Galway: Destroyed With History, Alive With Music

I’m working intensely to finish a book for the end of February, and so I find myself in Galway City a lot these days. “An Urban Sketcher’s Galway” will be the Galway that I have come to know over the years since I arrived here in 1991, in words and pictures. In the twenty-seven years I have been here, I have gone from frequenting nightclubs with sticky floors with too much drink on board, to frequenting them sober (as an anthropological excursion it has value, but not really otherwise), to the usual path once you settle down: fewer nightclubs, but somehow more late nights. Now my babies are nearly grown and I’m no longer distracted by the busy-ness of life as it was, so it’s a perfect time for me to make a record of the town that has become my own. I thought I would just travel around the city with my sketching kit and stool, and one by one gather drawings for my book. Simple.

Of course, things aren’t always as straightforward as that. The more I sketch, the more I discover, as is the nature and very soul of urban sketching. Yesterday I sketched in the King’s Head pub, a place with time written into its very fabric, and I was transported back to the Middle Ages in my mind. Afterwards I sketched some musicians on the street, and had a near-religious experience, not from the music, which was spectacularly wonderful, but through an onlooker.

I began the day sketching the exterior of a well-known pub. The result is so horrible that I am not going to show it to you until I have worked whatever clean-up magic on it that I can manage. As I sketched, two people asked me if I was Róisín (why do they not include my surname? I don’t mind, just curious) and that they followed me on x platform or other. It’s nice to be recognised for such a positive reason as doing cute drawings and telling homely stories. Sadly, though, my time was limited because of my stupid Raynaud’s syndrome (the one where the blood in your fingers decides it’s cold, and it’s probably better off around your lungs or somewhere, leaving your fingers as painful, stiff claws in ghastly shades of white and, when the blood is coaxed back by spending time in a very warm room, black and purple).

The long and the short of it is that it was really too cold for the paint to dry and I became very cold indeed. I staggered into the King’s Head for the next sketch, where I was given a warm welcome and taken on a tour by Paul, the owner. He showed me some beautiful medieval windows. They were small, with leaded panes, and were set into impossibly deep limestone reveals of the sort you’d find in a castle. They had been uncovered during extension and renovation works in the late 1980s after Paul’s family bought the building.

“One day the builder was muttering into his soup about a window,” said Paul. “We went and had a look and we discovered this medieval window which had been covered with a layer of modern blockwork. We called in the archaeologists, put in new panes and it happened to be right where we wanted to put a stairwell, so it worked really well.” We looked at a few more choice tidbits that were astonishingly old. “As my father used to say, ” said Paul, “the place is destroyed with history.”

I settled down to draw a beautiful mirror in pristine condition, dating from the 19th century, and an etching of King Charles that had caught my eye the previous week.

After the King’s Head, I trotted off down the street on my way to another (indoor) location. I passed a band busking on the street. They were mesmerising, and I wanted to make a comprehensive collection of Galway buskers for my upcoming book. But I didn’t fancy getting chilled to the bone again, and I had another sketch to do. “Walk on past,” I said to myself, “just keep walking.” Then I saw that the bass player was in bare feet. Bare feet! In that Baltic weather! I had to stop and sketch the band.


Well, it was the best half-hour I’ve spent in a very long while. My sketch came out exactly as I wanted it to, effortlessly, and the music was fantastic. I don’t exactly know how you describe the genre. Just look for the Dead Letter Devils and I’m sure you’ll see what it’s about. I mean it was all you could do not to jump around. A very elderly man with a cane hobbled up the street. He too was infected by the music and he took up position next to me. After a minute he saw what I was doing.

“Fantastic!” he said enthusiastically, in an accent that was deepest Galway. His blue eyes were wide, his smile very wide. “You are fantastic! God bless you!” His whole body went into emphasising the second syllable on “fantastic”. You know what I mean. It was so heartfelt that I was deeply touched. After a bit he looked at my progress. “Did you catch the bare feet?” he asked. I said I did and that was what had caught my eye. “Are you a professional?” I told him I was. “You are fanTAStic! God BLESS you!” he said again. Those beautiful blue eyes, that huge, happy smile, just enjoying the music and someone making a nice sketch…I was this close to deciding to start going to Mass again. There was something very beautiful about him, a serenity, a joy.

A beautiful young girl (not Irish) with bobbing blonde curls danced about and smiled broadly at the guys. I thought how the musicians must love that kind of response. Music, appreciative public handing over gold, pretty girls smiling at you – does it get better? Yes, they could all have had shoes.

When I was finished I gave the guys some money (unheard of for me) and showed them the sketch. They seemed very happy and took pictures of it. “You’re amazing,” I said. “YOU are amazing,” said the barefoot guy, but he said it with a strongly Spanish or South American accent, so it was JOO are amazing. Afterwards I wished I’d had a little blanket to give him to stand on. He was lifting his feet off the cold ground, like me when I was a kid and had to nip outside to get something. Hop, hop, ouch! ouch!

Despite my best efforts, I only overheard one snippet of conversation yesterday. But it’s a romantic one, said by a tall, serious guy in his late twenties to his companion as they walked down a crowded Shop Street:

“I met this lovely girl so I phoned in sick for a week.”

More next time!

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