Notes on...

Is there any better place for an EU-subsidised arts festival than Galway?

7 March 2020

9:00 AM

7 March 2020

9:00 AM

I was still digesting my delicious breakfast (kippers, poached eggs and soda bread — all local) when the sad news reached our party of freeloaders (sorry, I mean distinguished international journalists): a force ten gale was blowing in, so tonight’s opening ceremony on the headland by the harbour had been cancelled. ‘Ah well, let’s go and get drunk,’ said my new friend Shane. So we did.

Galway is this year’s European Capital of Culture and, while Brexiteers may welcome their liberation from this perennial EU shindig, if you’re going to stage a state–subsidised arts festival anywhere then Ireland’s liveliest little city is probably the best place, despite the frequently filthy weather. There are all kinds of arty events all through the year, but the main attraction is Galway itself and the joyful people who inhabit it.

We’d driven here from Shannon Airport, the long way round through Connemara — that beautiful, barren wilderness between Galway and the fierce Atlantic. We stopped in Cong, a pretty village renowned as the setting for the John Wayne film The Quiet Man, but I was more impressed by its ruined abbey — a mute reminder of its rich heritage and troubled Anglo-Irish history.

We spent the night at Glenlo Abbey, a grand old stately home on the green edge of Galway, now a plush hotel. The restaurant was in an antique train carriage, stranded in the gardens like a steamship run aground. This carriage was originally part of the Orient Express, and latterly the set for Sidney Lumet’s splendid movie Murder on the Orient Express, with Albert Finney as Hercule Poirot. I asked the waiter why it had ended up here, of all places. No particular reason, he replied — the previous owner bought it and now he’s dead so it’s too late to ask him.

In the morning Shane took us on a walking tour of the city. He was full of fascinating stories and pride and passion for his home town. The storm showed no sign of abating. We ducked into St Nicholas’s, the largest medieval church in Ireland. One corner is given over to the Orthodox Church, where Galway’s Romanians go to worship.

We watched a rehearsal of The Cherry Orchard in the Druid Theatre (Chekhov with Irish accents) then ate far too much seafood in a fish restaurant on the quayside.

By now the rain was horizontal, so we took refuge in a wonderful bookshop called Kennys. There were more drinks at the Galmont, a smart hotel where dignitaries made a series of heartfelt, soporific speeches. ‘This is the point where Galway officially becomes European Capital of Culture,’ read my press pack. It was also the point where my afternoon hangover kicked in.

It was still raining the next day so we went to a cosy place called Tartare, where the proprietor, J.P. McMahon, gave us a brunch of sea urchins, seaweed and wild garlic.

I hoped my flight would be cancelled but we left bang on time. It was a bumpy journey to Heathrow and I was terrified. When we landed the passengers gave the pilot a round of applause.

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