We approach Shop Street, the cobblestone, pedestrian walkway of Galway that leads down toward the Corrib River. Wild Balkan-sounding gypsy music sweeps over us. We turn the corner to see the five-piece band Txutxukan (which the musicians claim means "potter about" in Basque) regaling a crowd of tourists and locals. This ragtag crew of young Frenchmen charms the crowd as I recall that Galway has long been considered the City of Tribes.
The traditional Irish pub Tigh Cóilí ends up booking the band for an early evening jam. We head there after dinner and squeeze into the small venue for an encore, along with Scandinavian businessmen, locals and students from the nearby National University of Ireland. Above the music, laughter and clank of Guinness pint glasses, we start talking with a man at the bar, who turns out to be Deesie O'Halloran, a fiddle player and singer from the Aran Islands. He proudly points to a picture on the wall of him and Willie Nelson on tour in the United States. Later we listen to a recording of his distinctive, soulful, vibrato-filled voice. Dessie is legendary and his album The Pound Road a collector's item.
Another night we visit the Crane Bar across the river on Sea Road. A bit less of a tourist scene, this place has a crusty 1930s feel about it. Many regulars know one another well. The traditional music is fine there, complete with the requisite local determined to sing all five stanzas of Galway Bay. The musicians laugh and roll their eyes, poking fun gently and affectionately as the warbler launches into each new stanza. Here, too, the atmosphere is incredibly welcoming.
We first visited Galway in the late 1970s, when it was still a quaint old town and the roar in the pubs was from nationalist up-the-republic ballads. Devotees still come from around the world for fine traditional music, not the syrupy, pop version of Celtic that has unfortunately become so popular in the United States. Here frumpy-looking old guys play lightning-fast accordion alongside young'uns on the fiddle and Celtic drum. Tradition is alive, not packaged. Each June, the Galway Sessions take place in these pubs. (Visit www.galwaysessions.com for more information.)
In Galway, I found evidence of the roar and subsequent whimper of the Irish economy. A jarring, block-like Jurys Inn now stands on the riverfront across from the famous Spanish Arch, erected in 1519 and named for the Spanish trading ships that frequented the port. Along Dock Road, new condos and offices lie vacant or half completed. More than ever, the town is a stag and hen party destination.
But the center of town is still lovely and the city buzzes. You see elderly ladies with their groceries pausing to cross themselves as they pass a church, while chic young women emerge from boutiques like Born or Identity with the hottest European styles.
From fish to tourists
Galway was first a fishing village and then a prosperous trading city, founded in the 12th century by the Anglo-Norman de Burgo family. Fourteen families or "tribes" gained control of the walled city and developed an extensive trade network with France, Spain and the West Indies. The city was later sacked twice: first by Cromwell's forces in 1652 and then by the armies of William of Orange in 1691.
The free Galway City Museum (www.galwaycitymuseum.ie) sits behind the Spanish Arch and is worth a stop. There you can learn the history of the town and the hard life of the fishermen. The boats on display include a Galway Hooker and a collection of currachs, Irish wood-framed fishing boats once made with stretched animal hides, now often made of canvas.
Lynch's Castle on Shop Street, a 16th century building that once belonged to the most powerful of the Galway tribes, now houses the Allied Irish Bank. Legend has it that in the 1490s, Mayor James Lynch sentenced his own son to death. The young man had killed his Spanish friend, either over love or money, depending on the version you hear.
Galway is now a vacation destination, with many appealing restaurants. For lunch, I recommend Food For Thought (5 Lower Abbeygate St.). They serve lovely salads, quiches, specialties like leek and potato bake and vegetarian lasagna, and sandwiches. Plus, there's fine coffee and dessert. It's informal, cozy and inexpensive, with most items less than 6 euros (about $8.50).
My favorite for dinner is Martine's Restaurant and Winebar (21 Quay St.; www.winebar.ie), where the early bird special runs 20 euros (about $28) for two courses and 25 euros ($35) for three. It specializes in organic meats, free-range chicken and locally caught fish. I'd suggest the tomato bruschetta with Ryefield Irish goat's cheese and aged balsamic drizzle for an appetizer and the salmon for the main course. If you're going the three-course route, hope that the warm apple tart is on the evening's menu. Martine's has plenty of atmosphere, with a dumbwaiter that sends the food down from the top-floor kitchen and elegant long candles looking every bit the fire hazard but transporting you back a century or two.
Galway is well situated for side trips to Connemara or the Cliffs of Moher. We've rented a car in the past and braved the left side of the narrow, winding roads with their turnabouts. Then we stayed in small B&Bs, including a farm where our daughter played with a girl her age and they posed for a picture in front of a huge pile of turf — the bricks cut from bog and used for fuel. But if driving scares you, consider staying in Galway and taking the day coach tours out.
This summer we spent a day on Inis Oirr, the smallest of the Aran Islands. For 32 euros (about $45) each, round-trip, we boarded a bus in Galway to Rossaveal, where we caught the boat. The total trip was about two hours. Tickets may be purchased at the Aran Island Ferries office, 4 Forster St., Galway (www.aranislandferries.com). You can also fly for about 45 euros (about $62) round-trip (www.aerarannislands.ie). Flights depart from Connemara Regional Airport in Inverin, 19 miles west of Galway. A shuttle departs from Kinlay House hostel, off Eyre Square in Galway. Brochures for these trips are available in hotels and at the tourist office.
We chose Inis Oirr because it is the least touristy island. In early June, most people on our boat, even the other day trippers, were speaking Irish. The boat conveys provisions for the island, and a homemade layer cake was poised precariously atop packages of produce. Our crossing was smooth and the day, sunny. We had great views of the other Aran Islands and the coast.
You can walk all over Inis Oirr in a day or rent a bike from the concession near the dock for 20 euros ($28). Ride along past the beach to the lighthouse or up into the hills to Cnoc Raithni, a 5,000-year-old stone burial site. See the remains of a castle built by the O'Brien family in the 16th century. The island also has an arts center, Áras Éanna, where artists who stay for residencies exhibit their work. And several charming pubs serve up good grub and Celtic music.
But for me, the patchwork quilt of stone walls dividing tiny fields are the most stunning feature of the island. They were built in part as a place to put the stones farmers had to clear to raise crops, but they also defend against soil erosion from the brutal Atlantic winds. The island is bare limestone and over centuries the natives concocted the soil from seaweed, sand and handfuls of dirt.
While much of the land is now fallow, the walls enclose the occasional horse, lamb or vegetable garden. The walls are anthropological artifacts, illustrating, like texts squeezed into bookcases, the history of a people. They're also a reminder that such craft outlasts the individuals who carted and arranged the stones.
Down by the river
Back in Galway, walk all the banks of the Corrib River, perhaps in the evening. Watch the light on the water and the ever-changing sky, which blows in thunderheads, often gone by the time you retrieve your umbrella.
Along the Long Walk, Galway teens flock like exotic birds, the girls painted to entice the young men who have smuggled out drinks. North of Bridge Street, the banks of the river are decked in flowers. Across the Wolfe Tone Bridge and down along the Canal Basin Lock, the swans congregate.
As in William Butler Yeats' words, from his poem The Wild Swans at Coole:
Unwearied still, lover by lover,
They paddle in the cold,
Companionable streams or climb the air;
Their hearts have not grown old.
Galway was the birthplace of Nora Barnacle, who would eventually marry James Joyce, Ireland's most famous 20th century writer. In his story The Dead, the character Gretta is also a Galway girl and recalls her walks with her childhood love.
It is still possible to soak up the romance of the new Galway, globalized, modern, yet still full of traditional Celtic strains.
Kathleen Ochshorn teaches English and writing at the University of Tampa, where she also edits fiction for the Tampa Review.