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A Town Tormented by the Sea (2014)

On Tuesday, July 15th, I attended a night of historical storytelling at O’Connors Bar in Salthill, Galway. The storytelling was a fireside chat given by Brian Nolan, who went through Ireland’s history from pre-Celtic times to the 20th century in less than an hour. The bar is filled to the brim with antiques and collectibles as props mentioned during the chat. The central antique that was repeatedly mentioned was a coal hearth fireplace, to stress the idea that in Irish culture the fire was a central part of domestic life and symbolized the continuation of life over generations. With this in mind, it is worth noting that culturally speaking the fire was never supposed to go out, since that would mean the end of life in the household.


Aside from the hearth fireplace, the visitors to O’Connors Bar can find miniature statues of herding dogs that represent the importance of family tradition and they are also symbols of Irish immigration during the 19th century. Speaking of immigration, next to the bar, on a wall hangs a portrait of John F. Kennedy, the 35th president of the United States and a descendant of Irish immigrants. To highlight the historical and socio-political connection between the United States and Ireland, Nolan recited the opening sentences of Kennedy’s Ireland address that he gave in Galway, Ireland in 1963, two month before his assassination. The speech was given to shows America’s support to Ireland with regard to its projects of industrial development during the 60’s.


Coming back to O’Connors Bar, it is important to mention that O’Connors of Salthill, Galway was established in 1845, opened as a bar in 1942 by Thomas O’Connor, and it’s currently run by the third generation of the O’Connor family. This was definitely a great cultural event, but at the end of the night, I made sure to ask Brian Nolan a question relating to a book that I found in the Special Collection of NUIG Library titled, ‘A town tormented by the sea’: GALWAY, 1790-1914 by John Cunningham. I asked Nolan what he could tell me about the history of Galway from the point of view of the aim of the book. He told me that he hadn’t read book but inferring from the tittle he could say that Galway had and has a love/hate relationship with the sea. From my own reading of the book which I took a look at the library, I can say that the author begins his exploration of Galway’s history by putting epigraphs at the beginning of every chapter. In Chapter 1, ‘The whole place is practically a ruin…’, Cunningham uses an epigraph that is exemplary of the difficult life on the sea of Galway’s people.


The poem is as follows:


I know a town tormented by the sea


And there time goes slow


That the people see it flow


And watch it drowsily


And growing older, hour by hour, they say.


‘Please God to-morrow!


Then he will work and play’


And their tall houses crumble away.


This town is eaten through with memory


Of pride and thick Spanish gold and wine


And of the great come and go…


Mary Devenport O’Neil, from ‘Galway’,


Prometheus, London 1929


The poem highlights the pleasure and pain that Galway received and receives because of the sea. However, the livelihood of the city today not only depends on fishing, but also on water related tourism.

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