Galway deserves to be awarded Capital of Culture crown

As a student in the 1980s, I found one coffee shop in Galway, on Shop St — but there was also one theatre, writes Victoria White
Galway deserves to be awarded Capital of Culture crown

RAMBLE out any night of a winter week in Dublin and you’ll find more culture than you’ll find in Galway in the middle of its arts festival.

There is no comparison between the two cities, which is hardly surprising, because the greater Dublin area has a population 1.8m while Galway city’s is less than 80,000. Galway’s boast it is the “unofficial capital of culture” in this country is over-blown. But Galway’s bid to be European Capital of Culture in 2020 deserves to win.

My family hates me for this. Some of them are actively involved in promoting the Dublin bid. But I think Galway deserves to beat Dublin for the title, and it deserves to beat Limerick and the “Three Sisters” of Waterford, Wexford and Kilkenny, because Galway is a city which was built by artists.

Ireland has been chosen as the host country in 2020, along with Croatia, as part of a new queueing system for getting the title. The bids must be in by the end of next week. The four Irish campaigns are busy working on the 80-page book they will present to the 10-person EU-appointed expert panel which will arrive here in mid-November. They will be joined by two members appointed by the Department of Arts.

The prize is a big one. The Melina Mercouri Award amounts to €1.5m for the successful bidder and all of the cities have cultural industries which could do with a bit of that. On top of the upfront cash, the designation offers cities a huge opportunity to market themselves to the rest of Europe and the world.

Some cities do this brilliantly, perhaps most notably Glasgow 1990, which for a time managed to change its image by using the designation. Cork at least has a lasting legacy in the revamp of its city centre in 2005. But the only thing I really remember about Dublin 1991 was the Great Book of Ireland, a volume of new Irish writing and art, which recently bought by UCC for €1m. It was a good idea but it still played to the traditional view of Dublin’s place on the world stage: the city of Joyce’s Ulysses, the city with more Nobel Prizes for Literature than any other.

Dublin has changed. What I love about Dublin City Council arts officer Ray Yeates’s bid for the 2020 designation is that it is completely different. His team is presenting a very young, very vibrant and enormously diverse city. We do need a new way to map ourselves into Dublin now, so dizzying is the range of its peoples and its cultures.

But the reason Galway deserves to win is that Galway is a city created by culture. When I first went to Galway as a student in the 1980s, I found one coffee shop in Galway, the Lydon House on Shop St. But there was also one theatre in Druid Lane. Out of Druid Theatre Company, out of Macnas, out of the Galway Arts Festival and Cúirt and the Film Fleadh and Babaró on and on, Galway’s artists created the city.

Yes, Galway had some natural advantages: a few medieval streets and a great location on a rushing river beside the sea. But what interests NUIG geographer Patrick Collins is the fact that contemporary industries are mostly not dependent on their physical location which means that contemporary companies have “softer” reasons for locating where they do. This is where Ireland has scored.

Collins is convinced that low corporation tax is not the main reason that American multinationals are choosing to locate here. Talking to the heads of Microsoft and Dell and Intel about their location decision, he says the words that kept coming up were creativity, culture, livability and culture.

Galway scores so heavily on all these fronts that it has been possible for companies like Nortel, Boston Scientific, Hewlett Packard and Cisco to attract highly-skilled multinational workforces to live there. As one senior manager of a US-owned multinational told Collins, “The city has a quality of life second to none.”

Of course this throws up another series of questions, such as Galway’s hideous maze of business parks which seems to be a design-free zone. Meanwhile the city-centre is like a big Temple Bar at weekends and Patrick Collins warns its hard-won cultural brand could easily be lost if investment is not made in the city’s cultural life.

The city of culture title would help. Much has been made by the chief executive of Galway City Council Brendan McGrath of the need to invest in the city’s cultural infrastructure. There is no big municipal gallery, no large concert/conference venue, and no modern city library in Galway. There is the possibility of developing Comerford House in Spanish Arch, which is owned by the council and there is the possibility of developing the Black Box Theatre site on the Dyke Road. Project manager Patricia Philbin cautions that Galway can only sustain so much infrastructure year-round and advocates multi-use, flexible arts spaces.

It is vitally important that the title, if won, is not about buildings but about artists, some of whom have seen very little of the wealth which they help generate in the city. Artists built the city in the 1970s and 1980s — a generation of artists at the Galway Arts Festival and Druid Theatre Company and Macnas such as Garry Hynes, Páraic Breathnach, Tom Conroy, Pete Sammon and Ollie Jennings.

They built a culture which was international in scope but grounded in Galway’s Atlantic location and closeness to the Irish language. Even now when you look at what has been going on in Galway, you see Mark O’Rowe’s adaptation of Shakespeare for Druid, DruidShakespeare, and hear comparisons to the company’s rediscovery of Synge through the cadences of the Irish language. And you see Dublin-based curator Mary Cremin curating an exhibition in Tucla 2015 (November 13-29) which takes its inspiration from the legendary western island of Hy-Brasil in the context of the UN climate change summit.

It was, arguably, the presence of NUIG which facilitated Galway’s explosion of creativity. The “Three Sisters” of Wexford, Kilkenny and Waterford should renew their argument for a university to drive their cultural life if they fail to make the cut while Limerick should look to further build the connection between the university and the city.

But Galway should win hands-down because of the four contenders Galway is the only city in Ireland — and surely one of the few cities in Europe — which was built by art. If Galway wins the crown, this fact alone could be a beacon of light to the artists of Europe and the world, illuminating the true importance of the work they do — and a lighthouse warning how cruel the rocks are if the light of culture goes out.

As a student in the 1980s, I found one coffee shop in Galway, on Shop St — but there was also one theatre

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