Monday, 29 May 2017

No, Galway is not Venice, and thank goodness for that!

A few weeks ago I was sitting on the loo, perusing The Guardian’s G2 section. For years I’ve been amused by its Pass Notes column: a daily dialogue which asks cheeky questions of a topical subject, with responses in kind.

No. 3,851 was headed Galway, solely because of the presence of Ed Sheeran and the video he filmed in the city.
I didn’t make it past the first four questions, which went like this:

Location: The middle of the west coast of Ireland. 
Age: About 900 years. 
Appearance: Oh, you know, it’s a perfectly nice old Irish port city. Small. Don’t expect Venice or good weather. 
Known For: Arts festivals, horse racing, Ed Sheeran.
Even though I knew I was being foolish, for some reason this innocuous whimsy managed to bug me for weeks.

Can’t I take a joke any more? After 25 years here, have I become parochial and petty? 
Yes I can and no I’m not.

So why was I feeling so defensive about such throwaway comments?

Had the day had come when I felt more of a Galwegian than a Londoner? 

Was that why my answers to their last two questions would be powered by so much emotion, you'd end up with more of a wrench in your heart than a wry smile on your lips.

Such is the nonsensical nature of comparatives, if you come from somewhere bigger, Galway might indeed seem small.

As someone who comes from a city which makes many others in Europe appear meagre, I feel one of Galway’s greatest qualities is that it’s a perfect size.

No seething metropolis, you need neither bus nor taxi to fully appreciate this city centre. You can walk from one end of it to another in 20 minutes, but it’ll take a lot longer than that, as you’ll be stopping to enjoy the music on the streets, or watch someone wearing burning underpants walk a tightrope at Johnny Massacre Corner.

If you’ve spent more than a day here you’ll be engaged by Howyas looking for inconsequential chit-chat, and even though you intended to head straight from Eyre Square to the river, you’ve ended up in Garavan’s for a whiskey, and then PJ McDonagh’s for sublime fish and chips.

When you’ve tired of sitting outside a pub or cafĂ©, watching the gentle crowds pass along the ancient streets (why on earth did they call it the ‘Latin Quarter’? There’s nothing Latin about it. The ‘Medieval Quarter’ would be so much more apt!) you can walk across Wolfe Tone Bridge to the west of the city, looking left to see the River Corrib roar out into the Atlantic, across to the Kingdom of the Claddagh and over, beyond, to the purple-hued mountains of Clare.

On a blue sky Summer’s evening the low sunlight picks out green fields miles away across the bay, bringing vivid life to far-distant farmhouses.

Once west of the river you can browse the seemingly endless restaurants on Dominick Street, catch a gig at the Rosin Dubh or see an exhibition at the Arts Centre. Then enjoy a gig and the smell of woodsmoke in Monroe’s, or maybe a Trad session at the Crane Bar. 

Whatever your tastes, you’ll find your own place.

Since my arrival here in 1992, Galway City has evolved from being a city that has tourists into a tourist city, but apart from the second week of the Arts Festival and Race Week, there’s never a time when the place feels full.

There used to be a couple of months each side of Christmas when the tourists disappeared, but they now come all year long, 
marching the streets, 
ear-plugged in, 
side by side in columns of four, 
just as they sat on their coach, 
identical pac-a-macs at the ready.

They pass and calm returns.

No, Galway City is not Venice, and thank goodness for that. Venice is utterly wedged with tourists 52 weeks of the year. 

Although Galway’s extensive network of waterways might not compare with its wondrous Venetian counterparts, of a Tuesday afternoon you can stare into the waters of one of Galway's canals, alone and in silence, while behind you, in the river, a wild salmon jumps for joy, simply because it can.

Well, more likely because it saw an insect to eat, but that you will not see in the diesel-ridden waters of Italy’s ancient city.

Yes, this city is famous for its festivals and horse racing, but that is like saying London is known for the Tate Gallery and Twickenham. 

Galway is loved for its incredible people, revered for an atmosphere that grabs your dreams by the goolies while simultaneously whispering in your ear:

“This is the place you’ve been searching for all your life.”

Well, that’s what I heard in my head and I’ve never once regretted listening to that voice.

Finally, I realised why that little Guardian column had elicited such a strong reaction from me.

They described Galway as ‘perfectly nice.’

We all know it’s a heck of a long way from perfect, but to me our city is not nice: it is great, one of the wonders of our county, alongside the startling glories of Connemara, unique and unmatched by anything I’ve seen on three continents.

‘Nice’ is what you call a cup of tea. I love Galway with a passion, just as it has loved me back.

Ed Sheeran’s hit ‘Galway Girl’ charted at No. 2 in England and No.1 in Ireland, but I’ll always prefer Steve Earle's different song of the same name.

Much like Galway itself, Earle’s fine tune makes us smile, telling a tale of a place where nobody minds walking in the rain…

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