Travel writer Ron Smith heads for the Emerald Isle to Galway, a mix of the ancient and modern, and whose visitors' book includes Christopher Columbus, Prince Louis Napoleon of France and aviator Charles Lindbergh. You, too, could be lucky enough to follow in their footsteps...
THE west coast of Ireland is the shredded edge of Europe, and if you look at the map there is one large area where a ship could find refuge, Galway Bay.
It should be called something like 'Galway By The Sea' or 'Galway On The Water'. A bay, loch and river are on three sides of the city, on the fourth are a few vestiges of the old city walls.
The River Corrib comes down from the large Lough Corrib and has been split into several canals and weirs, creating an interesting pattern to the streets of Galway. Fly fishermen stand waist deep in the waters trying to catch salmon making their way up and down from the sea to the Lough.
Galway has a good mix of the ancient and the modern. The harbour was once very important (not so now), for sheltering merchant ships, and the Spanish Arch in the city walls is a remaining relic of those times. It was here that the people of the Claddagh – a stony beach area that was outside the city and across the River Corrib but is now a grassy pleasant walk – brought their fish to sell to the townsfolk. They also gave birth to the Claddagh ring, still popular today; Dillons claim to be the original company (from 1750) who still make these rings of two hands holding a heart, surmounted by a crown. It encapsulates the phrase 'Let Love and Friendship Reign', and it is said that if the heart points along a lady's finger towards you she is single and looking for a lover; if it points towards her, then she is already taken, her heart belongs to another. One of these rings was worn by Queen Victoria, and later by Queen Alexander and King Edward V11. Many shops in Galway sell the rings.
The heart of Galway is Eyre Square, one side of which is dominated by the grand hotel Meyrick (www.hotelmeyrick.ie), which was opened by the railway in 1852. The railway station huddles down behind it. You go up the side street and shuffle in through two little doors to the station, squeezing past people getting on the buses that start from there. It is strange to have almost no station but a huge hotel, which has four stars and is worth every one of them.
So many hotels today are instantly forgettable, the Meyrick has that grand scale and ambiance that makes you feel you are in a special place. Because it is so central and imposing, Prince Louis Napoleon of France stayed there in 1857. On June 15, 1919, when Alcock and Brown flew in on the first cross Atlantic flight, which landed in Derrygimla Bog nearby, they were taken to the hotel. On October 23, 1933, Charles and Annie Lindbergh landed their seaplane in the bay, and they came to the hotel; the list goes on.
Other famous visitors to Galway include Christopher Columbus in 1477, who prayed at the St Nicholas Collegiate Church, which was built in 1320 and is still standing. The largest church by far is the Cathedral, built on the site of a former prison as recently as 1965, and is so large it can seat 2,000 people. It is not, thankfully, in the 1960s style of building, but in the classic style with modern touches, a fascinating building dominating the skyline with its huge copper dome.
The population of Galway is around 78,000 people, with an incredible 23,000 students who add to the vibrancy of the city. There are many, many cafés and pubs, the night life is lively, even boisterous at times, and there is a very wide range of events. You will be spoilt for choice from two theatres, a cinema and over 50 other venues for events, including classical concerts throughout the summer in the Cathedral; plenty of places where traditional Irish music and dancing is held every night. On top of this there are the horse races and lots of water activities.
You can go over to some of the outlying islands, with the Arran islands, where Gaelic is the first language, perhaps the most popular. You are also close to Connemara National Park and Loch Corrib where cruises and water sports are big attractions. The three-yearly Volvo Ocean Race is calling in on Galway this year.
It is hard to believe that the town hosts two million visitors every year, but it does not have the feel of a tourist centre. You can stroll along the coastline from the Claddagh to the Promenade, visit small beaches and enjoy great views across the bay and out to the vast Atlantic, and yet not meet many people. The main pedestrianised shopping street has life-size, bronze statues of Oscar Wilde and Eduard Vilde sitting on a bench in conversation. This commemorates the twining with Tartu in Estonia, known as the 'City of Good Thoughts' and one of the oldest university towns in Europe. Eduard Vilde is Estonia's famous writer, contemporaneous with Oscar Wilde, and the two towns have a lot in common. In Tartu, the equivalent statue is in front of the Oscar Wilde Irish Pub. The Galway statue was presented in 2004 by the Estonian people and placed in William Street, which is usually thronging with shoppers, students and tourists.
There is a discreet shopping centre hidden in the centre of the town with all the big retailers, but Galway still seems like a small, busy town. There are lots of things to discover, like the house of Nora Barnacle, a Galway native and married James Joyce. They apparently had quite an intense relationship, and an 'intimate' letter from Joyce to Nora recently sold for over £200,000.
Yes, Galway is a mixture of the ancient and the modern, a small town with a big appeal, popular with tourists, and with its universities and some high tech industries it is thriving and busy. The small airport no longer has flights to Dublin – just helicopter flights around the bay or to the islands – so to get there you need to drive (motorway M6 to Dublin) or take the train. Irish railways have had a renaissance recently, and the regular trains from Galway to Dublin's Heuston station take 2 hours 35 minutes. The trains are modern, built in South Korea, very comfortable, and unlike UK trains have the seats lined up with the windows to enable you to admire the landscape. Fares are reasonable, compared to UK prices. All announcements and signs are in Gaelic and English, but English is spoken as the first language. The currency is the Euro, of course, which means that prices are higher than here, not quite double, but there are bargains, and probably because of the number of students, eating out is not expensive.
Ireland has a reputation as being a friendly place, and I can confirm that this is true. People have a natural way of taking the time to talk to you and make you feel welcome. There is lots of information at www.failteireland.ie and for Galway itself go to www.discoverireland.ie/west