A weekend in Galway

It’s over fifty years ago since I was last in western Ireland and I didn’t make it to Galway then.

My original idea was to visit the nearby Gaeltacht, one of the areas where Irish is still widely spoken. But that has to be on a longer trip allowing scope for reflective meanders in sparsely populated countryside. Galway will suffice for now at the estuary of the swift flowing River Corrib on its short journey from Lough Corrib to Galway Bay. So swift flowing and tumultuous that (from the safety of my third floor hotel room) it looked as if it might breach its banks. But there are no flood warnings and the river channel seems well protected with alternative paths to capture the water masses. So maybe the locals are used to the river’s powerful surge (although I see that there is a central street called Flood St).

It’s supposed to be one of the most Irish cities in Ireland (it would require an essay to explain the meaning of that). It does have a different atmosphere to Dublin. Here, way beyond the pale, the footprint of the conquering English is different. There are no rows of Georgian terraces or evidence of rapid growth in the eighteenth and early nineteenth century before the famine.

According to architect Roddy Mannion’s “Galway, a sense of place”, rhe Normans built a castle here in the early thirteenth century and they were followed by what Mannion calls the Anglo-Normans, merchant Catholic families speaking first Norman French and then English, trading with the Gaelic speaking areas around the town but also with Spain, Portugal and elsewhere in the Mediterranean. Almost a city state where the grasp of metropolitan England was weak. According to Mannion, this all changed after Cromwell besieged and then occupied the city in 1652, Then the merchant families lost much of their power, including fresh waves of protestant settlers from mainland Britain. These merchant families were referred to as tribes but it is unclear whether this was this their own name or a derogatory name used by Cromwell.

Mannion presents this period as a golden age of Galway although the Irish speaking peasants in nearby villages would I suspect have a few less golden things to say about the “Old English”. Fortunately, Charlie Byrne’s bookshop is open this afternoon so that I can search for a book about the development of the local economy and try and work out how people made money (from other people…). It’s a great bookshop – according to the quote from the New York Times, “one of the City’s most unique experiences” (was the editor asleep when this slipped through?).

After Cromwell, the city doldrummed (to adapt a fine Middle English word) for long periods. While most of the buildings have been modestly replaced, the city centre has kept its winding mediaeval street structure, which was swept away in more economically dynamic seventeenth and eighteenth century towns by the revival of classical architecture.

You do see more Gaelic in evidence on shop signs here although this might partly be to titivate the tourists as well as pride in heritage. According to Roddy Mannion, Irish is almost extinct in the city itself and what remains is “tokenism and gestures such as the requirement to have new English-speaking housing estates and new roads in the city named in Irish only, which occupies the same mindset as compulsory Irish for exams and cupla focail (the short, obligatory and often rudimentary use of Irish on formal occasions) which does little to promote its suspect bilingual status”.

I greatly enjoyed trying to decipher the signs in Irish and have even bought a Christmas card in Gaelic with its message “Beannachtai na Nollag O Eirinn” (with an accent or two that I’m too lazy to reproduce). It took me a while to realise that “Noel” was hiding behind the Nollag (Christmas); “beannachtai” has a “benediction” feel to it or rather Blessings so the message is “Christmas Blessings from Ireland” or “Merry Christmas” in English. There is a plentiful supply of Irish language cards with Jesus in the manger or Maria, cards that you couldn’t send in secular Sweden without being suspected of unusual religious fervour (it’s safer there to stick to robins if gnomes are not available).

Not sure whom I will send this card to – maybe I’ll email my intended card recipients and explain that while the standard Christmas card service is free that I do operate a premium Irish language card service for fellow quirkophiles, which can be accessed by buying a raffle ticket…..

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