by PADRAIC COLUM
Irish poet and dramatist, PADRAIC COLUM has long made his residence in New York City. He is a former president of the Poetry Society of America -and was a member of the Academy of Irish Letters.
THE fruit: square with a garden gives spaciousness to this part of the town, but the street leading to it is not urban enough, to end in a square: the houses have a look of vacancy; they are mainly gray, with blue and yellow here and there, the street of a market town. There are few automobiles. Overhead are the massive clouds that belong only to the West of Ireland. This is Galway from Eyre Square.
Another Galway is evoked for us when we walk a few hundred yards from the square. Here is a Renaissance house, its site fortunately on a corner so that we can view two sides of it. It is the mansion of the Lynch family, built in 1490 or thereabouts, and looking as if it had been continuously lived in. Its blue-gray limestone is umveathered, beautifully cut and fitted, its smoothness relieved by medallions and coats of arms, with spouts of stone ending in dragons’ heads and human faces. So well cut, so well fitted are the stones that the mansion with its shapely windows looks a single and solid thing. The lower part is now a bank. An attempted restoration of the entrance has produced an arch with heads: it is out of place in the straightness and solidity of this front, besides antedating Renaissance building with Irish Romanesque design.
The rain that was falling all the forenoon has ceased; the sun is on a bundle of willows that a man is selling in the street. A woman, bare-armed, bare-necked, is opening bright-scaled fish that the boats have just brought in. And speaking an English that she is not fluent in, another woman is marketing a bundle of gray homespun; she has come from some lonely cottage where a loom clacks in a back room.
Selling chickens and eggs, girls with shawls over their heads that give them a nunlike appearance are seated together. One in a red dress evidently sent her from America has the black hair and gray eyes that make the Galway type — wide eyes that go oddly with thin lips; in her basket is purple seaweed. A man strides up to her and says something which seems of desperate import. I overhear the words: “I have only one goat and she gives no milk — one goat, no more.”The power of expression that he puts into it makes it a tragic utterance.
Beside a red cart filled with black sods of peat is a donkey cart with a churn in it. The boy in charge has come to market for the first time that is obvious from his bewilderment. I buy a pint and drink it out of the wooden vessel with copper hoops that he fills for me. All this will disappear in a year or two, for motor buses are now dashing from the town to the countryside and from the countryside to the town.
Only a few of the old skills are now to be found in Galway. In a back room of a great empty house a seldomspoken old man is carrying on his trade as a weaver. Beside his loom are big spools of colored yarn. The Aran Islanders have brought these to him; he weaves the yarns for the stuffs they still wear. He praises the dyes the Islanders give their yarns: their deep
and lusting colors come from being left long in the dyeing pot. And in a little lean-to he has built for himself is he last of the nail makers. He is as solitary as if his blackened walls made cell. He hammers the long nail out on his little anvil, or seated on his little bench he talks to people who can over his half door.
A company of Aran Islanders go by, walking lightly in their rawhide shoes; they keep apart from the townfolk and go into tumbled houses along the water as into sanctuary; their night’s lodging they take by the fire, sitting around it and singing their songs.
Outside the town I stand on a bridge watching the salmon in the Corrib River and the swans floating on its surface. I had always thought of salmon as lively and brilliant fish; here they keep near the mud, scores of them, and look as dull as they are inert. The fishing rights must be profitable, for the salmon would make quite a shoal if there was any movement amongst them. I walk along the river to the fishing village at the other side of the town, the Claddagh, that once had its own remarkable life.
When I first went to the Claddagh it was a village of whitewashed cabins, the thatch of whose roofs was becoming black; wherever I went within it, fronts, backs, and gable ends of houses faced me. In its queer maze there were varieties of dogs; hens, cocks, and chickens stood on stones that had a whitewashed wall of a cabin for background. The village had a common — green grass on which geese grazed, the cackle of geese answered by the cry of gunnels over the waterfront. The old Claddagh has been abolished, and improved houses put up. They are entirely without character. The old village was shabby and insanitary, but it was original. It is a pity that something more traditional was not put in its place.
Outside an improved house there is a group of weeping people; they are about to walk to the town with a boy or girl who is emigrating. The girls all have shawls across their heads while the young men are in homespuns — black shawls and gray coats. But around the group, praying and weeping, goes an old man in the scarlet coat of a huntsman. What relation has this old fellow who has followed the hounds across the stone-strewn plains of the county to the folk of the fishing village? The group moves slowly towards the town.
In Galway the fifteenth century is covered by the eighteenth, the eighteenth by the nineteenth; Galway is always changing its façade. Walk down a street and you will find a finely carved coat of arms next a chromium sign, a well-shaped window looking from where plaster has covered cut stones, a handsome doorway leading into a broken house, while across the way an eighteenth-century town residence stands empty, waiting to be transformed into something else. The changes are not always one-way. Miss Clare Sheridan has taken an old doorway from some older residence and built it into her pleasant eighteenth-century house. It is a marvel so little has been perpetrated on the Lynch mansion.
The failure that has left Galway dilapidated is not very far back. In the middle of the nineteenth century it had a population of forty thousand (it has only about half that now) based on water-mill industry — Galway is a town of swiftly flowing streams — which declined after steam power had been established in England. Today those who are in the good school of engineering in its University College have hopes of making Galway industrial again. “Water brought prosperity and water will bring it back.” Tomorrow the streams may be turning dynamos, and Galway will show another change.
It is a town that is in search of a character. It is not just a market town and it is urban only to a small degree. It has a Cnivarsity College, but professors and students make no showing in the town. I here was a move to make it the capital of the Gaeltacht— that is, of the Irishspeaking West — and a small theater for Gaelic plays has been set up in it; the effect isn’t marked: today one hears little Irish in the streets and less in the shops. Galway remains undefined. Since the eighteenth century, attempts have been made to give it a Spanish association: an old gate has been renamed Spanish Arch, and a walk beside it Spanish Parade, but this is nomenclature, and the only Spanish influence an archaeologist could discover is the heaviness of the ornament on the Lynch mansion. It wants to have a character, and some day Galway will take advantage of its situation and its limestone and make itself a very striking city.
There are no distances in Galway, and a few minutes’ walk brings me to the basin formed by the outflow of the Corrib River that ends the town. On one side of where I stand is the fragment of the old wall, the empty gate of which makes the so-called Spanish Arch, I had come to look at it, but the scene before me takes from everything else. Swans are afloat, a score of them, on the dark water. beyond the gray water of Galway Day is a rippling line of hills, the hills of Clare. In Galway the clouds are well in the scene — massive clouds, opaque here, luminous there. Now by some stroke of lighting, it might be through a cloud that has the whole of the sunset, the hills I look on seem illuminated from within. I watch a scene that could never be put on canvas, for no painter could get this burnished, softly glowing effect. I think I am privileged to look on something unearthly. The light fades very gradually; there are only dark hills, gray waters, great gray clouds, and swans on the dark water of the Corrib basin. The bells of old St. Nicholas sound as strange as the clouds and hills look.