Galway, Ireland: European Capital of Culture 2020

Galway City, situated on the west coast of Ireland in County Galway and Ranked as the Number One Friendliest City in the World by Travel and Leisure in 2017, is the perfect destination for anyone planning a trip to The Emerald Isle.

I lived in County Galway for thirteen years, until 2013, when I left permanently for a new life in Italy.  My work, as an interior designer, took me up and down the west coast of Ireland and I made my home in Kinvara, that pretty village on the southern shores of Galway Bay.

During my time there, I got to know Galway very well indeed. It’s a large county, in the western province of Connaught, full of lakes and fabulous scenery. And, undoubtedly, the friendliest place on earth.

Driving around the Galway Bay coastline, north and south, has always been a pleasure.

While visiting my clients, I travelled north to Dunmore and Glenamaddy and south past Gort. I drove east along the pastoral shores of Lough Derg and west through the wilds of Connemara, dodging sheep on the narrow, switchback roads, to far flung towns and coastal villages such as Clifden, Ballyconneely and Roundstone.

I drove through the towering Maam Valley to Killary Harbour and the village of Leenane, where I often pulled over at lunchtime for a plate of delicious smoked salmon paté and thick, warm, brown soda bread at a local pub. Then I stopped to watch the turf being cut along Killary Harbour.

Pulling in to beautiful and atmospheric Kylemore Abbey, I liked to relax over a pot of piping hot tea and scones at their farm cafe beside the lake.

I often meandered along the westerly shore of Lough Mask, pausing occasionally to admire the multitude of islands dotting Lough Corrib.

I even had a client on the Aran Islands and took the tiny plane from Inverin to Kilronan, a 15 minute hop across the bay. I also went by ferry to Inisheer, beneath the Cliffs of Moher in County Clare and out past the shipwreck made famous by award winning TV series Father Ted.

Galway City:

The jewel in the crown is, of course, the beautiful city of Galway, City of Tribes, nestled in the most sheltered corner of Galway Bay. It will be the European Capital of Culture in 2020. This will see the city hosting major cultural events throughout the year.

In a natural harbour, where the River Corrib flows into the Atlantic Ocean, the main focus in Galway city centre is Eyre Square, also known as John F. Kennedy Memorial Park. The wide, grassy area dotted with trees – and recently renovated – is Galway’s beating heart. During the Christmas season, it hosts a fabulous outdoor Christmas market, with the emphasis on food. Think of sizzling sausages on a multitude of grills plus hot, mulled wine scented with cinnamon and you get the picture.

The city is full of traditional pubs, cafes, great restaurants and art galleries.  The pedestrian areas are lively and lined with great shops, many tourist oriented, others well known fashion chains. As you stroll down William Street and the euphemistically named Shop Street, to Quay Street and to the banks of the River Corrib and beyond, you will be serenaded by buskers and hear live music wherever you turn. Galway is full of winding lanes and the medieval city walls can be glimpsed in the Latin Quarter.

The Tribes:

The city is known as The City of Tribes as, between the 13th and 19th centuries, fourteen families organised the politics, business and social life of the city. Nowadays, the fourteen tribes are represented by fourteen flags in Eyre Square, sporting the colours and coats of arms of these fourteen families and several of the many roundabouts on the city’s ring-road are named after them.

Galway was the only medieval city in the west of Ireland and, back in the middle ages, it traded with Spain and France. Even Christopher Columbus visited in 1477 on one of his voyages of adventure and discovery.

Badly hit by the Great Irish Famine in the 1840s when so many rural dwellers emigrated, mainly to America, County Galway’s population declined quite considerably around this time. However, the city’s prosperity grew once more as Galway University was founded in 1845 and the railway arrived in 1850.

The Spanish Connection:

In 1588 several ships belonging to the Spanish Armada sank off the west coast of Ireland. The ships were driven off course by storms as they headed home to Spain after the Battle of Gravelines against the French near Calais. Apparently, up to 6,000 Spanish sailors died as a result. One of these ships landed at Barna, just outside Galway City, another at Carna in Connemara.

The city walls were extended in 1584 to protect the quays, where the fish market once existed in the area now known as Spanish Parade, where the River Corrib meets Galway Bay. Then in the 18th century the existing arches were created in this part of the city wall to allow access to the newly constructed Long Walk from the old city. Eyre Arch was renamed The Spanish Arch at some point.

In 1755, there was a massive earthquake off Portugal, causing a tsunami that hit Lisbon very hard and killing almost 50,000 people. The tsunami was so powerful, it entered Galway Bay and badly damaged the Spanish Arch. It also cleaved part of the coastline from the southern shore of Galway Bay, creating a small island called Aughinish, which is reached by causeway. I actually lived on the island of Aughinish for five years, though, at high tide, when the wind was strong, crossing by car could occasionally be a bit daunting.

Connemara:

Of course, the highlight of any visit to Galway must be a trip to Connemara. This is a place of true natural beauty. When the sky is blue and the myriad lakes reflect its colour, it is difficult to describe its breath-taking magnificence. Nature at its best. Peat bogs, lakes and mountains, plus a lot of sheep, welcome you to this beautiful part of Ireland. Some of the prettiest villages and small towns in this area are Roundstone, Clifden and Ballyconneely.

Connemara National Park has many prehistoric megalithic tombs and one can see a herd of Connemara ponies in the wild. It comprises almost 3,000 hectares of mountains, grassland and forests. Go to a country pub, get the bartender to pull a pint of creamy Guinness and relax with the locals.

There’s always something going on in Connemara. How about the Connemara Pony Show in Clifden every August; a fun way to spend a day if you are in the area. And the Clifden Arts Festival is held every September.

Connemara is the perfect place for families and lovers of the great outdoors, as there is plenty of hiking, mountain climbing, fishing, pony riding and cycling available for all.

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And for all fans of ‘The Quiet Man’ movie starring John Wayne and Maureen O’Hara, there’s even The Quiet Man Bridge near Oughterard on the road from Galway city to Connemara.

The Islands:

Then there are the islands. They are sprinkled around the wild Atlantic coastline with some inhabited and others deserted. But they are all remote and unspoiled. From the Aran Islands to Inishbofin and beyond, these islands are well worth a visit and ferries leave from Rossaveal and Doolin daily. There are also flights to the islands from the little airport at Inverin, where you – not just your bags – will be weighed on check-in!

South of Galway Bay is the lovely little fishing village of Kinvara, where I used to live and still miss greatly.

It is noted for iconic Dunguaire Castle, allegedly the most photographed castle in Ireland. This small castle, or tower house, has been wonderfully restored and is open to visitors during the summer. They also have medieval-style banquets which are very popular with tourists.

The Galway Hookers:

If you are wondering about those sailboats with dark rust-coloured sails, these are peculiar to Galway Bay and are called Galway Hookers. They are traditional fishing and transport boats that worked mainly along the Connemara coast. The sails acquire this unusual colour from being soaked in a solution made from tree bark, which apparently protects them from the elements. Made from native hardwoods such as white oak and beech, the Hooker has clean lines and is built to handle the rough waters off Connemara. However, most of them are now used for leisure sailing and for trips along the coast.

If you are interested in seeing the Galway Hookers up close and personal, there is an annual event in mid-August, where a festival for these fascinating boats takes place. Called ‘Cruinniú na mBád’, this ‘gathering of the boats’ takes place in Kinvara on the southern shores of the bay. Connemara is a large producer of turf and this was the traditional form of heating on open fires in Ireland. The Galway Hookers used to bring turf across the bay to Kinvara, returning with grain and other goods. Cruinniú na mBád is a celebration of this trade between both sides of the bay.

Events in Galway:

Galway International Arts Festival is held annually over the last two weeks of July. This famous event is a huge cultural extravaganza of creative art for artists, musicians, writers and actors. If you enjoy theatre, spectacular shows, music, opera, performance art, dance and street theatre, this is the event for you.

The Galway Film Fleadh (Festival) is held every July and is a six day event. A huge variety of films are shown during the festival in two locations: The Town Hall Theatre and Pálás, a new art house cinema with three screens. There is also a Film Fair, which is held at the Galmont Hotel on Lough Atalia Road.

Galway Races at Ballybrit, just outside Galway City, hosts this fun event for a week at the end of July annually. Called the Summer Festival, the atmosphere is always electric, especially on Ladies Day, which sees a colourful, bobbing mass of entertaining headgear and glamorous dresses.

Oyster Festivals:

For the past 64 years, on the last weekend of September, the Galway Oyster and Seafood Festival takes place. Whether or not you like oysters, the tasting events in many restaurants and live entertainment provide a brilliant way to spend a weekend.

Apparently, the Clarinbridge Oyster Festival, which takes place in early October, is also celebrating its 64th anniversary. The small village of Clarinbridge is alive with party goers for this fun festival.

If you are planning a visit to Clarinbridge, a photographer’s dream, or for those of you interested in fascinating ruins, have a look at Tyrone House in Stradbally West, overlooking the Kilcolgan River, just a couple of kilometres away. It was built in 1779 for Christopher St. George and designed by John Roberts and inspired the novel ‘The Big House at Inver’ by Somerville and Ross, whose books I have always greatly enjoyed.

The house was burned out by the local IRA brigade in 1920. Luckily nobody was at home at the time. It has been derelict ever since.

Places to visit in Galway City:

Galway City Museum was housed in The Spanish Arch until 2006, when it moved to a brand new building located close by. Many events are held there, including talks and workshops.

Galway Cathedral, otherwise known as the Cathedral of Our Lady Assumed into Heaven and St. Nicholas. This is the main Roman Catholic cathedral and a large and impressive Renaissance style building begun in 1958.

The Antlantaquaria in Salthill is an entertaining aquarium in Salthill and well worth a visit for the children to get up close and personal with some sharks and stingrays – through glass, of course.

Salthill seafront: the long promenade in Salthill is an excellent place to walk and breathe in the healthy, salty Atlantic air.

Then, as you relax with a pint of creamy Guinness, you can watch the sun go down on Galway Bay.

Getting there: from Dublin take the M6 West, or, if going by train, the Galway train leaves from Heuston Station and can book your tickets by clicking HERE. Otherwise, there are coach services from all major cities to Galway and beyond. For details, click HERE and HERE.

Orna O’Reilly

Ostuni, Italy

 

 

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