Scenes from the Street


I was asked to write a portrait of Galway through the prism of Shop Street, and while I think I give a fairly accurate impression of the area, in retrospect I’m not sure how much of Galway it captures – those industrial estates spreading around its edges, the housing estates that funnel cars on to traffic-packed roads, the seaside sibling that is Salthill, they all remain elusive. Still, it got a better reaction than pretty much anything I’ve ever published, so it struck a chord. But I suspect it was Shop Street itself that struck the chord, and people just remembered the sound as they read the piece…


From The Irish Times, Saturday August 13th, 2011

‘YOU ALWAYS get a good reaction from people around the country when you say you’re from Galway. Everybody likes the place as soon as they come here.” Newsagent Paul O’Brien is trying to pin down what people find so attractive about the city and what makes many of the locals so fiercely loyal to the place. “Galway itself is a great brand,” he concludes.

Galwegians, both native and adoptive, often talk about the city’s unique character, the laid-back, slightly bohemian atmosphere that’s not readily found in other Irish cities or towns. Nowhere is that character more palpable than on the streets that run from Eyre Square down to the Spanish Arch. The area is a consistently lively mix of buskers, venerable family-run retailers, multinational chains, face painters, human statues, outdoor sippers of coffee and pints, sign holders, charity collectors, and even some determined shoppers, laden with bags.

“It’s so bohemian now, I call it the San Francisco of Ireland, because you have every race and culture in it,” says James Kelly, a Co Kerry poet who sells his books of verse on main streets and busy squares across the country. “Shop Street is special, whereas, in Dublin, Temple Bar didn’t quite work the way it was meant to as a cultural area.”

While many people describe the northern, retail-heavy stretch as Shop Street and the southern, entertainment-focused stretch as Quay Street, the area is in fact five streets, from north to south: Williamsgate Street, leading off Eyre Square; William Street, where the pedestrianised zone begins (and where Paul O’Brien’s neat, magazine-lined shop can be found); Shop Street itself, a surprisingly short block starting at Lynch’s Castle; High Street; and finally Quay Street, filled with restaurants and pubs, perpetually abuzz.

Less than 30 years ago Quay Street had as many derelict buildings as functioning businesses, and its dramatic revitalisation is just one example of how much the city has changed. These streets are the soul of Galway, which has a particularly compact centre even for a city of 75,000 people. They have changed radically as the city has developed into one of the most vibrant urban centres in Ireland.

From the pedestrianisation of the central thoroughfare in the late 1990s to the more recent creation of a self-styled Latin Quarter, these streets have been subject to a continual, and largely successful, process of renewal. Yet it’s a process that many locals are concerned about, as they see international brands such as Tommy Hilfiger and Boots take their place alongside, or instead of, family-run businesses.

“Since I came back to Galway 30 years ago the only businesses that haven’t changed on the street have been us, Griffin’s Bakery, Brennans shoes, McCambridge’s, and probably the bank,” says Anthony Ryan of the well-known clothes shop towards the end of Shop Street, by Buttermilk Lane. Ryan is one of the names most closely associated with the street, Anthony’s grandfather having founded the business at the same location in 1909. “All of us who are still here, we work hard at our businesses. It gives Galway a bit of uniqueness, and it’s not bland like so many other streets that you see.”

Of course, Shop Street has not survived the recession unscathed (the giant liquidation sign in the window of Zhivago’s music store attests to that), and businesses have reason to be thankful for the visitors that reliably turn up for the festivals. Paul Faller, the fourth generation of his family to run Faller’s jewellery store on Williamsgate Street, which has been operating for 132 years, is chairman of the Galway City Business Association and is realistic about the recession’s effect.

“Galway people are always very good to Galway businesses, but many of the family-run businesses are dependent on the fact that they own their premises, that they’re not under the rent pressure you find on Grafton Street,” he says. “As for the multinationals coming in, there is a risk of homogenisation, but if we don’t have them people will go elsewhere. It’s about getting a good mix, because we can’t be relying on sentimentality.”

A LOT OF people cite the closure of Kenny’s Bookshop and Art Gallery a few years ago as a watershed moment in the area’s recent history. It was an event that prompted greater recognition of the importance of family businesses and their role in preserving Shop Street’s identity.

“We don’t have customers; we have clients. That’s what makes us different from the multiples,” says Ryan, with unmistakable professional pride. “I often say to the staff: ‘You’re part salespeople, part counsellors, part psychologists.’ They’re dealing with people all the time; it takes a lot of skill. Some people come in to shop, some come in because it’s their routine, sometimes they come in because they want a chat, they might be lonely.”

While the pedestrianisation of 1998 benefited Ryan’s business, due to hugely increased footfall on a street that had become known for its traffic congestion, across the street the food emporium McCambridge’s struggled to reposition itself.

“It cost us millions over the years, changed our direction totally,” says Eoin McCambridge, managing director of the company. “We’ve gone from being a family grocer to being more a specialist delicatessen, with a sandwich bar and coffee bar. For a volume-driven business such as ours, it was very challenging.”

McCambridge’s is very much a family enterprise, with Eoin’s sisters Norma and Nathalie also involved and their father Pat still a genial presence in the shop. The business’s change of focus has been a remarkable success, and it has been helped significantly by outdoor seating, a byproduct of pedestrianisation and the smoking ban. “The chairs and tables outside have been brilliant for us. They really have introduced a whole new kind of aspect,” says Eoin McCambridge. “The face of the business is now on the street, rather than behind the doors. It’s great for people-watching too.”

The arrival of outdoor seating at cafes such as Griffin’s and pubs such as Garavans and Taaffes has fundamentally altered the character of the area, turning a busy thoroughfare into something more like a continental boulevard. Surprisingly, though, the city council was initially reluctant to allow outdoor seating.

“It was quite difficult to get permission,” says Mairtín Lally, who has run Taaffes for 24 years. “The council said it would clog up the street, but we pointed out we’re at one of the widest points here, so we got a licence. We keep the seats out year-round, and it’s very important to us. On a Saturday or a Sunday there, people can sit outside and take in the whole thing passing by. We have music twice a day, seven days a week, all year round. That works: people walking past can hear the session and come in. It started with just a few musicians playing tunes.

“Some of the musicians that started with us 24 years ago are still here, which is great.”

Lively sessions also run in nearby pubs, such as Tig Cóilí across the street, reinforcing the sense that Galway’s status as capital of the west and gateway to Connemara brings with it cultural advantages that contribute to the city’s character. Part of the authenticity of that character lies in a continuing bilingual presence: behind the bar in Taaffes a sign reads, as Bearla, “Irish spoken, English understood”.

Another keeper of the traditional-music flame is Colm Powell of The Four Corners, a landmark store founded by his father in 1918 on the corner of William Street and Abbeygate Street, across from the medieval Lynch’s Castle. Powell is one of the last people living on the street, and still works behind the counter in his refreshingly old-fashioned music shop, with CDs, musical instruments and art-and-craft supplies piled high. He relates the history of 20th-century Galway in the irreverent fashion of someone who has seen it all from his stand at the heart of it, watching as the city grew from a small town in the commercial shadow of Limerick to the tourist destination and industrial centre it has become today.

“The town is changing all the time, but what’s in town still is speciality,” he says. “We’re selling an awful lot of violins, because someone out in the shopping centre won’t sell violins. Or pipes. But if I’m selling all the pipes, it’s partly because it’s a dying trade. But there’s enough left to die with. It’s the same with several things: we’re the last of the Mohicans left in them.”

Between the durable red walls of Powell’s store and the immutable limestone of Lynch’s Castle is a more temporary commercial activity: young men holding signs for businesses off the main thoroughfare. They joke among themselves, but only one is happy to talk about his work and what he sees on the street. Albert Comamala came to Galway from Girona, Spain, five months ago, and he says he is enjoying it.

“I think Ireland is a good place for work, much better than Spain,” he says. “I do every day with just Sundays off, part-time, just 24 hours a week. Other guys spend more time here.” His accent is a great blend of Iberian and the west of Ireland, but he says: “I don’t have many friends from Galway. For me, it’s difficult to know Irish people. Sometimes you know them, but to keep in touch is difficult. There’s a big wall, I don’t know if it’s the language, but when I pass this wall, it’s good, there’s a good relationship.”

A few feet away James Fleming is sitting by the door to the bank in Lynch’s Castle. Dressed in silver and resting on a large grey throne, he is an almost static recreation of the Pádraic Ó Conaire statue that graced Eyre Square before it was moved to Galway City Museum. But once a coin is dropped into his bowl, Fleming’s Ó Conaire bursts into life, spinning a plate and opening an umbrella.

“There’s a lot of the same people performing on the streets, and the people are still as generous as they ever were, considering the tough times,” Fleming says. “There’s generally always a good atmosphere on Shop Street. Pedestrianisation has made it really, it’s now like a river of people that flows to the sea.”

THERE IS A sense that the street has evolved into a kind of outdoor theatre with an ever-changing cast of performers and passersby. By the colourful facade of what was once Una Taaffe’s famous drapery shop on William Street, an exhilarating flamenco beat comes from a stylish trio of musicians, entertaining a large crowd. The city’s Latin connections might be overstated – there’s only so much impact a 15th-century visit from Columbus can have on a place – but the sounds of the band, Sarumba, are a natural fit for the street on a sunny day.

“I was brought here by the fairies,” says the band’s Italian guitarist, Vincenzo Donnarumma, with a broad smile. “I came myself because I was interested in Irish music and read the fairy tales and legends, and so I thought I’d come to Ireland. When I arrived I heard Galway was good for art, so I came to Galway. I’ve been here ever since, 12 years now. I love it, love the people – so welcoming.”

Donnarumma is far from alone in finding himself snared by Galway’s ambience. The weekend crafts market on Church Lane, tucked beside St Nicholas’s Church, is a haven for creative souls.

“I’m from New York,” says jeweller Maura O’Laoghaire, her accent a convincing Galwegian with a slight Five Boroughs twang. “I’ve been in Galway for 20 years. I first came over for the arts festival. I arrived and I was standing outside the Quays pub and I saw the Macnas parade come down the street, and I was hooked. I think people get stuck here, those types of people.”

Is the city’s artistic reputation overstated? “I do think the place lives up to its cultural reputation,” she says, “but you have to be looking after it, you need to keep it cultivated. Otherwise it withers.”

Anthony Ryan, for one, believes that “the way the city has embraced the arts has been very important. A lot of the strong artistic things that happened in the city came from people I was in college with, Ollie Jennings and Pádraic Breathnach with the arts festival, Garry Hynes with Druid. They’ve made a lasting contribution to the city. A lot of people have followed on from the work they’ve done.”

Druid has recently returned to its home just off Quay Street, but some locals feel that the area is at risk of becoming a tourist-only zone, a miniature Temple Bar selling an ersatz version of Galway. While establishments such as Neachtain’s pub and McDonagh’s fish restaurant are central to the city’s identity, the revelry tends to be a magnet for visitors, and many Galwegians have come to prefer the pubs and venues on Dominick Street across the river.

There is also a concern that Galway has developed into an overly boozy town that is perhaps more fun than is good for it. One friend describes Galway as a “graveyard of ambition”, and many students and artists have felt the inertia that often sets in here. When just hanging out can seem like a cultural pastime, motivation can be in short supply.

There are tentative plans for the city to look forward by turning to face the sea. The Volvo Ocean Race in 2009 emphasised the importance of the city’s coastal location, and ambitious plans for a port capable of welcoming cruise ships and an inner marina could revitalise underused parts of the city centre.

An occasional addition to the street in recent weeks, directly opposite Ryan’s shopfront, is a table with flyers for the presidential campaign of Michael D Higgins, and Higgins and his wife Sabina have been seen shaking hands and accepting the goodwill of passersby. It says much about Galway’s sensibility that it should choose as its political representative for so many years an academic and a poet, a defiantly cultured and untypical politician.

“I keep worrying that we’ll lose the buzz that we seem to have in Galway. We have to watch it because we don’t really know what it is,” says Eoin McCambridge, the sound of the street’s music and chat audible in his office above the shop. “I think some people take it for granted. Nobody seems to know where it comes from. It’s almost a magical thing; it just exists.”

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