Walking Tour of Galway City
Galway lends itself to walking, the city centre is compact and it is always lively and a pleasure to be in. There are also excellent shops, especially craft shops, which make window shopping and browsing an essential part of any walk here.
Main Image: The Long Walk, Galway by Davers
City of the Tribes
Galway is still known today as the City of the Tribes, the name referring to 14 important Anglo-Norman merchant families who lived there and dominated the life and trade of the city during the middle ages.
The families were: Athy, Blake, Bodkin, Browne, D’Arcy, Deane, Ffont, Ffrench, Joyes, Kirwan, Lynch, Martin, Morris and Skerrett.
From 1232 when Richard de Burgo drove out the ruling Gaelic O’Flaherty’s, until the end of the 1600′s Galway flourished as a centre of trade. During the 15th and 16th centuries ships from Spain, France, the Carribean and South America crowded its harbour and the town was a wealthy one.
It all went wrong in 1692 when the city gave its support to James II in the English Civil War. He lost. When the victorious William of Orange sent Cromwell to restore order in Ireland Galway was firmly in his sights. The city was taken, its families relieved of their power and influence and the city sank into an economic depression from which it has only truly emerged in the last 30 years.
A. Eyre Square
This is the centre of Galway and the pivot around which the city moves. The land here was given to the city 1710 by Edward Eyre, then mayor of Galway.
In 1965, the square was officially renamed “Kennedy Memorial Park” and there is a bust of J.F. Kennedy in the park.
The square has undergone quite radical change in the last few years, a process that was not without its controversies. In truth any change to a place with such a central part in the life of a city would have been controversial and overall the outcome has been better than I expected.
It’s worth dropping into the Tourist Office here to pick up information about what’s on (there is always something on in Galway!) and the Eyre Square Shopping Centre, a modern mall, may be of interest for picking up some souvenirs.
B. Lynch’s Castle & Shop St
Lynch’s Castlewas once home to an important family, one of the tribes, who supplied the city with more than 80 mayors between the 15th and 17th centuries. It now houses a branch of the AIB bank.
The castle dates to the early 1300′s, though the current building was mostly built in 1503, following a catastrophic fire in the original some years previously. Later it was extended and added to over the years, with the current doors added in the 1930′s. Inside the bank there are a series of panels which tell the story of the castle.
As you continue down Shop St, you can’t miss the statue of Oscar Wilde, sitting on a bench in conversation with Estonian writer Eduard Wilde.
This is a copy of a statue that stands in Tartu in Estonia, and was presented to Galway to mark the occasion of Estonia joining the EU in 2004. The two men are unrelated and never actually met, though they were contemporaries.
C. St Nicholas of Myra Church
Towards the end of Shop St down a side street on the right is the 14th century Collegiate Church of St Nicholas of Myra, built from Connemara Marble and local limestone and named for the saint otherwise known as Santa Claus.
The church has served it congregation, at some times Catholic, at others (as now) Protestant, for more than 650 years. The only interruption to this came in 1652 when Cromwell’s forces seized the church and used it for a time as stabling for horses.
The importance of Galway as a trading centre is evident from the tombs which have symbols of trades included in their decoration – with a stone mason, a wool merchant and a goldsmith among them.
Just outside St Nicholas Church, this rather ghoulish panel appears below a window in the only remaining wall of a building that was once another home of the Lynch family.
The story goes that in 1493 Walter, son of the serving mayor James Lynch, was found guilty of murdering a Spaniard and sentenced to death. However few believed him guilty and nobody willing to carry out the sentence could be found. Determined that the rule of law would prevail, James Lynch hung his own son at this spot.
This act gave the English language the expression ‘to Lynch’.
D. Home of Nora Barnacle
This small unremarkable house at No. 8 Bowling Green was the home of Nora Barnacle, wife of the famous Irish writer James Joyce.
It has been restored and not only has some interesting material relating the Nora and her husband but is an interesting glimpse into how an ordinary working family in Galway lived during the early part of the 20th century.
It is not always open in the low season and opening times are unpredictable the rest of the time.
Your walk to the next point on the tour takes you though a street, Newtownsmith, which has undergone extensive rebuilding in recent years. It was once the location of a large mill and an important industrial area in the 19th century. All that remains now is a plaque on the facade of a building marking the location of the old mill.
E. Galway Cathedral
Galway Cathedral, completed in 1965 and built of local Galway limestone, is something of an architectural oddity. It mixes several architectural styles, with a Renaissance influence to the fore, a Gothic style to the arches in the nave, a Spanish look to the side aisles and a Romaneque tower to top things off. Yet it somehow works.
There is some very interesting art in the Cathedral, which is something of a repository for ecclesiastical art over the last 40-50 years in Ireland and well worth visiting. There is also a magnificent pipe organ and if you happen (or plan) to visit while there is a mass on you may be lucky enough to hear it in full voice.
On leaving the Cathedral you can walk to the next point of the tour via a part of Galway City known as Nun’s Island, so named because it was given by Galway Corporation to the Poor Clares, an order of nuns, in 1649. The Poor Clares convent is still there, but it is an enclosed order so the building is not open to the public.
F. Quay St
Quay St has many small craft shops and restaurants and also two famous pubs, The Quay’s which is famed for its traditional music sessions and Tigh Neachtain, where the old interior with its little ‘snugs’ or booths is a real beauty.
Both pubs serve very good lunches and are noted for their seafood – so a good plan would be to aim to reach this point on the tour at lunchtime.
Richard Martin, an 18th century Member of Parliament whose nickname was ‘Humanity Dick’, lived in the house which is now Neachtain’s pub. He was a well known animal lover and early animal rights activist who founded the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, the RSPCA, the first animal welfare charity to be founded in the world
G. The Spanish Arch (and The Galway Girl)
Once an old and run down area this is now a modernised and trendy part of town, though some not very attractive new development takes away from the look of the area.
You’ll pass the Galway City Museumas you walk to the Spanish Arch – it’s worth a quick visit.
The arch was built in 1584, to give access to an extension to the Quays known, still, as The Long Walk. The origin of its name is something of a mystery, though it was probably named for the Spanish traders who frequently used the harbour.
Galway had very extensive trading links with Spain for many centuries and a Spanish influence can been seen in quite a few buildings around the city. It’s even said that the dark haired, blue-eyed Galway Girl of the song by Steve Earles (who lived for some time in Galway) and the many in the area who share her colouring, owe their looks to the ‘influence’ of Spanish sailors!
The song opens with the line ‘I took a stroll by the old Long Walk..’ and is performed below by Irish singer Mundy with the inimitable Sharon Shannon on accordian, accompanied by a lot of people having a very good time in Dolans in Limerick. Watch out for those Galway girls!
H. The Claddagh
The area known as The Claddagh, from the Irish ‘An Cladach‘ which means ‘flat stony shore‘, sadly no longer has any visible trace of its interesting past.
The area was settled originally when the occupants of the city were driven there by Norman forces in Medieval times. They fiercely maintained their traditional culture through the centuries, maintaining their own customs and dress, laws and language and even had their own ‘king’, the last of whom died in the 1950′s.
Until relatively recently, up to the 1970s, it was not unusual to see ‘citizens’ of the Claddagh in the city wearing their traditional black dress and shawls.
In 1937 the old thatched cottages and buildings around the harbour were demolished and their occupants dispersed to various places around the city, breaking up this centuries old community. Modern housing was built, sadly leaving nothing of the Claddagh’s proud past. Still, it’s a nice place for a walk by the Claddagh Basin, a stretch of water that is famous for its resident mute swans.
The Claddagh Ring
This well known style of ring has three motifs, symbolising Friendship (the hands), Love (the heart) and Fidelity (the crown).
Traditionally if worn with the crown towards the fingers it means that the wearer was married, if worn the other way it signifies the wearer’s availability for matrimony. More about the Claddagh Ring and where to buy one in Galway here.
I. Nimmos Pier
This long pier stretches out into Galway Bay and is a favourite walking route for Galway residents. The park along side is regularly used for special events, concerts and so on during Galway’s many festival.
Not everyone will want to add on this extra walk, but it is a very enjoyable one. Apart from great views across the Claddagh Basin and out to sea, it is a favoured spot for bird watchers, with many species of gull especially making regular appearances and a few swans almost always waiting to be photographed!
The pier is named after Alexander Nimmo, a Scottish Engineer who spent most of his working life in Galway. From 1821 until shortly before his death in 1832 he was responsible for building of government funded roads and piers throughout Galway and many other parts of the west of Ireland.
With pretty much complete autonomy to decide where roads went and where piers were built, he had the power to decide which towns would grow and prosper and how the area would be traversed. As a result his influence extends down the years into every aspect of life in the region today.