A canny bit of marketing may lie behind the origins of the Galway International Oyster Festival, but Ireland’s longest-running and greatest gourmet extravaganza continues to celebrate the arrival of the new oyster season in the finest way possible: with a three-day furore of drinking, dancing and crustacean guzzling.
Just after midday in Eyre Square, Galway’s mayor cracks open the first oyster of the season, knocks it back in one gulp, and declares the festival officially open – just as he has done since the 1950s, when the festival’s devisers were searching for something that could extend the tourist season into September. A parade of marching bands, vintage cars, oyster openers, dignitaries and the like then makes its way down the town’s main street and along the bank of the River Corrib, its destination the festival marquee, and the World Oyster Opening Championship.
All this pomp, however, is purely a sideshow, albeit a colourful one, to the weekend’s main attraction, the Guinness Oyster Trail – the real backbone of the party and one of the greatest Irish pub crawls ever devised. The Trail consists of some thirty boozers dotted around the town, each providing a host of live music, comedy and dance acts over the entire period and, more importantly, offering free oysters with a pint of Guinness – every pub on the Oyster Trail employs a full-time oyster-opener throughout the weekend, who frantically and ceaselessly liberates the delicious creatures from their shells.
The traditional objective is to down a pint and a couple of oysters in every pub along the Trail over the three days – that’s around thirty pints and up to one hundred oysters. If you can do this and still make it down for breakfast on the Sunday morning, you need never prove yourself again.