Galway’s streets are steeped in history, yet have a contemporary vibe. Students make up a quarter of the city’s population, while the remains of the medieval town walls lie between shops selling Aran sweaters, handcrafted Claddagh rings, and stacks of secondhand and new books. Bridges arc over the salmon-filled River Corrib, and a long promenade leads to the seaside suburb of Salthill, where at night the moon’s glow illuminates Galway Bay, where the area’s famous oysters are produced.
The City’s smorgasbord of eating and drinking options ranges from the market – where farmers in Wellington boots unload soil-covered vegetables – to adventurous new restaurants redefining Irish cuisine. Sprawling superpubs with wooden staircases serve frothy Guinness, Galway Hooker ale and Irish coffees.
Galway is often referred to as the most ‘Irish’ of Ireland’s Cities (and it’s the only one where you’re likely to hear Irish spoken in the streets, shops and pubs), but some locals lament that these may be the last days of ‘old’ Galway before it absorbs the effects of the country’s globalised economy. But for now at least, Galway remains true to its spirited roots.
A Brief History...
Galway’s Irish name, Gaillimh, originates from the Irish word gaill, meaning ‘outsiders’ or ‘foreigners’, and the term resonates throughout the city’s history.
From humble beginnings as a tiny fishing village at the mouth of the River Corrib, it grew into an important town when the Anglo-Normans, under Richard de Burgo (also spelled de Burgh or Burke), captured territory from the local O’Flahertys in 1232. Its fortified walls were built from around 1270.
In 1396, Richard II granted a charter transferring power from the de Burgos to 14 merchant families or ‘tribes’ – hence its enduring nickname of the City of the Tribes. (Each of the city’s roundabouts is named for the one of the tribes.) These powerful, mostly English or Norman families clashed frequently with the leading Irish families of Connemara.
A massive fire in 1473 destroyed much of the town but created space for a new street layout, and many solid stone buildings were erected in the 15th and 16th centuries.
Galway maintained its independent status under the ruling merchant families, who were mostly loyal to the English Crown. Its coastal location encouraged a huge trade in wine, spices, fish and salt with Portugal and Spain, rivalling London in the volume of goods passing through its docks. Its support of the Crown, however, led to its downfall; the city was besieged by Cromwell in 1651 and fell the following year. In 1691 William of Orange’s militia added to the destruction. Trade with Spain declined and, with Dublin and Waterford taking most sea traffic, Galway stagnated for centuries.
The early 1900s saw Galway’s revival as tourists returned to the city and student numbers grew. In 1934, the cobbled streets and thatched cabins of Claddagh were tarred and flattened to make way for modern, hygienic buildings, and construction has boomed since.
Just three hours from Dublin, Galway’s population today continues to swell with an influx of new residents, making it the fastest-growing city in Europe.