Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

'Havin' any craic yet?'

Galway, Ireland, in 36 hours

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The Irish love of a party was evident everywhere in Galway City during the couple of days we were there.

We arrived during the annual International Oyster Festival, a celebration that coincides with the crustacean's harvest season. This year it runs Sept. 28-30. The city's location on the banks of the River Corrib, at the bend of Galway Bay, which empties into the sea, makes it a prime place for such an event.

The festivities of the Oyster Gala evening had begun earlier in the day with a rollicking street parade, featuring energetic strains of traditional Irish music, fancy vintage cars and the crowning of the comely Oyster Pearl, who presents the mayor with an oyster -- a tradition since 1954.

That evening, at the gala, we witnessed what looked like a mob dance, but this one occurred not in the streets but rather in a formal dining hall, replete with white-clothed tables and guests in cocktail dresses and tuxes. Without prompting, but as if on cue, hundreds of people stood on their chairs, twirling white cloth napkins to sing along to pop songs. There were plenty of singalongs in this manner, but the most unforgettable was the 1970s Neil Diamond hit that everyone knows the words to: Sweet Caroline.

As the party wore on into the wee hours, our Irish hosts kept asking us, "Are you havin' any craic yet?" Craic, pronounced "crack," is the gaelic word for fun. Who wouldn't be, with such an uninhibited outbreak of joviality?

The Galway International Oyster Festival is an annual event that brings people from around the U.K. to sample oysters raw and shucked or bobbing in the deliciously thick and smoky seafood chowder. The festival is but one merrymaking event in this the city unofficially dubbed Ireland's festival and arts capital.

As you wander along Shop, Quay, Middle, Mainguard and High streets, you're likely to stumble into a jubilant crowd hoisting a pint or two in the bustling pedestrian zone along narrow streets. Here are a few suggestions of to check out:

3 p.m.: Once you've checked into your hotel, take a walking tour in what poet W. B. Yeats deemed the Venus of the west.

Galway is home to the Northern University of Ireland and students make up 30 per cent of the city's 75,000 souls. That may help explain the degree of partying and drinking, our tour guide Conor Riordan of Legend Quest Tours (legendquest.ie) tells us. His 90-minute tour begins in Eyre Square in the centre of the city. (It's also known as John F. Kennedy Memorial Park because U.S. president of Irish descent stopped here on his way home from Berlin in June 1963, months before he was assassinated.)

Riordan tells us tales of lynchings, and we learn the word lynch was coined in this city -- actually a last name of one of the 14 families that once ruled the roost in Galway City. We ambled along a boardwalk between the canal and river, where industrial mills once stood, but which have been gentrified into trendy condos or homes.

5 p.m.: Not a fan of Guinness, the national stout? Try one of the local craft brews such as Galway Hooker Beer, or a local cider such as Bulmers (known as Mangers internationally), a refreshing option on a warm day. Of course, there's always the Irish whiskey.

Then pick a pub, any pub, out of the hundreds. Tig Coili is just the place to get into the Irish spirit. If you stick around until about 7: 30 p.m. you'll be treated to the Irish musical version of a kitchen party, when musicians raise their fiddles, flutes and bodhran drums.

Most pubs have ceili nights, but the Tig Coili breaks out the jams every night.

8 p.m.: Head to another of the many pubs, not only known for what's on tap, but also for tasty pub fare. The Quays Pub and Restaurant is notable for its fresh oysters.

Or, there's the King's Head, perhaps the best known pub in all of Galway. It's famous for several things: its selection of beers, the atmosphere and bar food -- mainly pizzas and old-fashioned Irish fare.

The building's been around since the 1600s. There's entertainment nightly. Find a comprehensive list of the city's best pubs at galwaycitypubguide.com.

9 a.m. to noon: For breakfast or brunch, head to Griffin's Bakery Tea Rooms on Shop Street, an institution since the 1800s for its artisan breads, baked breakfast goodies, including yummy quiches, buns -- even pizza -- and a good selection of caffeinated drinks. Sit inside the cosy tea room if it's raining or, if the sun's out, enjoy the patio under the green awning, a prime perch for people- and busker-watching.

Chances are good you'll strike up a conversation or share a table with an affable local.

11 a.m.: Since you're on Shop Street, you might as well shop. If you're looking for good quality traditional Irish goods, such as knitwear, head to the famous O'Mailles Woolens and Such. The storied store is noted for its Aran sweaters (from the Aran islands just west of Galway Bay and hand-knitted by 170 regional knitters). Caps, sweaters, scarves are pretty reasonably priced, and there are also cashmere capes and wraps.

Stop by Thomas Dillon's Claddagh Ring Museum, which hand-crafts the rings that date back to medieval times. Once the traditional wedding band of the community, the rings have two hands holding a heart with a crown.

They are stamped "original" and made on the premises, which has been a Galway institution since 1750.

Prices start $50.

3. p.m.: For another pub stop, try Taafes for its friendly atmosphere, good grub and live music.

Then be sure to head out for a tour of the winding roads of western Ireland, its rolling or rugged hills, fields of limestone rock, crumbling castles and port towns.

-- Postmedia News

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition September 8, 2012 D7

History

Updated on Saturday, September 8, 2012 at 1:40 PM CDT: adds fact box

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