And they're off: Galway leads the way as Europe's fastest-growing city

Galway has become Ireland's party capital, with incomes fuelled by cutting-edge industry, stunning scenery and world-renowned festivals. David McKittrick reports from the city where visitors come and stay for good
Click to follow
The Independent Online

Galway has shown itself historically adept at overcoming adversity and unwelcome visitations that include famine, plague and Cromwell: but never in its history has it known anything like this. The western Irish city has experienced a boom which has been so phenomenal and gone on for so long - more than a decade - that rapid growth, expansion and prosperity have become simply the norm.

Galway has shown itself historically adept at overcoming adversity and unwelcome visitations that include famine, plague and Cromwell: but never in its history has it known anything like this. The western Irish city has experienced a boom which has been so phenomenal and gone on for so long - more than a decade - that rapid growth, expansion and prosperity have become simply the norm.

Substantial American companies are everywhere, large hotels abound, their car parks even in September filled with tourist coaches, while 15,000 students are just now turning up for the new academic year.

The city's apparently effortless success comes partly from natural advantages and good fortune, but is in large part due to shrewd civic management that has preserved the old and accommodated the new.

Galway is not an isolated beacon of prosperity. Since the Celtic tiger expansion of the 1990s, much of the Irish Republic has been transformed: the whole state is palpably better off. Every city, town and village the visitor goes through en route to Galway - especially Dublin - seems to be flourishing and expanding at a remarkable rate. But Galway has benefited more than most, winning the title of Western Europe's fastest-growing city.

Some believe the boom may be about to calm, but cranes still tower over the skyline as the building of housing and commercial premises goes feverishly on. Civic confidence and spending remains insouciantly high. "You can see the wealth around the place, no question about it," the owner of a city-centre off-licence said. "Sales of champagne have gone through the roof this year for some reason. It's extraordinary."

Declan Varley, editor of the Galway Advertiser, said: "If it does calm it won't be a slump - Galway will always do quite well. The town itself is really buzzing, it's a great place to be, great place to work."

The Galway buzz seemed set to peter out in the early 1990s with the closure of a major American computer firm. "A lot of people thought that would be the death knell for Galway," Varley said. "But instead it has exploded."

The departure of one American firm was quickly followed by the arrival of many more, so that Galway today has a substantial cluster of electronic and biomedical companies. Local entrepreneurs have set up their own computing firms.

"They're clean businesses," Michael Coyle, the chief executive of Galway chamber of commerce, said. "There's no heavy, dark industrialisation, you don't have chimney stacks spewing out smoke. It's all modern and it has generated high-added-value jobs."

The American firms identified Galway as a highly desirable location, environmentally as well as commercially, so that it would not be difficult to persuade staff to move there from America. The local university and technological institute developed a reputation for turning out students ideally suited to the new businesses. All this has attracted more than 10,000 new residents in less than a decade, the population rising to more than 68,000.

One key aspect of its success is that the city imports not just businesses but individuals. Mr Coyle said: "There is this marvellous welcome for the outsider - it may not be unique but it can't be underestimated. A lot of the key positions are held by non-Galway people. For example I'm not from Galway. The president of the university is a Kerry man, the recently retired county manager is a Kerry man, the city manager is a Tipperary man. That's evidence of the great welcome people get here, the great acceptance of the 'foreigner'."

This point is emphasised when talking to one of the most prominent politicians associated with Galway, Michael D Higgins of the Labour party. Although he has twice been mayor and represents the city in the Dail, it turns out that he too is an outsider, albeit one who arrived more than 40 years ago.

He spoke lyrically of the city: "Galway is not inward-looking, it has a quality of openness and open-mindedness about it. A defining characteristic is probably the water, the sense that it's on the edge of the Atlantic, the flow of the Corrib river to the sea."

The flow of newcomers - there are a lot of French, Spanish and Italians in the city, as well as Muslims, and little groups of Bretons and Basques - provides a continual refreshment of the gene pool of a city with a venerable history. In its medieval quarter, gargoyles and other venerable stonework are still to be seen.

Tradition has it that Christopher Columbus worshipped in the ancient church on his way to the New World in possibly Galway's earliest link to the Americas. In recent times John F Kennedy visited, joking that on a clear day Boston could be seen from Galway docks.

One 15th-century building, right in the middle of the city, is Lynch's Castle. Now a bank, it is the oldest medieval town house still in daily commercial use. Lynch is a big name here, one of the most notable of the family, Mayor Lynch, having reputedly acted as executioner of his own son, who had been convicted of the murder of a Spaniard in the 16th century. This story, which may or not be true, may or may not be the origin of the phase "lynch law".

But Galway's history, though plentiful and ubiquitous, is not the main reason why it attracts many thousands of tourists. They come more because the city is so exuberantly full of life, energy and sheer bustle: they come for the craic.

Ireland may be famous for craic, but Galway arguably has more of it than anywhere else. It seems it has always been there - 400 years ago a visitor said of its merchants that "they keep good hospitality and are kind to strangers".

Varley described Galway as "the party capital of Ireland - it's like Temple Bar in Dublin multiplied by 50". He added: "It's probably the one place in Ireland where stag parties and hen parties are actually still welcome."

Galway's social centrepiece is Shop Street, the main pedestrianised thoroughfare which threads its way to the ocean. Strewn with restaurants, cafés and a large number of the city's 150 bars, it provides a small, intimate focus for nightlife. On busy nights Shop Street resembles a street party, with drinkers overflowing from its many bars to mingle in good-natured confusion. Heroic amounts of alcohol are consumed here, yet it feels safe.

"You very seldom see any trouble," said one thirtysomething local man with many years of experience in bars. "Intelligent bar security helps a lot - I can't remember the last time I saw somebody being thrown out of a pub."

Locals say the ban on smoking in Irish pubs, introduced earlier this year, has given Shop Street even more of a cosmopolitan feel. With smokers now obliged to step outside before lighting up, the street becomes more crowded than ever.

Casual conversations in the pubs confirm Galway's reputation as a people-magnet for those who drift into the city. Said the thirtysomething: "You'd meet somebody who'll say they're in town for a few weeks. Maybe a year later you'd see them again, and realise they just never left."

Not far from the city are dramatically wild areas such as Connemara and the Burren which themselves attract many visitors. The Aran islands off the coast are spectacular. To describe these areas without sounding like a breathless tourist brochure is almost impossible. They are a huge draw for visitors: just last week the Burren's narrow roads seemed filled with tourist coaches.

Galway bills itself as the gateway to the west of Ireland, offering visitors the charms of both the city itself and of its outstanding hinterland. It has also learnt to build on and supplement these natural attractions. Its strategy has been to expand its reputation as the place to party by throwing festivals. There is a film festival, an arts festival, two oyster festivals and, the king of them all, the Galway Races.

This seven-day event has been described as "the greatest of all Irish racing festivals and probably the most lavish, colourful and sociable fixture in the Irish racing world".

For the races Galway erects a tent village where corporate hospitality is provided. One of the places to be seen is at the bash organised by Fianna Fail, Ireland's largest and most boisterous political party. According to one woman who regularly attends the races: "It's a little microcosm of Irish society - you meet everybody from all over, from farmers to business people, the ordinary and the well-heeled."

Each year the races bring to Galway thousands of people and millions of euros. The thirtysomething, who after years of hard drinking is now slowing down a little, spoke of "the madness of the races, with people spending money as if it's going out of fashion - going like there was no tomorrow".

The festivals also bring in much revenue. They are substantial events that draw many extra visitors, but one of them has a clever double purpose that illustrates Galway's shrewdness. One of the drawbacks of the west of Ireland in general is that it rains a lot. There is simply no way of avoiding or disguising this: even the local tourist office sells umbrellas.

Weatherwise this has been a particularly bad year, with sometimes steady rain and sometimes sudden showers to drench unwary visitors. Yet the city has found a way to defy or ignore the weather, by means of the Galway International Oyster Festival. "This is the 50th year," said John Rabbitt, a publican and one of the festival organisers. "The original idea was to promote Galway oysters and extend the tourist season. It's been very successful."

So it is that, rain or no rain, about 10,000 visitors will flock to the city when the festival opens tomorrow. The rest of the west may be wet and miserable but Galway will be awash with oysters and the Guinness that in Ireland is inseparable from them.

A huge marquee will keep the elements at bay as participants join in what one writer described as "one of the happiest riots in the Western world". The marquee will hold 2,500 people and there will be jazz, cabaret, a parade, a world oyster-opening championship, a champagne festival, whiskey, Irish coffee and so on. The festival advises: "Remember to arrange Monday off."

Last year it brought in about €6m (£4m) to Galway; and, as they say in the city, why wouldn't it? The venture benefits the city, the visitors love it, and it extends the tourist season. After that, tourism will subside as autumn sets in, but the city has the students to keep trade going over the winter months.

Mr Coyle outlined the system. "Effectively we have two complementary seasons, the tourists and the students, who both enjoy the cafes and pubs and clubs, the same sort of scene. A lot of places in the west of Ireland are alive in the summer but dead in the winter. But here, if you're running a coffee shop or a pub, it means you can earn a decent living all year round."

All this is part of a formula that has seen the city enjoy phenomenal growth without losing its essential character. Its blend of legendary hospitality and astute marketing means it is one of Ireland's most striking success stories.


Population profile

* The population of the city of Galway in 1996 was 57,000. By this year, it had risen to 68,000.

* The population of the county of Galway in 1996 was 131,000; in 2011 it is projected to be 159,000.

* Forty per cent of those living in Galway have moved from elsewhere.

* The average age of the population in Ireland is 35. In Galway, it is estimated to be 25.


* The annual average wage of professionals such as solicitors, teachers and accountants in Ireland is €40,000.

In Galway, it is €36,000.

* The annual average industrial wage (that is, for secretarial, general operatives and craftsmen) in Ireland is €28,000. In Galway, it is €25,200.

* Last job announcement: 230 new jobs were created in June by the American firm Merit Medical Systems, which makes products for use in diagnosis and treatment of cardiovascular disease.

House prices

* An average three-bedroom semi-detached house in Galway costs €270,000. The same house in Dublin would cost €370,000. A detached executive home will cost much more - around €600,000. An award-winning four-bedroom house is currently on the market for €700,000.

* The record property deal so far this year in Galway is the €1.5 million sale of a detached house on Threadneedle Road. A property at Truskey West in Barna is expected to set a new record of between €1.5 million and €2 million.

* A one-bedroom flat in Galway ranges in price from €220,000 to €600,000 for a luxury apartment with a sea view.

* Galway is the second most expensive place to live in Ireland outside Dublin.