The Thing About Galway

Even on the best of days, when the weather is temperate and the sky soft and cloudless, Galway City has a worn, secondhand feel to it: an historic, pensive, erudite quality everywhere you roam down its serpentine streets. But there’s also an energetic undercurrent to Galway that seems to thrive on the idea of opposites, which lends the atmosphere a certain air of unpredictability. In many ways, Galway seems like a lively college town, bordered on one side by the dark gray patina of Galway Cathedral, and the ever turbulent River Corrib on the other, which flows straight to Galway Bay on its way through the Claddagh. It’s an undefinable, mood-setting, soul-stirring town with a split personality; it is vividly animated by its youthful culture, yet deeply haunted by its storied past.

To Debra Wallace, who was born and reared in Letterfrack, 50 miles north in rural Connemara, Galway was the pinnacle of urban grandeur. At the age of 27, she’d blown into town carrying her dreams and her guitar to set up house in a two-story rental, on the edge of lower Galway’s Henry Street. She was an accomplished musician with a whisky-edged singing voice, and her dreams involved joining Galway’s vibrant music scene. The second I met her, I thought she embodied everything it meant to be Irish: She was big eyed, russet-haired, quick-witted, nobody’s fool, howlingly funny, and spiritually attuned. She gave our friendship no probation period when we first met at The Galway Music Centre, for there was nothing suspicious or cynical about her, though she was disarmingly shrewd. Upon learning that I am an American, she put her hand on her hip, narrowed her eyes to a slit, and give me the once over. Then she set her guitar case down and invited me to call out to her house for a cup of tea.

I had no idea what to expect as I made my way to Debra Wallace’s blue-painted door. It rose up from the sidewalk, sandwiched in a row of matching gray structures, each with a pitched roof emitting turf smoke that permeated the residential area in an aroma so redolent it made my eyes water. I rapped thrice on the door, and it swung wide immediately. Stepping onto the uneven cobbled brick floor, it took a minute for my eyes to adjust in the shadowy room, for it had only one window and it seemed the haphazardly arranged turf in the fireplace had reached its crescendo and now glowed in a burnt orange aftermath. The heat in the small room was stifling. I took off my raincoat and made to set it aside on the folded futon against the wall, just as I brought the four chairs before it into focus, where three figures looked up at me expectantly. Debra lowered herself onto the fourth chair and motioned for me to take the futon as a voice disrupted the damp air.

“Well, you weren’t telling a tale about that blonde hair of hers, God bless it; must have taken ages to grow,” the voice said.

“Claire, this is my mother; Da sits there, and this is my sister Breda,” Debra introduced, handing me a cup of tea.
“Nice to meet you,” I said. It was then I recognized where Debra had acquired her penchant for the once over, for all three Wallace’s studied me head to foot.

“You’re an American,” Mr. Wallace stated. He was short and stout and leaned forward in his chair, with his hands on his knees and his steady stare beaming beneath his tweed flat cap.

“Yes, I’m from Memphis, Tennessee,” I confirmed.

“Ah, Elvis and all that,” Mrs. Wallace said, who looked to be, in tandem with her husband, the second installment of a pair of square, blue-eyed bookends.

“That’s right,” I said, then I searched for a way to escape their scrutiny. I knew I could turn the tables if I could use the standard Irish conversational stand-by. “It looks like it’ll rain any minute,” I said, looking at Mr. Wallace.

“It does, yah. We brought the weather with us all the way from Letterfrack, so we did. If you haven’t been there, you should come see us. It’s God’s country up there; not much chance for the young ones to run the streets.”

“So I moved here,” Debra said with a wink.”

“Speaking of streets, we should get going,” Breda said. “We’ve only come to town for the one day.”

We all stood simultaneously, making our farewells, and after Debra closed the door behind her family, she asked me if I wanted to accompany her to the epicenter of Galway City, which is an area known as Eyre Square.

“There’s a card reader up there, her name is Harriet,” she said. “As long as you’re one of us now, I think you should see her.”

“Don’t you have to make an appointment?” I asked.

“For what?” Debra said. “Don’t be so American. Let’s just walk up the road and call out.”

What could have been a 10-minute walk up Shop Street took 45 minutes, for such is the nature of Galway. There is no way to set out from point A to point B within the confines of scheduled time because there are too many people milling around, everybody knows everybody, and it is a crime against Irish society not to stop and chat to the point of exhaustion. I stood idly by as Debra engaged in Irish banter time and again, which is to say that each exchange felt like joining a running joke that had been going on for a while, and we had simply stumbled into its midst. It is a game of wit-topping one-upmanship, this business of Irish banter, and as we made our way to Eyre Square, I was starting to catch the rhythm.

Two heavy wooden doors led the way into the back of an atrium on the north side of Eyre Square. Debra heaved the doors apart and ushered me inside to where a canvas marquee had a chalkboard before it, which read, “Readings with Harriet: 12 euros.”

What happened next is another story.

But the thing about that day is that it was exemplary of the spirit of Galway, where anything can and does happen, on any given day. This wasn’t the first or last time I’d slid into the day thinking it would go one way only to discover it had segued into quite another. Because there’s an energy to Galway that will catch the unsuspecting unaware. It emanates from the dichotomy of its nature, its marriage of opposites, its union of past and present, and at its foundation are the fluid Irish people, who know a thing or two about embracing the flow.

Claire is the author of contemporary fiction set in Connemara, “Dancing to an Irish Reel”  Http://www.clairefullerton.com

 

Advertisements

The Man from Derry

His name was Eoghan, and I never did catch his last name. A solid year spent with the desultory coming and going of this enigmatic man through the door of The Galway Music Center, and I came to accept him as Kieran’s friend from Derry. Kieran rarely explained himself, much less anyone attendant, and because he was the head of The Center, the rest of us were not in the habit of asking. They talked alike, Kieran and Eoghan, but half of the time I couldn’t discern what they were saying. In each other’s company, neither enunciated; they’d slip into a flat, guttural diction that lacked the singing high notes of the west of Ireland’s accent, and I confess it took too much effort to attune my ear to their patois. On Kieran’s lips, the name Eoghan was levelled to the convenience of “Own.” I figured it was a linguistic vortex from there, so I settled with gathering the essence.

Eoghan was older than the rest of us by a good 10 years, but this wasn’t what gave him his arresting gravitas. He had a way of standing that meant business: feet planted, weight centered, eyes with an unambiguous stare. And although I’m an innocuous little thing in stature, no threat to anybody in any conceivable way, the day I met Eoghan, he took his time looking me over. There was a nerve-wracking tenor to his streetwise swagger that seemed crouched and coiled between fight and flight. Kieran once hinted that Eoghan had, and I quote, “Northern Irish connections,” but I paid it no heed because Eoghan’s blue eyes settled the score between his tough-guy countenance and his poetic mind. His eyes were the color of liquid innocence, round and clear and all-knowing; the kind of eyes that saw between layers; the kind of eyes you knew you could trust.

And so it evolved that on a windswept, December’s Saturday, I took the bus into Galway and followed the directions Eoghan had given me to Scoil Lan-Ghaeilge. It was there I found him in the back of the room, wearing a Santa Claus costume and speaking to a passel of fresh-faced children in the Irish language, while a pack of smiling mothers stood by, cameras in hand. It was a scene so incongruous to everything I knew of Eoghan that I had to study it for a moment because he’d never bothered to tell me he taught the Irish language in his spare time. It turned out this was just the beginning of Eoghan’s love for all things Irish. He took a warrior’s pride in his country and possessed a knowledge so deep in its history you would have thought he’d been personally involved at every turn of Ireland’s storied past. Which is why he took it upon himself to invite me to the gentle fields of Oughterard, on the shores of Lough Corrib. He hadn’t divulged our destination; he simply told me to get in his blue Honda Civic, then sped out of Galway on the Headford Road. Twenty six cork-screw miles and 45 minutes later, Eoghan stopped the car on an uneven dirt road. A cattle grate lay before a rusted gate with a padlock, and climbing over it, we stood at the mouth of an unkempt field.

In my mind’s eye, I can still see it: the unfathomable immensity of winter-torn acreage, its wooded grassland beaten to a faded ochre beneath an overcast sky.  The earth was sodden beneath my boots as we trudged through the unmarked expanse. Blackbirds and hawks swooped above watching; they sailed in a majestic current with the rights of jurisdiction, and I knew myself to be an interloper in this dreary landscape, where the wind pitched and rolled with a chill that touched bone. Eoghan roved forward in his loose, ambling stride. He held his head with fierce intention, his eyes on the horizon between earth and sky. It was there beyond the rise that I saw it. It rose out of the earth and spread ominously, a thunderous ancient castle, in parts without a roof. A grey stone wall stacked around the manse declaring its prominence. At one time it must have been impressive, but now shrubbery defaced the castle walls, and tangled ivy and moss ravaged through the windows. But still, she upheld her imperious grandeur. There was something queenly in her stately elegance; safe in her desolation, and validating to the soul as we walked her interior then circled her venerable grounds. You simply cannot walk grounds such as this with any amount of Irish blood in your veins without it speaking to you. Something longing and haunting descends like the call of atavistic memory. Something turns in your blood that is probably DNA. I don’t think you can be Irish without Ireland’s history being part of your personal story. I started to say something to Eoghan about this, but from the way he was looking at me, he already knew. And the thing about that day was I half expected Eoghan to hold forth in erudite commentary, but he didn’t. There are some moments so sacred they require no words, and to share them with someone creates an unnamable intimacy best not disturbed. In that moment, I knew something, though I couldn’t tell you what I knew; I just knew. I was there and experienced something ineffably integral to being of Irish descent, and from the manner of his quietude, I thought Eoghan did, too. I suspected it was why he’d brought me here, to this place without a name. It was Eoghan’s way of sharing his homeland, and I am warmed to this day by the gesture. I took the above photograph as we walked towards the castle. It’s unfortunately small and lacks the impact the structure made, but I keep it in a standing frame just the same. It doesn’t capture much of what I saw that day, yet every time I look at it, it brings to mind the most important memory: a peacock proud Irishman in love with his country, that swashbuckling Derry man named Eoghan, whom I’ll never forget.

Claire Fullerton is the author of A Portal in Time and the 2016, Readers’ Favorite award winner for cultural fiction, Dancing to an Irish Reel.

http://www.clairefullerton.com