Galway has many colourful and distinctive districts, despite its small size and population. This is partly due to the city's age and partly due to its recent rapid growth. Like many older European cities, the periods of history which the city has witnessed have left their mark on the central and outlying areas.
The city centre is that of a small, coastal town with its roots in the thirteenth century. The streets are narrow and the older buildings cluster cosily together. In this area of the city, many of the buildings and architectural artifacts still testify to Galway's long history.
The focal point of the city centre is John F. Kennedy Park, or as it is still known by the locals (Galwegians),
For those fond of nightlife, the city centre will not fail to please. The greatest concentration of pubs and clubs is to be found in the centre, with practically every taste catered for. Galway is famous for its live music, particularly the traditional music sessions, often impromptu, which can be found in many of the pubs in the central area.
Galway is a coastal city, and has its own Docklands area. Previously a less than attractive section of the city, the dockside has been revamped beyond recognition. New attractive apartment blocks have replaced warehouses and storage containers. While most of the oceangoing traffic passing through the Galway docks is commercial, it is not uncommon to see pleasure boats docked here, and if you are lucky, you may be witness to the breathtaking sight of a fully rigged clipper ship moored for a short stay.
As we head north-west of the city centre, the next area of note is the Claddagh. The original town encompassed little more than the Claddagh, and true to this tradition, there is still a king (of sorts) in residence in the area. While the 'King of the Claddagh' has no administrative or ruling power, he is still an indelible feature of this characterful place, the residents of which are intensely proud of their heritage as residents of the original sea-side town which became Galway. The world famous Claddagh Ring is named after this area also, and while the jury is still out on the origin of this evocative design, it would be ill-advised to question its authenticity as a historical object unique to Galway in the earshot of any true Galwegian.
Further along the coast is the seaside resort of Salthill. Salthill has traditionally been the destination of choice for generations of sea lovers. Most of the development in and around Salthill took place in the last forty years, but the lengthy beaches have been an attraction for locals and visitors alike for much longer. Salthill was originally a seaside resort in the same vein as north-west England's Blackpool, although on a smaller scale. However, the last ten years has seen much investment and development in the area to ensure that it keeps right up to the mark when it comes to an enjoyable seaside holiday.
The road west from Salthill leads into picturesque Barna and Furbo, villages worth visiting for their scenic qualities alone. These areas also mark the beginning of the Galway Gaeltacht (Irish-speaking area). This region is steeped in old Irish culture, and the native Irish language is often predominant, with English spoken only to accommodate outsiders.
The Gaeltacht area is not only along the coastline. Bleak and rugged Connemara to the north and west of Galway city is also part of this culturally rich vicinity. Much of this area is included within the Connemara National Park and so is protected from unsympathetic development. From Newcastle, in the north of Galway city, the road leads towards Moycullen and on to Oughterard, where, like its seaside relatives, the Irish language and culture still flourish.
Newcastle Road, to the east of the city, is also the address of the
The south-eastern parts of Galway tend more towards the residential, with Galway's oldest housing estate, Mervue, to be found on the main Galway-Dublin road. Also in this area are Ballybane and Renmore. This off-centre development of the city gives a slightly unbalanced picture of its population, with most of the residential density on one side of the city. This gives rise to a community spirit which may be less and less a factor in urban and suburban living, but is still a central part of Galway life.
South of the city lies Co. Clare, home of the Burren. This region has also been designated a National Park and is home to a landscape unlike any other—the great limestone flagstones of the Burren shelter a ecosystem unique in the world. Finally, at the mouth of Galway Bay lie the Aran Islands. The three islands are included in the Galway Gaeltacht and maintain their own distinctive traditions in spite of the many visits from tourists. The landscape of the islands is bleak and unforgiving—great cliffs rise sheer from the sea and the magnificent ring fort of Dun Aenghus perches right on the cliff edge.
Tourism has always been a substantial part of the life-blood of Galway. So much so, in fact, that an appreciable percentage of Galway's population is constantly refreshed on a regular basis, when visitors decide to stay on. Unsurprisingly, then, there is a wide and varied range of accommodation from which to choose. Whatever their preference, any prospective guest of Galway can be assured that they will find lodgings which will easily meet their needs in both price and facilities. Both hotels and their less affluent siblings, hostels, are dotted extensively throughout the city and surrounding areas.
Due to Galway having a youthful and more arty ambiance than many cities, it is no surprise that accommodation is plentiful for those for whom a mini-bar and conferencing facilities are less important than having the craic. Hostels abound in the city centre, with no fewer than ten well-appointed lodgings within walking distance of Eyre Square in the centre of the city. These hostels provide inexpensive accommodation, and often serve as meeting places for people from all corners of the globe. It is said that during the summer season the most common phrase heard on the streets is 'So, where are you from?'!
The trendy west end of the city is home to the Arch View Hostel on Dominic Street. This area is also home to some of Galway's more popular pubs, and is only a short walk to the resort and suburb of Salthill, overlooking picturesque Galway Bay. In immediate proximity to the city centre are a number of hostels. Kinlay House, Woodquay Hostel and the Eyre Square Hotel are all within minutes of Eyre Square. All boast good facilities with both private and shared accommodation on offer.
Since Galway is one of Europe's fastest growing cities, areas which were previously on the outskirts, or even in the surrounding countryside, have become incorporated into the city. Expansion in the number of hotels corresponds with this, with new hotels constantly being built within convenient distances of the town. This type of hotel, along with the increasing trend towards good value accommodation, gives the visitor an increasingly superior choice of places to stay. Within the city and surrounding area, a multitude of hotels can be found with features one would have found in only the most exclusive accommodation only a few years ago.
Galway city itself has a number of fine hotels: Ardilaun House near Salthill, the Galway Bay Hotel and Salthill Hotel overlooking the waters of Galway Bay and Brennan's Yard Hotel in the city centre.
The city can boast two Great Southern hotels, a unique claim in Ireland. The quality of these hotels is renowned, and sets the standard for hotel accommodation in the area. The other hotel groups which have made Galway their home are Ryan Hotels with their Galway Ryan and Leisure Centre, Jury's with their Galway Inn on the River Corrib, Ibis, whose hotel on the main Dublin/Limerick road is much favored by business travellers, and Quality Inn who have a very conveniently located hotel on the outskirts of Oranmore, about five miles from Galway.
Oranmore can also boast the Galway Bay Golf and Country Club Hotel. This hotel on the southeast coast of Galway Bay has a panoramic view of the bay. It also features a beautifully designed par 72 golf course designed by famed Irish international golf star Christy O'Connor. For those fond of a round or two, it is hard to beat. Luxury cottage accommodation can also be provided for extended periods, ideal for those who find it hard to leave this beautiful corner of Ireland.
Further to the south of the city, we find the Clarenbridge Court, the Oyster Manor and the sumptuous Lady Gregory Hotel. All on the main Limerick road, the relative seclusion of these will appeal to those seeking repose in this one-time home of W.B. Yeats.
For the more exclusive visitor, there are many guesthouses in and around Galway which specialise in quality instead of quantity. Most of these have a much smaller capacity than their more commercial brethren, but this is more than compensated for by the increase in personal attention. On the way to picturesque Connemara lies Galway's only five-star accommodation, the famous Glenloe Abbey. On the main Dublin road is St. Cleran's in the village of Craughwell, once home to film director John Huston and his actress daughter, Angelica. Other houses of note are Norman Villa in Salthill, Killeen House in Bushypark and Lisdonagh Manor on the road north towards Mayo, Sligo and Donegal.
The centre of the city of Galway is dominated by waterways; it's not altogether surprising, therefore, that the original name of the town was Baile na tSruthain, meaning "town of the rivers". Its present name seems to have derived from the river Galoia, or Galvia, which according to folklore took its name from a beautiful woman who drowned in its waters. That name eventually evolved into the Irish Galliamh, which was then anglicised to Galway.
Galway was not an established town until after the invasion of the Normans under the De Burgos toward the end of the twelfth century. By 1270, the city walls were under construction, encircling an area of around 25 acres. Over the next two centuries this compact, easily defended town was established.
The town began to expand with merchants, servants and tradesmen crossing the Irish Sea to seek their fortunes. Native Irish landowners were gradually dispossessed and forced into the wilds of Connemara, west of the city. By 1450, Norman castles, or Tower Houses, were built to the east of the town. Trade, both local and international, thrived. Certain families, or tribes, came to the fore due to business success and involvement in local affairs. Over time, the most prominent fourteen tribes—Athy, Blake, Bodkin, Browne, D'Arcy, Deane, Ffont, Ffrench, Joyce, Kirwan, Lynch, Martin, Morris and Skerrett became closely identified with the city; hence Galway is often referred to as The City of the Tribes. Keep a look out for these names on businesses and in street names; they're still a part of everyday life.
Towards the end of the fifteenth century, emerging merchant princes made a successful petition for a new charter which allowed them to elect a mayor and two bailiffs every year. The first mayor of Galway, Pyerce Lynch, was elected 15th December 1484. This same Lynch family built Lynch's Castle, now the Allied Irish Bank, which still stands on Shop Street in the city centre. Dating from the late fifteenth/early sixteenth century, it is constructed in the Tower House style and is rated the finest surviving town-castle in Ireland. Also in 1484 the church of St. Nicholas, which dates from 1320, was granted collegiate status by the Pope; it is still standing and in excellent repair. These events effectively made Galway a city-state, and one which continued to grow and prosper over the next 150 years.
The Lynch family has another interesting claim to fame. The story goes that the mayor's son killed another man in a local bar because he had shown an interest in his lady love. The young Lynch was subsequently charged, convicted for murder and then sentenced to death by hanging for his crime. However, as he was the son of the mayor, no-one would carry out the sentence. Finally, the mayor himself put the noose around his son's neck, held on to the rope and threw him out the window of Lynch's castle and hung him there by the neck until he was dead! This is apparently how the well-known term 'lynching' and 'lynch-mob' originated; one of the more chilling aspects of Galway's history.
The Reformation caused religious disruption and after a nine-month siege by Parliament forces, Galway surrendered in 1652 and all Catholics were expelled from the city. Cromwell's famous choice, "To hell or to Connacht!", which was given to Catholics after the traumatic Cromwellian expedition to Ireland, saw an influx of the dispossessed to the region. Most of the fine houses and castles of the prominent tribes were confiscated and fell into disrepair, trade declined and the greatness of Galway came to an end. During the next century, the Penal laws made life a great deal more more precarious for Catholics. Although Queen's College Galway—now the National University of Ireland, Galway—was established in the middle of the nineteenth century, the Great Famine of 1845-1851 devastated the region with a combination of death and emigration; by 1911 the population dropped to just 13,000.
Independence came in 1923, the mayoral office was re-established in 1937, the 1960s saw the establishment of the first industrial estate and lifeblood began to flow into the city again. The twentieth century in general was kind to the city: the university expanded and artists flocked to the city, attracted by its spectacular hinterland and clear Atlantic air. Galway is now one of the fastest growing cities in Europe with a young vibrant population and a rich cultural and economic life.
Galway entered the 21st century buzzing with cultural and economic activity. The effects of Ireland's newly buoyant economy have been felt more slowly here. However, the boom has resulted in a small explosion of new shops, as well as the increasing expansion of Galway's city limits. Always perceived as a desirable location in which to live and work, Galway's population is expected to double in the next decade. Yet the impact of the Celtic Tiger, here as elsewhere, is a mixed blessing. Galway's growth has resulted in rampant, often ill-considered building in the surrounding area and the city centre itself, much of it glaringly and thoughtlessly modern compared to the medieval design of the city's streets. Many of the shops which have sprung up are chain stores, which provide more options for the consumer but also homogenize the city centre, robbing it of some of its charm.
However, Galway has ultimately retained its unique character. Forty percent of those living in Galway have relocated from elsewhere, resulting in a remarkably cosmopolitan city for its modest size. Small Breton and Basque communities have grown steadily in size, echoing the experience of those who left their ships behind centuries ago to settle here. The gradual influx of refugees and asylum seekers has been received positively and also contributes to Galway's diversity. At the same time, the everyday use of Irish in the area continues to increase, albeit slowly. This process is aided and abetted by TG4, the national Irish-language television station, located just down the road in Connemara. In the summertime, local festivals such as the Galway Film Fleadh and the renowned Galway Arts Festival bring visitors from all over the country, creating a carnival-like atmosphere. In addition, Galway's bid for European city of culture in 2005 provides an ongoing impetus for continuing development in theatre, music, literature and visual art.
With a steady influx of visitors each year, Galway is becoming increasingly busy and bustling, in direct contrast to the historically bleak West of Ireland of a century ago. However, its cultural capital and its proximity to the striking landscape of the West make it an idyllic place to visit and to live.
Galway's continuing expansion has led to an increase in the number and diversity of its cafés and restaurants. In contrast, the pubs have remained reassuringly unchanged. The superpub has not yet conquered Galway, and most drinking establishments concentrate on the quality of the Guinness instead of the hipness of the jukebox. Eating and drinking are leisurely pastimes in Galway, less hindered by the power lunch and after-work drinks traditions which plague other cities. Searching for sustenance is particularly easy as Galway's medieval city centre hosts numerous cafés and bars to suit a variety of wallet sizes.
McDonagh's, at the bottom of Quay Street, is the best place to go in Galway for fish and chips. These are so good here that they are elevated beyond their fast food status. McDonagh's also offers oysters and other shellfish in the adjoining restaurant. Further along Quay Street several restaurants jostle for your attention. Fat Freddy's, Trattoria Pasta Mista and Pierre Victoire specialise in reasonably priced, good food, and target visitors to the city. For something a little more innovative, try the River God Café, located above Tigh Neachtain's pub, which features Mediterranean cuisine. The portions are generous and the unexpectedly airy dining room provides great views of Quay Street. Alternatively, the Da Tang Noodle House is just around the corner on Middle Street, and offers a variety of Chinese dishes with homemade noodles, all prepared by the Chinese chef and served by his Irish wife. Pizzas with a variety of exotic toppings are available down the street at Milano, where you can savour your anchovies in studiously cool surroundings.
If your wallet has a healthy amount of plastic in it, you may want to have dinner at either Kirwan's Lane or Nimmo's, two places which are vying for the title of Galway's best restaurant. Both are located in the city centre; Nimmo's is just past the Spanish Arch overlooking the River Corrib, and Kirwan's Lane is situated on the narrow walkway of the same name. Nimmo's serves stunning seafood in a gorgeous upstairs room with lovely views of the river. The wine bar downstairs provides a perfect place to start or prolong your evening. Kirwan's Lane has a deserved reputation for innovative Irish cuisine, which is combined with usually impeccable service. In the best Galwegian tradition, both places will let you linger over your coffee or liqueurs.
If a search for Irish authenticity brings you to Galway's pubs, you'll be spoiled for choice. Tigh Neachtain's, on the corner of Quay Street and Cross Street, is far too comfortable to not spend the evening in. Fireplaces and traditional music combine to create a great atmosphere, while the cosy snugs are watched jealously for signs of vacating occupants. The Quays pub on Quay Street is a warm, cavernous space with lots of tucked away tables, which unfortunately can get fairly boisterous. It's also a favourite with the myriad backpackers who stay in the hostel across the street. The Front Door, also on Cross Street, incorporates the older O'Riada's pub, resulting in an acceptable interpretation of the superpub. Home to Galway's beautiful people at the weekends, the Front Door provides the perfect opportunity to meet the locals in their Saturday night finery. Dominick Street, just across the Corrib, contains several great pubs. The Crane features Galway's best traditional music sessions, while Roisin Dubh's is one of the best music venues in Ireland. Taylor's unapologetically unadorned interior provides a comfortable ambience; at least, the Beastie Boys thought so when they came here for some after-gig pints two summers ago.
Pubs and inexpensive restaurants also abound in nearby Salthill, which functions as a mini beach resort in the summer. The Ocean Palace on Upper Salthill, the neighbourhood's main street, offers traditional Chinese food, along with a few European dishes. Fans of Indian food should try Karachi, also on Upper Salthill, who also deliver. The pubs here cater to the locals in winter but throw their doors open to weekenders in the summertime; P.J's and O'Reilly's provide good pints and a warm atmosphere.
Some lovely restaurants are only a short scenic drive from Galway. Drimcong House in Oughterard is justly famous for its food; its chef has even published his own cookbook. Donnelly's of Barna, at the edge of Connemara, serves fantastic seafood in relaxed yet comfortable surroundings. The Moorings Hotel in Oranmore incorporates a fine restaurant, which features game and seafood dishes. If you're willing to venture further afield to Clifden, you'll be rewarded with a choice of fine seafood restaurants and see some beautiful scenery along the way. Fogarty's restaurant is one of the nicest in the area, recognizable by its thatched roof and serving a wide range of dishes.