There is no ‘bucket list’ - Lynne and I are both well, thank you – but we have arrived at a point in our lives where we have the time, the money and the good health to indulge in a passion for travel. We know how lucky and privileged we are to be able to do this, and we know it won’t last for ever, but while it does…..

Monday, 25 July 2016

Galway: Part 1 of the West of Ireland

For us, the West of Ireland started at Shannon, the airport that time forgot. Trans-Atlantic air services started in the 1930s with flying boats taking off and landing in the Shannon estuary. In 1936, realising that flying boats would soon be obsolete but that this was still the nearest piece of Europe to North America, the Irish government started building an airport on a patch of boggy ground near the river. By 1945 they were ready for the start of the aviation boom and in 1947 introduced the concept of ‘duty free’ shopping. Eventually improving aircraft rendered Shannon’s location irrelevant, though half of all flights between Dublin and the US included a Shannon stop-over until the Open Skies agreement of 2007. Passenger numbers then plummeted but the airport fought back, upgrading the terminal and attracting seasonal services to European holiday destinations. In 2009 Shannon secured some transatlantic trade by becoming the first European airport to offer pre-clearance of America's notoriously long winded immigration and customs procedure. I shall gloss over Shannon’s controversial use as a stop-over for American troop planes and for ‘special rendition’ flights.

We picked up our hire car and headed for the M18 north towards Galway. The motorway ends after less than 40km near Gort and we decided to drive into the small town for coffee.

Part 1, Shannon, Gort and Galway

The approach to Gort felt surprisingly familiar. From many angles Ireland looks not unlike Great Britain; the cars drive on the left, the signage uses the same colours and the countryside is broadly similar. The approach to Gort was like driving into Porthcawl - a comparison that came to us independently and simultaneously - or any other small seaside town in South Wales with buildings of rendered and white-washed stone

Parking in the wide main street, we crossed the road to O'Connor's Coffee Shop and Bakery.

In 2014, on our first ever visit to Ireland we noticed that after centuries of Irish emigration, Dublin was now welcoming incoming migrants. We had not expected this also to be true of  a small town in the far west, but as of 2011, 400 of Gort’s two and a half thousand residents are Brazilians working in meat packing, doing the same jobs as at home but for much higher wages. And sure enough, the first language we heard in the street was Portuguese.

The coffee shop was packed with locals and tourists. The coffee was fine and the bakery would have repaid investigation, but sharing a rock bun, served with butter and jam was all we could manage.

Johnny Walsh's, Market Square, Gort
There is little else to see in Gort except the small triangular town square (and how many are actually square?). It had one of those impossibly bright Irish pubs that are imitated throughout the world, and in the middle of the square is a well restored late 18th century market weigh house.

The Market Weigh House, Gort
We continued up the N18 to Galway and after a little doubt about where we actually were found our B&B and they kindly checked us in early.

Selecting an appropriate Irish pub in a city full of them, (not to mention pubs that look like cafés and jewellers that looked like pubs) provoked unnecessary dithering, but eventually we settled on the appropriate place for a bowl of soup (me) and my first encounter with the excellent Irish soda bread and a ham sandwich (Lynne). Murphy's stout made a change from Guinness but to my palate it was not as pleasant with a marked bitterness reminiscent of the Guinness sold in England.

Central Galway from the JF Kennedy Garden in Eyre Square and south through the pedestrianised districts is awash with foreigners of all hues. We heard more European languages than we can recognise and English spoken in the accents of three continents, only Antarctica seemed unrepresented. The vast majority were, like us, tourists, but there were also those who had drifted as far west as they could without wetting their feet and were now holding up signs or inhabiting sandwich boards advertising tattoo parlours, pizzerias or hair stylists.
JF Kennedy Garden, Galway

There were buskers too, everything from a five piece band with guitars, bass and drums to an old man sitting on a doorstep playing the spoons, all placed just so far apart that as one faded to quietness the next swelled to fill the space.

Pedestrianised street, Galway
Some wrapped up warm for an Irish summer, others looked at the calendar, found it was July and wore shorts
 Apart from the tourists there is not much to see in Galway, visitors come to enjoy the relaxed charm of a friendly city where every summer day is spent building up to yet another party night.

A rusting sculpture of dubious charm, Eyre Square, Galway
 Beyond the flowers of the Kennedy gardens are a rusting sculpture of dubious charm, the re-erected 16th century facade of the 'Browne House' which looks a little out of place, and the flags of the fourteen 'tribes of Galway'; the families who ran the city for several centuries.
The flags of the Tribes of Galway
With the façade of the Browne House (side on) behind

Strolling south into pedestrian streets we soon encountered Lynch's Castle, Galway’s only remaining medieval secular building. Dating from the late fifteenth century (though much changed over the years) it belonged to the Lynch’s one of the most important of the 14 tribes. It now houses a branch of the Allied Irish bank.

Lynch's 'Castle', Galway
Lynch's window, just south of the pedestrian area, is another piece of Lynch memorabilia. Built in the 19th century, it is a confection of 15th and 17th architectural styles, but the window (top left) is reputed to come from an earlier Lynch house and to be the very window in the story below.

Lynch's Window, Glaway
James Lynch, a 15th century Mayor of Galway sent his son to Spain, captaining one of his own ships, to purchase wine. By the time the purchase was made the money designated for the wine had been spent and young Lynch had to use his father’s name to gain credit. The Spanish merchant sent his nephew back to Ireland with young Lynch to collect the debt, but afraid to face his father, Lynch persuaded the crew to join him in throwing the Spaniard overboard. Later a death bed confession by one of the sailors led to young Lynch’s arrest and as Lynch senior was the mayor and magistrate he had to try his own son. He found the young man guilty and sentenced him to death.

On the day of the execution crowds made it impossible for the prisoner and escort to reach the gallows, so the mayor took his son home, tied a rope round his neck and launched him from the window so justice could be done and seen to be done. Some Galwegians claim this is the origin of the term ‘lynching’, but although it was a killing with bizarre elements, it was not the sort of killing the word has come to be associated with.

Behind Lynch's window is St Nicholas’ Collegiate Church dating from 1320 and a rather ugly building from the outside, though it is better inside. The biggest church in this overwhelmingly catholic city, it was once the catholic cathedral but since Henry VIII’s reformation it has belonged to what is now the Church of Ireland, a member of the Anglican Communion. The memorial to the men of Galway who died in the First World War lists an unusually large proportion of officers, which may be something to do with it being the church of the protestant ascendancy.

Inside St Nicholas' Church, Galway
Opposite is Sheridan's Cheese shop. That Galway is a foodie city might not always be obvious, but Sheridan's is one of its leading lights. The display of cheese, including a magnificent array of Irish artisan cheeses, is fascinating and fragrant. They also do an extensive variety of charcuterie, much of it locally produced.

Leaving the pedestrian area we walked south, crossing the Corrib River which flows swiftly through the town, the torrent augmented by canals feeding it from either side. The Galway Museum is near here but it was late in the afternoon, we had left home at 5.30 and were beginning to flag, so we did not bother to look for it.

The River Corrib, Galway
We did not find the 'Spanish Arch' either, but odd remnants of the city's medieval walls were easy to spot.
Section of the city wall, Galway

We walked back via the Latin Quarter, an area of yet more cafés and restaurants. Back in William Street, Lynne took a breather sitting between Oscar Wilde and his contemporary and near namesake, the Estonian writer Eduard Vilde.
Lynne with Oscar Wilde and Eduard Vilde, Galway
In the evening we made a short walk to Murty Rabbitt's. English pub names have, or pretend to have, a historical context while the Irish prefer eponyms, but do the names - Johnny Walsh’s, Foxy John's, Nancy Myles’ - relate to the present owner, a historical owner or are they marketing fictions? Probably there are examples of all three, but Murty Rabbitt's has an explanatory note on the final page of the menu (basic pub food, well presented and reasonably priced).
Murty Rabbitt's Galway
Cormac O' Coinin returned home after making his fortune in the California gold rush. He first bought a flour mill, and when that burned down purchased a pub and grocers [we saw this combination several times during our sojourn] in 1872. On Cormac's death the pub passed to his son Peter who anglicised the family name to Rabbitt* (Coinin is Irish for rabbit) and then to his son and in 1955 to his grandson Murtagh. According to the menu the pub is now run by Murty’s son, and Cormac’s great-great-grandson, John. Another source says it was sold by the family in 2007.
Folk duo, Murty Rabbitt's, Galway

We had an entertaining evening, the food was all we required, the drink was good and the extended family in the booth behind, who had been in residence long enough for inhibitions to be lowered, entertained us with open warfare. Later a duo sang, not for once traditional Irish music, but what, in the 70s, we used to call 'contemporary folk'. A good evening was had by all.

*The deed was probably done before 1902 when Beatrix Potter published The Tale of Peter Rabbit

The West of Ireland

Part 1: Galway

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