Its All-Ireland Hurling final week, and Galway is buzzing. How much of the buzz is down to hurling is anybody’s guess. I don’t blame the people, I blame the City. And by the City I don’t mean the Town Council or the Chamber of Commerce, I just mean Galway, and it’s nonchalant indifference. I can’t quite explain it, but between the oysters and artists, maybe there’s just a little bit too much going on for them to care.
Of course they care in Portumna and Clarinbridge. It's not the people, see. It’s the conglomeration of cultural conundrums that is this town, that on one hand is real happy their hurlers are in action this Sunday, but on the other is equally excited that there's a literary festival upcoming and Michel Houellebecq is opening it, so that’s important too. Please don't ask it to choose.
I have spent almost all my adult life in Galway; as something of an outsider too, so I credit myself with a smidgen of objectivity, and it seems to me that it was ever thus. Ask somebody on Quay Street today about supporting Galway United and they might look at you blankly as if they were waiting for you to finish your sentence, before eventually countering; Galway United Against What? Global Warming? Lee Keegan could barely walk to his car in Westport without kissing a dozen babies or opening a Centra, but Galway’s most recognizable inhabitants are a charismatic restaurateur AKA Loveen, and Danny the Donut man. Aidan O’ Shea would not last a week here. Unless he was looking for some peace. I see former hurling captain David Collins almost every other morning in a coffee shop on his way to work. There is a man who has given maybe a decade to a sporting cause, and unless he actually chose to wear his black hurling helmet with his suit, nobody would ever know nor care he wore the maroon and white in battle, least of all the Andalusian barista who just served him his Rooibus tea.
Why is it? Is it the festival season that begins mid-January and seems to end New Year’s Eve? Limerick has its rugby. Kilkenny has its hurling. We have Macnas. I’m not saying it’s bad. It’s just different.
Testimony to this conundrum is a little fruit and fish shop on Sea Road. In Galway, Ernie, the proprietor from which the shop gets its name, is The Man. While he’s bagging your spuds you can chose which collection of F Scott Fitzgerald’s short stories you’d like from the selection in the front window, right between the kale and the blood oranges. His late brother Eamon ‘Chick’ Deacy worked alongside Ernie for twenty years until his untimely death in 2012 and I’d wonder in all that time how often was he asked about the league medal he won with Aston Villa in 1982. Or the occasion he faced Michel Platini and Juventus en route to winning the European Cup. Yes, Sea Road’s only European Cup winner. There should be a statue! Maybe Chick would be happy there isn’t.
The sportsmen who have come closest to capturing the imagination of a town with a very vivid imagination have been the Connaught rugby players/World champion coffee drinkers. For years I was suspicious of this band of beefed up brothers as they came like invaders and ate (lots of) our food and stole (lots of) our women. They were handsome, sure, but they don’t come more handsome than Finian Hanley and even he has to queue for his macchiato in Urban Grind (if Hanley lived in Castlebar he’d have recorded four platinum R’n’B albums by now).
Maybe it was their sheer size or their ubiquity on Saturday nights out, but over time the rugby boys became something in this town. A town that has seen five All-Ireland titles cross the Wolfe Tone Bridge in my lifetime. A town of Olympians and Champions League winners. Sure enough it took an infusion of Kiwis and some seriously clever marketing for the City to turn its head, however briefly. They shouldn’t get too comfortable, because before too long the new out-half from Bloemfontein, complete with Brooklyn Beard will get gazumped at the bar in Ti Neachtains by genius playwright Enda Walsh. And although he may not know who Enda is (‘coz that’s Galway for you) he may know the man Enda is buying a pint for, Cillian Murphy. If he doesn’t know him, his girlfriend certainly will. Cillian, you see, is in town to do Endas play and as he has a scheduling gap between Batman movies.
If the hurlers win this Sunday, maybe the only place you can go for a little respect is The Hole in the Wall in Woodquay. If ever there was a place that was indiscriminate in its respect towards sporting folk, it would have to be The Hole. It adopts that same equal opportunity Modus Operandi the City employs, but applies it in the converse; instead of being indifferent and nonjudgmental about your two appearances for the UCG intermediates in 1994, it will celebrate you with a team photo on the wall.
You can happily sit and be somebody in this place. But, even the Hole is not without its Hollywood affectations; right there, between a photo of the 1983 Galway minor team and the 2001 Freshers is a pic of one James Caan, the man who played opposite Al Pacino in maybe the greatest movie ever made, The Godfather. He was just passing through. Probably even worked a shift there, clearing glasses.
On the Salthill promenade one late June evening in 1963, my grandfather Ned Hynes met and shook the hand of a man he figured may have been important given the entourage of suits he had with him. “Put it there, aul stock”, Ned said with casual indifference. JFK smiled, a little bemused, and reciprocated. Ned continued home and failed to mention the encounter until it appeared in a newspaper the following day.
It’s 34 years on, little has changed in Galway. If they win on Sunday, the City will fete them with a spectacular parade, but let them go to Portumna first for the one they deserve.