Sunday, 15 November 2009

Past, present and future come together in Galway

Comerford House, beside Spanish Arch in the heart of the Latin Quarter in Galway (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2009)

Patrick Comerford

I got soaked on Friday night walking back from KC Blake’s restaurant in Blake’s Castle (once the city gaol) to the Eyre Square Hotel in Galway. But I woke to a bright sunny day on Saturday, and as I strolled through the centre of Galway, there was a continental feeling about the city.

The work on redesigning Eyre Square has been completed successfully, and there was a feeling that this could have been a spring day, with sunshine streaming down on the buskers, students, shoppers and tourists who squeezed their way into William Street, Shop Street and Quay Street.

Many of the old houses still have mediaeval window frames and heraldic carvings inherited from the “Tribes” or ruling merchant princes of Galway. But this is a thoroughly modern European city.

Although I heard no-one speaking Irish, this may simply have been because there were so many languages in the air … Italian, Spanish, German, French, Polish, even a few English tones and cadences here and there. And the quality of busking was entertaining: a few years ago, busking in Irish towns might have been confined to guitars and tin whistles, but on Saturday morning in the streets of Galway there were saxophones, clarinets, African drums, a pair of young violinists in a doorway …

The previous evening, we had stumbled by accident on a group of traditional musicians rehearsing in Saint Nicholas’s Church, as a little girl danced her jigs and reels joyfully and unselfconsciously in the aisles. On Saturday morning, the church was quiet and prayerful.

Artisan breads on the stalls in the Saturday Market in the heart of Galway (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2009)

But in the laneways outside, Galway was a abuzz, with stallholders in the Saturday market selling Greek feta, marinated olives, artisan breads, organic vegetables, collectible antiques, crafts and sculptures, framed prints and paintings.

The man selling the prints and paintings travels to Galway most weekends. The paintings are his own, the prints are by a Polish artist working in the city, and the sharp reds and blues on his hand-made frames were inspired by the blues and reds of houses in Crete.

I bought an imaginative print of Comerford House, as it was when it housed the Galway Civic Museum until a few years ago. Then I headed on down Quay Street, to see the house I had come to Galway to photograph before it deteriorates any further.

Comerford House, beside the Spanish Arch in Galway, was home to the Comerford family for a number of generations before being donated to Galway Corporation. It has been an award-winning city museum and the name of Comerford House recalls close links between Galway City and the Comerford Family.

This branch of the Comerford family is descended from two officers in the Royal Irish Constabulary, father and son, whose roots were in Urlingford, Co Kilkenny.

District Inspector Francis Comerford worked in Ballymote, Co Sligo, and Tuam, Co Galway, before retiring. His son, the Tuam solicitor, William James Valentine Comerford, was a well-known local historian in the first half of the 20th century, and a founding member of the Old Tuam Society. He moved to Comerford House, beside the Spanish Arch in Galway, but when he retired in the late 1960s, he moved to Dublin, where he died.

Today, Henry Comerford is a prominent solicitor in Galway and the author of the standard reference books on fisheries legislation in Ireland. In the 1950s, he was a member of the Radio Éireann Players, and featured in many broadcast plays, including Denis Johnston’s The Moon on the Yellow River.

Is Comerford House at risk?

WJV Comerford’s home in Galway, Comerford House, is an historic property dating from the 1800s that was donated to the city council by the Comerford family for community purposes. It stands beside Spanish Arch and was the original home of the Galway City Museum from 1976. The new museum, which opened in 2006, stands behind Comerford House and Spanish Arch.

For a time, Clare Consuelo Sheridan (1885-1970), the sculptor, journalist and writer, lived at Comerford House between 1948 and 1954. She was a first cousin of Sir Winston Churchill and Sir Shane Leslie, and it is said that she sculpted Churchill while he painted her. She was also famous for her sculptures of Lenin and Trotsky and wrote extensively about her travels in Russia. She became a Roman Catholic, and while she lived in Comerford House she used the Archway Room as a private chapel.

Beside Comerford House are the Blind Arch and the Spanish Arch. Originally there were four arches, and Comerford House now occupies the place of the two inner arches.

The original purpose of these arches on Galway’s docks is obscure, but they may have been used for storage outside the city walls to avoid paying city taxes. A fireplace dated 1602 in the Blind Arch bears the heraldic arms of the Lynch and Penrice families.

After it was handed over by the Comerford family, Comerford House was part of Galway Corporation’s administrative offices until the Galway City Museum was established in 1976. The civic museum in Comerford House and its curator Bill Scanlan received several warm reviews in guidebooks.

The new Galway City Museum, behind Comerford House and Spanish Arch, was commissioned by Galway City Council and the Heritage Council as a flagship project and was designed by Ciaran O’Connor and Ger Harvey. The new museum, which opened in 2006, has already won architectural awards and acclaim.

The Máirtín Oliver recalls the captain of Henry Comerford’s doomed famine ship, the St John (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2009)

The museum displays include a rare 17th century altar piece and the statue of Pádraic Ó Connaire that once graced Eyre Square. But as I climbed the stairs to each floor and each exhibit, it was a joy to look on the central display of a Galway City hooker, a boat named Máirtín Oliver after Martin Oliver, the captain of Henry Comerford’s brig, the St John, which sank off the coast of Massachusetts in 1849. Martin Oliver and his first mate, Henry Comerford junior, survived this disaster. But Henry Comerford’s family never recovered from the grief wrought by this tragedy.

The new museum may have received international acclaim. But Comerford House, the original home of the museum, is fading, crumbling and facing such decay that this negligence may soon leave it beyond repair. Although Comerford House is a listed building, some of the remaining artefacts from the old museum may have been exposed to the weather and are threatened by the wear and tear that come with rain and rising damp.

A vista into the future

Comerford House, viewed from the Claddagh and across the waters of the Claddagh River (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2009)

From the square in front of Comerford House, the rushing flows of the Corrib River separate Galway City from the Claddagh, the old fishing area that has given its name to the Claddagh ring. A small monument recalls that it may have been here that Christopher Columbus first imagined that there was more land out in the west beyond the Atlantic and beyond the horizons of western Europe.

Almost unnoticed and upside-down, another plaque commemorates the declaration of the Galway Democratic Republic on this spot. When? By whom? Why?

The name of the Spanish Arch may be a modern misnomer, But as we strolled back, the name of the Latin Quarter appeared to have been justified by its atmosphere and ambience.

Off Quay Street, we stopped in Kirwan Lane to admire Judy Green’s pottery shop, and then decided on lunch in Busker Browne’s. We had a pre-dinner drink there the night before, and at lunchtime it appeared crowded when we first looked in from Cross Street. But the little bar below, off Kirwan Lane, was quiet … the sort of quiet you ought to expect in a former nunnery.

The place was family friendly – a young mother headed off to change the nappies for her two small children. Upstairs, they were getting ready for a 21st birthday party. And on the wall there were photographs of the nuns’ tapestry which is now on display in the city museum. Past, present and future came together in the heart of Galway.

A beach awalk in Spiddal

After lunch, it was time to head back to Dublin. But how long was it since I had been in Salthill or Connemara? The last time I was in Salthill in 1974 during a Labour Party conference; it must have been 1968 since I was last in Spiddal and the Galway Gaeltacht. There was an hour or two before sunset, and so we headed out through Salthill and Barna into the Connemara Gaeltacht, as far as Spiddal, about 20 km west of Galway.

Already I was in the heart of the Gaeltacht. The road signs and the shop names were in Irish. But how could I spend a weekend without a walk on the beach? And on a little, lonely beach below Spiddal, I watched the sun go down on Galway Bay.

Heading back, we stopped in Barna for coffee in Arabica, probably the best coffee shop chain in the West. It was a three-hour journey back to Dublin. But the Latin Quarter, the sound of Corrib, the beaches of Connemarfa and hopes for the future of Comerford House will call me back.