A Cobbled Labyrinth
“If you ever go across the sea to Ireland
It may be at the closing of the day
You can sit and watch the moon rise over Claddagh
And watch the sun go down on Galway Bay.”
--Arthur Colahan, Galway Bay, 1947
How lucky are we? We are sailing across the sea. As well, we’ll have the chance to watch the sun go down on Galway Bay. It’s right good luck, this. One might even say it’s the luck of the Irish, or at least the luck of those who become, if nothing else, Irish for the day.
Turning Back The Clock
Well, let’s touch first on the history of this city before we actually begin our adventures. It’s best to know a wee bit about what you’ll be seeing, isn’t it? It should come as no surprise that Galway City grew from a fledgling fishing village at a spot where the River Corrib flows into Galway Bay. In fact, the water practically rips right through the heart of the city. The spot was known originally as “The Claddagh.” Fishermen from here wouldn’t take to the seas if they saw a woman with red hair on their way out. They felt it spelled bad luck for them. Today, you’ll be lucky to see the white swans that swim in this area.
In 1232, some serious stone walls were erected following the takeover by an Anglo Norman named Richard De Burgo. The real wall-building took place about 40 years later and you’ll see some remnants of that work even today. Well, ultimately in 1396 Richard II bestowed upon fourteen powerful merchants and their kin all the governing powers. You’ll learn of these folks, and their strong allegiance to the British crown, for they’re known as the “Fourteen Tribes of Galway.” Strong trade developed between Spain and Portugal before other eastern seaports left Galway in the proverbial dust.
Before we leave the history section, we could learn a few factoids about Galway. Wine put Galway on its feet, so to speak, for the importation and distribution of this nectar of the gods created early financial success for the merchants. A devastating fire nearly destroyed Galway in 1473. Making lemonade from lemons, the landed aristocracy decided to build rambling manor houses as the city saw a new design in a more orderly fashion. Lynch Castle is one of those estates. It was once the home of Galway’s Mayor. Many believe Christopher Columbus happened upon Galway four years post-conflagration and probably worshipped in St. Nicholas’ Collegiate Church.
Now things really get good. The term “lynch” is said to have been coined in Galway. Supposedly the Mayor’s son murdered a Spaniard. Each man was crazed with love for the same woman, thus a true crime of passion. The son’s sentence was “death”. Not one member of the local population stepped forward to carry out the execution so the Mayor, James Lynch Fitzstephen, was compelled to do it himself. Now, no official record of this event can be found. So, is it legend or lore or history? Anyway, others trace the term back to a Virginian, Captain William Lynch, who was identified as handing out illegal punishments back in 1782. Whatever, it makes a good yarn.
Another great story swirls around The King’s Head Pub. It’s said a Galway volunteer executed the vanquished Charles I and, for this deed, he was awarded the land on which this pub is found.
And on a cheerier note, the Great Famine of 1845-47 wiped out approximately one-fifth the population. Perhaps that’s why the townsfolk are so festive today, for they’ve survived a whole host of challenges over time.
That was then, this is now. Galway today celebrates a vibrant nightlife, award-winning seafood, beaches for miles, festivals, lucky fishermen on River Corrib’s Salmon Weir Bridge, and fine shopping for traditional items. And you’ll hear a bit of Irish Gaelic spoken as you wander about. While wandering, be sure to visit Kennedy Memorial Park, named for President Kennedy who visited Galway not long before his death.
Ah, you must also learn about the oysters. You’ve lots to sample. There’s fresh-from-the-sea lobster, as well. Step into a traditional Irish pub and sample the fare offering home-made soups, local cheeses, Irish soda bread and, of course, pints of Guinness. And while you’re there, some fiddler might emerge with a troupe of little Lord-Of-The-Dance wannabe’s to add entertainment to your meal. If the full complement of musicians is in tow, you might also hear bagpipes, harps, tin whistles and a goatskin drum called a bodhrán.
Well, the clock is ticking. If you’re a sightseer you’ll be off to discover all that Connemara has to offer. There are the Cliffs of Moher, named for the Mothar fort that was demolished during the Napoleonic Wars. They’re found between Hag’s Head and O’Brien’s Tower. It took 300 million years to create them, slightly longer than a bathroom remodel.
And, finally buy yourself a handsome tweed cap, some typical Irish linen, Celtic pewter and perhaps a bit of jewelry. Galway is famous for its Celtic crosses, some inlaid with Connemara marble. More famous, though, is the Claddagh Ring. You’ll see them everywhere with their identifiable two clasped hands around a heart, often topped with a crown. You must be careful how you wear them, though, for it carries important significance. Here’s a primer:
Right hand, heart facing out, you’re available.
Right hand, heart facing in, you’re not.
Left hand, heart facing out, you’re engaged.
Left hand, heart facing in, you’re already married.
Oh, it gets so complicated sometimes. Better buy two. And, please do enjoy your day in Galway.