When Galway was named European Capital of Culture 2020 four years ago it was a no-brainer. The city, and the entire county, has long been Ireland’s creative hub, drawing artists of all sorts for hundreds of years. Today, on the verge of the year-long Galway 2020 celebrations, it remains a hotbed of music, theatre, dance, visual arts, cuisine and more – bustling with creative energy.

“Everyone here is beyond busy,” says Bridgette Brew, Head of Tourism Engagement for Galway 2020. “Right now, we are tidying up some lastminute decisions,” she shares over a warm cuppa tea at the organization’s head office on Merchants Row by the city’s waterfront. “As there will be events taking place right across the county, we are trying to incorporate images of inclusion into our marketing efforts. With five satellite cities and towns involved, we might use the symbols of the five rivers that flow from those particular places into the sea, or maybe the five distinct breeds of horses from each area.”

Either would work well, as each represents the region’s raw, rugged vibe.

“There’s a bit of a wild west feeling out here, for sure. We are smack-dab in the middle of the Wild Atlantic Way, and there’s a kind of savage beauty to this part of the world.”

That scenic splendour was likely attractive to Celts who first settled here 2,500 years ago. Though driven to the western tip of Europe by other warring factions, the normally nomadic Celts found a home along Eire’s stunning western coastline, replete with excellent agricultural and aquacultural resources. And though their culture was eventually diluted by the arrival of Christianity – as well as by Norse, Scottish and English invaders – remnants of Celtic customs remain prevalent today.

“Oh, it’s still here,” says Brew. “It’s very much a part of our everyday lives and landscape. You can hear it in our language.

“One thing about the people here, and about the Irish in general, is we truly do have the gift of the gab…we just never stop talking, and we really have mastered the art of conversation.”

To prove her point, she cites an everyday expression that is common to Galwegians.

“When you run into someone you know on the street, or even someone you don’t know, and you end up having a nice little chat, you always finish the conversation with ‘talk to ya’ – meaning that the discussion isn’t over, it doesn’t end there…that you will be picking up that thread at some point down the road when you bump into that person again.”

It is an apt analogy for Galway, a city of almost 80,000 today. Threads of conversation have been woven together here since the town was first founded in the 13th century by English Baron Richard de Burgh. In the years to follow, that dialogue continued as the city was granted Charter, the county expanded to include the Aran Islands, and the area gave birth to its first notable families – Athy, Blake, Bodkin, Browne, Darcy, Deane, French, Font, Joyce, Kirwan, Lynch, Martin, Morris and Skerrett (best known as the “14 Tribes”) – who ruled the regional roost for generations. Talk was also likely lively during the Middle Ages, when the port made its name importing fine wines from France, Italy, Spain and elsewhere.

Today, descendants of those European travelers are known as the “Black Irish” – a reflection of their darker features. Similarly, that Mediterranean influence is still evident in the city’s charming Latin Quarter, where cozy cafes and busy restaurants serve up an array of exquisite Euro-cuisine. In these eateries, as in the many fine pubs that dot the town’s ancient architectural lines, it is not uncommon to hear a litany of languages and dialects. The quaint cobblestone streets of the Latin Quarter are also renowned for globetrotting buskers seeking fame and fortune. On any given day, guitars, mandolins, fiddles, accordions, bodhrans, banjos and other instruments accompany voices from around the world – each a small stage accenting local, regional, national and international accents.

Nearby, the famed Spanish Arch – built in 1584 A.D. at the base of the port – remains a meeting place for both homegrowns and those “from away.” Here, words are whispered and spoken aloud, the conversations closed with smiles, selfies and a parting “talk to ya.”

A few blocks over, on Middle Street, Charlie Byrne’s Bookstore is a hive of activity as readers buzz over thousands of fiction and non-fiction works. “Ah, Charlie Byrne’s,” grins Bridgette Brew. “There’ll surely be no shortage of gab there. You’ll get all types in that spot – townsfolk, transients, transplants – just blabbering on about anything and everything at all hours of the day.” Sure enough, the shop’s aisles are packed with young and old, browsing new and used titles of all genres, and absolutely no one is in a hurry; teenagers take time to converse with retirees, mothers with prams chat in the children’s section, and lineups at the checkout are long, as both customers and staff leisurely catch up on the latest literary releases and local gossip.

Again, as in the Latin Quarter, many of the accents are exotic, and unfamiliar words fall from lips like books falling from shelves.

“Well, that’s Galway in a nutshell,” continues Brew. “With four universities, and so many foreign students here most of the year, you are going to hear a lot of different languages. And, we also have a large number of people who have relocated here from other parts of Ireland and from around the world; Europeans, Asians, North and South Americans, Australians – that has been our story for centuries.”

Indeed, Galway prospered as a destination for workers from 1500 A.D. to the early-1800s. As a port, and the most western gateway to the New World, the area was flush with jobs exporting wool, skins, leather, marble and other higher-end products. By 1840, the town’s infrastructure included new roads, bridges, hospitals, colleges, courthouses and a railway, with suburbs springing up as the population soared to 5,000. From 1845 – 1849, however, residential numbers dipped as many inhabitants died or left the area after poverty and squalor arrived in the form of the potato famine. The city rebounded in the 20th century, and by 1950 the population reached 21,000. Industry was diverse, and included iron, milling, furniture production and hat making. These traditional businesses eventually gave way to the modern industries of IT, engineering and electronics, which continue to flourish today.

“Economic growth here has been pretty consistent over the years,” notes Brew. “It is a big reason why the region remains so appealing to foreign workers, and why a surprising number of students stay after graduating.”

Many are attracted to the area’s quality of life. “We really do have it all,” continues Brew. “Great history, music, art, restaurants, pubs, sports…and, of course, the genuine, homespun hospitality of the people. And those ‘from away’ are an essential element of that equation. We wouldn’t be the magnificent municipality that we are without the incredible diversity. In many ways, this city is a cultural crossroads, and that makes us the perfect place to host an initiative like Galway 2020.”

According to Patricia Philpin, CEO of Galway 2020, the journey began in 2014 when the Irish Ministry announced a call for submissions from candidates to be considered for the title of European Capital of Culture 2020. The city received its official designation in 2016. “Since then, it captured the imaginations of the people of Galway who were enthusiastically involved in the process, encouraging Galway to think big, define its uniqueness and emphasise its connectivity across the world,” she shares. “The response throughout the journey has highlighted the desire of the Galway community to contribute to shaping the future of their city and county. This is an exciting time for cultural development in Galway and Ireland. Along with the coming to life of events and activities throughout next year, it also presents enormous opportunities to achieve a long-lasting legacy and a springboard towards a new collaborative and cooperative approach to cultural development.” Philbin says that being designated as European Capital of Culture means that the region, and its residents, are ramping up the repertoire.

“The year will see an extraordinary showcase of events highlighting the richness and diversity of Galway’s culture and its people.”

“Our ambitious program, most of which will be free, will be unleashed throughout villages and towns, the city and the islands, and in some of the most surprising and unexpected spaces and places. Galway 2020 represents the legacy of decades of artistic endeavour and investment in the culture of this place. It is a climax of everything that has gone before and a stepping-stone to a future that will leave an improved cultural infrastructure and heightened awareness of the role of culture in society; a society that appreciates the role of its artists and the possibilities that they bring. This exciting year provides extraordinary opportunities for local people to create and participate in something beyond their wildest expectations. The program is a celebration of our city, our islands, our county, our language and our people, with the collective imagination of creative Galway on show for one magical year. It features the best of our local and national artists and cultural organizations, alongside incredible European and international artists who together will transform the city and landscape.” In recognition of the area’s historic traditions, the program is based around the four fire festivals that mark the seasons of Ireland’s ancient pre-Christian calendar. “It began in February 2020,” explains Philbin, “as does the pagan festival Imbolc, which represents the start of spring with its promise of new life and new beginnings. Following a spectacular, outdoor opening ceremony, the program will unfold throughout the year according to the Celtic seasons of Bealtaine, Lughnasa and Samhain. The core themes that run through Galway 2020 are Migration, Landscape and Language and all three resonate within a broader European context. Migration celebrates Irish history as well as the diversity of cultures in Europe against the backdrop of Galway County and City – a city where 24 per cent of its population was born outside of Ireland. Landscape reflects Galway’s position on the edge of Europe as it collaborates with European partners to delight, challenge and engage citizens across its rural and marine landscape. Language promotes the variety of languages spoken both in Galway and across Europe, celebrating their integral part of our unique cultures. There is a special emphasis on the Irish language in the Galway 2020 program, reinforcing Galway as the capital of the Gaeltacht, home to the only bi-lingual city in Ireland. Ireland stands as a nation that is proudly European. This is mirrored in our extensive engagement with over 100 partnerships, collaborations and artists from over 30 different countries. The program is designed to ensure that each individual project will have a long-term sustainable relevance to both city and county. Created by communities and cultural organizations alike, each project has multiple local partners as well as a mix of regional or European partners.

She adds that Galway 2020 will also focus on issues that are part of a wider discussion on European concerns. “At a time of increasing political uncertainty both in Europe and around the world, we want to reflect on 21st Century Ireland, what culture means to us and what it means to be European. Leaving a lasting legacy, one that will change the social and infrastructural landscape of Galway, is key to Galway 2020’s success. We want to address the big topics of the day – identity, our place on the planet, how we care for its resources, how we live in harmony with each other and with nature, and our history and future. We want to see a Galway where young artists flourish, where communities come together to celebrate life. We want to see a Galway where creativity is rewarded, where culture is at the heart of everything we do, where life is made better for everyone who lives and visits here. We plan to have all eyes in Ireland, in Europe and around the world to be turned towards Galway. There is an open invitation to join us in 2020.”

“It promises to be one of the most exciting times in Galway’s history, with the potential to change our cultural landscape forever.”

Brian Nolan, who owns and operates the local tour company Galway Walks, agrees that Galway 2020 will keep visitation, and visibility, trending in the right direction. “It has already opened many people’s eyes to a city and region they had never heard of. I have seen huge numbers of visitors, especially Europeans, coming here over the past three years, and that has inspired us to provide better and more diverse food and entertainment options. In particular, we have seen an explosion of interest in our Irish music scene over that time. Long may that continue.”

Likewise, Galway City’s Mayor Michael Cubbard, 34, expects the initiative to have an enormous impact on both the city and the region as a whole. “Galway 2020 will be an unbelievable cultural journey to be part of. My hope is that those not normally involved in arts, culture or community events become engrossed in the program and, as a legacy, continue to be involved in organizations thereafter. Our culture shines in the visual arts, music, poetry, sports, fashion, food, etc. I believe there will be something for everyone here this year.” He notes that, as Galway City hosts 122 festivals each year, local and area residents are experienced at showcasing their unique culture. “Visitors can expect a warm welcome – a ‘Céad Míle Fáilte’ and an unforgettable experience. Galway City has been awarded the Purple Flag, a European designation which means that our night-time economy operates in a safe environment. We are a safe city with a vibe and ambience seen no place else. “It will certainly leave a lasting legacy,” continues Cubbard, whose family hails from the nearby community of Claddagh. “We have already made progress on an arts facility dedicated to children, and Fáilte Ireland has made their single biggest investment ever in a project with €6.64 million allocated to develop an Atlantic Museum at the Spanish Arch.” Most importantly, he adds, the program will help to preserve the area’s rich Celtic heritage. “Galway is Ireland’s only bilingual city with both Irish and English spoken in many areas. We are very proud of this, and Oireachtas na Gaeilge (an ancient, annual Irish cultural festival) is scheduled as part of the program and will transform the community of Salthill into an Irish speaking village for an entire weekend. We must continue to promote and encourage young people to speak Irish daily – every day phrases are as important in the city as they are in the rural areas where folks still speak it fluently.”

As such, and though the city and county have become linguistically and culturally diverse over the centuries, that original Celtic influence remains intact. “It’s the Gaelic,” explains Bridgette Brew.

“Our language is the beating heart of our bloodline. It is everywhere here; in our schools, on our street signs, in our music and literature – everywhere.”

The numbers support her claim. According to Wikipedia, as of the 2016 Census, “there were 84,249 people in County Galway who could speak Irish. According to the 2011 Census, the Galway city and county Gaeltacht has a population of 48,907, of which 30,978 say they can speak Irish, 23,788 can be classed as native Irish speakers while 7,190 speak Irish daily only within the classroom. There are 3,006 attending the ten Gaelscoil (Irish language primary schools) and three Gaelcholáiste (Irish language secondary schools) outside the Galway Gaeltacht. The 2016 Census also notes that there are 9,445 people in the county who identify themselves as being daily Irish speakers outside of the education system.” Interestingly, the name Galway itself is a derivative of the Gaelic word “gall” – meaning a stranger or foreigner.

“Fitting,” Brew nods, adding that Galway 2020 will help bring strangers to Galway, and Galway to the world.

“However, as Yeats reminded us, ‘There are no strangers here – only friends you haven’t met yet.’” As we finish our tea and chat, Brew smiles and shakes my hand. “Don’t be a stranger. Come back and stay with us a while longer. Ok then, talk to ya.” ~ Story by Stephen Patrick Clare