Known for its festivals, music and bars, GALWAY (Gaillimh; w www.galway.net) is a vibrant, fun-loving city and, though it has few sights to visit, many people end up staying here longer than intended. Conveniently, history and leisure combine here: the pubs, many of which retain their original, huge fireplaces and other Gothic features, are the best place to get a feel for the medieval city. As the capital of the Gaelic West – it’s the only city in the country where you might possibly hear Irish spoken on the streets – Galway draws young people from up and down the coast to study at the National University of Ireland at Galway and the Institute of Technology. In the summer holidays, however, its bohemian diversity becomes more overt, as hundreds of English-language students renew the city’s traditional maritime links with the Continent, while dozens of buskers from all over the world sing for their supper. This cosmopolitan atmosphere is reinforced by the setting: Galway is the only coastal city in Ireland that really seems to open up to the sea, and its docks sit cheek by jowl with the compact city centre, as you’re constantly reminded by salty breezes and seagulls. The jewel in the city’s crown, the long, pedestrianized main drag of William, Shop, High and Quay streets, becomes a boisterous, Mediterranean-style promenade during summer, lined with pub and restaurant tables. At its lower, western end, the street narrows to its original medieval dimensions, then flows straight out into Galway Bay along with the thundering River Corrib, providing faraway views of the Burren hills of County Clare.
Strategically located in the narrow gap between Lough Corrib and the sea, Galway was little more than the site of a twelfth-century fort when it was captured from the Gaelic O’Flaherty clan in 1232 by the Anglo-Norman Richard de Burgo, who built a castle by the river. From the fifteenth century, the town was controlled by an oligarchy of mostly Anglo-Norman families, by the names of Athy, Blake, Bodkin, Browne, Darcy, Deane, Ffrench, Ffront, Joyce, Kirwan, Lynch, Martin, Morris and Skerrett. Cromwell later dubbed them the “Tribes of Galway”, an epithet which they adopted as a badge of honour – to this day, Galwegians nickname themselves the Tribesmen. Under this oligarchy, Galway grew wealthy as a largely independent city-state, far removed from the centres of power in Dublin and London but trading extensively with mainland Europe, especially Spain and France.
The town remained proudly loyal to the English Crown, but this only elicited harsh treatment when Cromwell’s forces arrived in 1652. Thereafter, Galway went into decline, exacerbated by the Williamite War later in the century, and fluctuating with the development of adjacent Salthill as a seaside resort in the early nineteenth century, the arrival of the railways and the building of navigable waterways to Lough Corrib in the 1840s and 1850s, alongside the depredations of the Great Famine. Growth returned in the late 1960s with industrial and tourism development, and Galway is now the fourth largest city in the Republic.