It’s early evening and a vast room at Galway’s Corrib Southern Hotel is lined with long rows of tables, laid for a banquet for over 600 people. Men in dinner jackets and bow ties make small talk with women in elegant ball gowns as their starters are served with military precision by a team of waitresses. Suddenly, a brass band marches into the room, strikes up a tune, and, in a flash, everyone in the room (with the exception of a small, utterly bemused English contingent) has deserted their food, leapt on their chairs and begun to wave their napkins furiously in time to the music. It could only be Ireland. It could only be the last night of the Galway Oyster Festival, now in its 46th year, an experience everyone should try at least once.
You don’t really need an excuse to come to Galway – once a sleepy outpost on Ireland’s Atlantic coast, now a thriving city with an arts scene and night life to match Dublin – but, if you insist, the Oyster Festival is as good an introduction to the city as any. The English Sunday Times described it as one of the world’s twelve great events and if a seemingly endless supply of oysters (over 100,000 of the local Edulis variety are consumed each festival), Guinness, fine food and music is your idea of a good time, you will probably agree. With a duration of four days, the festival may not be the world’s longest but from the opening Pearl Selection Ball (this year’s Oyster Pearl is all-Ireland set dancer Olivia Lynch from Clare) to the last day’s brunch (seafood, Guinness and dancing), it is only for those who enjoy life to the full and have the stamina to match.
Though there are a number of events, including a mardi-gras party and the oyster-opening heats, the festival’s big day is on Saturday with the traditional parade, followed by the Guinness World Oyster Opening championships and ending with the Oyster Black Tie Ball mentioned above. Sadly, for the first time for a decade, this year’s parade – usually a colorful display of vintage cars, Oyster Pearls and oyster openers – was cancelled due to a prolonged and torrential downpour of rain. Well, this is Ireland after all.
Spirits undampened, however, revelers braved the downpour, most taking a circuitous route via a number of Galway’s many excellent pubs, on the few hundred yards’ walk from Eyre Square to the Millennium Marquee at Claddagh (where the famous wedding ring comes from) on the shore of the Comb River. The size of a small city, the marquee was soon packed to the gills with over a thousand visitors, while the usual seafood and free-flowing Guinness, jazz and brass brands ensured a lively atmosphere. Tension rose steadily throughout the afternoon as thirteen oyster openers from around the world battled for the World Championship. Pushed all the way by U.S. contestant George Hastings, from the Maryland Oyster Festival, who finished as runner-up, the winner was Swede Per Olofsson who managed 30 oysters in under three minutes.
But the festival isn’t just about the big events; singers, musicians, even comedians pack the streets and pubs of the old city and the party never really seems to stop. Though the outlying suburbs of Galway are modern and rather dull, the heart of the old city, from Eyre Square down to the bay, has retained its medieval character. Galway’s heritage has been carefully restored and protected, yet it still manages to project a lively and cosmopolitan atmosphere. Traditional pubs like Tigh Neachtains and Taaffe’s are full of character, while the Quays Bar in Quays Square demonstrates how, with imagination, a modern Irish pub can present traditional Irish virtues with a contemporary face. The Quays is a favourite haunt of Galway’s large student population and, like all the other Guinness trail pubs, was providing free oysters and music for the duration of the festival.
Though there isn’t always time to notice during the festival, Galway has much more to offer than a good time. Take a walk through the narrow, car-less streets and find delights like Kenny’s bookshop on the High Street – one of the best shops in the world for Irish books and prints. A family business, still run by 80-year-old matriarch Maureen Kenny, the beautifully converted medieval building is home to several floors of new, first edition and out of print Irish books, and if they don’t have what you are after, they’ll try and find it for you. Kenny’s supply Irish books to some 20 universities in the States, and virtually every Irish (and many overseas too) writer of note for the last 30 years has a signed photo somewhere on the walls. If you can’t get over, by the way, you can visit via their web site (www.kennys.ie).
In the unlikely event you manage to rise in time to shop before the festival parade on Saturday, don’t miss the market down by St. Nicholas’ church (where Christopher Columbus is reputed to have prayed before crossing the Atlantic). The old man selling dahlias and peonies has been there for decades, but there’s a younger crowd too, selling organic vegetables, Celtic jewelry, Aran sweaters and home-baked bread. The market is typical of the mix of cosmopolitan and traditional that makes Galway so interesting. As for the arts, suffice to say that Galway is home to the theatrical troupe Macnas, famous for street parades, and the Druid Theatre Company who launched, among many other critically acclaimed productions, the Tony Award-winning Beauty Queen of Leenane. The Galway Film Fleadh and Galway Arts Festival, both in July, have also achieved world-wide reputations.
And if you want respite from the non-stop partying, build in a little time for traveling. You won’t need to go far, Galway is the gateway to some of the loveliest scenery in Ireland. A short boat ride (or ten minute plane trip) away is the largely unspoiled Aran Islands, while two of Ireland’s most beautiful areas, Connemara and the Burren, are within easy reach. Even nearer is Clarinbridge, home to one of Ireland’s finest seafood restaurants, Moran’s on the Weir, where Willie Moran, the seventh generation of the family to run the business, has served the best oysters in the world, from his own oyster beds, to the likes of Pierce Brosnan, Woody Allen and the Emperor of Japan. And for golfers and fishers, particularly if salmon and trout are to your liking, the area is paradise.
Back at the Black Tie Ball, the thirteen oyster opening contestants, led by the new world champion from Sweden, parade their countries’ flags proudly between the lines of tables. It’s after midnight but the party will swing along for a few hours yet. Even the English have now abandoned their natural reserve and, dinner suits and ball gowns notwithstanding, have finally scrambled onto their chairs. You don’t have to be Irish to know how to have a good time, but the truth is, nobody does it better. And if you want proof, next year’s Galway Oyster Festival is between September 27 and September 30. Don’t be late. ♦