Retreat to the city in the Tribal County


Ken Goodwin

SOME people go on retreat to a monastery or a meditation centre—on the Holy Isle, for example—or a remote cottage or a cave. In search of peacefulness of mind, or a place where peace comes dropping slow. When I go on retreat I go to Galway.

Wherever you go there’s the thrill of arrival. The Iarnrod slides by Athenry and Oranmore and then you come upon a ribbon of silver and a pale blue blur of hills beyond. Galway Bay and the Hills of Clare. The train trundles the last few yards over the bridge above Lough Italia and into Ceannt Station—named for the 1916 martyr.

Then over Eyre Square, still gleaming with rain and lit with sunshine, and busy with visitors and school students. Of course there’s someone posing beside the replica statue of Padraig O’ Connor—the original in the City Museum since it lost its head—and the banners of the 14 tribes hanging in a row at the top of the Square.

If a 70-year old could do somersaults, then somersaults would be done. Spring’s in the step though, this bright April Thursday. And this is the day that’s in it. Begin with a hearty breakfast—the full Irish with a Clonakilty black pudding. Eavesdrop on nearby conversations. That’s how you mean to go on. The Polish teachers visiting Galway to monitor their students on technology placements hereabouts. The elderly couple from the Mid-West of the USA who now live in Asturias and will never go home: “Too much guns and violence.”

From the streets to the sea
Set off by Eyre Square and head down the ribbon of streets, the main drag really, the arterial vein, one street leading into the next, Shop Street, High Street, Quay Street, pedestrianised with cobbles needing renewal, crooked cobblestones. And as you go, one busker’s song leaks into the next so the streets have a soundtrack; one moment you’re leaving Liverpool, the next coming by the bower and then knocking on Heaven’s door. You may be amused by the way in which the passers-by begin to mouth the words being sung by the busker. Later the screech of terns mingling with the caw of gulls make up another kind of soundtrack, cacophony of bay and shore.

Pass the string of bars in High Street. Murphy’s maroon and cream façade might tempt—Ladbrokes next door is open and the day’s business has begun—but pedestrians pass by. Cast a cold eye on promise and possibility. Cross the Wolfe Tone Bridge over the River Corrib—trying not to vex over the ugliness of Jury’s Inn. Enjoy the busy bustle of the river, all surge and white-tipped backlash, released over the Salmon Weir upstream. Walk by the Claddagh Basin, pause by the stone bench dedicated to the ‘kindest man in Galway’—a deceased GP—try to remember the names of the eight men drowned in the Bay in May 1902 whose memorial stone stands nearby.

Drop into the Dominican Church to light candles. Go on by Nimmo’s Pier. Look over the Corrib to the Long Walk on whose painted house facades the sun is already dancing. Wonder where the swans which used to gather by the slipway here in huge numbers have gone. Then take the track round the Claddagh—once a village of black houses, fishermen’s hovels, and now open ground.

Take the causeway out to Mutton Island with its lighthouse and sewage plant. Smile and nod at the wheen of joggers and walkers. Feel the warmth of sun on your face. Look out over Galway Bay. The huge blue sky, the open acres of ocean, the sense of being on the edge of infinity, the wide blue yonder. “Ease was in its glory,” you might think “And grace had its place there too.” If a Galway poet hadn’t thought it and written it first!

The best rest bar none
So now with your heart blown open you can return to the other side of the river. Maybe visit the far point of the pier where there’s a plaque inscribed with a Louis MacNeice poem about Galway. Watch a grey heron still in the shallows and a cormorant hanging out its wings on the rocks, foreground to the Long Walk.

And now, gratification only moderately delayed, to Murphy’s Bar (above). You enter into the comfortable and comforting gloom with a sense of relief. It’s unchanged, almost as it was the first time you came here, 15 years ago. Many of the high stools are empty. There’s a handful of souls present. They have nothing that needs to be said to each other. Silent contemplation fills the pub. You adjust to Guinness time, the minutes that require to drink to swirl and settle and swirl and settle again. The bartender knows you from your last times here—recognition is a slightly raised eyebrow. Quickly you conclude that this is the best pint of Guinness that you have ever had. Or at least since the last one you had here.

Read some of the columns in The Irish Independent. Gain a strong sense of Irish bewilderment at the endless ignorance of the Brits. There is horse-racing on TV. You hear a man at the bar say: “I haven’t had a win at Cheltenham since 1966.” It is not clear if this remark is addressed to anyone in particular or if it just needs to be made. Later you might have half-a-dozen oysters in Busker Browne’s. Why not? So the day goes on.

Browsing books and busy streets
I browsed for ages in Charlie Byrne’s Bookshop in Middle Street. Bought Our Killer City by Rita Ann Higgins, essays and poems. Ms Higgins was commissioned to write a poem in support of Galway’s bid to become European City of Culture in 2020—‘a pity little city, a shitty little city.’ Imagine if Liz Lochhead wrote a poem for Glasgow that was about the number of homeless dead and the troubles of the Death Star hospital? Browsing is an inexhaustible joy. I had only hand luggage so didn’t have room for all the books that take my fancy.

I lit candles in the Franciscan Church and in the great Cathedral and walked by the Woodquay and by the Salmon Weir. It is many years since I saw the salmon run and leap up river, a sight of astonishing energy and excitement. I strolled through the grounds of the University, which was hosting an ‘Open Day,’ so the campus was busy with the ‘winged with hope,’ students—and their parents—whose lives are full of possibilities. Galway swarms with students—18,000 of them.

Every morning by Nimmo’s Pier around the Claddagh and out to Mutton Island. Every afternoon the undemanding contemplation of gloom in Murphy’s Bar. Every evening a dinner—in Kirkby’s or Cooke’s—seafood chowder, perhaps, and slow-cooked lamb. The streets stream with people. The bars are all busy. The sound of fiddles and whistles and bodhrans drifts into the streets.

Leaving and longing
On Sunday the Iarnrod—very busy—took us back across the central plain, over the majestic Shannon at Athlone, by rough pastures and fields where horses cantered to Heuston Station. I had an overnight in Dublin. Dublin was in hyperdrive. Streets streaming with people. Flower stalls in Grafton Street. Luas clanking along north and south of the Liffey. Many languages other than English in Talbot Street. Beggars on the bridges.

I visited the wonderful new exhibition about Seamus Heaney, in the Bank of Ireland in Westmoreland Street, which l left wiping a tear from my eye. Heaney’s last words were in a text to his wife Marie: “Noli timere.”

The anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement is a good time to quote his lines from The Cure of Troy: “History says, don’t hope, on this side of the grave, but then, once in a lifetime, the longed-for tidal wave of justice can rise up and hope and history rhyme.”