John Walsh: Tales from the City (of Galway)

Ireland: nice weather for swans. It's enough to send you to the dogs. Literally, in my case
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The Independent Online

Another summer glides past like a swan, occasionally turning its dark eyes from left to right to admire the view but never showing any signs of actually stopping. And, heigh-ho, another family visit to Ireland, to the family seat near Galway.

The city itself was covered in August rain, especially Eyre Square the main shopping-and-hanging-out area, which for a whole year has been a dismal wasteland of roadworks, concrete mixers and metal wire; nothing is more rainy than the rain dripping off an abandoned concrete mixer.

In their response to the lack of activity at the building site, the city folk are typically torn between condemnation and impish humour. The Galway Advertiser ran a damning, week-by-week photo-shoot of the doldrums in the Square until the record of near-total inertia achieved a Beckett-like, minimalist purity.

Outside Supermacs, the Burger King of Ireland, they've hung a banner saying, "If Only They'd Finish the Square as Fast As They Finish Our Burgers!" accompanied by a picture of a grinning construction worker about to munch a quarter-pounder. This has prompted a furious response from Galway Council, who have demanded the banner be taken down, in case it might convey to tourists a negative picture of the city - unlike, presumably, the smiling and positive image of Galway achieved by turning its central piazza into something resembling the outskirts of Gdansk shipyard in 1968.

That apart, all was well. The sun came out as I played golf for the first time since I was 15. I had to give it up because I developed a bad habit of bending my knees like a policeman on the down-swing; that doesn't seem to bother me any more, and a foolish rush of confidence entered my heart, in the style of Bridget Jones ("Hurrah, am genius with No 5 iron, am demon with mashie niblick. Is it too late to enter US Open?"). The sun shone as the children were sent by their exploitative uncle to clear a huge meadow of ragwort (it's bad for horses, apparently) and the sight of them toiling in the sunlit long grass was a vision straight from Millet's "The Gleaners". The sun was wholly irrelevant when I spent two blissful hours in Charlie Byrne's bookshop in Galway, wondering whether it's the best secondhand bookshop in Europe, or only the whole of Ireland.

The Galway Races had just finished, that week when the whole Republic explodes with conspicuous expenditure, climbs into hired suits and extravagant picture hats, orders bottles of champagne at €100 (£68) a pop and waves bundles of notes at the bookies with their little electronic screens that announce the odds where once they were written down on blackboards in broken chalk. With the races over, the only gambling on offer was the dog-racing track. I'd never been to the dogs before, so to speak, and it was a revelation. It's an activity that combines the utmost conviviality with the utmost frustration. Wherever you look, huge country folk sit around getting sloshed on Guinness and Baileys, consuming platefuls of braised meat and gravy, while betting on a race with no discernible logic. In 11 races, the favourite never won. The least-fancied dog could just as easily come first. The third and fourth lanes seemed regularly to feature the winner, but you always backed the wrong one. The form book is authoritative about past wins but includes dark hints of disapproval, like "First visit to Galway..." as if it were an unwelcome and troublesome interloper among Local People.

After six races, I'd lost more than €50 and the evening drizzle had set in. How did I enjoy Irish dog-racing? It reminded me of how the late Sir Edward Heath described sailing: "I might just as well stand under a cold shower tearing up fivers."

Logic of the Irish

The holiday featured a burst of perfect Irish conversation. No-one knows if these things are arranged in advance by the Irish Tourist Board or are authentic exchanges, but I suspect the latter. I'd driven into the city with a lady friend. She was running late and looking for a parking-space. There weren't any. (There never are.) I spotted a multi-storey with "Spaces" vividly glowing in green neon and we cruised down the ramp, where an attendant stuck out his hand and stopped her. "Full up," he said. "Ye cannot go in."

"But it says 'Spaces' outside," my friend remonstrated.

"We have to say that," said the attendant, "'Tis the law. We always have to leave 10 spaces free for the Handicapped."

"But can't I have one of these spaces?" she said.

"Ye can not," he said. "Ye're not handicapped."

"But shouldn't you say so outside and not be misleading people?" said my friend crossly. "Shouldn't you have a sign saying, 'Full, Apart from 10 Spaces for the Handicapped'. Don't you think?"

The man scratched his chin. "We'd never be able to do that," he said. "Sure, we'd never be able to afford that amount of neon."

My friend changed tack. "Look at the time," she sighed. "Ten past two. I'm late for a hair appointment. I should have been there 10 minutes ago."

The man silently digested the implication that this might somehow be his fault. "But what time did you leave the house?"

"A quarter past one," said my friend.

"That was a bit silly of yeh," said the man. "You should leave at least two hours when you're coming into Galway. Remember that next time."

Note that, at no point did my friend say where she'd driven in from. The attendant's wise words about journey times were based on complete ignorance of whether she'd set off from Dublin, or from Dubai, or from Dunne's Stores a mile away.

It's very pleasing to find the Through-the-Looking-Glass quality of Irish conversation hasn't been expunged by her wholesale immersion in Europe.