November 30, 2004
A Weekend in Galway
I was a bit anxious anticipating our trip out of town Thanksgiving weekend. Sad events had intervened the other two times we had planned Irish get-aways. What would happen this time? In the end, nothing!
But nothing goes as one expects…
I had allowed more than enough time to get to the train station and extra time there so that I wouldn’t be anxious. Well, the cab was late picking us up, the traffic slowed us down even further and, once we arrived at Heuston Station, we realized that the long line snaking towards the train was, in fact, people headed towards Galway along with us. I hopped on the end of the line while Mark headed off to purchase tickets, first from a machine that did not offer Galway as an option and then on to the ticket room to deal with a live person. He returned as the line had moved me three-quarters of the way towards the ticket taker – so I hadn’t really kicked into high anxiety yet.
The passenger cars were built some time ago but probably had been considered quite luxurious at the time. They still are quite adequate – pairs of upholstered bench seats facing over a common table. We found two seats together, facing the front of the train, and we settled in, armed with duplicate copies of the NY Times Sunday puzzle, Colm Toibin’s The Master, Monique Truong’s The Book of Salt, Mark’s prep books for the following week’s lectures and my knitting (yes, more hats… watch out under the Christmas tree!). By the time the train left – late – every seat seemed to be taken. Passengers were busy texting or chatting on their mobiles. Many university students were on board – some typically heading home for the weekend and others on their way to Galway for a weekend of fun (read, pub crawling). We had a crowd of revelers right behind us, who quickly discovered that they had no way to open their bottles of beer. The quiet businessman opposite us came to their rescue, offering his set of keys which conveniently had a church key on it. The college guys were politely appreciative as they settled in to begin their party. They chatted away, volume increasing as time passed and the beer went down. There was a convivial tone throughout the car, and those who needed to nap seemed to be able to block out all the action.
We chose the 2:20 train so that we would have daylight for most of our crossing to the west coast. Since we had decided not to drive ourselves, Mark wouldn’t be contending with the unpredictable road traffic, and I wouldn’t exhaust myself twitching as the always alert backseat driver. We could just sit back and relax and enjoy the scenery. We were quickly out of Dublin and shooting across the flat, green countryside where cows were grazing in the east and then more and more sheep as we headed west. Stone walls divided the fields, overflowing streams meandered through the countryside and upstart ponds appeared in lower areas. Lone houses cropped up, a little village at a crossroad, and bigger towns with heaps of waste of one sort or another near the tracks. With our late departure we lost light earlier in our journey than I had hoped and we arrived to a Galway night.
Having been there four years ago, we remembered how city centre is laid out, and we trundled off toward the Spanish Arch Hotel. “Location, location, location,” as realtor Helen Battistoni would have put it. We were staying in the perfect place for our two day visit – near the Corrib River as it empties into Galway Bay, amidst all the restaurants and shops, eagerly awaiting our Christmas shopping pocketbooks. The pedestrian streets were lit up with tasteful white lights set in green swags strung between the buildings. Shops are open late on a Friday night and sparkling with Christmas décor – Santas, angels and a sprinkling of snow on the Donegal sweaters, which, unfortunately, resembled dandruff during the daytime.
A peat fire greeted us in the little wood paneled reception area at Spanish Arch Hotel, a 20 room hotel which had originally been a Carmelite convent. Nuns no more, let us say. Our dimly lit bedroom was dominated by a rich orange, rust and olive velvet, swagged double bed.
The single tall window had a matching drape that must have weighed 50 kilos. We felt at home, though, as the little TV perched in a corner was identical to the one in our flat in Dublin. However, there were two differences between the two tvs – the hotel TV received even fewer channels than ours, and its remote buttons had not been nibbled down by Mary’s rabbit.
We dumped our stuff and headed out to explore, with our Bridgestone Irish Food Guide under our arm. The streets were full of families, shoppers, diners and pub goers, stopping to enjoy the various street musicians and performers. Mark, with his eye open for Galway oysters, took us into a little restaurant down a side street, where we stopped and had a pint of Guinness along with oysters for Mark and fabulous mussels steamed gently in a garlic cream sauce for me. They were cooked perfectly, still tender and juicy. These taste treats took the edge off our appetites, and we wandered the streets refreshed. We came across a touted Chinese restaurant, and we eagerly concurred that it was high time for some good Chinese food. Well, we had had such good luck with all of Bridgestone’s other recommendations that we never paused to consider the actual likelihood of there being good Chinese food in Galway. What were the clues we missed? Well, the name of the restaurant was Royal Villa – Oriental Food – not especially Chinese, right? How about fancy linens and western flatware at the table? How about the enormous chunks of food too big to eat without being cut with a fork and knife? How about the generic dishes on the menu from three different cuisines – Chinese, Thai and Indian? How about no tea brought to the table? How about coffee instead? Yes, we ended up quite disappointed with our dinner – more Chirish than Chinese. It was bland and overcooked. The best I can say is that they didn’t serve potatoes with the meal.
We headed back to our hotel, chastened.
When we had checked in earlier, the receptionist had mentioned that there would be live music that night – well, actually, both Friday and Saturday nights – the same group and, brilliant, really – Paul Byrne and the Green Onion Band. No problem for us, she spoke assuredly. After all, we were staying on the third floor, and the band would be playing on the first floor. Mark and I returned from dinner and headed off to the pub in the hotel to enjoy the music. The band wasn’t bad musically, and they played lots of songs we knew – Van Morrison, the Kinks, James Taylor, the Beatles, the Rolling Stones... But it was a shame that only one member of the band sang. Fortunately, the crowd that quickly packed the pub was enthusiastic – the hen party there to celebrate Melissa’s impending wedding, the young men trolling, babes, women friends and lots of mature couples. People sang along with the band. The entire pub burst into song as the band broke into American Pie. We were astounded that this was the song to bring the crowd together and to life in chorus. After that number, we retired to our third floor room, only to discover that our window opened on to the glass roof above the pub area. Some time after 1:30 the band retired, and I only had Mark’s snoring to contend with in order to find a quiet night’s sleep.
Saturday was to have been a rainy day, but we made it through until after lunch with only clouds. We spent the morning browsing our neighborhood – the walk along the Corrib towards the bay,
the narrow streets, the shops and
the pubs. The weekly market around St. Nicholas’s parish church was just up the street from us. Farmers with their vegetables,
an Inishmaan man with his smoked salmon, a donut maker, a crepe maker, bread bakers, cheesemongers, an olive stand with a huge bin of lavender as well, a potter, jewelers, a leatherworker, a sculptor with his bog wood carvings and then scads of people selling imported Asian jewelry and textiles. The quality was mixed, but Mark sampled fabulous oak smoked salmon, and each of us chose a fresh, savoury crepe for lunch.
We took our lunch away from the packed market and watched a busker manipulate his marionette at the piano.
The pianist was half the size of the captivated two and four year olds. The busker looked much like his marionette and the pair responded to each overture from the youngest members of the audience with a face-on stare or a nod of the head and a quick bow. Parents gave their children coins to put in the hat, and the bravest (usually the oldest) would drop their coin and then stand transfixed as the miniature pianist played Moonlight Sonata.
When he played a perkier piece, then a young, shy observer broke into dance. We have noticed that the Irish often contribute money to street performers as well as those collecting for charity, and this time we observed the young age at which their children learn to do so.
As the sky darkened and a few drops began to fall, we decided we needed to get moving. We dropped off our packages at the hotel (Did I mention that we had done some lovely Christmas shopping? The west coast is where the sheep, yarn, knitters and weavers predominate.), and we headed up along the river walk towards the cathedral. (The Catholic Cathedral of Our Lady Assumed into Heaven and St. Nicholas – there’s a mouthful) In many ways, walking and photographing Irish cities can be more beautiful in the rain. There is no reflection from vehicles, construction sites, trash and enamel graffiti paint. However, there is still trash around and in the rivers (less since they started charging for plastic bags). As we walked upstream alongside the Corrib, Mark saw a large white bag floating in the river – which, in this case, turned out to be an up-ended swan looking for eats. What a hoot. The swan would stretch out and down his long neck, tilting his body and rear tuft straight up to the sky, and stay that way at times long enough for my VERY SLOW digital camera to take a picture.
We did make our way up to the cathedral, which felt brand new (fresh stonework and more contemporary stained glass) and had in fact been dedicated by Cardinal Cushing in the mid-sixties.
The wind had started to blow the rain so our trip back down the Corrib to our hotel was a wet one. We retired with our books for the rest of the rainy afternoon. After it stopped, we ventured forth once again, hoping to catch a traditional music session at the pub nearby, but there was no live music. We settled instead for rugby as the Irish team came back from a 19-6 deficit to beat Argentina 21-19 on a last second dropkick. The crowd, while appreciative, did not have the raucous joy of, for instance, Red Sox fans.
We had been smarter about this evening’s dinner and had even booked from Dublin before we left. It was a return visit for us to what had become hot, The Quay Street Wine Bar, Martine’s, where four years previously we had first dined with the Carneys. We had a table for two in the front window which afforded fun people-watching – the great mix we see everywhere – families, couples, singles, groups of buddies – and, despite the central role of drink, a comfortable, up-beat crowd. Mark and I had lovely, fresh seafood. After dinner we took another pass by the traditional music pub, to no avail, and this time we chose to listen to our hotel music from the comfort of our bedroom. It is amazing what one can sleep through.
Sunday was a glorious morning, and we headed out to walk the edge of the bay and back up the Corrib again. It was low tide.
The moon had been full the night before, and so we anticipated an exceptionally low tide as happens on Nantucket. The rocky shore stretched out into an enormous flat with some sandy stretches but largely seaweed-covered boulders. Someone was out collecting, mussels, we figured, and he was pulling his bike along with him.
Look closely at right of center for the yellow slicker. Mark and I strolled along, and encountered the inevitable palm tree, somehow able to weather Atlantic shore winters.
We walked out the long causeway towards a restricted area, which Mark guessed was a prison, but turned out to be the waste treatment plant on Mutton Island. In the distance we finally determined that we must have been seeing the Burren outline to the south.
With the sun out, the sky was blue not grey. There was light and shadow. At this time of year the sun's path is quite low in the sky. You squint when you face it, and your shadow is long.
We left the brisk sea breeze and walked back towards the canals off the Corrib, through canal neighborhoods with startlingly green trees,
circling past the cathedral and back down towards Quay Street.
After we had hiked over the rocky shores and
up and down streets, through University College Galway,
for a couple of hours, I realized that I had worn the wrong shoes. So we picked up a Sunday paper and sat outside at a café sipping café latte and hot chocolate, enjoying the weekly book reviews and provocative style section. Our beverages quickly cooled, and it was time to head back to the train station. We wanted to get seats traveling back on the southern side of the tracks for a fresh view. We found just what we were looking for, and shortly before the train departed, an older Irishwoman joined us. She accepted our offer of the paper and then we chatted about the sunny, spring-like weather (weather always being the first topic of conversation) and what lovely scenery we were enjoying. Sarah, as with every Irish person we have met, has relatives in the States; her grandmother had immigrated to Pittsburgh at the turn of the last century. Her family hailed from Glendalough, a little town nestled at the foot of the mountains south of Dublin that borders St. Kevin’s monastery, one of our favorite walking spots. The Healeys were evicted generations ago, and Sarah is a Dominican living not far from us in Donnybrook. Conversation turned to how Ireland has changed, a central issue in most people’s lives here, as people no longer greet each other on the streets of Dublin, pine tree plantations destroy good soil and cities spread, gobbling up lovely countryside. But some things remain the same. Express trains take as long as locals, and everyone goes with the flow. We returned to Dublin as the sun was going down Sunday, invigorated by our fresh experiences and glad to be home again in our flat on the Dodder.