Wind on this February day
Could lift the snuggest toupee
We feel we must
Follow its gust
To the nightlife that calls from Galway
We’ve visited the three largest cities of Ireland already; time to see the fourth- Galway! The sun decided to come out and grace us with its presence last weekend as we made a quick bus ride north. First stop was a cafe for some tea with toast & eggs, and a tourist map. What impressed me so much about the city, other than the fact that a large amount of its local population still speaks Irish Gaelic, was how easily accessible it was to see everything on foot: from John F. Kennedy Memorial Park to the sights of Shop Street, to the Spanish Arch, to the Claddagh, to Salthill and our B & B…and all of the delights in between.
If you’re wondering why there is a park named after my highschool alma mater in Ireland, this is because JFK was the first American President of Irish Catholic descent. He visited Galway in 1963, just 5 weeks before his assassination, saying it was “the best four days of my life.” He must have felt that warm connection I continue to appreciate as I explore this land of my ancestry. A few weeks ago, Joe and I were invited to dinner by a gentleman he’d met at UL. Having an Irish mother and a father from Zimbabwe, he cooked us oxtail (brilliant), as he and Joe connected over their experiences growing up in neighboring countries. Another lad who joined us, from Limerick, shared a fun fact at one point in the conversation: It is (or at least was) common to find two portraits in Irish homes: one of the Pope, and next to it, one of President Kennedy. If that doesn’t tell you how much this country is influenced by Catholicism, the fact that I just received an email Groupon for a “Communion or Confirmation Photoshoot” should.
Just beyond JFK Memorial Park, or Eyre Square, lies Shop Street. Lined with souvenir shops, street performers and colorful pubs and restaurants, Joe and I ducked into “Hearts of Galway,” a jewelry shop, to look at claddagh rings. I had purchased one last time I was in Ireland six years ago, but somehow lost it. We entered a contest to win me a brand new gold claddagh ring. Twice. This ring dates back to the 17th century, and originated in the Irish fishing village of Claddagh, located just outside Galway’s city walls. It involves two hands holding a heart with a crown on it: the hands represent friendship, the heart love, and the crown loyalty. They are commonly used as engagement/wedding rings and are often handed down from the mother or grandmother. Depending on how you wear it (right hand, left hand, heart facing out, heart facing in), the ring indicates your status: single, in a relationship, engaged, married. Before I sadly lost mine, I enjoyed being able to switch to the left hand, heart in, if a weirdo was trying to talk to me at a bar. I also once wrote on a napkin for a cute waiter who was interested in my ring (this is long before Joe, by the way!) to “give me a claddagh sometime” with my phone number. Yeah, he never did. Which is just fine because now I’m here in Galway with my soulmate bidding for free jewelry- hope I win!
Shop Street turns into Quay Street which ends at the Spanish Arch. This is also where the River Corrib opens out into Galway Bay. We stopped to let the sunshine warm our faces and listen to the river rush by. It was here that Spanish traders unloaded their ships back in the day. Here’s the deal: in 1396, Galway gained a Royal Charter and was controlled by 14 English-merchant families known as the Tribes of Galway (one of those being the Lynch tribe, which Joe’s Grandpa descended from). The old-English tribes wouldn’t allow Gaelic people into the city (I forgive you, Grandpa!) and needless to say, the relationship between the two groups was not a friendly one. During the Middle Ages, Galway was stuck between a rock and a hard place (maybe that’s why Gaillimh (Galway) translates to “stoney” as in “stoney river”). Its citizens, being caught between Catholic rebels (Confederates) and English military, chose to support the Confederate side since most of them were Catholic. However, English Parliamentarian forces conquered Ireland in 1652 and Galway was forced to surrender to a Cromwellian way of life. This dude, Cromwell, is still strongly disliked in the Republic of Ireland- Catholics were expelled from the city; plague and famine followed. Since no Irish Catholic merchants were allowed to live in Galway as it was confined to Protestants, trade declined and the once busy harbor fell to despair. Then a few years later, the city found itself involved in some more Royal drama…
In 1688, the Catholic King of England, James II, had his throne-age replaced by his Protestant daughter and her husband. Jealous James wanted his throne back, so having the support of Irish Catholics, he challenged his son-in-law in the Battle of the Boyne, by the River Boyne on Ireland’s east coast. Protestants won and James packed his sailboat and took off for France. For the next 300 years, Protestants began to take power over Ireland and as trade flourished on the east coast, Galway weakened, unable to compete. Oh, and then the Great Famine happened. So basically, this city has had it’s share of heartache! In time, the economy regained strength- a University was built, which helped. Now, you probably wouldn’t recognize all of the blood sweat and tears that were once shed on Galway’s streets and shores; the city appears to be thriving, continuing to evolve.
Gazing upon the Spanish Arch, I wonder about the lyrics of the song Galway Girl:
And I ask you friends, what’s a fella to do?
Because her hair was black and her eyes were blue
So I took her hand, and I gave her a twirl
And I lost my heart to a Galway Girl
I just wonder if the black hair came from Spanish genes and the blue eyes, from Celtic ones. Maybe Joe and I aren’t the first inter-cultural couple to be embracing on the shores of the Corrib. From what I understand, the Spanish helped the Irish defend their independence from the English crown. And finding land in on Galway’s shores after a storm at sea, some decided to stay and call it their new home. Maybe this is how a Galway Girl came to be. And who knows, maybe one day there will be a Limerick Lass, with blue eyes and a fro.
After sunbathing in our sweaters and imagining what that fool Cromwell might have looked like, we mustered up our energy to cross over the River Corrib and into the Claddagh. Sailboats and a few hookers rest on its shores. Oh, you thought I meant hookers. No, these ones do not wear go go boots, although I’m sure they would’ve come in handy in the rain. Galway hookers are traditional wooden sailing boats with black hulls and rust colored sails. We continued on towards Salthill, a seaside resort area, and found our Bed & Breakfast at Sunrise Lodge waiting for us. The couple who live there were getting ready to leave for a wedding, and the guy cracked me up- he was so nice that it was funny. Like he’d be talking to me all concerned about how our trip from Limerick was, and then he’d jump up shouting “Oh! I’m sorry, I didn’t realize I’d had my back to your husband! Sorry!….” The extremely tall, sweet man lead us to our immaculate, ocean-view bedroom and headed off for the wedding. Seriously, how is this not still a honeymoon?
After resting and enjoying some tea, we decided to take a walk on the beach. The sun was setting, the birds were chirping, the locals were strolling, the wind was blowing, the water was glistening…and Joe was getting totally annoyed with my photoshoot obsession. But he managed to survive and we headed back into town for some fish & chips. It was not at all like the three-peice Ivar’s basket I was expecting. One whole plate of chips and one whole beer-battered fish fillet. Yum! (I still love you, Ivar.) We walked Shop Street enjoying a late-night harp performance and a vision of men dressed as nuns drinking pints on the street corner. A friend of mine told me to check out a pub called, from what I remembered, the Russian Crow. Turns out, it is called the Roisin Dove. Right. Well, we didn’t quite make it there, but Joe and I enjoyed some Bulmer’s cider at Monroe’s instead.
Sunday morning, we were excited to get downstairs- Joe for the full Irish breakfast, and I to see the funny tall Irishman again. He told us all about fishing around Galway in his cartoon-character style, and invited us back sometime, which I think should definitely happen. Joe and I walked along River Corrib and ended up at the Galway Cathedral. We stayed there for almost two hours just soaking it all in. One of the readings went, “Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.” We didn’t choose this one to be read at our wedding because it’s so common, and we wanted one that really meant something to us. But hearing it read, I realize- although common, we could never be reminded of its words enough. The priest talked about faith. He said, “Faith is seeing life as a gift.” I immediately think of my mom, for who this seems to come so naturally. She can acknowledge the negative but see the positive in any situation. I remember crying as a teenager after some girls at basketball practice made fun of my Lion King cut-off T-shirt. Devastating, I know. She listened and told me that if my Lion King shirt made me happy, to go ahead and wear it and not worry what they thought of it…that God doesn’t mind what kind of a shirt I wear, but cares what kind of a person I am- and that I was a kind girl and that’s all that mattered. I wonder if Irish merchant’s mothers told their children similar lines as they complained of Parliamentarian forces who were dissing their religion. She and my dad have been married almost 55 years and have been through many of life’s ups and downs together. Joe and I hope to have as much faith as they’ve had for so many years. It appears to be true that seeing life as a gift, might be the secret.
As we left the Cathedral and stepped out into the gift of pouring rain, we made a few more stops: Lynch’s castle, which is now a bank but still a lovely structure, and a souvenir shop for postcards. With the last 16 euro we’d taken out for the weekend, a pizza was devoured and we were on our way back home, to Limerick. Slán go fóill… (Goodbye for now…)