“Well, after all, this is Ireland, Miss,” the boy at the front desk said with a smirk, when I asked if rain was forecast for the day. Since my arrival in Galway City two days before, I’d been waiting for fair weather so I could get out and explore the countryside.
Two rural regions cradle this growing community on the west coast of Ireland: Connemara, to the north—a land of lakes, bogs and green mountains; and the Burren, to the south—a bizarre region famous for its harsh limestone hills, unusual wildflowers and the treacherous Cliffs of Moher.
With so many natural wonders at my front door, I was more than a little impatient to get going. Even the famous shining Galway Bay located at the city’s edge couldn’t satisfy my yearning. But the grey clouds visible through the skylight in my room looked ominous. Maybe a change of plans was in order.
At first glance the town of Galway, with a population of about 60,000, might not seem to offer a lot to do on a rainy day. It lacks the huge art galleries, royal palaces or high-tech science centers of London or Paris. To my surprise, though, I discovered several cozy, interior activities to entertain the traveler with a taste for history, nature and the arts.
Take, for example, the Galway Museum. This quirky, ramshackle, hand-lettered collection of old photos, folk-art and artifacts of daily life is located in a 200-year old house, built into the side of the Spanish Arch, one of the remnants of the medieval town wall. Up top is a little roof garden with a bench and a view of Galway Bay. On the damp summer day I visited, a stack of peat was burning in the fireplace on the first floor.
One of my favorite artifacts in this museum is an early 20th century photograph of several stern women swathed in heavy dresses and scarves, sitting bolt-upright in a row, glaring into the camera. The picture is incongruously entitled “Ladies Taking the Sun.”
The delicate, soft-spoken woman who runs the museum explained that the fierce ladies in the photo were from the Claddagh, a former fishing village located just across the narrow river in front of the museum. The Claddagh originally lay outside the walls of the city.
Even up to the early 1900s, it remained culturally and politically distinct from Galway proper. There was even a Claddagh “king.” Before the bridge was built, the women used to row over in their small boats jammed with rough, hand-woven baskets, to sell their fish on the stone pier.
The famous “Claddagh” ring, with the two hands clasping the heart, was used for years as a wedding band by the villagers, and today it’s the most popular souvenir in town.
Speaking of fish, the Marine Museum in Salthill, a beach community, offers a close-up look at the multi-colored world of live stingrays, crabs and other sea creatures. Here, you can hold a starfish in your hand. For lunch, try a bowl of soup in the museum’s beachfront cafe. If the view through the floor-to-ceiling window tempts you, a walk along the promenade in a high wind (complete with ocean spray and the ear-splitting crash of waves) will get the blood swooshing through your veins again.
To recover from your reckless encounter with nature in the raw, you might want to step inside and warm up with a pint. A slew of pubs offering live sessions of traditional Irish music can be found in the Old Quarter of the town.
Lined with greystone buildings covered in antique carvings and bright wooden and brass signs, the streets here buzz with buskers and crowds. Musicians and Celtic dancers also perform nightly during the summer at the Siamsa Tire, a performing arts centre in the Claddagh area. For classical music, try the 13th century St. Nicholas’ Church, which hosts occasional concerts.
When hunger calls, the best place to go in Galway is a teashop or bakery. MacNamara’s, the Kylemore Bakery and the Lynch Café are pretty typical: they offer comfortable settings and generous servings of brown bread and scones, delicious Irish butter, heaps of ham and hot boiled potatoes, blood sausage and scrambled eggs and large metal pots of strong tea. You can tell a lot about a culture by its beverages and the way they’re served.
The North American approach to tea is epitomized by the single styrofoam cup of barely boiled water, with a scrawny tea bag slammed down on top of the lid; the concoction is tepid enough to be safely bolted down the throat while driving through rush hour traffic with one hand on the steering wheel.
On the other hand, the Irish pot of tea and porcelain cup and saucer send quite a different message. They demand that the drinker sit awhile, let the tea steep, and then sip several leisurely servings.
One day, while I was obeying this command and enjoying my third cup of tea, the sun suddenly came out from behind a cloud. The next day I planned to leave Galway to start exploring the countryside. A buttery light was bouncing off the river and toasting the old stonewalls, and a tune I’d
heard a busker playing in the street kept running through my head.
It was Frank Sinatra’s trademark “I Did It My Way,” sung in Gaelic and English:
“Regrets, I’ve had a few, but then again, too few to mention.”
If You Go
Irish Tourist Board