Recognised as Ireland's cultural heart, Galway is where it's at for those keen to experience the best in home-grown, pub-centred traditional Irish music
Central to the city of Galway is Eyre Square-- as good a point as any to begin your musical exploration of the City of the Tribes. In fact, upon arriving into the city by train or bus, you will be deposited at the main station located on the far side of Eyre Square. It’s worth pointing out that the Sleepzone Hostel (http://www.sleepzone.ie/About_Sleepzone_Galway/) is located only about 100m from the Square. Voted amongst the Top 10 hostels in Ireland, it is an ideal location to set-up camp if you are a traveller on a budget.
During the summer months or indeed any day the weather gods decide to look kindly upon Galway, the green grass and wide stone steps of Eyre Square will be laden with locals and tourists alike. Galway embodies this notion that life is short enough, so why rush it and nowhere is this more evident than here in the Square on a good day, or down by the famous Spanish Arch.
Galway’s emphasis is on living in the moment and enjoying it to boot-- a mentality which becomes clear as you wander down the adjoining Shop Street. It is somewhere amidst this pedestrianised zone that you will probably make your first acquaintance with the melodies of the city. Come rain, hail or shine, there’s no stopping the Irish when they take a notion for playing some tunes and nowhere is this inherent passion better demonstrated than in Galway.
The variety of acts you’ll find busking on the city’s streets can range anywhere from a lone saxophonist playing the blues to a red-haired lass strumming her guitar and belting out hits from Joni Mitchell or U2. Of course it would be a rare day that you wouldn’t come cross a duo or trio tapping their feet on the cobble-stones as they keep time to the sounds of their fiddles, bodhráns and uileann pipes. Especially during summer, locals will often find themselves navigating around small crowds who have gathered to watch and listen to these performers who do it for the love of playing rather than the money; evident in the undeservingly sparse cases of these often hugely talented musicians.
Shop Street narrows into Quay Street and it is here that you will find the aptly named The Quays Restaurant and Pub (+353 91 568 347). This stunning establishment encompasses three levels with much of the interior towards the rear featuring beautiful stained glass windows and gothic arches imported from a French Medieval Church. The top bar area has live music seven nights a week and in fact the band now known as Irish super group The Saw Doctors were discovered at this venue in 1986. Galway Bay Oysters are just one of the countless delicious fresh seafood and traditional Irish dishes available here.
No trip to Ireland would be complete without a good feed of fish and chips and you’d be hard pressed to find a better venue for this national delicacy than ‘Bridgestone Best in Ireland’ award winner McDonagh’s, also on Quay Street (+353 91 565 001, http://www.mcdonaghs.net/) Choose to have your food made to order at the Fish and Chips bar and eat it at the wooden benches on the premises or alternatively take it to go, perhaps weather permitting, enjoying it on the grass by The Spanish Arch, or to sit down and dine in the adjoining seafood restaurant. Always busy and well worth a visit.
Visitors keen to stay close to the action should consider The House Hotel on Spanish Parade (http://www.thehousehotel.ie/) - a boutique hotel with a contemporary yet cosy interior and situated mere metres from the restaurants of Quay Street. This recently remodelled establishment is a real gem amongst the various lodgings in Galway.
At the base of Quay Street is the Wolf Tone Bridge which arches over the Corrib River in its final rush to meet the open water of Galway Bay. But before you cross the bridge, why not take a moment to do what the Galwegians do best and find a spot by the landmark Spanish Arch to sit and stay awhile. On the better days, this stretch of green overlooking the water will be a hive of activity, from musicians and jugglers to students sharing a chat and a drink.
One of the most striking and memorable images from my time in Galway is that of a lone guitarist on the opposite side of the water to myself. We both sat with our legs dangling over the edge; he played and sang, I listened. Seated down there at The Spanish Arch, watching it take on that golden glow of a late summer’s evening and listening to the melodies of day fuse with the gradually increasing sounds of the Galway nightlife, I had to wonder whether in that moment there could be any place else more perfect.
People come to Ireland for the ‘ceol agus craic’ which loosely translated means ‘music and fun.’ In Galway, they tend to be mutually dependent!
Taaffe’s on Shop Street has been in business for over 150 years and is a traditional Irish pub in the truest sense; small, cosy and consistently packed to the rafters during its daily sessions which are known the length and breadth of the country.
Just across the way from Taaffe’s and at the top of Mainguard Street is Tig Cóilí. Similar in style and clientele to Taaffe’s, this family-run pub will regularly have drinkers and musicians spilling out the doors due to the huge popularity of its sessions.
Across the Wolfe Tone Bridge is Galway’s West End, home to The Crane pub (http://www.thecranebar.com/) and for those of you looking for a bit of cultural fusion during your trip, Cava- a delightful Spanish restaurant on Dominick Street (+353 91 539 884, http://www.cavarestaurant.ie/) I am a big fan of their tapas selection but would suggest that two dishes per person is plenty to begin with. The restaurant is located only minutes from The Crane pub and is an ideal place in which to begin your night of cultural immersion.
The reputation of The Crane as a live music venue means it is often a first port of call for musicians and fans alike. There is live music here every night of the week from 9:30pm but I would highly recommend Tuesday or Saturday night. Song is also an integral element of the Irish session and it would be a cold, hard soul that would fail to be stirred by the raw power of a voice from the West of Ireland.
A particular treat and one which is not too hard to come by at The Crane, is that of an impromptu performance by a ‘Sean Nós’ dancer. This style of dancing harks back to Irish dancing in its earliest, freest form. With hands on hips or arms outstretched, it’s all about the feet. It’s a one-man Riverdance and while the setting, costumes and musicians will be on a much less extravagant scale, the effect is no less intoxicating. The beauty of the sean nós dancing is that there is no announcement made, no big fan-fare. It’s in their blood and once the right tune starts the dancer is up, commanding the attention of the entire pub with his sheer energy and the perfectly rhythmic tap, tap, clicking of his shoes against the hard wood floor...the sound of a city whose tastes and sounds will continue to resonate long after your time in Galway has come to a close.