them. You will find some crusties at the Saturday market, selling ethnic food or home-made objects from bizarre multi-coloured hats to hand-dipped candles, or whatever meaningful sculptures they've knocked together since the last week's market. Recommended.

What is There to Do?

With the large number of tourists that arrive in Galway each summer, you can do all the activities you would expect in the west of Ireland: scenic walks, cycling, wild-life tours, tours of Connemara and the Burren11, cruising the river and the lake, trout fishing, power boat racing, jet-skiing, go-karting, deep sea angling, yachting, wind-surfing, scuba-diving, horse riding, hill-walking, visiting old castles and abbeys, forest parks, boats to the Aran Islands, outdoor activities almost without end.

The surrounding area has many fine golf courses, and there are two very close to the city itself: Salthill Golf Course is a testing, hilly and very windy course on the edge of town and the north side of the bay; but Galway Bay Golf and Country Club is the jewel in the crown, just south east of the city in Renville. The course was designed by the famous Irish golfer Christy O'Connor Jr, and hosts the West of Ireland Open, a European PGA tour event. It is beautifully landscaped, with testing lakes which give the course quite an American feel, and then stretches out on a headland into the bay with truly stunning views on a sunny day. The jury is still out on whether you meet more of the richest people from around town there, or out at the yacht club in Oranmore.

But It's Raining!

For some real fun, instead of just looking at scenery you'll want to get a few pints in at a local pub. There are a lot of pubs in Galway, though obscure licensing laws mean that to make a new pub in a town, you have to buy out two other pubs from around the country first12. With the huge increase in size of Galway over recent years this has led, not to many new bars, but instead to the creation of the 'super-pub', where a regular sized bar is 'renovated' into one ten times the size with a whole load of crazy 'theming' on the walls.

Super-pubs around town include: The Quays, The Front Door, Busker Brownes and The Skeff. Super-pubs are popular with nightclub goers who want to start pretending they're already in a club by eight in the evening. The large size and huge crowds sometimes found in the super-pubs can make getting to and from the bar a time-consuming ordeal, thereby defeating the whole purpose of going to a pub in the first place.

At the other extreme is what's known as an 'old man's pub'. These can be recognised by their small size, 1970s or earlier decor, and old men. Not usually too big on hygiene, nonetheless they invariably serve great tasting Guinness. If ordering Guinness in an old man's pub, you should only order pints of Guinness, never a half, because if you do, although the locals may not say anything they will secretly think you are a big girl's blouse. This also applies to girls. Old men's pubs around town include Garavan's, PJ's, Hughes' and Murphy's.

If you want to hear a bit of genuine Irish traditional music, there are bars for that too. If you go to The Crane, you will hear the most hardcore 'trad' in town, but many other bars have trad music playing most, if not all nights. These include Taylor's, Moreton's in The Claddagh, Tigh Neachtain's and Taaffes. Taaffes bar is not to be confused with old Mrs Taaffe's shop next door, which is owned by an eccentric old aged ex-beauty queen who uses it to keep her dogs, and although she possibly believes the shop is still open for business, most people aren't brave enough to enter and find out.

Not all the music pubs in town are trad music however. Roisin Dubh's regularly has quality live bands playing, as does The Quays and to a lesser extent The Cellar. The Blue Note plays a selection of funk, house, dance, trance, acid-jazz or hip-hop depending on the DJ they have in for the evening. The Drum is attached to the GPO nightclub, and it often has a DJ or live band playing. The band usually doesn't start until after the club though, and you'll be thrown from the bar and have to buy a ticket at the door to get back in at around 11:30. Recently, O'Malley's bar has DJs playing a techno night on Thursdays and a jungle night on Fridays. This is just a small fraction of the bars in town that play music.

After the bar closes at midnight13 (although you can get lucky with illegal late drinks in some old men's bars) it's time to go off to a night-club. Ones in the city centre include Central Park, The GPO, The Alley, Cuba, and Church Lane. If you have a regular job, are wearing a nice shirt and don't like the idea of meeting lots of scummy kids then Central Park is probably the place for you. If you want to go out and dance to some house music surrounded by 20-year-old students on ecstasy then the GPO on Friday nights is the place for you. Church Lane is one of those 'used to be great last year' clubs that isn't as popular now. The Alley is full of lots of college students and farmers drinking tremendous amounts of beer, and Cuba is being touted by some people around town as 'a great place to spend your weekend if you are bored with everywhere else'. Salthill also has a few nightclubs, Liquid being one with better music, but is nowhere near as good as it was a few years ago when the Gardai shut down some clubs using a new law that technically outlaws dance music and places that may encourage drug taking. One victim of this was 'The Castle', which ran some of the best clubs Galway had ever seen, but unfortunately there was enough debauchery going on there for some people's sense of moral righteousness to be outraged, and when one of those people was a new garda superintendent over Galway the clubs in Salthill got a good kicking.

I'm A Bit Old For All That

If you don't fancy going to a club, there are a few wine bars that serve until about 1am, and plenty of coffee shops around town, some of which like Java's and Apostasy stay open until four or five o'clock in the morning.

If none of this is to your taste however, you may be more interested in a good book. Kenny's Bookshop and Art Gallery carries over 160,000 titles and specialises in antiquated old books. Just across Middle Street from the back entrance to Kenny's you'll find Charlie Byrne's, which carries lots of cheap surplus books and a decent range of second-hand ones.

The famous Claddagh Ring shop and museum on Quay Street is also a good place to get a souvenir bargain if you're in to that sort of thing, and tourists always seem very impressed by the low price of knitted Aran sweaters14 in Galway compared to elsewhere in the country.

Getting There

If you are coming to Galway, it is possible to fly all the way, though only by changing at Dublin Airport, and paying about as much for the Dublin-Galway leg as you do to get to Dublin from London. However, because the trip from Dublin is only two and a half hours by train or three hours by coach or car it is cheaper, more comfortable, and often not much slower to take land-based transport from the capital. Another good reason for not flying to Galway is that the airport's facilities and landing aids are rudimentary, to put it kindly, and any kind of adverse weather conditions are likely to lead to a diversion to Shannon airport, an hour's drive to the south; in which case you might as well have come by coach straight from Dublin anyway. This situation may change in the near future, because there are proposals to expand Galway airport to take jets by 2006, but the omens are not good since an operator offering direct flights to Manchester folded in 1998.

Famous Galwegians

The Gaelic heritage of the region has generated a long list of prominent figures writing in both Irish and English. Local writers include Walter Macken, Máirtín Ó Cadhain, Liam O'Flaherty, Breandán Ó hEithir, Muiris Ó Súileabháin, Eoghan Ó Tuairisc, Oliver St. John Gogarty, Pádraic Ó Conaire, Dónall MacAmhlaigh, Frank Harris, Ellis Dillon and Lady Gregory, the founder of Abbey Theatre. WB Yeats, a long-time friend of Lady Gregory, lived in County Galway during the turbulent early years of Irish independence, and his home at Thoor Ballylee15 is open to the public.

Galway also produced revolutionaries such as Eamonn Ceannt, Liam Mellowes and John Lynch, the last a signatory of the American Declaration of Independence. Other noteworthy figures from the area include William Joyce, also known as 'Lord Haw Haw', the radio propagandist for the Third Reich who was the last man in Britain to be executed as a traitor, despite being an Irishman with US citizenship; Robert O'Hara Burke, the leader of the first European expedition to cross Australia; and Nora Barnacle, the wife of James Joyce on whom he based the character of Molly Bloom in his epic Ulysses. Although the Joyce family name is prominent in Galway, and the Joyces were one of the 14 'tribe' families, James Joyce himself does not have any recorded ancestry in the county.

1A branch of the government responsible for promoting economic growth.2Who completed the first ever transatlantic flight when they landed in the county on 14 June, 1919.3Ancient Ireland was divided into four kingdoms: Ulster, Munster, Leinster and Connaught. Most of Ulster was split off to become Northern Ireland, and the other three kingdoms make up the modern-day Republic.4That's garbage to our American visitors.5A sadly typical Irish political solution, placing the priorities of big business ahead of those of the man and woman in the street.6It's not actually a statue of Columbus, unless he resembled a cross between a sailboat and a potato.7Such as the one given to Buffy by Angel in Buffy the Vampire Slayer.8Traditional Irish folk music drums.9Short term rent costs can easily double, treble or worse for Race Week.10The Irish police. It's one garda (pronounced gard), two gardai (pronounced gard-ee).11Remote and rocky areas with a raw natural beauty, situated on the north and south sides of Galway Bay respectively.12This law is being changed.13The licensing laws are changing in 2000. Closing times of bars are changing from 11pm in winter and 11.30pm in summer with half an hour's 'drinking up time' to 12:30 am all year round with half an hour's drinking up time, and closing times for night-clubs are to be extended to 3am.14The patterns for Aran sweaters originated on the Aran Islands, where Galway Bay meets the Atlantic. Gruesome tradition has it that each family knitted a different design so that the body of a fisherman lost at sea could be more easily identified even if his face had decomposed beyond recognition.15Thoor Ballylee, now better known as 'Yeats' Tower', is found off the N17 just outside Gort, 25 miles south of Galway City. The building, a restored medieval watchtower, gave titles to two of Yeats' best-known works: The Tower, and The Winding Stair.

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