Think of Galway, and certain images might come to mind. Bustling pubs. Freshly poured pints. And, of course, music – everywhere live, lovely, lilting music.
All of that is an important part of Galway, a city of about 80,000 residents on Ireland’s west coast. It’s also what most tourists notice first. But when it comes to what gives Galway its spirit, there’s more than meets the eye… and it’s about much more than fiddles and Guinness.
“People talk about the energy of Galway, and it’s tangible,” said Aoibheann McNamara, owner of Galway’s Ard Bia At Nimmos restaurant. “A lot of people stop in the restaurant and would have done the whole Wild Atlantic Way. They would have been really touched in Sligo and Donegal and obviously in Kerry and Cork – but there’s an energy to Galway that’s absolutely palpable.”
From the open-air market to the seaside promenade, restaurants to festivals, everywhere you go in Galway seems to share a certain buzz. But the energy you feel is anything but frantic or frenetic. It’s fun but light-hearted; lively but laid-back. Among the Irish, this kind of easy-going merriment has its very own word: the craic.
Before I’d arrived, one local told me I could find the city’s craic in a surprising place. That was Blackrock, a beach at the end of the coastal promenade from Galway… at 08:00 on a Saturday morning… in January. For a city renowned to have fun until late on a Friday, it seemed odd that locals would find it fun to be up so early again the next morning. It seemed odder still given the cold, damp, winter weather. Surely she must be wrong, I thought. No-one would be jumping into the sea at this time of year.
I was wrong. When I arrived, one person after another was stripping down to their swimsuits and plunging into the roiling grey waters. Three of them were students at the university here – a campus that helps give Galway a great deal of its youthful energy. Shivering and dripping, they laughed as they recounted how cold the water had been. “You do it for the craic!” one said.
It reminded me of a conversation I’d had with Craig Flaherty, production associate at Galway’s Druid Theatre. “There’s something in the air of Galway – a kind of wildness,” Flaherty had told me.
People who are in Galway have this natural wont to go with the flow. To be up for the craic. – Craig Flaherty
Much of Galway’s spirit comes from its location. Facing the Atlantic, it is a place where people are used to the unpredictability of life: it may be blowing gale-force winds one day and sunny and calm the next. Politically, too, its geography has had an effect. On the opposite coast from Dublin, Galway grew up as a kind of bohemian counterweight to the capital.
But if the city’s location helped breed its laid-back spirit, it’s been further fostered by its layout. Galway is small enough that you see the same people again and again (even as an out-of-towner, I kept running into the handful of locals I knew). And since everyone is on foot – the historical centre is pedestrian – it’s easy, and expected, to stop for a chat.
“The city is not a city – it’s a town. I never feel like I have to go out and get a particular bag or a particular pair of shoes,” McNamara said. “That’s really liberating and lovely. Life is very low-key.”
That sense of easy-going fun pervades the streets in other ways, too. “There’s a really good willingness to celebrate. You can see that on the street from the buskers to the pubs to the street art,” Flaherty said. “There’s a great natural landscape, from these small, winding streets to the big open plazas, for playing and having the craic.”
Then there are the festivals. “There’s not a month that goes by where there isn’t some type of festival in Galway city,” said Aonghus Oferty of the popular pub Tig Coili. “There wouldn’t be a month in the year that there wouldn’t be something happening that’s not good craic.” International Oyster and Seafood Festival. Galway Races. Gin Fest. Food Festival. Múscailt Arts Festival. Theatre Festival. Cúirt International Festival of Literature. The list goes on.
Given the city’s devotion to the craic, it’s small wonder that Galway was named a European Capital of Culture for 2020.
Everyone I spoke to had a slightly different definition of not only the craic, but Galway’s version of it. But local Tony Burke, who has sold flowers at the Saturday market for years, seemed to distil it best. “It’s the integration of conversation, contact with other people and the feeling of belonging,” Burke said. “Class distinctions don’t really matter. It’s to be open, and realise that you could be homeless and having nothing going for you, but you can still have a conversation. Life is similar for us all, and we’re all trying to get through it. It’s the lack of pretention.”
McNamara agreed. “Uncontrivedness is key,” she said. “There’s this real sense of engagement where people really want to connect with you. I’ll say to American tourists, ‘What’s your story?’ And they’re completely shocked, like, ‘What’s she saying?’ But I just want to know where you’re at and how you are, because I care about that – and the world needs more people caring about that.”
Of course, Galway’s music scene exemplifies everything about the city’s soul – and its craic.
There is the lack of pretention. (Few pubs even have proper stages; musicians sit in a corner instead). The breakdown of barriers. (Often, formal bands aren’t booked in advance. Instead, everyone is welcome to play – at Tig Coili I watched a Chinese tourist shyly edge in, clutching a fiddle. He was warmly welcomed). The sense of living in the moment and doing something just because you love it. (Most musicians aren’t paid in more than pints). And the importance of connecting with other people. (They do it to connect with not only the other musicians, but the pub-goers).
“Galway is very, very open,” Burke said. “You’ll see it in the amount of nationalities that come here. They’ll start to get the Irish accent, the mannerisms, the sayings – they get it, and they love it.”
After all, once you’ve experienced a city devoted to the craic, it would be hard to settle for anything less.