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Exploring Ireland’s ‘Wild West’: Galway, Connemara and Inis Mór

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Many a visitor heads home from Ireland after sampling the sights—and the Guinness—in Dublin, Kerry and Cork.  Ask the  Irish though and they will tell you not to miss West coast: the Celtic culture of Galway city, the romantic moors of Connemara, the fierce cliffs of the Aran isles. In honor of the Gathering and upcoming Saint Patrick’s Day celebration, Lynn Langway reports on the splendors of Ireland’s less-traveled shore.

If you’ve suffered through too many ragged renditions of “Galway Bay,” you may think you’re immune to the charms of Irish music.  But when confronted with the real deal, prepare to be captivated.  On a Tuesday night in Galway’s Crane Bar, my husband and I were swept away by the lilting fiddles, booming Bodhran  drums and transcendent tin whistle played by the gifted circle of musicians who gathered  to jam. The infectious tunes—performed that session by traditional music fans from the National University of Ireland-Galway—were impossible to resist. Soon the whole pub was engaged in an uproar of aerobic approbation, feet stamping and tapping, hands clapping and thumping the tables in time.

It’s no wonder that Galway boasts about being Ireland’s cultural heart, the most Irish city in the land. It’s as Celtic as a Claddagh ring, the hands-clasping-heart circlet that was supposedly created here in the 17th century, and named for the local fishing enclave.  Even a three-day stay will immerse you in Celtic music, theatre, and language; an estimated 10 percent of the city’s population of 75,000 speaks Gaelic, and the National Irish Theatre stages productions here in the ancient tongue. Galway treasures its 800+ years of recorded history. While developers in Dublin were allowed to demolish one ancient site to build a parking garage, city authorities here turned the 13th century town hall that was unearthed during construction into an eye-catching archeological display.

Far from being frozen in amber, fast-growing Galway has turned into one of Europe’s liveliest towns, celebrating anything from art to oysters with citywide festivals. Visit in spring or fall, when 15,000 or so students seem to be everywhere, but the tourists are more scarce, and you’ll discover the old and new sections of the city buzzing with creative restaurants, adventurous museums and galleries, and world-class productions by the acclaimed Druid Theatre Company and several other troupes. Yes, you may well encounter a daily mix of rain showers, clouds and sun—but August tends to be wetter.

Compact and artfully restored, Galway is a walker’s paradise. The medieval core, walled off by Norman merchants  from the “wild Irish” natives about 1270, is less than 20 blocks square, and most major sights are less than a 15-minute walk away.  We got our bearings with a witty walking tour, Galway on Foot, led by schoolteacher Sean Leonard, who pointed out details we might not have noticed:  the grotesque gargoyle on the façade of one mansion-turned-bank; the “smug angel” in the Church of St. Nicholas that was the only one to escape defacement  when Cromwell’s troops sacked the sanctuary in 1652.

We stayed at the stylish, comfortable House Hotel  right downtown near the iconic Spanish Arch, which made it easy for us wander the stone-paved streets of the old quarter at will, pausing to applaud the better buskers. We started our ramble at the Galway City Museum, a striking architectural combo of soaring space and ancient stone, where exhibits range from historic finds to modern art.

Our favorite shopping stop among many intriguing possibilities was O’ Maille House of Style, where the proprietor knows the life story of every hand-knitter who fashions her chic caps and mohair capes.  Across the River Corrib you’ll find the handsome central quadrangle of the National University campus and the imaginative contemporary art showcased in an elegant townhouse at the Galway Arts Center. And if you keep hiking—or give in and grab a taxi–two miles farther west, you’ll hit the white beaches and sweeping promenade of Salthill, where you can join the locals for a jog beside the fabled Galway Bay.