04.07.2015 When I first came to Galway in 2011, austerity was still reigning. Some sites in the city and outside were looking very neglected. Roadworks half-finished or not even begun. Empty buildings in ruins, even in the centre. Many inhabited houses badly in need of a new coat of paint or thorough repair. The cobblestones in the Latin Quarter paved with several generations of well trodden chewing gum. Public parks minimalistically maintained and littered, equally some private front gardens. Galway still looked like a charming coquette, only a bit tattered.
Since then a lot has happened. Every time I paid a visit in the last few years, the rundown beauty seemed to have made a new step towards getting back in form. Especially after economy had started picking up again in 2014, and with it the motivation to invest. Lady Galway darned a hole here, sewed up a tear there and put new make-up on. And now she has obviously acquired a new gown.
The most striking change became obvious when I returned this year in spring and summer. Galway was being declared Tidy Town. “Major plan to clean up Galway’s streets”, titled the Galway Independent on 24th June. The formerly gummy paving suddenly showed clean cobblestones. The parks looked fresh and green and much less littered. New trees had been planted. Huge boxes full of flowers adorned squares and corners in the centre. Existing flowerbeds were cleaned from weed and wore fresh flowers. So did private front gardens. On the Claddagh side of Wolftone Bridge a nicely structured area had been created, with a Rent A Bike park, new pavement, new traffic lights and carefully painted crosswalks. A roof now protects waiting passengers at the bus stop on Fr Griffin Road in front of Fr Burke Park.
What has brought on this radical change?
Well, Galway has turned from resignation to ambition. Coloured flags all over the City declare that it is in the race for European Capital of Culture 2020. A Committee has launched the Galway City Tidy Towns plan dealing with diverse problems like dirty roads, wild graffiti, dog turds, vacant premises, littering, sad looking greens.
Galway has always nurtured its cultural acitivites, but it seems the city has realised at last that a nice, clean wrap around everything wouldn’t hurt either. I do like to look at the new Tidy Town. Though, to me the core of its being is still the people revelling in culture. Let me mention an example:
One evening in June, my friend Walter asked me if I would be interested to come to a lecture in the Arts Centre. The topic was the connection between Greek mythology, Joyce and Yeats, the speaker Brian Arkins, Classics Professor Emeritus of NUIG. The discourse was heard by an audience of approximately 30 people, of whom about half followed Prof. Arkin’s invitation afterwards to a less formal continuation in The Galway Arms where snacks and drinks were waiting. In our midst was also the famous sculptor John Behan.
After an hour of munching, a few glasses of whatever and talking about poetry, one of us remembered the words of a song. He started singing which led someone else to the lyrics of another song, and soon we all got caught up in the game of quoting and singing, taking turns as soloists or joining in as a chorus. The barman obligingly turned down the backgrund music in the pub. After another hour, a musician turned up in quest of a beer and a chill after a gig. One from our round called him by name, “John, I’m sure you know that one,” mentioning a song we had just been trying to get together. John unpacked his guitar and the session went on for another hour. We sang whatever came to our minds, from traditionals over Bob Dylan and musicals to opera. It was not about perfection or remembering all the words and tunes perfectly, just about the joy of singing and commemorating together.
This is the spirit which in my opinion makes Galway the worthy candidate for European Capital of Culture. Which merits the prize for a culture alive in the hearts and the actions of the people. Highly sophisticated topics and simple, spontaneous pleasures combined.
I keep my fingers crossed.
PS, 2018: Galway made it! It will be European Capital of Culture 2020.