Find Authentic Ireland in Galway City

In Galway City, the locals speak Gaelic on the streets and celebrate their culture with festivals and parades.
In Galway City, the locals speak Gaelic on the streets and celebrate their culture with festivals and parades. (By Jonathan Hession -- Tourism Ireland)

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By Manchán Magan
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, June 28, 2009

As Ireland continues its great leapfrog from the 19th century to the 21st, it can be hard to find a genuine sense of Irishness, that indefinable essence that makes the country what it is. Even we Irish are aware that the wonderful jumble of poets, reprobates, revolutionaries and saints that inhabited every bar stool are less in evidence in the newly money-oriented land that looks increasingly like England's Manchester, Poland or even Disneyland.

"Nothing is the same anymore," a woman from Boston said to me in Galway City recently. "I know I'm in Ireland; I just don't feel it. What's up with those stupid World War II amphibious bus tours in Dublin, and the stag-night mobs in Dublin's Temple Bar? Now I'm in Galway, and I can hardly feel it! Where's Ireland -- that's what I want to know!"

The place she was most likely to find the Ireland of her expectations was here in Galway. It is truly a place apart. A warren of cobbled streets, medieval buildings and quirky, intimate bars, with an ebullient population that is forever throwing street parties, arts festivals and parades. It's as if the memory of the famine, which hit this part of Ireland hardest, has left the people with a determination to celebrate their good fortune each day. They manage to make the place feel like a rain-drenched, wind-swept mix of Rio de Janeiro and San Francisco.

The Bostonian was about to wander off in disillusionment when a young man with flashing eyes and long, curly hair approached dressed in the billowing white blouse of a Romantic poet and said a literary tour was about to start. The Cúirt literary festival was on, and so I encouraged her to join the tour.

Two women were on the steps of the Town Hall Theatre playing the roles of tour guides from hell, pointing out invisible fire exits and insisting there be no flash photography, as "although we are beautiful, neither of us are photogenic." The Bostonian's frown lifted just a little. "We won't be showing you the Claddagh, or the Spanish Arch, or Lynch's Castle," the guides said, "so if you want any of that old tourist claptrap, you can [leave] now." We were all smiling openly by this stage. The woman had found what she was looking for.

This was an Ireland I could be proud of, an Ireland I wanted to share with wandering Bostonians. The wonderful thing about Galway is that it embraces strangers in a way that would make the people of Dublin or Belfast wince with unease. Everyone is welcome to join the party.

The residents exude a self-confidence that belies their city's small size, possibly arising from the fact that they've kept in touch with their roots in a way that those in few other towns have: The ferry still brings in people a few times a day from the remote Aran Islands, and buses bring in folk from the Gaelic-speaking villages in the surrounding wilderness of Connemara.

The locals' ease with themselves and their culture can be seen in the way they speak Irish (Gaelic) on the streets in a manner that no other city's residents do, and in the way they serve simple, wholesome food with confidence. You'll find better traditional music in Galway than in any other large town or city in Ireland and theater on a par with (or better than) Dublin's.

But it's the festivals that really set Galway apart: the St. Patrick's Day Parade in March, Cúirt in April, the Galway Arts Festival in July, the Galway Races in August, the Galway International Oyster Festival in September, the Baboró children's festival in October, and all the various street parades run by Macnas (Ireland's leading community-based street-performance company), plus mini theater festivals runs by Druid (the country's most innovative and accomplished theater company). Everyone gets involved, dressing up, painting their faces and drumming till they drop for the street parades, or wildly cheering on the Galway Hookers (brown-sailed traditional turf boats) as they sail through the Claddagh basin at annual events.

When our literary tour arrived at Eglinton Canal, the guides, who grew increasingly ridiculous as they went along, explained how for a long time after the canal was built people used to forget it was there and walk straight into the water. "Like this . . .," they said, and suddenly a man plunged into the canal and began to scream and shout. The guides shrugged and moved us briskly along.

The tour wound on in this manner for an anarchic three hours, occasionally stumbling upon historic figures (a leader of Ireland's 1798 rebellion fleeing from his mistress and a young poet having her belongings thrown out the window of a garret). It was a quixotic, hyper-surreal, literary wonderland played out on the city's streets. Irishness personified.

Ireland, to be truly Irish, needs a touch of anarchy, and that's something Galway, despite the country's increasingly strait-laced corporate image, will never forget.

Manchán Magan is an Irish writer and broadcaster. For more information about Galway City and the county, go to http://www.galwaytourism.ie or http://www.discoverireland.ie/west.


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