Visiting Galway and a report from the Pavement concert on the 24th July 2023 at the Galway International Arts Festival.
From Belfast to Galway by car
Saturday 22nd July 2023
When I'm travelling a distance and it is possible to travel via rail, usually I buy my ticket and cast all other considerations aside. Belfast to Galway may be certainly journeyed by rail, but this time I opted to travel by car. The car that had recently become mine had never yet been taken for a lengthly drive. I knew the west coast of Ireland is scenic so it made a perfect reason.
Scenic it was in an Irish sense where I don't get exactly what I wanted. While the skies were reasonably clear in the beginning, the clouds were a foreboding grey and soon the heavens opened to send down bucket-loads of rain from Antrim to Galway. Still, that didn't deter me from stopping in Antrim and enjoying some Fish n' Chips from Moe's Grill; fuel for me too!
Despite the unfriendly weather, I stopped in a town called Grange for refreshments and a stroll; it's absolutely necessary to stretch the legs midway through a long drive. Along the way I noted there was another Bellaghy, sharing the same name as a village in Co. Londonderry. For the curious, the Southern motorway I travelled was the N15.
The signs are in strange units: km/h. This new car has a digital speedometer, I missed the round dial of my old Polo that indicated both mph and km/h; ideal for times like these. I was never sure if I was obeying the speed limit. I’m also told that everyone just drives at the speed they want here, but that might be a ruse from a canny southerner to get me arrested. I passed a sign announcing I was in An Gaeltacht but was immediately dismayed to still see English on the signs and even a McDonald’s without any Irish translation.
I had filled my tank wondering how long it will carry my motor. When I arrived I noticed the Honda Civic managed the 4½ mile journey in half a tank, now that’s fuel efficiency!
Arrival at the AirBnB
The house was shared with 4 other rooms. Initially, my door wouldn’t stay closed. There was a sealant around it probably to insulate and soundproof it, but that disabled the door’s primary function: to keep people out. I found a key in a hallway drawer that matched my door, glad to say it fit and with some effort I had privacy; my fallback plan was to barricade the door with the chest of drawers in the room!
Hunger set in and I thought to answer with an evening snack. At the local shop I was outraged at the price of cheese. A small block for €4! I thought they had more cattle than people here.
Returning to my room later, I had locked it from the inside then realised I hadn't yet brushed my teeth. I went to open the door with the same key and noticed the latch was caught. It would not budge. I was trapped behind this door and the time was 11.50pm. I then tried to leverage the key with my Swiss Army knife bottle opener and it instead snapped the bow off the key. Embarrassment ensued, but I was not dismayed. I remember that I still have my front door key, so I climb out the window and enter via the front door, hoping to find a matching key in the same drawer and at least get my teeth brushed.
Then as I open the front door I double check the key ring I was given; I notice it has an internal door key. I put this door key in my bedroom door, it immediately turns and the door swings open. I pause to realise what had just happened then I laugh.
Wandering the streets
Sunday 23rd July 2023
I spend the morning learning to adjust the focus on my 70-220mm manual zoom lens on my Sony Alpha 6000 camera. There are myriad adjustments but enough of it clicks in my mind and I hope to get some shots with this camera despite the rain. I also think that I can't leave my host with a snapped key. One search of Apple Maps reveals there is a Timpson's locksmith opening at 12.
I’m about to board the bus and go to use contactless payment like we have in Belfast, the Bus Eireann driver says I need change. I say I’ve none he smiles and beckons, "oh, get aboard!"
In town I have lunch at 34 Eyre Street, also called The Kettle Cafe. The house sourdough toastie is recommended.
I find the locksmith and he asks no questions when I hand him the bowless key. This is much to my relief. He hands me the new duplicate, adequate to take the place of its shattered original.
In the Eyre street shopping centre I find the city walls have been preserved, there are information boards with mention of none other than Cromwell and the Normans. Curiously he targeted the city because Galway was known as a Royalist stronghold. Nearby there is a bookshop inside a another small shopping arcade called 'Byrnes', the exterior wall lined with bookcases and volumes on every topic imaginable. A sign urges: 'Come in if you love books' and I can't resist the invitation. I spend an hour browsing and consciously stop myself from spending all my money inside.
Back outside, I have to wear a polyester raincoat. I almost didn’t bring it. I hate them. Uncomfortable and unstylish. You can imagine I’m not a flamboyant man, but even I recognise the hardships of dressing well in wet weather.
I wander the streets and rest briefly in the park at Eyre square. I find a record shop that looks independent and buy a poster of the Great wave of Kanagawa. While it isn't Irish art I had been looking for it. I briefly consider a rules of Fight Club poster but it is styled like a lifestyle marketing YouTube advert, pass!
There is a protest gathered in the square bearing banners in Arabic asking for the release of an imam Anjem Choudary, others carry sings with his sayings in English. Women in niqabs join them, not before getting instructions from the Garda. No disturbance ensues; the Irish police allow the procession to proceed and most other people simply glance before getting back to their business.
On the streets there are many performers and buskers, some include a young girl who can’t be more than 11 with an angelic rendition of Bohemian Rhapsody. There is also an elderly man selling volumes of his poetry; I have no change so miss the chance to purchase any. There are many folk singers and instruments of all kinds fill the air with their sounds.
While passing through the crowds I notice the pangs of thirst. Time to sample the local produce.
I enter a pub called the Kings Head, it claims to be established before 1649 and is named for the dismembered rival of old Ollie. There is a house red ale, nitrogenated and rounded off with a not too harsh bitterness. I purchase one to go alongside my meal - a steak and Guinness stew, superb aged beef and creamy mashed potato, then return and ask for a Murphy's. I learn they don't sell them here, and remark that I'd have to travel as a far as Cork to find a pint of the stout. I instead settle for a Smithwick's while a crowd behind me watches the Gaelic games.
The walking tour
Monday 24th July 2023
I wake up and lead through the books I bought from Byrnes. Breakfast is instant oats and peppermint tea; I didn't purchase any milk to accompany the complimentary black teabags. Leaving the house and finding the bus waiting at its stop, I board and this time I pay the bus man with a 20 euro note. He gives me change in coins only, my wallet now significantly weighed down.
After exploring the streets, hunger returns. I enter a lunchery called McCambridges, my order is a pickled ham and cheese sandwich called El Cubano. To accompany my meal I chose an iced cappuccino muffin and a chai latte; these finish it well. Upstairs where I seat myself there is a wine bar that is well stocked but only with red. Downstairs there is a table of pastries that is steadily replenished by the busy staff.
Even at this lunchery there is an off-licence and the option of Bailey's in your coffee. This is common. I have to wonder whether the licensing laws are looser in the South, or perhaps no one is checking too often. Another thing that happens everywhere I sit is American tourists will always rearrange the seating to their preference; perhaps because they travel in larger groups, but I am often asked whether I'm "waiting for anyone" before an unclaimed seat is lifted from my table.
I had arranged a walking tour of Galway, thinking there is no better way to learn the history than from a local enthusiast. I meet this story teller at Thirteen on the Green, Eyre square, near the railway station. Despite that I was the only one who booked this particular slot, he goes ahead with the tour anyway. We wander the streets and he explains the history from Tullagh Mór O’Connell who founded the city in the ninth century through its heights as an independent medieval trading town, to its low points in the Cromwellian invasion, to the modern day when President Kennedy gave a speech a mere three months before his death.
Many details and sights were explored, the gentleman had a wealth of knowledge. I'll not share it all here; you'll have to pay him if you want to know. His favourite saying: "Never let the truth get in the way of a real story."
He also informs me that I'm the third person who he has met who is down to hear Pavement, and he wonders if they are just "big up there [North]". As we part at a place called Arches' End, I give him an album recommendation, reasonably confident I've made another convert.
Thereafter I walk past South Park near Corrib (not Colorado) and see the harbour, there are many swans and too many seagulls, waterfowl diving for their prey, charred shipwrecks, very rapid waters under the harbour bridge. The harbour joins an old canal, I walk up part of the towpath and then head for a pizza shop known as The Dough Bros. I have the Hail Caesar, an Italian style pizza. This is a pizza shop inside the old cathedral building and I’m told this pizzeria has been ranked among the top 10 in the world.
I wander down an alley beside the church of St Nicolas', there is an old man playing blues on his fiddle. He must be over seventy, the street is well-weathered but he isn’t, not many pass him but he is not deterred. I make sure to tip him some of that change I was gifted earlier.
Down derelict alley, down by the church
Sounding old blues, fiddler of lost love’s lament
Ask me then, or ask me how
I care not where the time went
After the food settles, I go to the renowned alehouse Tigh Nechtain and request a Murphy’s Red, a well poured pint of red ale. The time of the concert drew near.
Pavement at the GIAF
Outside the big tent there is a stall selling merchandise. Three ranges are available: the supporting act, the hosts (GIAF) and the big act themselves. Regrettably, there are no T-shirts that specifically name the venue or the tour. Not dismayed I purchased a band t-shirt with Pavement - The Long Century emblazoned in print. Making my way to the portaloos, I change out of my Rainbow - Uprising t-shirt and put on my new apparel.
Then time to enter the beer conglomerate sponsored Big Top tent. The openers were the Pillow Queens, an all-female group. I wager that they were sourced from the nearby University of Galway. They played from roughly 8-9, they had good stage presence for an audience that wouldn't know any of their songs.
Then Pavement entered the stage without any introduction. A cheer erupted. They opened with ‘In the mouth a desert’ which was thankfully not a portent of things ahead!
Roughly one to two thousand made up the crowd; expectantly more packed for the headline act. There were a mix of ages though the average slanted 40.
The show begins
From what I saw online it looks like the band were playing a setlist tailored to each stop on their tour, what would they have to play for us?
Folk Jam made an appearance. Stephen made time to emphasise the line ‘beware the head of state says she believes in leprechauns… Irish folk tales scare the shit out of me’. The crowd cheered because everyone knew it was coming!
Towards the end they also played Two States, an appropriate choice for this geographic region. The audience relayed the chorus with a roaring shout ‘forty billion daggers’!
While taking in the songs I noticed a chap to my right who stood with a tucked shirt and scarcely moved the whole night, he just stared at the stage, I presumed his thoughts were ‘did you not get the memo, it’s business casual’! The rebuttal would come from Embassy Row: "don't forget your manners when the anthem plays"!
The crowd really came alive for Stereo, Harness your Hopes and Gold Soundz, the music compelling my usually guarded self to jump and cheer and point at the air, swaying and bopping with the crowd.
While “Gold Soundz” was my first introduction to the band way back in 2010, it never gelled with me at the time and I did not listen any further through their catalogue. But hearing it live that evening and being in a crowd who sang every lyric as loudly as the band's passionate rendition of their signature song made me recant any previous criticism.
Further we were briefly treated to the ‘Spiral Stairs’ where the band played a song from guitarist Kannberg’s side project; that was kind to see, as I read his contributions were overlooked during the recording of the band's final record.
Bob was the one with the energy, nominally the second drummer but most of the time he was jumping up and down the stage and channelling this energy between the band and audience, with Steve preferring to stand in place and channel his energy into the singing and extended jamming between songs. The improvised jamming gave the songs a life beyond that of the albums, certainly because they were played to a crowd just as lively.
We were then treated to ‘The Hexx’ one of their most haunting and trancelike pieces, a favourite of mine. This was drawn from their final record Terror Twilight, I expected less from that album because of its fraught history that culminated with the band breaking up in 1999.
Other songs played included Grave Architecture, Embassy Row, Shady Lanes, Date w/Ikea, Type Slowly and the appropriate closer Range Life.
I harnessed my hopes for an encore but I knew it wasn’t coming, the band left the stage and their instruments were collected.
Still, I leave satisfied that I've finally been able to find this band live, and it was only a matter of driving the car and booking an AirBnB room. Pavement are a band who treat both the instruments and the lyrics as playthings. There’s a depth to both, even if the lyrics appear cynical at the surface. It’s music for someone who feels the world is made for an aggregate that excludes himself.
I return to the merchant stall desiring something to go with my t-shirt. The hats looked good but it was either a hat for €35 or a Slanted and Enchanted vinyl for €35, naturally I picked the one less suitable as headwear but intended for needle wear on my turntable. While there I ask the men in the merchant stall if they could overcharge my card by €3 and give me the change for the bus; they kindly agree. I'm glad to see arrangements like this may still be made, with the proliferation of jobsworths and stringent rules that characterises too much of life these days.
All the Galway International Arts Festival t-shirts were left hanging in the small merchandiser's tent, still unsold.
My phone was at 1% battery and I had turned it off to save power, then my mind was swayed to take a few photos of the concert, so I turned it on. Then I thought we need some short videos which I also filmed, and yet the phone still found power. A very long lasting 1%. I thought it would be videos or the bus home, but it was both, because after the concert I was still able to find bus times and the route number to get home.
When I alight the bus I meet a gentleman from the USA, it happens that he was staying in my AirBnB house. He was recording a podcast where he interviews buskers and he was optimistic because it went well. He knew of Pavement and Dino Jr, and noting my LP asked if I was record shopping. I let him know he just missed seeing the band live.
Kilmacduagh and The Burren
Tuesday 25th July 2023
I check out of the AirBnB; bags packed and room tidied to a presentable state. I notice that the Germans who were staying in the house leave their trainers on the drive. Even a local cat is staring at this loose footwear, perplexed.
When on the road I stop in the adjacent town of Seahill and sit down to hear a busker, he’s originally from the Netherlands but sings with a perfect Irish ballad voice and plays the mandolin. I tip him. We speak briefly after I notice the second song he played was ‘I wish I was in Carrickfergus’ and I give a clap then explain that I used to live there.
I drive to Co. Clare on a side quest to find the Craggy Island Parochial house. Ironically while seeking the location of a religious comedy, I find the location of real ancient religion; the ruins of Kilmacduagh Monastery. I have no choice but to stop and take a moment among the ruined monuments, a place of learning and prayer for centuries.
The sky is dominated by the monastery’s tall round tower; I later learn it was built for refuge from Viking raiders. Now it is convenient habitation for pigeons. It has stood pointing skywards for a thousand years.
The chapel itself still has an altar, the arches and pointed Gothic windows still speak strongly to the building’s former purpose. I study them before returning to my car and continuing my quest.
The Parochial House from Father Ted is found after travelling down narrow country lanes, there is scarcely room for a single lane of traffic and motorists often stop to let the other past. When I reach the Parochial house I wonder how I’ll get my photograph with it in the background, conveniently a local walking his dog passes and he happily obliges. I note from the clear signage that it is private property; there once was a public tearoom but this closed and hasn’t been opened since the pandemic.
Further along the way I pass a dozing hill and large open rock formation. It is known as The Burren, and it is a momentous work of nature to see. While the sight makes me wish to trek it, I don’t have time for more than photographs.
I drive home from here through the middle of Ireland, travelling some hundred miles in my faithful Honda Civic. Quite impressively I only need to refill my tank when I reach Monaghan.
Thoughts on identity and walkable cities
I’ve visited Cork and I’ve visited Galway. Two things these towns do well that we lack in Belfast:
The streets are walkable, the town feels pedestrian first and car second. This is the opposite of Belfast.
The second, certainly owing to the first: there are many more pokey shops, artisan coffee shops and gastropubs. This makes dining or sitting and sipping coffee an easy part of the day, I’ve no doubt this makes for a better social atmosphere. There simply aren’t the same number of pubs and establishments, and I don’t enjoy walking Belfast as much as I do these two cities.
Why is this not the case in Belfast? I suspect due to divisions and the impossibility of agreeing on a shared culture. This isn’t a problem down south, they have none of the tension over naming and culture that we have. If a road is to be named after some notable figure from Irish history it just happens. Buildings and streets are maintained. Everything is just Irish. In the North, it is not so simple and a solution is difficult to find amid the strong and sincere passions that divide us.
Moreover, our council is laughably corrupt. Sure it may be the same story everywhere, but many grand Victorian buildings in Belfast have been demolished or left to languish until they have no option but to be torn down. Dodgy contractors start projects and never finish. Foreign consortiums swoop in and buy up entire areas, rename them and make them unrecognisable.
This hurts the senses of belonging and owning a city that are necessary for the inhabitants to care enough to start these local businesses. Local business relies on trust and your neighbours supporting you with their custom, but how are neighbours made without recognisable neighbourhoods?
That said, this jealousy did not last long enough to sully my time in Galway. The concert was exhilarating, the beer flavourful and plenteous, the feeling that there was a life to the place and that there's always something happening makes the visit. It might take a miracle but perhaps someday we may say the same of our own capital.
Finally, if you are ever in this part of the country, find a SuperMac's and try the Mighty Mac burger. You'll thank me for the suggestion.