A couple of weeks ago in Galway, I was Indiana Jones without a hat.
Arriving early for a book signing, I’d set out on a personal mission.
I was armed with a black and white photo of a row of houses and an echo of a voice from my childhood telling me that ‘the old frontage changed completely after they sold the shop.’ The photo shows cattle and horse-drawn carts milling round in front of the houses, men in dark coats – one raising his hat to a passing lady – and women enveloped in shawls.
It was taken about a hundred years ago on a Fair Day, outside my grandfather’s barber’s shop in Eyre Square.
Things have changed a bit in Galway since it was taken. Eventually, helped by passers-by, I identified the building in which my father was born. The shop front is buried now under the façade of a bank. It’s a long time since cattle and horse-drawn carts jostled each other around the city’s central square (apparently my granny hated the sound and the smell of them and couldn’t wait to move out to the fashionable seaside suburb of Salthill). And it’s a long time since farmers from the surrounding countryside rose at dawn to drive their beasts from small, salty fields into the city to market. But Galwegians today are still very aware of their past.
Eyre Square, now renamed (but seldom called) John F. Kennedy Square, remains a crowded, colourful space in the centre of a colourful, crowded, cosmopolitan city. Wherever you go in Galway, echoes of the past jostle with the present, and carefully-preserved architectural features appear in unexpected places.
In 1905 the elaborate Browne Doorway, once the door to the Browne family home, was moved from its original setting on Lower Abbeygate St. to its current position on Eyre Square. In the 1960s my historian father campaigned fiercely to retain the beautiful wrought iron railings that had enclosed the square itself since the late 1700s. That battle was lost, but in 1984 the railings were re-erected to surround St. Nicholas’ Collegiate Church, where legend has it that Christopher Columbus prayed in 1477 before setting sail to find the New World.
And so it goes on. The Spanish Arch, located where the river Corrib meets the sea, and called after the Spanish galleons that used to dock there, was originally part of the town walls, built to protect merchant ships from looting. In my grandfather’s time, barefoot ‘shawlie’ women from the Claddagh sold fish there. Now it’s just round the corner from Galway’s trendy Spanish Quarter, where you can shop till you drop and take a break in one of the city’s fashionable pubs and wine bars.
After my book signing I wandered down a lane by St. Nicholas’ Church and through the Saturday market. No horse-drawn carts or cattle (which would’ve pleased my granny). But all the cheerful bustle of a working market in the heart of a friendly, buzzy city which retains its ties to the ocean and the countryside.
Crowded against Eyre Square’s former railing were stalls piled with fish fresh from the Atlantic, locally-grown vegetables, honey, cheeses, and local crafts. It was the perfect place to pick up a souvenir, a pair of socks, ingredients for dinner or the makings of a picnic . I even found a hat.
Felicity’s memoir about moving to Dingle, The House on an Irish Hillside, is out now.