We spend a day in Galway City, Ireland, enjoying the relaxed ambience, having a Guinness or two, and wishing Scotland could be like this.
How we Scots went to Galway and felt right at home.
There we were, the Scottish tourism experts, the McMavens of our homeland, pitched up on a foreign shore. Well, not quite. After all, in Ireland – Gaelic aside – they speak the same language and drive on the same side of the road as Scotland.
Salthill by Galway City is down by the sea. It shares the same sort of relationship that Portobello has with Edinburgh. We found the comparison somehow reassuring.
So we stared out of the panoramic window of our apartment, facing south across Galway Bay to the horizon and the grey ribs of The Burren. (There is a separate page on this place.)
Below us, a gentle tide of mostly young Galwegians ebbed and flowed on the promenade. Actually, no, they neither ebbed nor flowed. That’s too casual.
Instead, they purposefully walked, arms a-swinging, or jogged or ran or strode out with their dogs. Some of them even swam.
There were more fast-moving, fit-looking folk than you’d see if you overlooked, say, Aberdeen’s beach boulevard. This was beginning to look like a young people’s country already…
The night before, on arrival, we’d gone off to eat competent food at Oslo’s nearby. And some of us went to O’Connor’s Famous Pub just a little further on the R864.
(It’s a famous pub because that’s what it says outside.)
O’Connor’s poses the question: what do you call an Irish-themed pub when it’s in Ireland? Answer: a pub.
This one has had many famous visitors – though neither Art Garfunkel, Nancy Cartwright or even Ed Sheeran (‘Galway Girl’) were in the night we visited.
All those quirky artefacts hanging low from the ceiling in an authentic way can give you a headache, especially if you’re tall, so after a quick look round I left the others and went off to ‘See the Sun go down on Galway Bay.’
That, of course is from the song ‘Galway Bay’, as sung by my father long ago, though he never visited and got it from Bing Crosby, probably. (I mean, it’s unlikely it was the other way round.)
Strolling Around Galway City
Right, it’s morning now. From Salthill to the centre of Galway is a pleasant 30 minute walk. Soon, from the Wolfe Tone Bridge, we saw the landmark Spanish Arch across the river.
Testament to the long history of this port-city, this surviving chunk of 16th-century old town wall was itself a remodelling of a section of even earlier Norman Wall.
Basically, it looks like a wall with a hole in it so there’s not a huge lot you can really do with it, apart from admire it. However, the extensive Galway City Museum is just beyond. (Eh? Oh, maybe visit later…let’s see how the day goes…)
The nearby quay is where the young folk (unofficially – no, wait – illegally) sit with, uhmm, refreshing bottles of various kinds to while away the sunshiny day.
It’s a pastime locally called ‘Sparching’. Check the river-bed for proof or, at least, empties. Ah, local colour, I knew it was all around.
The Ring of Claddagh
Then it was up Quay Street and it didn’t remind me of Scotland at all – more like a gentler, less desperate and more chilled version of the Shambles in York, in England.
Here you can discover the romantic tale of the Ring of Claddagh. I thought it was a geographical feature but it’s actually about a, uhmm, ring.
The ring has always been made with symbols – a heart, two hands and a crown and is linked to a variety of romantic old tales mostly about a Claddagh silver smith who escaped from pirates and returned to his loved one and…
I seriously paraphrase here but, well, you have to admire the icon’s sheer staying power over the centuries.
Next, to the St Nicholas Galway Food and Craft Market where a sign sign advertises ‘Freshly Caught Fairies’. (They’re an ingredient in cakes, I believe…)
Oh, other scrumptious fresh things were there too, such as honey, fish, bread, and crafty things like soap.
This in turn reminded us it’s morning coffee time. Nearby McCambridges of Galway is everything a busy, friendly deli/cafe/restaurant could be.
It’s been sourcing fine foods for almost a century and pronouncing scones to rhyme with ‘bones’ for the same length of time.
Most of us Scots pronounce this delectable coffee accompaniment to rhyme with ‘lawns’, so we had to ask why… and our waiting person was quite prepared to get into a long linguistic discussion over the topic.
(See, I told you everyone was friendly.) Then, after the scawn, we were gawn.
Next, there is street music and beyond are the waving banners of the Tribes of Galway in Eyre Square.
The name ‘tribes’ was originally a derogatory reference by the pesky English to the 14 merchant families who had controlled Galway.
The English government who, in their usual interfering, self-righteous, colonialist way – oh, sorry, don’t start me off – took over when Cromwell’s forces conquered Ireland, besieging Galway in 1651-2.
The Tribes of Galway as a name was adopted as a badge of identity by the locals afterwards. The flags still fly proudly today.
Our guide that day (my nephew) led us west though and after a few minutes and a few quiet side streets there was suddenly a river with waving reeds.
Wait, weren’t we supposed to be in a city? The River Corrib flows for 6 km / <4 miles from the large Loch Corrib, so it’s pretty short.
I suppose that, back home, it’s like the River Morar flowing down for only a kilometre or so from Loch Morar to the famous Silver Sands of Morar in the West Highlands.
Here, on the Corrib, a patient angler flicks his fly rod. Passers-by spectate from the bridge. Nearby, a man stands at a bus stop with a large harp in a case. This is definitely not Scotland.
Is it lunch-time already? Must be all that strolling. Wait, there’s a booth, spotted from the street, in Seven Bridgestreet in Galway’s Latin quarter. That’ll do nicely. Guinness? Why, thank you…
Hmm, hake fish cakes with an innovation – they’re crammed with real fish, not just potato and a fishy fragment or two. They taste of the sea. Best ever. I told ‘em to tell the chef.
That was the most endearing feature of Galway City. I’m beginning to think you’d get friendly service and really competent food, no matter where you fell into…
Eating And Drinking In Galway City
With all this talk of Guinness and coffee and lunch and…well, If you don’t mind the interruption to the narrative, I’m just going to digress with a few more eating and drinking places in Galway City that we’ve enjoyed at other times.
(After the ghastly events of 2020, I just hope they’re still there when you go…)
O’Connell’s overlooks Eyre Square and gets our vote for the friendliest bar in Galway. It just feels totally authentic as well. Probably because it is…
Plus it’s got an extraordinary outside (though partly covered) beer garden that seems to have grown out of a chunk of an old Victorian Street. You have to take a look, whatever the weather.
Over in Quay Street, it’s also hard to beat the ambience of Tigh Neachtain. It’s at the corner of pedestrian only Quay Street where it meets Cross Street Upper.
It may look pretty packed out at first glance, but keep pressing on. It’s quite a warren of neuks and cubby-holes – you’re sure to find a seat – and ideal for a foaming glass or two early on in the evening.
And just a moment away down Quay Street you’ll find 1520. This bar describes its menu as ‘casual rustic dining’. So if you choose to eat there, it’s good reliable pub food.
If it’s dinner, then 1520 is the venue for authentic live music as well. Folk music is a nightly feature.
When we ate there the duo of guitar and fiddle raised the excitement level with upbeat foot-tapping Irish traditional airs, jigs and reels.
In case we got too cheerful, they alternated these with mournful slow tempo songs, likewise traditional, but suggestive of defeat, lost love, and definitely never ever seeing home again.
Actually, we just assumed those were the topics as the rendition was mostly in Irish Gaelic but it certainly was a reminder of the emotional range of the musical heritage.
Aye, there’s nothing like a good-going dirge to liven up a plate of seafood.
We have also thoroughly enjoyed the cuisine of the slightly, oh so slightly, more upmarket John Keogh’s Gastropub, a few minutes away in Upper Dominick Street.
This award-winning venue is cheerful and friendly and the emphasis is on real quality Irish ingredients.
We’ve never had a bad meal in Galway…now let’s get back outside and stroll some more.
Sure, we could have visited the museum or the cathedral that day…that’s what you’re supposed to do as a tourist. (The museum visit is written up just below as we did this on a separate visit entirely.)
But today it’s sunny and the ambience is so pleasant. Let’s window-shop and stroll some more. This is very relaxing.
And so we wandered back to Salthill. But wait, it really is sunny – let’s find a beach nearby. Well, that’s easy, though we took the car a few miles west.
Our beach gave us even better views of The Burren. Can’t wait to go there tomorrow…
Is Galway City Museum
We took in the Galway City Museum on another Galway adventure. Sure, it’s a fine place all right – well worth the time. Its website says it’s ranked the 11th most popular free attraction in Ireland.
This is a comparatively modest claim, really, especially as the site also says the museum’s Kitchen Cafe serves ‘amazing, taste-tingling grub and stunning coffee’ – a much more aspirational statement.
Personally, I hardly remember the coffee. Possibly the side-effects of the stunning. But it’s a nice enough cafe and you naturally gravitate there after experiencing the museum.
So far, so slightly ho-hum. But that’s not fair. For example, we learned a lot about Ireland’s fight to be free of English rule.
It’s important to be reminded of the struggles this successful small European nation had to win independence.
Imagine, in April of 1916, during the struggle for independence, a British warship, HMS Laburnum, actually shelled locations on the outskirts of the city to deter the Irish patriots making their way into the city.
Away from the city’s troubled past, also in the museum there is more than you’ll ever need to know about the history of the hooker and its variations – a characteristic Galway fishing boat.
Oh, and also about Pádraic Ó Conaire the pioneering writer in Irish Gaelic. His statue stood (or more accurately, sat) in the centre of the city until moved to the museum, being replaced by a bronze replica back in Eyre Square which you can see today.
Best of all, the Irish champion’s statue actually replaced one of the Anglo-Irish MP Lord Dunkellin that had stood on the spot since 1873.
From a family of hated and tyrannical landlords, in a burst of patriotic fervour in 1922, a crowd of Galway folk – now, get this – pulled the MP’s statue down and hurled it into the river. It’s not been seen since. Hurrah.
Now, where were we? Oh yes, upstairs in the museum admiring the view of the Corrib and looking across to the old fishing settlement of Corrib. You can easily imagine what it looked like as there is a brilliant collection of historical photos of Galway.
So, overall, in instructive way of spending an hour or three in Galway City – especially if it’s raining. The museum is right next to the slightly underwhelming Spanish Arch, so it’s right in the heart of things.
Finally, remember that Galway makes a great base for forays into the countryside beyond.
We had a trip to Connemara lined up for the day after…and were considering: should we go to the Cliffs of Moher on this trip? Then there’s Cong and ‘The Quiet Man’ connections also within easy reach. Hmm.
It’s all helping us weigh up the pros and cons of Scotland and Ireland.