Galway and the Aran Islands

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Galway and the Aran Islands

If you are doing the Aran islands excursion you may have little or no time to enjoy the city of Galway. For the purposes of these notes, however, it is presumed that you have all day to spend in the town. You may be staying outside the centre on the Ennis road. If so, your bus driver will happily drop you in town and pick you up at the agreed time.

Galway  Population 66,000. It is said to be Europe's fastest-growing city. In the last 10 years it has almost doubled in size. This is a lovely town with an exuberant atmosphere and a fascinating history. In the evening there is an endless choice of great pubs for all ages, many of them with live music. Galway advertises itself as 'Ireland's Cultural Capital,' presumably because of its large Arts Festival held annually in July. The week-long Galway races, also in July, are among the highlights of the Irish sporting calendar. The Oyster Festival in September is among the highlights of the culinary calendar. Galway is a university city. It is also the gateway to Connemara, one of the finest areas of unspoilt natural beauty in Ireland and the biggest Gaeltacht area in the country.

A Little History  It is not necessary to give a lengthy history of this city but you do need to make mention of its important merchant status in the Middle Ages, the Spanish connection and the Fourteen Tribes of Galway. The city began as an Anglo-Norman setlement in the C12. It quickly established itself as a trading town and within 100 years the town walls were built, still surviving in part near the Spanish Arch. The focus of Galway's commerce was the wine trade with Spain but Galway merchants also dealt with French wine merchants and even as far away as the West Indies. The C15 and C16 were Galway's days of glory. Several great merchant families dominated trade. They came to be known as the Fourteen Tribes of Galway, hence Galway's sobriquet 'The City of the Tribes.' These tribes were as follows: Lynch (the most important), D'Arcy, Joyce, Athy, Blake, Bodkin, Browne, Eyre, Ffont, Ffrench, Kirwan, Martin, Morris and Skerrett. (This is of limited interest unless someone in your group shares one of the above surnames.) In the C17 Galway fell into decline after destructive sieges, first by Cromwell in 1652 and again at the end of the century by William of Orange. Much later, at the time of the Potato Famine, thousands left Ireland for America from Galway in boats ominously known as "coffin ships."

The Visit  You should do a brief tour of the town by bus and on foot. The short walking tour of the town centre, mostly now pedestrianised, should take in Eyre Square, Lynch's Castle, St. Nicholas' church and the Lynch Memorial. Half an hour is plenty. By bus the tour should include the Roman Catholic cathedral, the old fishing quarter of Claddagh and the Spanish Arch.

To reach the cathedral you cross the Corrib on Salmon Weir bridge. Spot the salmon on top of the bridge. In summer thousands of silver salmon rush up here from the Atlantic to reach their spawning grounds upriver.

The Catholic Cathedral of Our Lady is modern, built in the 1950s in a classicising style. It sits across the river from the centre of town on the site of the old prison. It was consecrated in 1957 by Cardinal Cushing, the close friend of the Kennedy family. The interior is largely made of Connemara 'marble' (really a limestone). It may be worth a brief look inside for a couple of minutes. Otherwise just drive round on your way to the Claddagh.

The old fishermen's quarter of the Claddagh is unspectacular now. This was the original settlement of Galway. The famous row of cottages belonging to the "fishing kings of Claddagh" has been replaced by council housing. Nevertheless there are pretty views across the harbour, with swans swimming in the water, and over on to the Spanish Arch, part of Galway's medieval town wall and the clearest reminder of the town's Spanish connection. You may see some of the traditional fishing boats known as Galway Hookers with their red sails, of no particular interest except for the laugh that their name always elicits. This is the place to explain about the Claddagh rings which originated here. They bear the device of a crown opposite a heart enclosing two clasped hands. There are many stories about their origins, some lost in mythologising fantasy, but the following is probably true. (You might tell this on the road from the cathedral to the Claddagh which has absolutely nothing of interest.)

In the late C17 a Galwegian named Richard Joyce was shipwrecked on his way to the West Indies, captured by Mediterranean pirates and sold to a goldsmith from north Africa. There he learnt the art of goldsmithing. When released, he returned to Galway and set up a shop dedicated to his new-found trade in the Claddagh. The ring that was his trademark became an instant hit. They were kept as heirlooms, passed from mother to daughter. There was no symbolism to the design until, as a little gentle advertising, the rings were invested with the symbolism with which they are associated today. They should be worn as follows:

On the right hand, crown in heart out: the wearer is single.
On the right hand, crown out heart in: the wearer is spoken for.
On the left hand, crown out heart in: the wearer is happily married.

Cross the river here to return to the centre of town. Park on Forster Street near Eyre Square to begin your walking tour. There are numerous incidental items of interest and curiosity but only the most important sights are mentioned here.

Eyre Square is the heart of Galway. It is dominated by the Great Southern Hotel, Galway's finest and centre stage at the time of the various town festivals. The park is named after JFK who visited Galway in 1963. There is a memorial plaque to him here. (In his footsteps came Ronald Reagan also in 1984.) At the far end of the square are several monuments: a model of a Galway Hooker, cannons from the Crimean War, Browne's Doorway and a statue of Patrick O'Connor. The latter is a charming sculpture. Patrick O'Connor was a writer in Gaelic, a native Galwegian and one of the leading figures in the Gaelic revival of the turn of the century. He is seen here sitting on a bench, smoking a pipe and reading. His lazy calm pervades the whole square. Browne's Doorway is an interesting monument. It belonged to the ancestral home of the Browne family of merchants. When the C16 house was destroyed in 1906, the doorway was saved, principally because of its inscriptions and elegant stone carving, and moved here to the city centre.

Turn left here into the heart of the shopping district. It is difficult to give a tour because the roads are usually thronged with people and the pull of the shops is simply too great but you should try to point out a couple of sights. Lynch's Castle stands at the interesction with Abbeygate Street on the right hand side. It is now a bank. This was a C16 town castle and home to the great Lynch family who dominated Galway politics and society throughout the city's greatest days. There is some fine carving on the facade including beautiful mouldings over the windows.

Continue down the street a little to the next turning to the right which takes you to St. Nicholas' Church (Protestant). It is dedicated to St. Nicholas of Myra, the patron saint of sailors. This is where Christopher Columbus is said to have prayed before setting out to discover America. It dates from the 1320s. The tombs of the Lynch family can be seen inside. The exterior is is pleasantly decorated with gargoyles and, curiously, with more dolphins than any other church in the world.

Outside the church on Market Street is the freestanding Lynch Memorial Window. It gets its name from a story that may or may not be true but is still worth telling. In 1493 Walter Lynch fell in love with a local girl who also attracted the attention of a Spanish sailor. Walter became so jealous that he killed the Spaniard. Nobody was willing to punish him for the crime because his father, James Lynch, was mayor of the city. But James Lynch knew the meaning of justice and knew his duty. He found his son guilty of murder hanged him himself, supposedly from this very window. He took away the life of his son but he gave the English-speaking world a new expression, the 'lynch mob.'

This is the end of the suggested walking tour.

Excursion to Inishmore  If you are going to the Aran Islands please check the departure times of the ferries to and from Inishmore. They have an annoying habit of either leaving you too little time on the island or so much that you have no chance to see any of Galway. Especially if you have an adult group you need to allow enough time on the island for them to walk up to Dun Aengus and potter in the shops.

The journey from Galway to the embarkation point for the Aran Islands ferry takes about an hour and drives along the southern Connemara coast. It is predominantly flat and boggy but relieved by the dramatic grey outline of the Burren hills across Galway Bay and by the Twelve Bens off to the right. If the bus has a video you might like to get hold of a copy of the brilliant black and white American film Man of Aran, documenting the harshness of Aran life in the 1930s (put it on expenses). The film is an hour long but you needn't show all of it. It's well worth it. If the group is interested you can show the rest on the way back.

This is a Gaeltacht area. The only place of note en route is Spiddal where there is a well-known Gaelic school and a good little craft shop (commission again). You will pass the headquarters of Ireland's Gaelic radio station (Radio na Gaeltachta) before arriving in Rossaveal where the ferry leaves from. There are loos and some snacks to be had in the tiny terminal building. The boat to Inishmore takes about 30 minutes.

The Aran Islands  There are 3 Aran Islands, sitting 30 miles west of Galway in the Atlantic. They are called Inishmore, Inishmaan and Inisheer. You will visit Inishmore, the largest of the three. Though administratively part of Co. Galway, geographically they belong to Co. Clare. Their geology is more or less identical to that of the Burren. As in the Burren there are no trees and no barns. The land climbs in terraces from a flat sandy shore facing Galway Bay to sheer cliffs facing the Atlantic. By far the dominant feature of the islands is the mile after mile of stone walls crisscrossing the tiny fields. Inishmore has an astonishing 7,000 miles of stone walls on an island that's 9 miles long by 2.5 miles wide.

The tour through Inishmore is incredibly amusing. You will be met by your guide as soon as you reach the harbour at Kilronan. The minibuses are horribly uncomfortable and should have been condemned decades ago. They go unimaginably fast through the island's lilliputian roads. The driver/guides, with their thick Aran accents, are all but incomprehensible. When you can understand them they are very funny and very informative. When you can't it's a delight. They will take you through the island's roads pointing out anything that might vaguely be of interest (including seals swimming in the ocean) and will drop you at a parking (with shops, loos and a cafe) as close as they can get to Dun Aengus. It is then a good ten or fifteen minute walk uphill to the fort. Bring walking shoes.

Dun Aengus was built between 800 and 400 BC. It is formed by three horseshoe-shaped concentric walls, in parts up to 18 ft high. It sits on the dege of a 300 ft cliff that plunges sheer down into the Atlantic ocean. Be careful not to fall in. The fort is astounding, for its size, its state of preservation and its amazing location. It is unknown whether the fort was originally built in this horseshoe shape or whether some of it has fallen into the sea.

Once the minibus returns to Kilronan you should try to leave some time time for shopping for Aran knitwear etc. before embarking again. Do not be late for the boat though. It won't wait.

Slán leat agus go n'eiri an bóthar leat. Sláinte.
Goodbye to you and may the road rise to meet you. Your health.


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