Galway - ‘The only city that raised a statue to an author’

In March 1935, Éamon de Valera, Irish premier and advocate for the Irish language, was invited to perform the unveiling, of Pádraic Ó Conaire (1882 - 1928). In a busy lifetime, Ó Conaire wrote 26 books, 473 stories, 237 essays and 6 plays, mainly in the Irish language. 
Brendan Mc Gowan tells us that interestingly, de Valera had attended Blackrock College with Ó Conaire and the writer had campaigned for him in the famous by-election in East Clare in 1917. The Irish premier was acutely aware of the symbolic power of such monuments, especially as the new State was trying to forge a post-colonial identity. Previously, in what was seen as an opportunistic move, he had unveiled Oliver Sheppard’s statue of the Death of Cúchulainn in the GPO, Dublin in April 1935 – the 19th anniversary of the Easter Rising.
The Galway unveiling took place on Whit Sunday, June 9 1935, to a packed Eyre Square. The ceremony was conducted as Gaeilge and broadcast nationally on radio. De Valera used the occasion to speak about the Irish language and making Galway “the first city of the Gaeltacht”. An eagle-eyed passer-by had saved him some embarrassment by spotting and removing a blueshirt – the emblem of Dev’s opponents – that had been draped over Ó Conaire’s shoulders. Afterwards, de Valera attended the university to present an address commending its services to the Irish language and later enjoyed a play at An Taibhdhearc.

In March 1935, Éamon de Valera, Irish premier and advocate for the Irish language, was invited to perform the unveiling, of Pádraic Ó Conaire (1882 - 1928). In a busy lifetime, Ó Conaire wrote 26 books, 473 stories, 237 essays and 6 plays, mainly in the Irish language. Brendan Mc Gowan tells us that interestingly, de Valera had attended Blackrock College with Ó Conaire and the writer had campaigned for him in the famous by-election in East Clare in 1917. The Irish premier was acutely aware of the symbolic power of such monuments, especially as the new State was trying to forge a post-colonial identity. Previously, in what was seen as an opportunistic move, he had unveiled Oliver Sheppard’s statue of the Death of Cúchulainn in the GPO, Dublin in April 1935 – the 19th anniversary of the Easter Rising. The Galway unveiling took place on Whit Sunday, June 9 1935, to a packed Eyre Square. The ceremony was conducted as Gaeilge and broadcast nationally on radio. De Valera used the occasion to speak about the Irish language and making Galway “the first city of the Gaeltacht”. An eagle-eyed passer-by had saved him some embarrassment by spotting and removing a blueshirt – the emblem of Dev’s opponents – that had been draped over Ó Conaire’s shoulders. Afterwards, de Valera attended the university to present an address commending its services to the Irish language and later enjoyed a play at An Taibhdhearc.

During the first 20 years of the 19th century Maria Edgeworth was the most successful and celebrated living novelist. With her friends Sir Culling Smith and his lady wife they had travelled from Edgeworthstown, Co Longford, to Galway, and from there they planned a leisurely holiday in Connemara.

It was the tour they had been promising themselves for years. It was March 1833 and it was dry and sunny. They set out in a handsome carriage, guided by two postillions in blue jackets, who rode on two of the four horses, and must have made a handsome spectacle on the dusty roads.

Having expressed her satisfaction with Athlone and Ballinasloe, her first experience of Galway was a disappointment. She described it as ‘the dirtiest town’ she ever saw; ‘and the most desolate and idle-looking’. Passing through the fishmarket, she found it ‘rather disagreeable’ to have ‘fish’ bawled into one’s ears, and a ‘fine flat fish’ flapped in one’s face. She was, however, persuaded to buy a John Dory for eighteen pence ‘as a John Dory could not be had for guineas in London’.

Four years before Miss Edgeworth expressed her distain for Galway, a very dashing Prince Hermann von Puckler came from Germany looking for a wife. Many a young man has found a wife at the Galway Races, and judging by the wonderful colours of gowns and hats, worn by the young ladies today, it still is a happy hunting ground. The prince was equally looking forward to his visit, and was driven to the racecourse in a handsome carriage. After a cursory glance about him, he realised there were no wives to be had there. He was, however, amused by the carry-on. ‘Hundreds of drunken men accompanied our carriage as we drove from the race course to the town, and more than ten times fights arose among them. The confluence of guests was so great that we with difficulty finding a miserable lodging’ But he enjoyed the comfort of a good dinner, which was ‘very abundant.’

Modern writers tend to be kinder if more perceptive in their descriptions of Galway. Several writers, in Gerry Hanberry’s ‘Galway in Contemporary Literature’, * found Galway to be ‘a separate place’ from the rest of the island. The city’s location on the edge of Europe gives some writers the illusion of being ‘a place apart’. In Eilis Dillon’s novel The Bitter Glass (published 1958 ), the two main characters arrive in Galway relieved to be away from Dublin at the start of the bitter Civil War, ’

‘Galway was like a different world. They all felt it, from the moment when they first caught sight of the sea and the train seemed suddenly to become smaller as it rattled over the last bridge on its way into the station.’

One is never far from water in Galway, and most visitors have been charmed by its proximity. According to Benedict Kiely, who overcame the banning of three of his early novels, to enjoy a long and convivial literary career, warned: ‘Galway is the city or town most possessed by water: living water, wild water, clean water, sea-water, river-water, lake-water, but not water in the whiskey unless you add it yourself’.

More complex

When Michael O’ Loughlin, came to Galway in 2006, having been appointed Writer-in-Residence, he was surprised to find the city’s new multiculturalism. He claimed he arrived in Galway as a stranger, carrying with him the usual preconceptions about the city that it was ‘the ultimate Irish town’, a place ’still in touch with the ancient traditions’ where ‘Irish was murmured in the dark corners of its pubs.’

What he did find was a city ‘both more complex and more surprising’ than he had expected. He discovered that Galway is the most Irish of towns, but Irish in ways far removed from the nationalist pieties of the cultural revolution which resulted in the Easter Rising of 1916 and the foundation of the state 1922. O’Loughlin came to see Galway as ‘a town characterised by ambiguities, reversals, transformations, and a peculiarly split personality.’

Ken Bruen, the master of crime fiction, with a sharp eye on Galway’s life in the shadows, writes in The Dramatist (2004 ): ‘In Galway more and more, you see families of eastern Europeans, trailing the streets with stunned expressions’.

Stunned, probably by our weather. In a collection of essays written by immigrants to our city, Viktoria Katona, who comes from Hungary, describes the weather and the difficulties she encountered when trying to use her bicycle to get around. She regularly got soaked when cars drove through big puddles and splashed her as she cycled by.

She also vividly described the variety and inexhaustible rain : ‘drizzle, spit, hail, sleet , snow all combined with wind, vertical rain, horizontal rain, diagonal rain from every side’.

Yet she could not avoid mentioning ‘the glorious rainbows I have seen here!…If I was the first human to ever discover this city, I would definitely call it the City of Rainbows.’

A place to live

When the successful novel Juno and Juliet by Julian Gough (described as ‘a Rowdy Doyle in an extremely good mood’ ), published 2001, opens, his principal characters, the narrator Juliet and her twin sister Juno have arrived in Galway from their home in Tipperary, to study at the university. They step off the bus at Eyre Square: ‘Armed only with an enormous rucksack each, and a scribbled address of a distant cousin’. They are greeted by a ‘blizzard of youth-hostel flyers’ offering rooms to rent, clearing to ‘a blizzard of youths smiling at us in French, Spanish, English and Italian’, until the two girls seek refuge in the GBC restaurant.

They struggle to find a place to live. They had turned up in Galway a week and a half before the start of the college semester to make sure they had plenty of time to find accommodation. So had several thousand other prospective students. They eventually found a fourth floor flat in a house near the docks with a wonderful view. ‘Looking out over the harbour and the sea, the coast of Clare would shimmer in the haze across the bay (and much later in the winter, would disappear behind walls of rain, reappear and disappear again ). I never tired of it and I didn’t think I ever would. We’d walk into town after breakfast, buy the makings of a dinner, explore the shops, talk a lot…’

A City of culture

Galway likes to see itself as a city of culture, a Bohemian place where the arts can flourish - a city of festivals, parents and parades. This popular image has been questioned by the poet Rita Ann Higgins in her satirical poem ‘Our Killer City’ which contains such lines as: ‘To hell with local artists/What do they bring to the city?/Nothing but scruffy dogs/And riped jeans,/Hippies with hobbies the lot of them’.

Yet in the words of Seán O’Faolain Galway is the only city that he knew in Ireland that raised a statue to an author, ‘a charming little statue, by the way, and none to a politician which must be unique in Ireland’. The statue O’Faolain was referring to was, of course, that of Pádraic Ó Conaire unveiled by Éamon de Valera at Eyre Square on Whit Sunday 1935. (See photo on this page ).**

Galway’s annual literary festival Cúirt, celebrates the city’s link with literature by developing a trail of poetry plaques. There are about 40 around the city and making time to stop and read a poem is a moments grace in a busy day. A plaque facing Prospect Hill shows a poem by Rita Ann Higgins, called ‘Men With Tied Hair’. It tells of a more easy-going town where old men watch the world go by as they sit ‘on a window sills in Prospect Hill/ Time is not a factor here’.

Yet they seem to be on the ‘look out/ In anticipation of something’. The poem tells us that ‘The awaited stimulus always comes’. It might arrive in the form of a ‘Young woman’ passing by, or in the sound of fire-engines racing to a fire and some ‘Years it’s news of a tragedy in far off Dublin’.

Galway once again is a place on the edge of the world.

Next Week: How the Irish language saved Galway University.

NOTES:

*Hardiman and Beyond - The Arts and Culture of Galway Since 1820, edited by John Cunningham and Ciaran McDonough, Arden Publishing, on sale €45.

** Due to vandalism the original limestone statue is now resting in Galway City Museum for safe keeping. It has been replaced in Eyre Square, not in its original location, by a bronze replica.

The Diary is grateful to Brendan McGowan, education officer at the Galway City Museum and co-author of Seacht mBua an Éirí Amach/Seven Virtues of the Rising, published by Arlen House in 2016. Photographs by kind permission of Galway City Museum.

Nora’s Home in Bowling Green is open, refurbished but totally keeping with its original character, and is a heritage treasure. Well worth a visit.

 

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