It’s home to one of the most famous beauty contests in the world, and is the basis for one of the best known traditional Irish songs. It was almost certainly the inspiration for the plot in Father Ted about the Lovely Girls Contest. Sadly, despite its romantic overtones, the town of Tralee looks decidedly down at heel. If were any roses here, they’ve long died off for the season.
That said, Tralee is one of the easiest to translate from its Gaelic name, Tra Li, making it one of the easier places to identify from bilingual road signs in the driving rain. The road north is another of the more frustrating journeys I’ve had.
Many of the “N Routes” consist of a full lane, and half a hard shoulder – designed for slower traffic like tractors to pull over. The large truck in front is refusing to do so, leading to an angry van driver attempting to undertake it. But beyond that it’s virtually an empty motorway into Galway – a pretty town that likes to look its best for the visitors, who are mostly taking shelter indoors today.
I’ve been fairly lucky with accommodation so far, but the Western Hotel just off the main Eyre Square has a reek of faded glory. The rooms are functional enough, but are connected through a winding rabbit warren of corridors – and a tiny underground car park which quickly looks like a fire hazard. With my own hire car tucked away in the corner, I do wonder how long it’ll take to actually get out.
Galway’s Latin Quarter is the focus of the main bars and restaurants here. Having visited here back in 2000, things don’t seem to have moved on too much – perhaps with a little more in the way of pedestrianised streets. But that’s no bad thing; Galway always struck me as a smaller, more manageable version of Dublin. Yes, geared up for tourists – complete with an open top bus city tour and a tacky land train – but lacking the sky high prices in the capital. And, thankfully, retaining an air of tradition when it comes to design.
That said, the traditional music sessions here are strictly organised to t tight timetable. Many bars offer an “early” show at about 6.30pm, then another one at 9.30pm. And Taffes Bar on Shop Street is packed to the rafters to see this trio, including (almost) Tom Cruise on accordion.
This is a far cry from the spontaneous sensations I’ve witnessed in Dingle and Cork. They’re clearly designed for a much larger audience – which tonight includes one woman who’s happy to dance on her own. It’s not too long before others join in.
Galway’s main Eyre Square is likely a bustling place on sunny days – but guess what, its raining again. A few hardy tourists stare at Browne’s Window – a curious front panel of a seventeenth century mansion, transported here from its original location.
The Perspex barriers around the base were presumably added out of necessity; it’s easy to imagine the more adventurous (or drunk) visitors trying to climb up for a photo.
Galway’s harbour was once outside the city walls, and to protect it, the Spanish built their own walls and an archway to bring in their goods.
The west of Ireland is the place you’re most likely to hear people still speaking Gaelic. It’s no coincidence that the Government insists the main Gaelic TV channel – TG4 – is based on a windswept part of the coast to the West of the city. And across the River Corrib is the Claddagh, a fiercely independent fishing community which dates back to the Fifth Century. It even has its own honorary King, though these days parts of the old fishing industry look a little past their prime.