Galway Ireland – The Jewel of the West
– Damien Peters
The jewel of the west coast, Galway is probably Ireland’s favorite city, and it’s a rare visitor that will not find something to enjoy during their trip to the Atlantic coast where it sits. One of the very few places on the island where the Irish language can still be heard in the vernacular, Galway is an artistic and bohemian town that somehow manages to still seem welcoming to the huge numbers of tourist and parties that descend on it all the year around.
The Atlantic seaboard of Ireland is known to be wild when it comes to weather, so a summer time trip is perhaps the wisest choice, especially around the time of the Galway Races in August.
During the winter, when biting winds blow in, your best bet is to hunker down in one of the many pubs that boast a roaring open fire and enjoy an Irish coffee or hot whiskey and wait for the music to start.
In the city itself, the sights include Lynch’s Castle and the Spanish Arch, just off Galway Bay. The Arch was constructed during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I, when the legend says that stragglers from the defeated Spanish Armada washed up on the shore and married into the local population. Though this is a fanciful notion, the Arch in fact was an extension of the walls that protected the city at the time when it was a prosperous continental port.
Aside from providing washed up sailors, ships from Spain also landed filled with wine and brandy, and the Arch serves as a reminder of the cosmopolitan air that Galway had in this period. Today, it is a good central meeting point, and the three story Galway City Museum nearby is also worth visiting for a glimpse into the city’s past.
Lynch’s Castle on the corners of Shop Street and Abbeygate Street was originally built as the fortified seat of one of the ruling Irish families during the 14th century. Rather unromantically, it was converted into a bank in 1966, but its gothic style and preserved windows and carvings make for a fine example of medieval style and what the city’s website refers to as “old Galway.”
The Lynch name had an impact far beyond the shores of Galway that may sound familiar also. The story goes that a sailor became involved with a female member of the family in the 1490’s and was murdered for his trouble by one of the girl’s brothers.
When none of the city authorities showed any inclination to become involved, the outraged patriarch of the Lynch clan took the law into his hands and hung his own son for his crime. This gives rise to the modern terms “Lynch law” and “Lynch mob”.
Just a short walk from the Arch, the Collegiate Church of St Nicholas of Myra dates back even further, to the 1320’s in fact. With its distinctive pyramidal spire, it is easily spotted, and the church is actually the largest medieval parish church still in use in Ireland.
Though it has been rebuilt and enlarged over the centuries, it retains much of its original form, and the carvings are an incredible testament to the faith and craftsmanship of medieval Ireland.
Interestingly, the church is dedicated to St Nicholas of Myra, the patron saint of children, who of course is better known today as Santa Claus. What few people are aware of is that he also performs the role of patron saint of mariners, a very important saint to a seafaring city where the ocean has a nasty habit of swallowing sailors and even whole ships at a saddening regular rate.
There are tours available of the Connemara area outside the city, but if you prefer to see things in your own time, it is best to rent a car and just drive. It’s no exaggeration to say that driving west for twenty or thirty minutes will lead you to a completely different world. Prior to Columbus’s voyage, the Connemara area was regarded as the furthest reaches of the world, and driving through its rocky fields and mossy landscape today, that sense of extremity still persists. It’s a mood unlike any other in Ireland, and it needs to be experienced directly to be fully understood.
Two points to set the GPS for on the drive are Kylemore Abbey and the Cliffs of Moher (which are actually just across the border in County Clare).
Kylemore is set on a property of 1,000 acres, including the Abbey itself and a fine six acre walled garden. It was originally built as a private home by Dr. Mitchel Henry, with construction beginning in 1867. One hundred men worked for four years to complete the Abbey, with funding coming from the Henry involvement in the then booming Manchester cotton trade. Following the First World War, Kylemore became home to a community of Belgian nuns who came in 1920 to escape the ruins of their own country.
They opened a world renowned boarding school for girls and began restoring the Abbey, Gothic Church and Victorian Walled Garden. Their school closed in 2010, and the sumptuous Abbey is now the most popular tourist attraction in the West of Ireland.
The 700 feet tall, shale and sandstone Cliffs of Moher are also one of Ireland’s most visited stop off points. In all, their gigantic size has been measured at one hundred square miles across, and their dramatic views of the ocean and its almost breathtaking vertical drop to the crashing waves below are not for the faint hearted.
The Cliffs were featured in the ever popular movie The Princess Bride, and fans should expect to get somewhat nostalgic if they visit. The nearby Burren area is also full historic sites, including tombs, burial chambers and even the Celtic high cross of Kilfenora. The well-preserved Corcomroe Abbey is also popular.
If time allows, a trip to the Aran Islands is also advised. Ancient stone forts, dating back to the Celtic pre-Christian era abounds, as do monuments from the highpoint of Irish Christian civilization (circa 450 A.D. to 800 A.D.). Some of the best examples are Dún Aengus, Dún Eoghanachta, and the crumbling Dún Dúcathair.
The tiny islands are also notable for the thousands of miles of stone walls that run all across their landscape. Given the communal nature of the inhabitants, it would seem strange on first sight that they were so proprietary, but the walls actually came about from a purely practical cause. The fields of the west were so strewn with hard igneous rocks that agriculture was all but impossible unless they were removed.
Lacking heavy machinery to carry the rocks far away, the farmers merely stacked them into walls and the defining physical of the west of Ireland was born. If you’re staying overnight, be sure to take a stroll up to one of the cliff tops in the evening for a view that you’re unlikely to ever forget.
If you’d like to learn more about this amazing place, be sure to visit here.
– Damien Peters