Author Topic: Leaning in the Wind: A Trip to Galway  (Read 1161 times)


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Leaning in the Wind: A Trip to Galway
« on: December 14, 2018, 11:30:51 PM »
Leaning in the Wind: A Trip to Galway

The shores of Lough Corrib, an hour's walk north of Galway City

Having completed a trip to Salzburg for one conference the previous weekend, I was already somewhat tired when my plane touched down in Dublin. Passing by the numerous signs telling me about all the delights of that city, I found the bus to Heuston station, and thereafter a train that began to rattle its way across the island of Ireland. My destination, Galway, had been a word in my mind for a long while, like so many places we passed on the map; in the titles of music albums, the lyrics of folk songs, the aura of wild mysterious wetland, the place-names in retold legend, the occasional ashamed mentions in British history books, these places had filtered through to me. The history book mentions may of course not have ended – I was visiting the country in the midst of the UK hitting utter paralysis over the issue of the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic. The story of difficult ties between the different islands of this archipelago and the continent they perch on the edge of is by no means over.

The rail announcer thanked us at every stop for travelling with hIarnród Éireann (that is, Irish Rail), which to the ears of an untrained East Angle sounds awfully like the phrase Here nor there, which would in itself be a rather good name for a train company. We passed through the heart of the country, from eastward-facing Leinster into Atlantic facing, storm-battered Connacht. The song-touched fields of Athenry passed by when the world had already sunk into darkness, and eventually Galway did not so much come into view as appear when the train stopped. After a couple of difficulties working out which way the key was meant to turn, I got into my Airbnb, and went out again to hunt for food.

The Spanish Arch - an old point of entry from the quays
Galway is a small city – somewhat smaller than Cambridge, and with a fairly prosperous, university-town feel to it. The music scene is something the area prides itself on, with live music a common advertised feature in the numerous town pubs, and the city centre is packed with restaurants, craft shops, clothes stores, and more besides. An early discovery on my part (and the end point of my short first night food quest) was the Christmas market, which in many ways I liked much better than the more famous ones in Salzburg and Vienna which I had seen previously. The food stalls ranged from hog roasts to crepes to chimney cakes, and the craft stalls saw Italian olive-wood bowls, Provencal pottery and Peruvian knitwear jostling alongside local Christmas decorations. Galway may be on the fringe of Europe, but it is by no means isolated from it. My Airbnb host was a talkative and kindly Spanish woman not much older than me, equipped with a chemistry degree and working as a barista in Galway – a story very much of the times.

The conference I was at, the inaugural one of the European Association for Digital Humanities, had been brought into being in part because ‘International’ DH conferences were starting to live up to that billing better. Having a continent-wide conference provides a middle rung, accessible to Europeans in years when the international circuit is heavily weighted towards other parts of the world; Canada and the USA have long been major players in hosting such events of course, but Australia and east Asia seem to be increasingly on the list as well, and are even less accessible to European researchers on tight budgets. As the conference started we were duly welcomed by the president of Galway University, who reflected in his own terms on the internationalism of Galway as a city – pointing to the old Spanish Arch through which goods entered and left the city as an exemplar of a long standing tendency for Galway to be connected into Europe. He mentioned in passing that his growing up in that part of Ireland had given him a permanent lean from the wind, a claim that the buffeting I had received walking there made feel wholly plausible. That sense of place, of a city that had learned how to lean into the wind to find a balance in its surroundings, certainly reinforced (or perhaps leant into) itself during the rest of my visit.

The Quadrangle Building, NUI Galway
Galway University is to the northwest of the city centre – the walk from where I was staying took me through the market in Eyre square, across the river, and up past the cathedral to get to campus. Technically, it’s the National University of Ireland’s Galway campus, which curiously enough has a constitutional impact in the country – the NUI and Dublin universities were among those to have their own MPs elected by graduates in the era when Cambridge, Oxford, etc, did likewise, until the early 20th centuries. Unlike those UK institutions, which had their MPs removed in 1950, the Irish in 1937 switched the NUI and Dublin seats to being part of the Senate, and they have remained there ever since, each university electing three senators (currently the former leader of a now defunct libertarian-conservative party, an anti-abortion campaigner and a women’s rights activist, all elected as independents).

The oldest of the campus buildings, the Quadrangle, formed the original heart of the university in the 1840s, and its hall, the Aula Maxima, served as the location for an initial drinks reception after the first keynote talk of the conference. It’s an age-old rule of conferences that seventy percent of the time is spent in the talks, but seventy percent of the productivity (at least) comes from the coffee breaks. It’s there after all that one can actually discuss collaborations, pick brains, and simply meet people doing other interesting work, whether the friendly digital humanities fellow from Exeter who I’d known from email and suddenly met in person, or the lovely Azerbaijani scholar of the works of James Joyce who was kind enough to put up with me talking about the Caucasus and having an interesting conversation on my topic, something that as any other scholars of less well trodden fields will attest is a rare but very real joy when it happens.

After another day and a half of rain-buffeted conferencing, ranging from graph databases to digital text mining to text encoding, my colleagues started to disperse. My own talk, on the integration of historians’ argumentation into databases of people and places (prosopography), went reasonably well so far as I could tell too. By the end, however, I’d picked up one of the less fruitful souvenirs of my trip, a very heavy cold which I’m still labouring under at the time of writing. I had one day left in Galway, and decided that I was in no mood to let such a thing as illness slow me down too much, so come my final morning I got up and headed out to see the area more properly all the same.

The remains of Terryland Castle - the main road runs just behind.
My walk began not too early in the morning, and I simply headed fairly directly north out of the town centre, on the eastward side of the River Corrib which flows down from the Lough of the same name to the sea at Galway. It was only a quarter of an hour at most before the streets started to melt back and patches of reed-bed appeared by the road; passing under the main outer road and out of the city proper, I was greeted with a historic ruin already. This was Terryland Castle, its somewhat meagre remains sitting behind a fence. Like most castles in this area, it seemed to be as much a fortified manor as a heavy keep-style castle, though it had stood guarding one of the key river crossings around the town since the 13th century. It saw battle, too, being garrisoned several times in the seventeenth century – Cromwell besieged Galway, and a few decades later it surrendered to William III’s advancing army, in a setback for the town that it perhaps did not recover from until the late twentieth century. Some winds are too strong to be leant into. Terryland Castle's final destruction from a fire, however, only occurred in the 1960s, and it has remained a ruin since then.

The road up from Galway undulates gently along the side of the valley. A closer riverside walk can be achieved on the western bank, but there were few crossings available and my intention was to go and take a look at Menlo Castle, a sizeable ruin sitting on the eastern side. Passing through Terryland and Coolough, both satellites mainly existing clinging to the road into Galway proper, the way was a mix of occasional new build and housing estates interspersed with views where one could look down across the valley and have no idea within one’s field of vision that there was such a thing as human civilisation in the area. I was just minutes’ walk from the city, but much of the valley landscape was tree and reed-bed. Even if the housing density was not unusually low, the very limited extent of arable agriculture gave the area a much wilder feel than most places in England.

I eventually turned off the main road and headed over a hill on a farm track to Menlo. The periodic showers and grey skies felt very much homely. As I did, I passed by significant piles of stones in ruins on both sides, presumably once cottages or similar – a sight I can hardly imagine seeing in many other areas of Europe where such building stone would have been eagerly gathered up and re-used. They were not alone, either. More tumbledown cottages were clearly in evidence around Menlo, far too old to be refurbished and yet still with their walls standing, not as a historical curiosity but simply as part of the landscape. I was perhaps an hour’s walk from Galway, and I felt that I had entered a quite different world, where the cottages and houses of the current residents stood calmly alongside those of residents long gone. This was not an area that had ever taken the trouble to erase its past.

Menlo Castle, north face.
My next appointment though was with the chief among those ruins, Menlo Castle itself. Despite the “open all hours” message on the Galway tourism website, one needs to hop over a gate to walk down to the castle, but the sight is well worth it (and in summer I have no doubt that it would be a spectacular backdrop for a picnic). Like Terryland Castle, its destruction was via a 20th century fire; it had been the home of the Blake family since the late 16th century. Scattered folklore and rumours seem to still hover around the place – the unexplained fire that destroyed the castle also took the life of the 14th Baronet’s disabled daughter Eleanor, and the 16th Baronet who owned the ruins also died in mysterious circumstances. The ruins are almost entirely covered in ivy, with ferns growing inside the building and a sizeable roost of crows towards the top of the walls. It wasn’t one of those places that feels "haunted" in the spooky sense of the term, but there was certainly a suitable mystique to it. It felt a little as if, mankind having gone, the place had been somehow reclaimed, and it was now the crows’ high walls that looked down upon my small form below. It was the right weather for the castle to brood, and its new corvid inhabitants were happy to contribute to it doing just that, the castle's dominant position and yet wilderness-reclaimed form giving a real sense of smallness to the viewer.

Lichens near Lough Corrib
I had been planning to make the castle the extent of my journey, but looking at the map I couldn’t help but notice how close I had gotten to Lough Corrib. It would have seemed a shame, and so, hopping back over the fence and mud-splatting my trousers, I headed north for one more stretch, passing some elderly locals and finding a track that headed out towards the Lough. I passed some donkeys, a stone-lined pond bearing the inscription Tobar Bhidi (the former seems to translate to “spring”, not sure about the latter), and what appeared to be a floor-laid gravestone of the sort one sees on church floors, but stuck by the side of the road, before I finally passed the last house. Curiosities were never far from hand, it seemed, in this part of the world.

Beyond the last house, wilderness engulfed me. Reeds and trees surrounded the path (reeds becoming increasingly dominant as one walked further along). The most characteristic feature I notice, though, were the lichens – desperately sensitive to air pollution, the area I grew up in had long since lost all but the hardier, tight-clinging lichens. Not so, here. The wet, clean air in this valley meant that the little trees that clung on amid the rocks and mud were wreathed in a pale green fur. I did not quite reach the shore of the Lough itself – it simply became too muddy – but I at least came into view of it, deep in the wetland wilderness. The lichens gave a little difference, a little additional magic, but other than that I am rarely feeling calmer than when there is nothing to be seen but reeds and wet grass and open, gloriously open sky that seems to stretch out into eternities around me. The wet walk to Lough Corrib was one such memory, and one that I will carry with me carefully, for in this world you never quite know when you will need a reserve of peace to retreat into.

View from the east end of Galway Cathedral
I retraced my steps for the most part back to Galway – Menlo’s only amenity turned out to be a candle-maker which I decided not to visit in order to ensure I got back for lunch – and after another stop-off in Eyre Square for refuelling (the Christmas Crepe was surprisingly good), I headed seawards, walking past the marina. Galway offers few good sea views unless you can walk further out to the headlands; it’s sufficiently tucked away in its bay and with its long-running docks to avoid big open views out to the Atlantic. Turning back to town, I passed through the Spanish Arch, an eighteenth century addition to the town walls created to allow access to the “long walk” quays I had just walked around. There is little deeply old history left around the centre of Galway, though the wall section is worth seeing, as is the House of the Red Earl nearby, a well-presented ruined foundation of a medieval family hall – sadly the town museum itself was closed on the one day I had time to look round it. The weather was far from perfect as I passed around the quays, too though two cormorants frantically fished in the rushing outlet of the Corrib nonetheless.

I had passed Galway cathedral numerous times already coming to and from the university, and decided to have a look into it. It is a mid-twentieth century construction, but in a thoroughly old fashioned style, and I was rather charmed by it. I often find Catholic cathedrals overbearing, with the elaborate decoration giving too much panoply and excess to be enjoyed or indeed at times taken entirely seriously. Galway, however, has some huge mosaics and paintings, but little that comes across as overly elaborate: the decorative leeway afforded by the Catholic tradition has been used to create boldness and a feel of the medieval rather than to simply throw as much public art and gold as possible at the decoration, and aesthetically it worked well for me. Being such a new building there is little to be said for its own history, excepting the fact that it is on the site of what was once the county jail – the huge expense of building it attracted criticism, and indeed it is to date the last great stone cathedral built in Europe, its dome for better or worse now a huge piece of the city’s skyline. It is in its own way another reminder of Galway’s ties to Europe, with direct papal approval having been granted for the building’s construction – not all ties to the continent need be of the modernising sort. Just a few streets away and I was back in the busy shopping areas, though. The cathedral is an impressive monument, but I could not help feeling that, on its own between town and university, it was cutting something of a lonely figure compared to the hubbub of the centre.

My last night was spent in An Púcán, a pub just a few minutes’ walk from the Airbnb, listening to traditional music and drinking cider – it’s a way I can definitely recommend spending a Galway evening should you ever find yourself with one to hand. In the morning, I slipped out the door at 7am and boarded the train to Dublin, where I took a brief walk through the streets before heading on to the airport and away from the islands once again. Somewhere behind me, the winds were still blowing in from the Atlantic onto lichen-wreathed trees where the cottages are roofless and the crows watch from castle-tops; perhaps more than anywhere else I’ve been, Galway holds a sense of mystery as much as a sense of history, and yet along with it manages an honestly welcoming atmosphere. Perhaps it’s the climate – newcomers and old hands alike maybe just join the music in Galway and let the past lie. There’s always a new wind to lean into, after all.
The duke, the wanderer, the philosopher, the mariner, the warrior, the strategist, the storyteller, the wizard, the wayfarer...


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Re: Leaning in the Wind: A Trip to Galway
« Reply #1 on: December 15, 2018, 01:21:27 PM »
The food stalls ranged from hog roasts to crepes to chimney cakes, and the craft stalls saw Italian olive-wood bowls, Provencal pottery and Peruvian knitwear jostling alongside local Christmas decorations.

Mmm. Hog roast :)

That was a pleasurable read. Galway sounds like a good place to visit.

I'm glad you had a fruitful trip.

Not multiple sentient giant arachnid insurance policemen from Winnipeg