The thing about driving in a British-influenced country is that it’s not driving on the other side of the road that gets you. Ireland has extremely well-marked roads and signage, and if you keep your wits about you and follow the flow of traffic, it’s pretty difficult to screw up. What throws you is driving on the other side of the automobile. All your instincts about where the mass of your vehicle is are wrong. Your sense of where to be in the lane is completely thrown. You reach with the wrong hand for seatbelt, for gearshift, for where to rest an elbow. God be with you if you didn’t have the presence of mind to reserve an automatic, because manual shifting with the wrong hand is insane-making. You will hit about four curbs the first full day of driving. Now on top of the wrong side of the road and the wrong side of the car, add the wrong side of sundown, and you’ll see why my nerves were shot directly we rolled our Skoda into Galway on Sunday evening.
That was a problem that resolved itself almost immediately.
Galway is the fourth-largest city in Ireland. It’s about the size of Mountain View, California, barely hitting eighty thousand souls. It is generally regarded as the capital of the Gaeltacht, the Irish-language preservation region, and is a center for traditional music. The Latin Quarter is the traditional medieval city, with winding cobbled streets and shops and pubs cheek by jowl, but the West End has its share of similar attractions on the other side of the River Corrib, and walking between them was the work of fifteen minutes, tops.
Among the things I learned in Galway was that my genetic predilection for fog and mist also extends to stone buildings and urban waterways – the river and the canals alike and the buildings that back up to them. Strolling through the West End – here a pub, there a restaurant, there your quick-stop grocery and there your laundromat – made me realize that density isn’t just about housing, it’s about everything being close enough to walk. You wouldn’t need a car if you lived in the Claddagh except for major shopping expeditions, because it’s an easy ten minute stroll to everything from the posh department store to the greengrocers to the pharmacy to ALL THE PUBS. And the smoke in the air – there was some debate whether it was coal or peat, but somebody was always burning something that wasn’t wood for heating. It added to that sense of otherness, especially making your way from apartment to B&B along the Sea Road, walking past the Crane Bar and hearing the traditional music drifting through the air at half eleven at night.
I had to go into Supermac’s, because of course I did. Like Jack’s back in Alabama, it’s a fast food chain that does a little bit of everything (they have the Papa John’s concession in Ireland on top of their usual burger and fries and chicken) and it’s also literally the only place I found a fountain soda for two and a half weeks. It’s also a huge Galway GAA supporter – the shirt sponsor, in fact – and it made a nice alternative to just going into the McDonalds in desperate search for a Coke and wi-fi. Not that the wireless was a problem; I think we went into maybe one or two establishments the whole time that didn’t have their own free public wi-fi. And a third of the time there wasn’t even an interstitial login page; it was just connect and go. Not even Silicon Valley is that seamless with public wi-fi anymore, and certainly not in pubs.
And the pubs…I heard music in the Crane Bar, in Monroe’s, in O’Connors, and the thing it drove home to me at long last is that I wasn’t imagining things. The Four Provinces, from 2000-2004, was as legit and authentic an Irish pub experience as you could get in the States. The same blend of traditional and American songs, people sat right next to the musicians, apple pie on the desert menu and a pint in every hand – I was trained for this fifteen years ago and was right at home the minute I scrounged a seat. The only real difference is that I don’t remember anywhere in DC serving halves, which are crucial to have if you’re trying to pace yourself. Then again, there were people promoting Outcider by Bulmer’s in Monroe’s, and when I agreed to try it, did they bring me a half? Did they bring me a shot glass or some kind of sample size? Did they bollocks, they put a WHOLE FREE PINT OF CIDER in front of me. At which point you just have to be very cool about it and accept their hospitality and try not to die. The music always starts around 9, just like it did in DC, but fifteen years has made me wish for a 6 or 7 PM start (which the two music-equipped Irish bars of my frequency in the Bay Area will afford me, thankfully, so that’s nice).
We took a couple of side trips from Galway. One was out to the Burren and the Cliffs of Moher, which was breathtakingly scenic and yet oddly reminiscent of Alabama, only this occurred naturally instead of having to render the land barren with strip mining for coal first. The other was into the hills of Connemara, the capital of moonshine – which was bright and clear and sunny, a happenstance that I am assured is virtually unobtainable and amazed everyone we told. Once you get outside Galway, the size of the villages drops way way off – places like Cong or Kinvara have maybe a thousand people in and around the whole municipality but still have half a dozen pubs. It made me wonder what we would be in for going forward…but there’ll be more on that later.