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Published: July 23rd 2009
We left Galway last Sunday, and I have to say I was sorry to go. Galway is a great city, welcoming and easy to get to know. The population is now around 70,000, if you count the growing suburbs, but the feel is of a much smaller place. From our accommodations, it was less than a 30-minute walk to the city center, along very pleasant, friendly streets. Eyre Square is a large open square right in the center of town. The park there was rechristened John F. Kennedy Memorial park in honor of JFK’s visit to Ireland and Galway in the spring of 1963. (More on that soon.)
Galway is known as the City of the Tribes, because its charter was granted to 14 Anglo-Norman merchant families - or “tribes” -- in the late 1300’s. Galway was soon a center of great trade, predominantly with Portugal and Spain. Flags representing the families are prominently displayed at the top of Eyre Square. The 14 families’ names (Lynch, D’Arcy, Ffrench, are a few) reveal their Anglo-Norman heritage and many are also still prominent names in Galway public life. A Lynch was mayor of Galway as recently as 10 years ago. Nearby is
also a large metal sculpture of a Galway “hooker,” which was a distinctive kind of sailing boat used by Galway fishermen. Mike has a great line on his “Introduction to Galway” walking tour, when he tells students to let their parents know they are enjoying the “hookers and crack” in Galway. “Craic” is an Irish term (pronounced crack) that means good fun and lively times. Many pubs advertise their good food, drink and craic.
When Anjelica Huston was an honored guest at the Galway Film Fleadh, she was awarded the “Galway Hooker Award,” a statuette in the shape of a hooker ship. So, apparently, it’s a joke even the Galwegians enjoy.
From Eyre Square, a short walk takes you to the heart of the medieval city, with its narrow cobblestone streets lined with colorful shops and pubs. Much of this area is pedestrian-only and bustling. When I was here in 2006 it was June, and this time it seemed much busier, I suspect because our visit coincided with two summer festivals, the Galway Film Fleadh and the Galway Arts Festival. If you walk through the center of this area, packed with shops, restaurants, pubs, and street performers, you
emerge down at the waterfront, where the Corrib River flows out to Galway Bay. Here you see the Spanish Arch, so named because it was where the ships from Spain unloaded their cargo of wine and brandy.
Just across the water from the Spanish Arch is an area known as the Claddagh. This was the original town, a small, but crowded fishing village. Most of the dwellings there were one-room thatched cottages, with entire families crowded in. Public health concerns about unsafe living conditions led to the destruction of the last traditional thatched roof cottages here in the 1930's. You may be familiar with the Claddagh ring, with its design of two hands holding a heart with a crown on top. That design is original to Galway, and several local jewelry stores claim to be the original home of Claddagh rings.
Also near the Spanish Arch is the newly refurbished Galway Museum. When I went last week, there was an exhibit of fishing currachs, a type of rowing boat used on the Aran Islands, made of a wooden frame, covered with tarred canvas. There was also an exhibit about JFK’s visit in 1963, which was interesting to me,
as last year I had seen a similar exhibit on his trip to Ireland at the JFK museum in Boston. His visit to Ireland was a whirlwind tour, but an important homecoming for him, as an Irish-American who, obviously, had achieved great success. The city and the nation welcomed him as family, and people in Galway who were there still remember it with great excitement. I think that the Irish grieved as deeply as Americans when he was killed just a few months later. In a pub one afternoon I sat next to an older man who was humming a song to himself, and I caught the words “It was November of 63.” We struck up a conversation, and the song was about JFK’s death. He spoke of it with great sorrow and respect. Later the same day I met a woman visiting Galway from Sweden, and somehow the subject of JFK’s assassination came up as well. She was 11 at the time, and remembered hearing it on the radio and telling her parents, who didn’t believe her at first. She remembers being surprised at how sad they were. She said her country felt great sympathy for Americans at that
time. In both conversations, these people also expressed great admiration and wishes for the success of our new President, Obama.
I have reflected these past few weeks, that at the time of all my previous trips to Ireland or Britain (1982, 1988, 2003, 2006 and 2007), America had Republican presidents: Reagan, Bush, Sr. and Bush, Jr. This time it has felt so good to read about Obama in the papers or see him on the news and be able to take pride in our country’s choice and our new leader. As a part of the Galway Arts Festival, I went to a talk by an Irish reporter for the New York Observer, Niall Stanage, who had been on the campaign plane with Obama for most of last year. He has a new book out about this experience. I didn’t feel like his discussion brought up anything particularly new for me, but he did show some clips of Obama speaking, to provide examples of the unifying kind of rhetoric that worked so successfully for him. I was pleased and proud to be an American in that room.
I paid a visit to the Galway public library, right in the
heart of downtown. It seemed like a well-used library. Services are free to children and senior citizens, and membership is 5 euro per year for adults, 2 euro for the unemployed and students. I found it interesting that patrons are limited to borrowing just four items at a time, and late fees are 10 cents per item per week. It’s just an interesting comparison to the Brooks library limits and fines. On the main floor of the library there was a large selection of magazines and newspapers to read, and also a large bookshelf of books in Polish, an acknowledgment of the sizable population of Polish immigrants in Galway. Their children’s library was just next door to the main library, with its own entrance.
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