Ireland Destinations National
Galway in general
Gateway to the West As a person who experienced an enjoyable but predominantly rural childhood it has never been easy for me to generate a personal fondness for city life. If you have been reared in a location that is smothered in cultural and scenic richness, such as rural Ireland, it is easy to look at urban areas as an alien ... and unwelcoming environment. However, after several years of study in the west of Ireland city of Galway my negative opinion began to waver somewhat. This is because Galway city is one of the few, if not only, large urban areas in Ireland that successfully blends the country’s traditional rural heritage with the bustling and high-growth era that is modern Ireland.
Galway is ranked among the fastest growing cities of its size, which is nearing 100,000 people, in the whole of Europe. In the last few years it has encountered unprecedented growth and has been a huge economic boost to a region of Ireland that has been impoverished for so long. Thankfully, however, despite its expansion it has not lost its coveted reputation as a magnet for cosmopolitan and cultural ideals. The majority of people who have spent any length of time in this city look back with fond memories and are full of nothing but unending compliments. Therefore, at the risk of sounding like an employee of Galway tourist board, I will try and identify the elements that make this city so popular.
Galway is perfectly placed geographically to take advantage of the country’s significant tourist industry. It is has often been described as the “Gateway to the West”. It’s a stone’s throw away from the Connemara region, one of the few remaining Irish language (Gaeltacht) strongholds, which boasts a spectacular rugged landscape, and is perhaps the main contributor to the Irish postcard industry. As regards the road system in the west of Ireland, Galway acts as a link between the scenery-choked counties of Clare and Kerry to the south and the wild countryside of Mayo and Donegal to the north.
Sites in the city:
Possibly the most famous area of the city is Eyre Square which is the city’s principal banking and financial area and is the first thing you see as you arrive at the railway/bus station. In the middle of Eyre Squire you’ll find a pleasant green area called Kennedy Park (named after a visit by JFK in 1963). As a student I found it the perfect place to watch the world go by on a warm sunny afternoon. Although these days were few and far between as Galway is undoubtedly one of the most rain-soaked cities in Europe. However, it is not for the weather that people flock to Galway.
Another popular tourist spot in the city is the Spanish Arch, which is a famous wall that connects the old city walls to the Claddagh fishing docks. There is a small entrance fee into its museum that houses impressive maritime and military artifacts as well as farm machinery dating back five centuries and is well worth a visit.
The city has a strong maritime tradition as can be seen from the sculpture of fishing sails seen in Eyre Square. Also, beside the Spanish Arch is the beautiful, but now defunct Claddagh docks, which is home to a large swan population. During the summer months this area is swarming with revellers, both local and foreign, relaxing and taking in the view, but beware of the occasional group of drunks that have been known to frequent the area.
When touring the city you will struggle to avoid seeing the impressive St. Nicholas Cathedral, which dominates the Galway skyline. At first glance this structure may appear centuries old but in fact was only constructed in 1960. Inside it is just as impressive with beautiful carvings and pictures decorating the walls.
Close to the Cathedral is Galway University (or the National University of Ireland, Galway as the authorities like it to be called). Th is university is steeped in history and dates back to the 1860’s. It is well-worth taking a stroll through the grounds as it is a beautiful campus with structures such as the Quadrangle with its immaculately kept grass Aula Maxima. The city also has a technical college on the other side of the city that has recently been totally revamped with a very modern and unusually designed structure.
Few large cities are lucky enough to be located so near to a well-known seaside resort. Just a mile from the city centre of Galway is the resort of Salthill. You can take the regular No.1 bus from the city centre but it also easily within walking distance. The area of Salthill itself is slightly outdated as it enjoyed its heyday in the 1960’s (when two weeks in Majorca was not as affordable). However, taking a stroll along its long and beautiful promenade that looks out onto the infamous Galway Bay is guaranteed to give you’re brain and lungs a thorough spring-clean. Salthill has a beach but it is by no means anywhere near the standard of other beaches further down the coast, but because of its closeness to the city it is never short of visitors.
There is also an open-top tourbus that takes in all the major sites of the city. It leaves from Eyre Square regularly each day.
Aside from all the designated tourist sites it is the charm and atmosphere of its streets and buildings that really attracts people to the city. Some have crowned Galway “the Paris of the West” because of the amount of cobbled streets and interchanging narrow alleyways. Shop Street is the most famous shopping area with many well-known retailers located there. This pedestrianised street is nearly always buzzing with tourists and shoppers and would be similar to, if not better than, Grafton Street in Dublin.
Many of the streets are bohemian in appearance with dozens of cobble-stoned alleyways containing little gems of shops just waiting to be explored. It is has been remarked by many that when walking through the streets of Galway you are reassured by a feeling of security, which cannot be said for many other Irish cities. However, I am not suggested that Galway is crime free by any stretch of the imagination.
To truly appreciate what Galway has to offer you will inevitably have to find accommodation. It’s not difficult to find cheap affordable hostels around the city centre but two hostels with good reputations are the Barnacles Quay Hostel in Quay Street and Kinlay House just off Eyre Square. There are also a number of B&B’s to be found in the suburbs of the city and most are advertised on the internet.
If you’re willing to splash out for more comfortable surroundings then The Great Southern Hotel next to the Railway Station in Eyre Square, The Skeffington Arms Hotel in Eyre Square, Dury’s Hotel beside the Spanish Arch and The Galway Bay Hotel in Salthill are the most ideally located. Those intending to stay in Galway for a longer period should get a copy of the Galway Advertiser from its new offices in Eyre Square, but be prepared to fight for a place around August/September with the return of the city’s students for a new year.
When Galway is mentioned in converation it is inevitable that the topic of its nightlife will eventually arise at some stage because it is largely this that has given the city its notoriety. During the academic year the city’s nightlife is dominated by the 15,000 strong student population. This responsibility is eagerly, but perhaps less vigorously, undertaken by the mass influx of visitors (mostly American and German) to the city in the summer months between June and September. One great thing about Galway’s pubs during the summer is that many drinkers sprawl out onto the streets in front of pubs to enjoy the sun as well as the beer. However, th is is not condoned by the authorities and they’ve started to clamp more heavily in recent years.
There is a wide selection of pubs in the city that will serve every taste (or should we say thirst). Pubs like the Kingshead, the Quays and the Cellar Bar in the city centre are popular student hangouts, while pubs like the Skeff in Eyre Square and McSwiggans in Woodquay provide an alternative for professionals or what might be called the “yuppy crowd” by some.
If the traditional Irish experience of Ceili music, Guinness and small poky pubs packed to the rafters with atmosphere are you’re cup of tea then pubs like Taafes, where you will find a great mix of every kind of drinker from every age-group, Teach Ceoli (at least I think that’s how its spelt) on Shop Street and Monroe’s Tavern on Dominik Street will never disappoint. If what you’re looking for is a quiet, relaxing pint in the evening than Murphy’s or Feeney’s on High Street are ideal.
For live concerts the best places to go are the Roisin Dubh, which regularly attracts big acts, an Taibhearc for more alternative music, and occasionally for larger events the Black Box. Also, if the theatre tickles your fancy then the City Hall is the place to go.
It is a common known fact among students and regular danceaholics that Galway’s nightclubs have never quite shaped up to the standard of its pubs. Perhaps the most sensible option would either be Cuba, just off Eyre Square, or Central Park (beware the snotty, ignorant women and the incredibly drunk fellas with their Ben Sherman shirts in there). However, a personal favourite of mine is the small but nonetheless incredibly lively Church Lane nightclub, which it must be noted is free on a Wednesday and Thursday night with a pass. Other notable nightclubs are Boo Radleys, the Venue and the GPO (mostly hard dance at the weekend).
Galway is per haps not noted for its love of food but it does contain some quality restaurants if you know where to look. The most significant restaurant area of the city is Quay Street where you have a diverse choice. If you’re willing to splash out for your meal than places like Cookes, McNamara’s and Quay Street Restaurant would be your best bet.
If all you want is a quick, cheap but good quality meal than you should look out for The Couch Potato, Scotty’s (American-style food with humungous portions) and Lynch’s just off Shop Street. There is also a nice seafood takeaway called McDonagh’s on Quay Street which opens up onto the street. If you feel your grease levels are dipping to a dangerously low there is a McDonald’s, a few Supermacs and a number of other fast-food outlets dotted around the place.
Overall, if you chose to visit Galway I have no doubt that you will be captivated by its undeniable charm and uplifting atmosphere, whether you’re a foreign tourist, a student or just a regular visitor from another part of Ireland. It can truly be said that a visit to Ireland is not complete without a trip to the Gateway to the West. If you don’t believe me find out for yourself!
The Hidden Galway City:
However, like most cities around the world Galway has a dark and hidden past that you may not see. If you're interested read on.
The creation of the new Irish Nationalism at the turn of the 20th Century was essentially the invention of a new tradition, which broke from the reality of Irish society’s diversity. This creation of a narrow and specific heritage inevitably isolates someone or something, which in this case was Ireland’s urban areas. With the granting of independence and the creation of the Irish Free State in 1921 came a popularisation of rural life and culture. There was no place for urban heritage and towns were dismissed as an alien and part icularly English innovation. The rural areas were perceived as being a sanctuary for “true” Ireland. What the Irish were essentially doing was attempting to cover up their colonial past.
Nowhere was this sense of concealment of certain sections of the past more evident than in the western city of Galway. Due to its geographical closeness to the Irish-speaking Connemara region and a large rural hinterland, the city has developed as a prevalent base for the development of this new Irish heritage. However, this was not always the case. For many centuries Galway was very much an English city dominated by a wealthy merchant community. The name Galway itself roughly translates to mean “the place of the foreigner”, which is probably due to the large number of Anglo-Norman families such as the De Burgos who first populated the city.
Within the city’s medieval walls, a prosperous merchant town emerged. Galway was a lone outpost of English influence in the west. The city become a Royal Borough in 1396 and it received mayoral status in 1484 when power was transferred from the De Burgos to the 14 tribes, a group of Norman merchant families that included now popular Irish names such as the Lynches, Browns, and Kirwans.
There a number of hidden features dotted around the city which are a physical reminder of Galway’s forgotten past. Prob
ably the easiest of these to find is the famous Spanish Arch. It is an extension of the city walls out to the pier. It was built in 1584 to commemorate the wrecking of the Spanish Armada off the western coast of Ireland in 1511. Next to this area there is also a statue donated by the city of Genoa, the birthplace of Christopher Columbus, marking his supposed visit to Galway in 1477 en route to one of his adventurous voyages.
In the time of Henry VIII (1600’s), when England reverted to Protestantism, the new English planters coming into Ireland began to see the Irish as an inferior race because they were Catholic. This resulted in events such as the violent attack on Galway in 1652 by Cromwell. This largely failed in its objective but it did succeed in leaving a lasting impression on the city such as the conversion of St, Nicholas’ Church to the practice of Protestantism. It remains Protestant today yet it has gothic architecture which is typical of Catholic churches.
It is at this church also that you can presently find what is perhaps the most wrongly and ashamedly neglected area of Galway and Ireland’s past, for it is the commemorative home of the Connaught Rangers or “Devil’s Own” as they were nicknamed. This tiny church stuck in the heart of the city centre of Galway is the only significant physical dedication in the whole of Ireland to the thousands of Irishmen who died for over 230 years in the British Army.
In the confined space of the church there is a huge transnational sense of Irishness. The lists displayed all over the church of those soldiers killed in action include typically Irish names such as Murphy, O’Connor, O’Neill and O’Meara. The Connaught Rangers received more Victoria Crosses for bravery than any other Regiment of the British Army in the First World War. They fought around the world in such exotic locations as the West Indies, Ceylon, India, the Middle
East and South Africa giving their lives as they represented their home province.
Yet, from an untrained eye, there is little or no evidence of their sacrifice or even existence. 69,000 Irish soldiers have been killed in British service, more than the entire American death toll in the Vietnam War, yet there is little or no remembrance of them, unlike in America where the country is choked with memorials to the dead. Hopefully, further advances in Irish society will eventually lead to the development of a more significant tribute to the Connaught Rang ers in Galway city.
Despite a move to broaden the borders of Irish identity in recent years there still remains an unwillingness to incorporate Galway’s colonial past into its heritage. Monuments such as the Queen’s Standard behind the Quadrangle of Galway University are typical of this. It has been located in what is perhaps the most deserted and desolate location on the whole campus and is not recognised in the college prospectus. There is also the design of the college crest, which unbeknown to many, if not all, of the University’s students bears the English lion, a potent symbol of British colonialism, in its top left corner. The University was built in 1849 and therefore its Quadrangle is distinctly English and is likened to the architecture seen at Oxford University.
Perhaps the closest Galway has come so far to representing its diverse history are its monuments in Eyre Square in the city centre. The first is the statue of Padraig O’Conaire, a famous Irish poet and short story writer. He is perched on a Galway limestone wall with a rabbit and a bird at his feet, which suggests a rural environment. This represents the homogenous type of Irish identity which developed after independence. It is a very legitimate part of Galway’s history but the urban part of its history should also be shown, especially when the statue is in the middle of the most u
rbanised area of the west. The Quincentennial Monument, which was constructed by Eamon O’Doherty in 1984, signifies the importance of maritime trade to Galway. The monument represents the dark brown sails of the Claddagh (famous fishing docks in the city).
There is also the remains of the front wall of an Old English house that was placed in the square before the house was demolished. The canons in front of the monument were brought back from the Crimean War by the Connaught Rangers. They were unwittingly placed there by Galway County Council. So effectively, the monuments in Eyre Square represent Old English, Gaelic-Catholic Irish, post-modern Irish and the “forgotten” Irish with the canons.
Galway is presently thought to be extremely cosmopolitan and is considered the cultural capital of Ireland. However, it is strange that a city with such an apparent love for culture and diversity has yet to remove hidden secrets from its own past and display them with a sense of pride and respect. To ignore the colonial past of Galway is, in essence, to ignore its foundation. Only when all aspects of Galway’s heritage are publicly displayed and acknowledged can it rightfully deserve its coveted reputation of cultural richness.
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Donegal in General
The problem with Donegal is its location, while there are plenty of tourist visitors who manage to reach Ireland's most Northerly County every year, there just aren't enough who bother to travel that far. But what these people are missing is the finest county in Ireland. Before I deliver my little guide to Donegal, I should ... probably admit to at least a small amount of bias stemming from the fact that I was born there. Just so you know?
Some of you may not know where Donegal is (heaven forbid that you?ve never heard of it!). It is situated in the North West of the country and borders Derry and evil Tyrone to the East and little Leitrim to the South. It's only a couple of degrees cooler than Dublin in the summer and so isn't that cold! It also offers some beautiful Atlantic beaches, fishing villages, vibrant inland towns and wonderful rural and coastal drives.
First thing you'll need to get to Donegal is a car. The public transport infrastructure is awful (trains, what trains?) but the roads aren't that bad, well, not extremely bad. The signposts can be a little confusing with Ireland?s lovely mix of European future and British past linked through the fact that signposts can be in kilometres or in miles. The roads can meander, twist and turn so bring a decent map with you too, lest you want to go and get yourself lost. Getting lost is sometimes a hell of a lot of fun in Donegal, as it happens. Also bring clothes for all weathers, 'cos you never know what you are going to get up there, the weather today is not necessarily any indication what it will be like tomorrow or even in five minutes time.
Inishowen is possible the most scenic part of Ireland and the tiny village of Malin, twice winner of the national Tidy Town award, provides a scenic base to explore the North of the county. The Malin Hotel is a small, friendly family hotel and perfect to stay in, certainly now under new management,. From Malin town you
can travel to Ireland's most Northerly point, Malin head, visit the cliffs and ?Hell's Hole? and the beautiful unspoilt Five Fingers beach at Lagg. The waterfall and glorious sandy beach near Clonmany are both gorgeous, though watch out for the midges at the waterfall in summer! Kinnagoe Bay provides a large slice of history with its Spanish Armada shipwreck, while the ancients aren?t too far away at Carndonagh Cross.
Further afield there is night-life aplenty in Buncrana, especially McRory's Bar. In fact there are countless pubs and restaurants throughout the county that offer great service and entertainment. Shopping is catered for at Ballybofey and Letterkenny, but who want's to go shopping anyway?
History is abound all over the county too. There is the Castle and O'Doherty's Keep in Buncrana, the ancient Grianan Aileach fort overlooking Lough Swilly and with views over six Northern Counties on a good day. Glenveagh Castle and its National Park provide those with an interest in both ?colonial? history and natural history with plenty to see and frankly, there are countless other places to visit that I?ve never been to!
Golfing fanatics have some fine course to choose from, including those at Ballyliffin and Buncrana and there are ample hill-walking tracks as well as stables for horse riding. If you need to exercise your drinking wrists you can always head to a sports bar to watch the latest live action on TV.
The capital, Donegal Town has quaint castle ruins and plenty of pubs to be going to. It provides a useful base to explore the more popular areas in the South of the county, of which my knowledge is somewhat lacking. Go anywhere round the county and you?ll find you can catch some folk music being played live in the pubs while the drinks flow. This may have turned somewhat into a clichéd view of Ireland, but it does hold water in Donegal.
For driving the roads may not be super-smooth, but they are im
proving and the routes you can take on them are often beautiful. Try driving at least some of the Inishowen 100 drive. This offers spectacular views of the Atlantic Ocean and you can see for miles across to Northern Ireland and even Scotland if you?re lucky.
So many tourists come all the way to Ireland but don't travel that small distance to reach Donegal. So come on! Show a bit of imagination and you will be truly rewarded. In Donegal you can relax and soak in the scenery, enjoy sporting activities like canoeing and horse-riding, have your wild nights out in the pub or go for strolls along the beach. It has something for everyone and that something is pretty damn special.
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Cork (city) in General
I've heard that people have said that Cork is a somewhat similar place to Dublin, being Eire's second city and all that.. so after a particularly enjoyable trip to Dublin in November, myself and the other half decided that we would take ourselves off to Cork as a treat and to see what it had to offer people like us (in our ... 20's and who found Dublin a little expensive).
We arrived early on a Saturday morning, into the tiny Cork Airport (which we later learned is undergoing a complete renovation with a new terminal scheduled to be built), and waited outside for the Bus Eireann service from the airport to the centre. This is a big coach which - at weekends - runs on the hour, and on the half hour in the week. The service was prompt, courteous and cheaper than a taxi into the centre (€5.50 - about £4 - per person for a month-long return). Singles into the centre were available at €3.40 (just over £2). It took about 20 minutes to get into the centre, and dropped us off at the bus station on Parnell Street. The bus also picks up from the same place at the bus station for the return journey.
We only spent about 48 hours in Cork in total, so we obviously couldn't get to see and do everything. I'd actually recommend the city as a good base for exploring the beautiful surrounding villages in Southern Ireland - of course there's Blarney (and the castle with the infamous Blarney Stone), Midleton (for the Jameson factory - Irish whiskey production), but really, I think you'd need to hire a car to get out and about. To be honest, the two days we spent there were enough.
The city centre of Cork itself is a lot smaller than I thought. There's one main street - St Patricks' Street, which is the main shopping thoroughfare and is a wide street similar to O'Connell Street in Dublin. Off St Patricks Street are many small lanes and streets which are worth exploring as they often contain little pubs, bars, rest aurants and shops. At the top end of St Patricks Street lies the North Channel of the river Lee and Morrisons Quay (there's a lot of quays in Cork as the river Lee splits in two to form the north and south channel.. and the quays are mostly only one block long..), where there's a small shopping centre which was useful for escaping from the rain!!
We downloaded some maps of the city centre before we went, and looking at the maps we wondered how we were going to get anywhere - the streets looked big and a lot of walking was going to be required! Don't let the maps fool you though - the streets really were a lot smaller than we'd anticipated - and in reality Cork was a lot smaller overall than we'd thought. We were staying on Merchants' Quay - on the south channel of the river (separate op to follow on the hotel), in the Comfort Inn hotel there.
We found the tourist office - just off the bottom end of St Patricks Street, and this had a few free leaflets with suggestions of things to do. Be warned, however - most of the leaflets that are available there are charged for, although the women behind the desk were extremely helpful and were able to offer advice on transport, things to do and places to see. I was particularly interested in seeing the Beamish brewery, although we were told that it had 'closed for winter to tourists'.
It soon became apparent that there were few things for tourists to do at this time of year. Cork seemed to be extremely quiet and although we attempted to walk to the city gaol (one of the main sights we wanted to see), after half an hour of walking we didn't seem to be any closer and a horrible hill loomed to walk up (living in Sheffield you'd think I would be used to hills!); and - defeated - we gave up and trundled back along the quaysides to St Patricks Street.
Most of our time in Cork was spent either in the pub or in a restaurant - after all the aim of our visit was to chill down and treat ourselves, and that we did. There are pubs aplenty over there - some are even next door to each other, and we spent a good deal of time deciding on our favourites out of the ones we'd tested. On Oliver Plunkett Street we tried the Old Oak, and the Traditional Music Inn - both of which were very cosy and dark, just right to relax and chill down in. The Traditional Music Inn could - I imagine - get cramped on an evening as it's a very small pub. We also tried one on the corner of MacCurtain Street whose name escapes me, but was full of locals wanting to watch the Saturday afternoon football. Our favourite though, and the biggest, was The Parnell, which is on Parnell street just down from the bus station - a big old pub with wooden flooring and wooden surrounds and some very comfy seating. Drinks aren't *that* cheap over there, however: we paid around €3.50 (£2.30) on average for a pint of lager or stout, which is about the same as most southern pub prices in the UK.
For food, I will endeavour to write separate opinions, as the eateries we found deserve their own, but we ate at Isaac's Restaurant on MacCurtain St, Fellini's on Carey's Lane, and Cafe Mexicana on Carey's Lane. All provided good food, good service, with reasonable prices, and come highly recommended!
Cork in January is really a very quiet time of year. If I'd gone to tour the area and find 'things to do', I would've been disappointed. However, for a competely relaxing and chilled-down weekend it was perfect. It's quiet, small, and plenty of places to eat and drink in. As a city centre I'm amazed that it's so tiny - on our last day we had a late flight and actually ran out of things to do and shops to visit in the centre after 4 hours. I found the people there quite polite and willing to help if you needed it. I liked the fact that everything in the centre turned out to be well within walking distance, a lthough I found that there was scant information really on the 'touristy' areas and places like the gaol were poorly signposted.
Also - a word of warning for anyone going in the near future (circa Feb '03): Cork's main drainage system is undergoing a complete overhaul, which meant that there were a lot of roadworks, and at times some funny pongs in the centre. It is anticipated that this will be complete by the summer of 2003. It meant that crossing roads could be difficult, and there were some noisy roadworks ongoing in St Patricks' Street which did get a little irritating. On the subject of crossing roads, another frustration of mine came when trying to cross normal roads at traffic lights. In Cork, there seems to be no logic in the flow of traffic, and this meant that pedestrians - if waiting for the 'green man' to signal it was safe to cross - would be waiting for up to 7 minutes (I kid you not). Also the traffic lights - if you choose to ignore the crossings and try and cross with the lights - do not follow a standard UK pattern. From red they change to green (no red-amber as a warning), so you can get halfway across a road and the traffic will start to move. The pedestrian crossings really were frustrating, although they do have a weird pulsing noise which isn't the same as the ones in Dublin, but which pulse quickly when the green man is on, then randomly slow down as the lights are about to change. You don't get much time to cross a road over there before the green man disappears either - so be quick!!
Overall, I think that if I'd picked to go to Cork in the summer, I may have been a little more impressed with the city. Although I didn't go to see any of the 'touristy' things, and in reality it meant that I could explore more of Cork without that glossy touristy sheen, I still returned home thinking "I could've been in any city this weekend". That isn't to say that I didn 't enjoy myself - we made the most of what was there and enjoyed what we did and saw.
Cork is definitely the quieter, younger sister of Dublin, and for a little more action I'd sooner return to Dublin. However if you're looking for a base for exploring the country, yet you want the hive of a city with plenty of restaurants and pubs, I would heartily recommend it for that.
Note: an exchange rate of €1.42=£1 was used when working out the prices in this op. The rate is correct as of 25th Jan 2003.
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