We visit the Irish city that has faced the wrath of an ocean and political upheaval, and that remains a haven for Gaelic culture
My Kind of Place: Galway, Ireland
The fourth-largest city in Ireland, Galway is renowned as the liveliest town in the country: it has a young and vibrant feel because a quarter of the population is made up of students at the National University of Ireland Galway, which sits just outside of the centre.
Once you’ve reached the city, which is less than two hours drive from the capital, Dublin, you can abandon your car for a bike, which will allow you to sample all that the pretty waterfront area and inland has to offer.
Perched halfway up the west coast of the island, the city of around 80,000 people is on the 2,500 kilometre Wild Atlantic Way, which stretches the length of the country, and the countryside and seafront around the city offer beautiful hiking and diving opportunities.
Culturally, in addition to being the inspiration for countless songs, including Ed Sheeran’s hit Galway Girl, the city is known as Ireland’s Cultural Heart for the breadth of its offering. There are theatres and music venues, and it is home to many events throughout the year, including the International Arts Festival and the Galway Film Fleadh (festival), both in July, as well as poetry, comedy and many other gatherings.
Galway county is one of the areas (gaeltacht) of the country where use of the Irish language is particularly strong: An Taibhdhearc, the National Irish Language Theatre, is based in the city and puts on performances throughout the year in its state-of-the-art auditorium. Traditional music can be heard at venues across Galway, as well as from street performers.
The city is also home to one of the greatest horse-racing meetings in the world, the Galway Races Summer Festival, which over a week beginning on July 30 will host more than 140,000 visitors for top-class racing and an inimitable atmosphere.
Galway is also a heartland for the two major Gaelic sports: hurling, a team game with thousands of years of heritage which is played at great speed with stick and ball; and Gaelic football. Galway are the current All-Ireland senior champions for hurling, and this season’s competition culminates in July and August.
A comfortable bed
Situated a few kilometres from the city centre, the five-star Glenlo Abbey Hotel (www.glenloabbeyhotel.ie; 00353 91 519600) offers you the chance to wind down from the hectic pace of Galway in a beautiful rural setting. The main building dates to 1740, and modern extensions have been sympathetically made. It overlooks a beautiful 138-acre estate that sits on the shore of the country’s largest lake, Lough Corrib, about 40km from Galway city centre. You can play a round on the nine-hole golf course, which was designed by Ryder cup-winning golfer Christy O’Connor Jr, or even take part in falconry in the Walled Garden. Double rooms cost from €205 (Dh888) per night, including taxes.
Book a table
Travel just a few kilometres further north from the Abbey, and you wind up in Moycullen, home to White Gables restaurant (www.whitegables.com; 00353 91 555 744). Based in a 100-year-old stone cottage, the husband and wife team of Kevin and Ann Dunne have been serving the finest local produce from the sea and the land for more than a quarter of a century.
Eschewing food faddery, their commitment to classic cuisine can be seen immediately in their menus: meat is cooked well and simply, with impeccably chosen sauces to accompany it and vegetables that are fresh from the farm. Fish have similarly few food miles on the clock, landed along the nearby Atlantic coast. And the next-door gourmet food shop offers local delicacies to take home with you, including chutneys and fudge. A set-dinner menu is €42.50 (Dh184).
In the city centre, if you want to experience some staples of Irish cooking then head to The Brasserie On The Corner (www.brasseriegalway.com; 00353 91 530333) on Eglinton Street. The menus change frequently, but the Irish stew we had was sublime and there was a wide choice of steaks as well as fish dishes. Starters are around €10 (Dhr43), mains no more than €25 (Dhr108).
Find your feet
The beauty of such a small city centre as Galway’s is that you can just allow yourself to get lost along the cobble, medieval streets knowing that you will soon end up in a recognisable square. Among the must-sees is the Spanish Arch, which was built into the city wall in 1584 when it was being extended.
Eyre Square is another one to tick off your list. Set in a plot of land gifted to the city in 1720 by then Mayor Edward Eyre, it is now known as John F Kennedy Memorial Park. You can find statues of such Irish heroes as writer Padraic O Conaire, and Liam Mellows, a key figure in the War of Independence from Britain and a deputy in Ireland’s first independent parliament. The city’s great nautical heritage is honoured with a representation of a Galway hooker, one of the traditional multi-sailed fishing boats that launched from the harbour.
Further afield, a classic waterfront walk is to head out from the centre of Galway to nearby Salthill, taking in the sea air while striding along the 2km-long promenade.
Meet the locals
With a growing international student population due to the global pulling power of Galway as a university, you may find yourself sometimes overwhelmed by non-Irish voices and faces in the centre of town. For more of a traditional Irish experience, take a trip to the Aran Islands, Inis Mor, Inis Meain and Inis Oirr, home to the famed fisherman jumpers made from soft yarn and a coarse, unscoured wool that retains its natural oils making them water-resistant.
It’ll take up most of a day, with ferries departing from Doolin, an hour’s drive from Galway, but you’ll find yourself on the last part of Ireland looking out at thousands of miles of the Atlantic Ocean. Check out Dun Aonghasa, a prehistoric hill fort on Inis Mor.
Another of Galway’s claims to fame is that the county is the home of the Claddagh ring, a piece of jewellery first produced around 400 years ago in the village which bears its name. Symbolising friendship and love, it depicts two hands holding a heart. There is a Claddagh ring museum in the city, and you can buy them from Thomas Dillon’s Claddagh Gold, which has been making and selling them since 1750 (1 Quay Street, Galway City; 00353 91 566365).
What to avoid
If you’re not a fan of street performers, then you should skip Kirwan’s Lane, despite the 16th century architecture.
It’s not the most beautiful church in town, but Galway Cathedral is the youngest such stone cathedral in Europe having been dedicated in 1965, is an incredible sight. Its green dome rises almost 50 metres above the town and can be seen for miles around.
Emirates (www.emirates.com) flies direct from Dubai and Abu Dhabi to Dublin twice a day, in just under eight hours. Then you can either drive across to Galway (two hours) or take a train (two and a half hours). Return economy-class fares cost from Dh3,200 and business-class fares from Dh15,380, both including taxes.