Ireland: Craic-ing good time

By Sharon Stephenson

Irish hospitality abounds in Galway's pubs, museums, parks, festivals ... and pubs.

Escape from the pubs and Galway is a captivating city to explore. Photo / Thinkstock
Escape from the pubs and Galway is a captivating city to explore. Photo / Thinkstock

Drinking Guinness at 11am on a Wednesday isn't my usual practice. But I'm on holiday, we're in Galway and, as the slurring chap next to me has so accurately observed, I need to get in some practice for St Patrick's Day.

Not wishing to insult that famous Irish hospitality, I don't mention it is September, a full six months until it's time to commemorate Ireland's patron saint of drinking. Instead, my husband and I join him in a pint of the black stuff.

"In Ireland, we say you should never have just one drink. After all, a bird never flew with only one wing," he says, which may go some way to explaining why the tiny pub, on Galway's Upper Cross St, is heaving at this time of the day.

But then Galway is famous for its "craic", and there's no doubt this city, which stretches like a contented cat across western Ireland, knows how to let down its hair.

There's no shortage of pubs and our new best friend tells us Galway has always attracted musicians, artists and intellectuals. It's also catnip for festival goers: had we been here last month, we would have caught the Cuirt International Festival of Literature, while the Galway Arts Festival and Film Fleadh in July is one of the biggest in the country.

The city's biggest knees-up, however, is dedicated to the humble mollusc: the Galway International Oyster Festival has been staged here since 1954, and participants from all over the globe come to wash down local oysters with lashings of beer.

Tear yourself away from the pubs and you will find Galway is an extremely easy city to navigate. We start at Eyre Square, once a jousting ground and now, if not the heart, then certainly the lungs, of the city. Its proper name is Kennedy Park, in honour of the former US president who visited in 1963, but you'll never hear locals refer to as anything but Eyre Square. Avoid the shopping centre and instead check out the Brown Doorway, a relic from the home of one of the city's leading merchant rulers.

You can't come to Galway and not visit Lynch's Castle, originally built for Galway's most powerful family who held the position of mayor no less than 80 times between 1480 and 1650. Even if, like me, your architectural knowledge is rubbish, you'll still appreciate the detailed stonework on the castle facade, including dastardly gargoyles and Henry VII's coat of arms. Did I also mention it's now a bank? Apparently even castles have to do double duty in these grim economic times.

Down by the River Corrib is the 16th-century Spanish Arch, which is believed to have been an extension of the city's medieval walls. It was built to allow ships bearing alcoholic goodies from Spain, but the day we visit it seems to be hosting a convention of the homeless and folk familiar with Class A drugs. But it's not every day you hear a junkie panhandler quoting W.B. Yeats (who lived around these parts for some years).

We slip into the swanky Galway City Museum. My husband is so captivated by the 9m hooker, a traditional sailing boat suspended in the atrium, he feels the need to engage the poor museum staff in a long and detailed conversation about it. It's possibly the world's tiniest museum, but the room out the back of Dillon's Jewellers on Quay St is also worth a visit for its overview of the famous Claddagh rings, which originated in the late 17th century at the fishing village of Claddagh.

The village has long since been swallowed by Galway city centre but the rings - which feature a pair of outstretched hands and are often given as a symbol of love - are now one of Galway's most famous exports.

We end the day, surprise, surprise, in another pub. I'm reminded of something else our friend from this morning said: "If you come to Galway for a weekend, you'll stay for a year." Not, I imagine, because it takes you that long to recover from the Guinness hangover (although that may well be the case), but because the city is so charming you'll never want to leave.

TRAVELLER'S TIPS

Where to stay: For a splurge, stay at the swanky 114-room Meyrick Hotel, on the edge of Eyre Square. Or, if your bank account is as sad as the Greek Government's, then the Galway City Hostel, also on Eyre Square, is probably more up your alley.

Where to eat: There's only one place to go, Ard Bia near the Spanish Arch. The food is divine and portions are huge. There's also a Kiwi connection: the chef says she bakes daily from Alexa Johnston's Ladies, a Plate cookbook.

Where to go to drink Try a pub, any pub. If it isn't to your liking, there are no shortage of alternatives.

Further information: For updated info on Galway and its surrounds see discoverireland.ie.

- Herald on Sunday

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