Arty, bohemian Galway is renowned for its pleasures. Brightly painted pubs heave with live music, while cafes offer front-row seats for observing street performers, weekend parties run amuck, lovers entwined and more. Steeped in history, the city nonetheless has a contemporary vibe. Students make up a quarter of its population, and remnants of the medieval town walls lie between shops selling Aran sweaters, handcrafted Claddagh rings and stacks of second-hand and new books. Bridges arch over the salmon-filled River Corrib, and a long promenade leads to the seaside suburb of Salthill, on Galway Bay, the source of the area’s famous oysters. Galway is often referred to as the ‘most Irish’ of Ireland’s cities: it’s the only one where you’re likely to hear Irish spoken in the streets, shops and pubs. Even as it careens into the modern age, it still respects the fabric of its past.
Gothic features, are the best places to get a feel for the medieval city. As the capital of the Gaelic West, Galway draws young people to study at the National University of Ireland at Galway and the Institute of Technology. In the summer holidays, however, its bohemian diversity becomes more overt, as hundreds of English-language students renew the city’s traditional maritime links with the Continent, while dozens of buskers from all over the world sing for their supper. This cosmopolitan atmosphere is reinforced by the setting: Galway is the only coastal city in Ireland that really seems to open up to the sea, and its docks sit cheek by jowl with the compact city centre, as you’re constantly reminded by salty breezes and seagulls. The jewel in the city’s crown, the long, pedestrianized main drag of William, Shop, High and Quay streets, becomes a boisterous, Mediterranean-style promenade during summer, lined with pub and restaurant tables. At its lower, western end, the street narrows to its original medieval dimensions, then flows into Galway Bay along with the thundering River Corrib, providing faraway views of the Burren hills of County Clare.
Galway’s Irish name, Gaillimh, originates from the Irish word gaill, meaning ‘outsiders’ or ‘foreigners’, and the term resonates throughout the city’s history. From humble beginnings as the tiny fishing village Claddagh at the mouth of the River Corrib, it grew into an important town when the Anglo-Normans, under Richard de Burgo (also spelled de Burgh or Burke), captured territory from the local O’Flahertys in 1232. Its fortified walls were built from around 1270. In 1396 Richard II granted a charter transferring power from the de Burgos to 14 merchant families or ‘tribes’ – hence Galway’s enduring nickname: City of the Tribes. (Each of the city’s roundabouts is named for one of the tribes.) Galway maintained its independent status under the ruling merchant families, who were mostly loyal to the English Crown. Its coastal location encouraged a huge trade in wine, spices, fish and salt with Portugal and Spain. Its support of the Crown, however, led to its downfall; the city was besieged by Cromwell in 1651 and fell the following year. Trade with Spain declined and Galway stagnated for centuries. The early 1900s saw Galway’s revival as tourists returned to the city and student numbers grew. In 1934 the cobbled streets and thatched cabins of Claddagh were tarred and flattened to make way for modern, hygienic buildings, and construction has boomed since. Galway is now the fourth-largest city in the Republic.
SIGHTS TO SEE
Spanish Arch – Framing the river east of Wolfe Tone Bridge, the Spanish Arch is thought to be an extension of Galway’s medieval walls. The arch appears to have been designed as a passageway through which ships entered the city to unload goods, such as wine and brandy from Spain. Today it reverberates to the beat of bongo drums, and the lawns and riverside form a gathering place for locals and visitors on any sunny day.
Hall of the Red Earl – Back in the 13th century when the de Burgo family ran the show in Galway, Richard – the Red Earl – had a large hall built as a seat of power. Here locals would come looking for favours or to do a little grovelling as a sign of future fealty. After the 14 tribes took over, the hall fell into ruin and was lost. Lost, that is, until 1997 when expansion of the city’s Custom House uncovered its foundations. The Custom House was built on stilts overhead, leaving the old foundations open.
Eyre Square – It’s a welcome open green space with sculptures and pathways. Its lawns are formally named Kennedy Park in commemoration of JFK’s visit to Galway, though you’ll never hear locals refer to it as anything but Eyre Sq. The square’s fourteen fluttering flags each represent one of the Tribes of Galway.
Lynch’s Castle – Strolling down William Street and Shop Street from Eyre Square, you’ll come upon Lynch’s Castle, home of the city’s leading family of the fifteenth to seventeenth centuries, who provided no fewer than 84 mayors of Galway – it’s now a branch of the Allied Irish Bank.
Salmon Weir – Upstream from Salmon Weir Bridge, which crosses the River Corrib just east of Galway Cathedral, the river cascades down the great weir, one of its final descents before reaching Galway Bay. The weir controls the water levels above it, and when the salmon are running you can often see shoals of them waiting in the clear waters before rushing upriver to spawn.
Fishery Tower – Wolfe Tone Bridge • Mon–Sat 10am–3pm • Free • T091 564646 One of Galway’s most delightful landmark buildings, the unique Fishery Tower was built in 1852 as a draught netting station. It was used as a lookout point to monitor fish stocks coming up the Corrib River and to spot any illegal fishing.
Collegiate Church of St Nicholas of Myra – Ireland’s largest medieval parish church still in use. Dating from 1320, it has been rebuilt and enlarged over the centuries, though much of the original form has been retained. Christopher Columbus reputedly worshipped here in 1477.
Galway Cathedral – Lording over the River Corrib, imposing Galway Cathedral was dedicated by the late Cardinal Richard Cushing of Boston in 1965. The cathedral’s unwieldy full name is the Catholic Cathedral of Our Lady Assumed into Heaven and St Nicholas.Its high, curved arches and central dome have a simple, solid elegance even if the greater whole feels rather sterile.
* Descriptions are from Lonely Planet and Rough Guide.