In Gaelic, Craic (pronounced crack) means party and that’s exactly what we found in Galway City, population 70,000 plus that deliriously happy couple from somewhere called Akron Ohio. Galway’s Irish name, Gaillimh, originates from the Irish word gaill, meaning ‘outsiders’ or ‘foreigners’ but that term didn’t resonate with us. We immediately felt like we’d walked into the city where we were always meant to live. It’s a magical place, as evidenced by the magical appearance of my dad’s luggage tag within the first few hours of our arrival.
Long story short, my mom gave us my dad’s garment bag after he died. The bag has traveled to Boulder, to the inauguration, to several sociology conferences and plenty of jaunts back to Cincinnati. We didn’t know there was a luggage tag with dad’s name and address stowed away in one of the small, zippered compartments; we never thought to look in it. So, we haul our luggage into the Ash Grove House B&B, take a quick nap to revive ourselves after the long flight and a brief episode of being tragically lost. When we head back out to explore the city, I look down near the tire of the car and see this square piece of plastic. I bend down and am greeted by my dad’s handwriting. The tag had chosen this particular moment, after nearly three years, to make its presence known. My dad always wanted to go to Ireland. I decided this was dad’s way of letting the family know he’d finally made it to the Emerald Isle, if only in spirit.
The weather is what we expected, drizzly and chilly. Being nearly June, we dress for Ireland’s summer – long-sleeved shirts, sweatshirts, raincoats with hoods. Angela, the owner of the B&B, supplies us with a map and directions to the City Centre about a half-mile away. A quick left on Presentation Street to Mill Street and over a stone bridge spanning the River Corrib puts us in the heart of Galway’s pedestrian-only thoroughfare. Brightly-colored shops intermingle with ancient stone buildings and the steady rain gives everything a waxy glow, like we’re walking through a box of crayons. One building is canary yellow, the next fire engine red, the next violet, and then cornflower blue. The cobblestone streets are crowded with shoppers and street musicians hoping for a few extra Euro from the picture-taking tourists likes us. Even though we’re running on very little sleep, we feel instantly revived by the energy around us.
Now I understood what Angela meant when she said, “The rain brings everyone out.” In the States, the rain drives us inside. In Galway, one of Ireland’s rainiest spots, no one’s spirits are dampened by eternally wet hair and soggy shoes. Dave, who loves sitting outside when it’s raining says, “I love this place. We can walk around in the rain and no one cares. This really does feel like home.”
We find the Food 4 Thought Café that we had underlined in our Ireland On A Budget guide. The book describes the café as a “real student hangout with friendly prices and plenty of vegetarian options.” We both opt for the vegan shepherd’s pie. Dave orders a cup of tea like the rest of the regulars but I choose a good old Diet Coke.
After more walking about, we duck into O’Maille’s, one of Ireland’s oldest established clothing stores where creamy hand-knit Aran sweaters are stacked floor to ceiling. I’m a tactile person and have been known to set off alarms in museums because I forget about the “DO NOT TOUCH” signs. It’s all I can not to dive headfirst into the piles of cable-knit wool. We learned from Anne, the owner, that O’Mailles employs more than 100 knitters. Most are elderly, some well into their nineties. The sweaters can take up to 200 hours start to finish, which is reason enough for the steep price tag. But if you want a seriously authentic wool sweater, this is the place to go. Ann warns us about the souvenir stores selling Aran sweaters made in China and how to tell the authentics from the fakes. But we’re actually here for Dave who is looking for a cap. He’d researched options before we left and had it narrowed down to a floppy newsboy cap – a la Mike Scott of The Waterboys – or possibly the Greek fisherman’s cap. At one point, he puts on a tweed cap and had his mother been there she would’ve fainted at the sight of him looking so much like his dad.
He has one picked out but it seems a bit snug so I dig through the stacks on the shelves. I finally find the perfect cap on the top shelf and wah-la, Dave looks fantastic in his Shandon Irish fisherman’s cap. I couldn’t justify the price of the sweaters (I know, shocking) so I choose a lime green hat, hand-knitted by Anne’s daughter, Niamh.
Our first Ireland purchases complete, we head back to the B&B for showers (why, I’m not sure, with all of the rain my hair was already an international disaster) and regroup before dinner. We decide on Mustard near the River Corrib. Dave has the sweet potato pizza which he dubs “stew on a pizza.” If you’re Dave, this is a grand thing. Roasted vegetables, a little cheese, some garlic. I have a steamy bowl of minestrone soup and spicy potato wedges.
Fully nourished, we seek out the “other nourishment” in Ireland – Guinness. We’d read about a few places in the guide books and a friend of my friend Suzanne had recommended a pub on Dominick Street called Monroe’s.
The city has a reputation for being Ireland’s cultural powerhouse which may lead some to think it would be a pretentious place filled with hipsters and posers but we found the vibe overwhelmingly pleasant and vibrant. It’s common to see young students attending the two universities there sitting elbow-to-elbow with regular work-a-day folk at the pub listening to trad (traditional Irish music). Monroe’s followed suit in this regard.
We walk into a roaring, chanting, standing-room-only crowd of young and old watching the Manchester United versus Barcelona soccer match. Little did we know (because we don’t follow soccer) that it was the World Championship game. Men and women are singing songs and pumping fists into the air. We’re confused why Galwayians would support either team but it seems most of the crowd is for Man U. Unfortunately, Barcelona takes the cup which later lead to a mini brawl in the middle of the bar. We talk to a friend of the guy who got ousted and he says, “Oh, it was only a matter of time for him. It wasn’t the question of if he would get thrown out, it was the question of when. We had bets going, don’t you know.” We talk to him a little more and he tells us he’s from County Mayo but “Galway is legend.” We couldn’t agree more.
After three pints, we decide to stay for a fourth because the beer is incredible and the craic is still going strong. I ask the band to play any Waterboys song that they know and two songs later they play “Fisherman’s Blues”, our hands-down favorite. This sends Dave and I into tears thinking about our Waterboy-loving friends like Sean Rhiney back home. It’s then that we met Matt and Mary O’Connor, Mary being the patron saint of driving instruction.
As the locals say, our first 24 hours in Galway is legend, and our remaining time there were nothing less.
Other Galway legends included:
Shiny, happy people – and only part of that shine comes from the rain. If there’s one observation we left with, it’s that people in Galway are generally happy and generally positive about life. The city exudes a positive vibe and there’s a sense of community that’s not always found in the States. It was common to see young people talking to older people at the pubs. It was also common to see young people singing along to the trad tunes and shouting every word with pride. Try finding a 21-year-old who’d do that in the States.
McDonagh’s Fish and Chips – Recommended by our friend Brian Halloran (aka Big Sugar or Sug for short), this was a must on our list. Actually, Sug didn’t recommend it as much as demand we go to the place with the “best fish and chips in all of Ireland, vegetarians be damned.” And yes, we broke our “nothing with a face” rule but we don’t want any grief over it. We’ve been vegetarians going on 20 years and we only stray when it’s an accident (as in a server neglects to tell us the soup is made with chicken stock even when we ask). How can you go to Ireland and not try the fish and chips? It’s sacrilegious.
Catholic Cathedral of Our Lady Assumed Into Heaven and St. Nicholas – Nothing like making the name of the church easy to remember. Rolls right off the tongue, it does. Our moms will be happy to know that all Mass times at ALL churches in Galway are prominently displayed at the doorway, just in case you miss Mass time and need to run across town. Here, we are in awe of the massive pipe organ and of the people stopping in on a Thursday afternoon for a quick 10-minute prayer session. I notice that the confessionals with the intimidating wooden doors are also in use. We light candles in honor of the proud Irishmen Mickey and Ed (our dads) and head toward Galway Bay where the Volvo Ocean Races were taking place.
Galway Bay in general and Hothouse Flowers on the Bay in particular – As Irish luck would have it, we are in Galway for the Volvo Ocean Races that include an outdoor concert with the Hothouse Flowers as the headliners. By this time, the wind has replaced the rain and the temperature is dipping into the upper 40s. We suit up in our usual Irish Summer gear, get our pints of Guinness and Smithwicks, and are treated to a two-hour show. Soulful, joyous, passionate, and a big ball of fun, it was. Anyone who thinks they’re another washed-up 90s act is wrong. Their last record, Into Your Heart, is fantastic. Liam O Maonlai and his mates rocked the bay.
Monroe’s, The Crane, and post-pub pizza – Monroe’s remained our favorite pub of the trip. The Crane was another grand place though we were only there for a pint after the Hot House Flowers show. And the good news? There’s a pizza-by-the-slice takeaway just around the corner from both pubs that’s not to be missed after a late night out.
The Babo Rating (1 cookie being Tragic!; 5 cookies being Brilliant!)
5 cookies for the craic at Monroe’s
5 cookies to our first perfectly-poured Guinness in Ireland!
0 cookies to the Radio Shack that gave us the wrong electric converter so we couldn’t use or charge up our various electronic devices
5 cookies to Peter Murphy’s Electric Shop where a kind man with a thick brogue handed us the converter we needed and said something along the lines of yes yes yes perfect yes very good 12 euros it’s what you need yes yes thanks very much.
A dozen cookies for being there the same night the Hothouse Flowers were playing an outdoor show for the Volvo Ocean Races
A factory of cookies for the Galway vibe