I’ve just gotten back from a week in Ireland with Aina, in case you were wondering where I’d gotten to. We saw a lot of the country and I took a lot of pictures. And the first county and city we unpacked our bags in was Galway.
Ireland rocks my world. For one thing, it is, overall, an intensely green country. But around Galway, the world is rocks. Stones. There’s grass, sure, and trees, in places, but there are rocks and rocks and rocks. And water. When you drive the Galway coast, you see many rocks, over here, over there, up there, down there, to the water’s edge. Buildings made of stone all over the place. And, for your close personal high-speed inspection, stone walls bordering the roads.
Stone walls along the roads are not unique to Galway – they’re a common feature in many parts of Ireland, though hedges are also very popular – but they really are a signature feature, and an important reason to make sure you have good insurance on any car you might rent. And a steady hand. And good nerves. You see, the roads don’t have shoulders, and they’re not wide. When two cars pass, there are mere inches between their side mirrors, and mere inches from the side mirrors to the stone walls. And you need those side mirrors… to check and make sure you’re not too close to either edge of your lane. In some places the roads narrow down to one lane for short stretches, or across bridges, and the walls are still there. But the speed limits are posted at 80 or even 100 kilometres per hour, though on many parts of the roads the curves are so tight you have no hope of maintaining such a speed. It’s as though the road is a watercourse for traffic, sluiced by stone walls, and of course when you narrow a watercourse the water runs faster.
If that’s a bit hard on your nerves, treat your feet to the stone pavements of Galway city. The streets and sidewalks aren’t all stone, but if you head to the most popular parts of town, which are the oldest, there’s plenty of rock to be found underfoot as you progress from one pub to the next (or, yes, to shops). And so you flow on down to the river.
The river in Galway is called the Corrib. Well, it’s called that now, because it flows from a lake also named Corrib. But originally it was called Gaillimh, an Irish Gaelic word pronounced like “gall yiv.” That’s now the name of the city – in Irish. Galway (rhymes with hallway, by the way) is an Anglicized version of that. From the river to the city, and from the city to the county. But from what to the river?
Gaillimh means ‘stony’ or ‘rocky’. The river was called the Stony River because… it was. And is.
But even though in Galway your world is rocks, Galway rocks your world.
Translations – the Brian Friel play – captures the moment when Gaelic names were Anglicised,
As it happens, that play was performed at the University of Calgary when I was a drama student there, so I was reminded of it many times as we drove through Ireland! (I wasn’t in the play myself, but we all studied it and saw it performed.)
Dear James, Thanks so much for that lovely brief visit to Galway. I spent a wonderful two weeks farther down the coast in Kerry, just outside the market town of Cahirciveen, back in the seventies. Still one of the most vivid and satisfying memories of my life. The stone is certainly one of the things that makes Ireland so special. But there’s also the slanted sunlight on the sea, the moss everywhere, the constant trickle of water, the beautiful Irish faces and the delightful Irish voices. Hard not to get sloppily sentimental about a place like that. Cheers, Bronwyn