Pint-Sized and Growing

By Ambrose Clancy
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, April 8, 2001

Pasha's Rug Store in Galway City is one of many shops in the Bridge Mills, a 17th-century building rising beside the Corrib River. Cathríona Kilgarriff takes a silk rug to the window for better light. The Corrib is madly rushing past, white-water ribboned brown. She's asked if it is always so wild.

"Only when it rains," Cathríona deadpans. And then her smile slowly grows, wicked with irony. A smile that could be the image of this jaunty old city, full of young people, facing the Atlantic.

Rain, oh God. The Irish language (heard more here than in any other Irish city) has, it's said, as many words for rain as the Eskimo has for snow. Spend some time and you'll get all varieties. But with rain comes what forecasters call "bright spells" -- sun showers and heart-stopping rainbows, often double, that arch over the town and melt in 5wide Galway Bay.

With a population of 60,000, this is one of the fastest-growing urban centers in Western Europe. A fact like this provokes an Irish attitude of "tell me something I don't already know." Everything is fast, everything is changing, everything is growing. But in this vivacious town, the pentimento of an older Ireland shines confidently through the slick modernity.

Galway has always been different, always a center of education, business and culture. The Vikings, who settled Dublin, Waterford and Wexford, sailed into Galway Bay in the 9th century. They stayed just long enough to take sport in sacking a monastic site, murdering some people near the Corrib and scaring the wits out of the rest. (The Norsemen preferred, for inexplicable reasons, to put down roots in Limerick.)

Galway's unique character begins with the coming of the Normans near the end of the 12th century. (Even in some current histories, Irish memory of subjugation still insists on calling them "land pirates.") The Normans figured out quickly what was beyond the Vikings' perceptions: a deep, natural harbor, fresh water from the Corrib, a gateway to inland lakes and the splendors of Connemara. There were unending supplies of salmon and shellfish, suitable grazing for livestock, a conquered people to exploit.

Norman architecture and engineering, and a concentration on trade with the Continent and not just England, made Galway a separate Irish place. Seven hundred years after the Normans settled, a 19th-century visitor observed that it "did not seem to belong to any part of Ireland that I have seen; it seemed to belong only to itself."

The independence is still here, along with beautiful galleries and shops, a university of 11,500 students, two of the most innovative theaters in the country, music everywhere, and a long tradition of celebration. "A festival city," says Tom Kenny, owner of Kenny's, Ireland's finest bookstore and the best art gallery in the west, a cultural event every morning he opens shop. "We fairly lurch from one festival to another."

Galway writer William J. Hogan has noted, "If any man lives long enough he becomes a stranger in his own place." Maybe, but it wouldn't take him long to find his way home. Take, for example, the enduring rituals of the Irish Sabbath.

There's Mass in the morning, of course. But Ireland is quickly becoming post-Catholic, in some part due to the growing disenchantment with the clergy concerning ongoing scandals of abuse and thievery. Galway's own Bishop Casey fathered a son and used church funds to educate him in the United States. His St. Nicholas Cathedral, built in 1965, is cheerfully considered by almost everyone in Galway to be ugly in the extreme, described by one old-timer to a recent visitor as "a bloody heap of stones."

The Sunday midday meal, called "dinner," is still observed throughout Ireland with plates full of meat, gravy, potatoes and vegetables cooked to the fatal point of mush. Here in Galway, however, it can be proper curries or bowls of al dente pasta with fusilli or ziti, marinara or alfredo. But expect an Indian or Italian meal to also come with fries. Don't be surprised if you're asked if you want boiled or mashed spuds, as well.

After dinner, it's time to walk it all off and take the afternoon air. Few places can beat Galway as a city for a stroll, due in large part to the banning of cars in the tangled, medieval streets south and west of Eyre Square. New Ireland is in the fashionable young crowds walking the old cobblestone roads past stone buildings, some of them here when Columbus visited. Towering construction cranes, vulgar reminders of the new economy, are Sunday silent, motionless against the rushing western sky, and seem like derelict Celtic crosses in forgotten cemeteries.

CONTINUED     1              >

© 2001 The Washington Post Company