Most conversations I have with Irish folk about their own island are consistently self-deprecating. When I tell them I love the place, they’ll laugh or look incredulous. They’ll bring up the rough economic times, their disenchantment with politics, and they’ll always bring it back to the weather—but there seems to be one city that wears the rain right.
I’ve heard all the trash on Dublin, Cork, and poor Limerick gets the worst of it, but Galway is untouchable.
It’s lovely, they’ll tell you. Galway is always lovely. I think its Ireland’s sweetheart. The child that can do no wrong. And it’s not difficult to see why. The place is something out of a fairy tale.
Like most old cities, it’s built along a river, but Galway’s river doesn’t cut through it like in Dublin or happen through it like in Cork. The river Corrib leads the city. The city is watching it. The city is a series of dreamwalks parting from and meeting the river again. And like a country aristocrat, every time you see the river, it’s dressed a different way.
Galway is all about the vistas. Nothing, nothing… then turn a corner and it’s like you’ve turned a page and you’re in a different tale. I saw this when I visited my friend and fellow student, Ana, at her misty haunt. Where Ana lived, the houses were spread out and the fields were wet, and bright green. Everything was quiet and the landscape was long overlapping ovals in the distance, falling out on the horizon. The Houses were orderly, big, in a country-sort of way.
Ana lives in the attic of a house that is nothing like a mansion, but somehow seems to go on and on. Square room after square room with plain furniture and floors made with smooth, wide, wood. The land-lady is some kind of herbologist? Some kind of healer with her own practice. She’s jolly, stout, and sociable. She made us apple crumble. So she’s out of a fairy tale, too, really.
When I think Galway, I think of the sound of rushing water. A tipsy man singing a war hymn. In the night, the air feels clear and the streetlamps are dim and orange. In the day, as we walk to the city, the landscape shifts. There’s a university, a cathedral –cross the river and you’re in a modern city, walk a little further and suddenly you’re in the middle-ages. Grey cobblestone, a dark tavern, alleys and hanging wooden signs. A tiny medieval church with a priest chanting in Latin. In the open air market, there’s a woman selling fresh tarts, and there’s a booth that’s just fresh squeezed orange juice. And street singers, of course, buskers. Their voices fill out the chilly air. Ana will tell you. She made a video series about them.
Another turn around a corner and you’re at Galway bay. You can look out at the water and see the oldest part of the city, the Spanish arches, at the very tip of the peninsula. Chris, another friend and student, told me there’s a “mind-altering” long walk you can take along the bay. It clears your head, he says, puts things into perspective.
So it’s that kind of place it is. So beautiful it’s hard to believe you’re really there. The greys and blues. Pieces of ancient fortresses sleeping under restaurants and bookstores. The tea shop cluttered with porcelain and dolls, but somehow, not in a creepy way. I hesitate to paint this kind of picture because I don’t want to romanticize Ireland. It’s a real country, with real people living in it. People with real joys and struggles and triumphs, and all sorts of ideas and opinions about who they are and what Ireland is. Ireland has never been just a feeling, just a story, or a glance. If there’s anything I know, it’s that.
But then, there is a feeling. And even when it isn’t what Ireland is, or even what Galway is—not entirely—the feeling is there; that this city, and this island, is not just land that people spend their lives on. It is a place that lives on its own. Maybe it’s all the music, poetry, and myth Ireland has made for itself all these years. Maybe those are the kind of stories that build places like Galway, that then speak back to the poets and scholars, that then write the poems and the plays, that bring the bays and buildings to life. Who knows how it happens, or how you explain it. But when you go to Galway, you just know there’s something about it. Something untouchable.