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Galway has many colourful and distinctive districts, despite its small size and population. This is partly due to the city’s age and partly due to its recent rapid growth. Like many older European cities, the periods of history which the city has witnessed have left their mark on the central and outlying areas.

The city centre is that of a small, coastal town with its roots in the thirteenth century. The streets are narrow and the older buildings cluster cosily together. In this area of the city, many of the buildings and architectural artefacts still testify to Galway’s long history.

The focal point of the city centre is John F. Kennedy Park, or as it is still known by the locals (Galwegians), Eyre Square. Re-named in the 1970s, JFK Park is a picture postcard scene of greenery and trees, the openness of which is in contrast to the narrow streets which mark each corner. Home to the old city gates and its defending cannon, the vista provided gives a glimpse into the Galway’s less than peaceful past. One of the more peaceful residents of the Square is Padraig O Conaire. Renowned writer and carouser, O Conaire’s statue has stood (almost) undisturbed since its erection in the first half of the 1900s. JFK Park is also home to a more modern sculpture, the ‘Galway Hooker’, which despite its suggestive name, is none other than a sculpture of a type of fishing boat used in the waters around Galway Bay for well over one hundred years.

For those fond of nightlife, the city centre will not fail to please. The greatest concentration of pubs and clubs is to be found in the centre, with practically every taste catered for. Galway is famous for its live music, particularly the traditional music sessions, often impromptu, which can be found in many of the pubs in the central area.

Galway is a coastal city, and has its own Docklands area. Previously a less than attractive section of the city, the dockside has been revamped beyond recognition. New attractive apartment blocks have replaced warehouses and storage containers. While most of the oceangoing traffic passing through the Galway docks is commercial, it is not uncommon to see pleasure boats docked here, and if you are lucky, you may be witness to the breathtaking sight of a fully rigged clipper ship moored for a short stay.

As we head north-west of the city centre, the next area of note is the Claddagh. The original town encompassed little more than the Claddagh, and true to this tradition, there is still a king(of sorts) in residence in the area. While the ‘King of the Claddagh’ has no administrative or ruling power, he is still an indelible feature of this characterful place, the residents of which are intensely proud of their heritage as residents of the original sea-side town which became Galway. The world famous Claddagh Ring is named after this area also, and while the jury is still out on the origin of this evocative design, it would be ill-advised to question its authenticity as a historical object unique to Galway in the earshot of any true Galwegian.

Further along the coast is the seaside resort of Salthill. Salthill has traditionally been the destination of choice for generations of sea lovers. Most of the development in and around Salthill took place in the last forty years, but the lengthy beaches have been an attraction for locals and visitors alike for much longer. Salthill was originally a seaside resort in the same vein as north-west England’s Blackpool, although on a smaller scale. However, the last ten years has seen much investment and development in the area to ensure that it keeps right up to the mark when it comes to an enjoyable seaside holiday.

The road west from Salthill leads into picturesque Barna and Furbo, villages worth visiting for their scenic qualities alone. These areas also mark the beginning of the Galway Gaeltacht (Irish-speaking area). This region is steeped in old Irish culture, and the native Irish language is often predominant, with English spoken only to accommodate outsiders.

The Gaeltacht area is not only along the coastline. Bleak and rugged Connemara to the north and west of Galway city is also part of this culturally rich vicinity. Much of this area is included within the Connemara National Park and so is protected from unsympathetic development. From Newcastle, in the north of Galway city, the road leads towards Moycullen and on to Oughterard, where, like its seaside relatives, the Irish language and culture still thrives.

Newcastle Road, to the east of the city, is also the address of the National University of Ireland, Galway (University College Galway). This split-personality university is rich in old-school academic values and tradition on the one hand, yet is right up to date with the newest technological developments. This can be seen quite clearly in the architecture of the many buildings which comprise the university. The original university buildings, which date from the mid-nineteenth century, combine with the latest in contemporary building design. A visit to Galway is never complete without a visit to its oldest seat of education.

The south-eastern parts of Galway tend more towards the residential, with Galway’s oldest housing estate, Mervue, to be found on the main Galway – Dublin road. Also in this area are Ballybane and Renmore. This off-centre development of the city gives a slightly unbalanced picture of its population, with most of the residential density on one side of the city. This gives rise to a community spirit which may be less and less a factor in urban and suburban living, but is still a central part of Galway life.

South of the city lies Co. Clare, home of the Burren. This region has also been designated a National Park and is home to a landscape unlike any other — the great limestone flagstones of the Burren shelter a ecosystem unique in the world. Finally, at the mouth of Galway Bay lie the Aran Islands. The three islands are included in the Galway Gaeltacht and maintain their own distinctive traditions in spite of the many visits from tourists. The landscape of the islands is bleak and unforgiving — great cliffs rise sheer from the sea and the magnificent ring fort of Dun Aenghus perches right on the cliff edge.

History of Galway

Galway – a place where days long vanished gather into a rich cocktail of historical interest. Waterways dominate the town centre so it’s not altogether surprising that the original name of the town was Baile na tSruthain, meaning town of the rivers. Its present name seems to have come from the name of the river Galoia, or Galvia, which, according to folklore took its name from a beautiful woman who drowned in its waters; eventually evolving into the Irish Galliamh, then anglicised to Galway.

Galway was not an established town until after the invasion of the Normans under the De Burgos toward the end of the twelfth century. By 1270, the city walls were under construction, encircling an area of around 25 acres. Over the next two centuries this compact, easily defended town was established.

The town began to expand with merchants, servants and tradesmen crossing the Irish Sea to seek their fortunes. Native Irish landowners were gradually dispossessed and forced into the wilds of Connemara, west of the city. By 1450, Norman castles, or Tower Houses, were built to the east of the town. Trade, both local and international, thrived. Certain families, or tribes, came to the fore due to business success and involvement in local affairs. Over time, the most prominent fourteen tribes – Athy, Blake, Bodkin, Browne, D’Arcy, Deane, Ffont, Ffrench, Joyce, Kirwan, Lynch, Martin, Morris and Skerrett became closely identified with the city; hence Galway is often referred to as The City of the Tribes. Keep a look out for these names on businesses and in street names; they’re still a part of everyday life.

Towards the end of the fifteenth century, emerging merchant princes made a successful petition for a new charter which allowed them to elect a mayor and two bailiffs every year. The first mayor of Galway, Pyerce Lynch, was elected 15th December 1484. This same Lynch family built Lynch’s Castle, now the Allied Irish Bank, which still stands on Shop Street in the city centre. Dating from the late fifteenth/early sixteenth century, it is constructed in the Tower House style and is rated the finest surviving town-castle in Ireland. Also in 1484 the church of St. Nicholas, which dates from 1320, is still standing and in excellent repair, was granted collegiate status by the Pope. These events effectively made Galway a city-state, and one which continued to grow and prosper over the next 150 years.

The Lynch family has another interesting claim to fame. The story goes that the mayor’s son killed another man in a local bar because he had shown an interest in his lady love. The young Lynch was subsequently charged, convicted for murder and then sentenced to death by hanging for his crime. However, as he was the son of the mayor, no-one would carry out the sentence. Finally, the mayor himself put the noose around his son’s neck, held on to the rope and threw him out the window of Lynch’s castle and hung him there by the neck until he was dead! This is apparently how the well-known term ‘lynching’ and ‘lynch-mob’ originated; one of the more chilling aspects of Galway’s history.

The Reformation caused religious disruption and after a nine-month siege by Parliament forces, Galway surrendered in 1652 and all Catholics were expelled from the city. Cromwell’s famous choice, ‘To hell or to Connacht!’, which was given to Catholics after the reconquest of Ireland, saw an influx of the dispossessed to the county. Most of the fine houses and castles of the prominent tribes were confiscated and fell into disrepair, trade declined and the greatness of Galway came to an end. During the next century, the Penal laws made life a great deal more more precarious for Catholics. Although Queen’s College Galway — now the National University of Ireland, Galway — was established in the middle of the nineteenth century, the Great Famine of 1845-1851 devastated the region with a combination of death and emigration; by 1911 the population dropped to just 13,000.

Independence came in 1923, the mayoral office was re-established in 1937, the 1960s saw the establishment of the first industrial estate and lifeblood began to flow into the city again. Galway is today one of the fastest growing cities in Europe with a young vibrant population and a rich cultural and economic life.