Jack Kavanagh is the author of National Geographic’s ‘Complete National Parks of Europe’
and ‘Always Ireland: An Insiders Tour of the Emerald Isle.’ He lectures on National Geographic Expeditions’ ‘Tales and Treasures of the Emerald Isle’ tours. Read our February discussion. As the post-COVID 2023 travel season begins this month, I am delighted to publish his piece about Galway and the West of Ireland, which begins below the image. MH
Galway is a city full of ghosts.
Nestled in a bay that gives scant shelter from North Atlantic winds and rain, Ireland’s westernmost city is also one of Europe’s liveliest places.
From spring onward, a string of festivals turn Galway into a dizzying celebration of life: A poetry Cúirt (Court) cherishes a rich heritage—Ireland’s current president is a Galwegian poet and a statue of another Galway bard beatifies the town’s center, Eyre Square; Galway’s Arts Festival dazzles with performers and street parades in July; princes, paupers, and punters mix easily at Galway Races every August; and at September’s Oyster Festival, the local delicacy is washed down with plentiful pints of Guinness, an Irish makeweight, perhaps, against aphrodisiac excess.
When I visited during the pandemic, though, the city was quiet and the living were largely out of sight. So I went walking through shadowed streets in the company of Galway’s ghosts with a man who knows them well, historian Willie Henry.
The first spirit we meet is Christopher Columbus. The Italian is recorded in the annals of St.
Nicolas’s Collegiate Church, passing through Galway in 1477, a few years before he set out on his way to America. Perhaps he offered up a prayer to Nicolas, patron saint of mariners. The church was founded in 1320, some say on the site of a Knights Templar convent, and funded by the Tribes of Galway (the city’s 14 merchant families). It has been Catholic and Protestant down the ages, reflecting Ireland’s conflicted history, yet its peaceful interior is a haven in this cosmopolitan port. On a Saturday, you might chance upon a choral practice, or hear the ghostly echoes of an ancient Avé—generations of Galwegians have peopled its choir.
Willie leads me down to the Spanish Parade next to the sun-dappled waters of the River Corrib
gushing down from the salmon-leap weir upstream near Galway Cathedral. The cathedral sits next to The National University of Ireland, on the site of an old prison: Galway has long been a town of saints, scholars, and sinners. There are different suggestions at to how Galway was named, but the one that Willie likes best is the story of a girl who was drowned there some 3,000 years ago. Her name was Gaillimhe or Galvia and she was a princess of the Fir Bolg (a mythical race of Greek origin). Gaillimhe was the original Galway girl. Her father was Breasal and according to legend, the fabled island of Hy-Brasil, or Tir nÓg (the Land of Eternal Youth) is named after him.
We wander down to the Spanish Arch, a gate in the walls of the medieval city, and the Galway City Museum. The stories start to pour out of this Galwegian raconteur; Willie is as close to a seanchaí (Irish storyteller) as you’ll get.
We cross over the trout-brown freshwater of the River Corrib to Claddagh, an old fishing village along the briny quay. On Nimmo’s Pier, where Galway Bay oysters fuel the love-struck each September, Willie divulges the story of the Claddagh ring: after Richard Joyce was captured by Algerians and sold to a Moorish goldsmith in the 18th century, he returned to Claddagh with a new trade and a new ring design, the hand-held heart topped with a crown. The heart in exile could be worn facing outward to signify single status, or inward for those whose heart was “spoken for” back home. Exile, separation, and heartbreak are large parts of the story of western Ireland.
Which reminds me—I must call the poet.
We’re strolling past the King’s Head Pub, once the Mayor’s residence, but seized in 1649 by Colonel Peter Stubbers, the alleged executioner of King Charles I. Suddenly, the strains of an old song bring a wistful smile:
“I wish I was a fisherman, tumbling on the sea,
Far away from the dry land, and it’s bitter memory…”
I can hear the ghost of my 18-year-old self. Mike Scott’s “Fisherman’s Blues,” sung by a hungry-looking busker, takes me back to a time when I left Galway under a cloud. I’d come here to study law, but my heart wasn’t in it. Mike Scott, singer with the legendary Waterboys, on the other hand, found exactly what he was looking for in Connemara, the hilly boglands stretching west from the city. Ireland’s ancient traditional music kept the Scotsman entranced within a fairy ring—a Celtic rapture supposedly induced by a spirit-woven spell—for several years. Like me, Scott finally left for America. But his words and music still haunt these streets.
Willie and I share stories over a gut-burning Redbreast Irish whiskey in Garavans’ pub and we’re soon reminiscing about the joys of a music session by an open fire in any Galway pub. The quintessential west of Ireland aroma of burning turf; the mad swirl of a reel with guitars, fiddles, tin whistles, bodhráns (goat-skin drums) and uilleann (elbow) pipes all mixed into a mesmerizing musical gumbo; feet stomping as black pints of stout are passed along; then a hush is called, silence descends, and a plaintive female voice bleats a multi-versed tale of emigration and loss in the unaccompanied, sean-nós (old form) style. “The song would be singing her,” explains Willie, “as these songs would have been passed down many, many generations.” Then he adds, “Sure you’d hear the same song sung on the other side of the pond,” meaning in any bar in Boston, New York, or Philadelphia.
We’re soon sitting in Eyre Square, and Rory O’Shaughnessy has joined us. Rory is one of my
favorite Galwegians; we’ve travelled many a mile together. He and Willie evoke more ghosts.
“JFK spoke right over there,” says Willie. Rory starts into a great impersonation of the famous
speech, complete with the long, flat vowels of Boston (he has a mimic’s musical ear):
“If the day was clear, and you went down to the bay, and you looked west…you’d see Boston, Massachusetts. And you’d see there, working on the docks, Dohertys, Flahertys’, and Ryans, and cousins of yours who’ve made good.”
Chuckling, I excuse myself to call the poet, but the poet is busy.
We’re beside the statue of the Irish-language poet Pádraic Ó Conaire, and I want to hear Gaelic, not American, spoken today. The greatest speech ever given in Irish, the lads quickly conclude, was Joe Connolly’s in 1980. Joe was Galway team captain, accepting the All-Ireland trophy for hurling, the ancient Gaelic sport played with a small ball (sliotar) and an ash stick (camán).
By the modern-day voodoo of You Tube, Rory summons up the past and Joe’s mellifluous voice
is addressing the 70,000-strong crowd in Dublin in Gaelic. “There are people back in Galway
with wonder in their hearts, but also we must remember (Galway) people in England, in
America, and round the world and maybe they are crying at this moment…” His lovely
Connemara blás (accent) and the poetic power of the words are a reminder that Irish might be
up there with Italian in the language musicality stakes. “If you want to hear real Irish, head to
the Aran Islands,” Rory advises me. I will, but first I have a medieval castle to haunt.
A night in Ashford Castle, 33 kilometers north of Galway, is like a happy séance, a
suspension of time where you stray into another realm. Step inside this hotel, and oldworld elegance and timeless Irish hospitality envelop you. This 5-star hotel was once the
hunting retreat of the Guinness family.
Invading Normans built this battlement in 1228 and now another Gaul, Chef Philippe Farineau, is telling me why the Achill Island lamb is sooo tasty (they’re all mountain-climbing muscle and they come ready salted by the wild Atlantic winds). We debate the relative merits of Galway Bay oysters or the Dooncastle variety which are kept closed a little longer for extra succulence. When local food tastes this good, you can see why a French chef thrives in the west of Ireland. They say that the Normans became “more Irish than the Irish themselves” and Farineau is continuing the tradition.
Next morning, I head for the Aran Islands via the ferry from Ros a’ Mhíl. As we sail out, a beautiful Galway hooker (a traditional fishing boat) in deep red sails catches the wind and slips like quicksilver into the bay.
I really must call the poet today.
The choppy Atlantic waters churn up the Gaelic noun farraige (sea) from my exile-rusted
memory; like many a poetic Irish word, it resounds with its own meaning. Ffffffarrrrra—
gaaaaa… like the waves breaking on a rocky western shore.
Aran rises from the sea, three limestone ridges breaking the waves, outposts from an out-of-time Gaelic world. These islands were historically the last refuge of Irish nationalists and outlaws.
I’m standing, blasted by Atlantic winds, on the prehistoric hill fort of Dún Aonghasa when I finally get in touch with the poet. Here on Inis Mór (Big Island), a sacred place in pagan and monastic times, I shelter behind a prehistoric limestone wall, cupping a cell phone to my ear.
I ask Michael D. Higgins, President of Ireland, what makes Galway and Connemara so special.
“Galway is a city that exists on the periphery, a place between realms,” says the poet-president. “Between the Gaelic and English languages. Between ancient Ireland and our future vision. The
culture of Connemara is born out of long traditions of immigration and emigration. This is a
place that seduces, a place where people can renew their spirit, where the creative artist in
particular can find new rhythms of complexity.”
In Dún Aonghasa, I too feel suspended between worlds—between America and ancient Ireland. Looking westward from the western edge of Europe. Happy in the spirited company of Ireland’s poetic ghosts, past and ever-present. —Jack Kavanagh
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