Review: Future rosy for Ireland's west coast

RELAXING in the medieval heart of picturesque Galway, a pint of the black stuff in hand and a rack of Irish malts jostling for attention, I just might have hit upon a new calling in life.

A few stone overweight and with dodgy ankles. my dreams of an England call-up in time for the World Cup is looking remote.

And Steven Tyler has returned to front veteran rockers Aerosmith, so bang goes the interview for that berth.

But fresh from a boat trip across Lough Corrib, Ireland's largest lake, a new occupation has begun to suggest itself.

Our amiable guide David Luskin, skipper of the Corrib Princess, has just told his guests that there are apparently 365 islands, or should that be islets, on the lake, Or maybe 380.

Perhaps it's the timeless splendour of the Connemara Mountains, in the background, or a later big win on the greyhounds at Galway Stadium, but the job of ‘lough’ surveyor is worth getting up for each morning.

The last High King of Ireland, Roderic O'Connor, who is buried nearby, might agree.

And the likes of Sir Benjamin Lee Guinness, who owned nearby Ashford Castle and his guest King George V, or other visitors from Oscar Wilde to Ronald Reagan and John Wayne might just have concurred.

Maybe I was just looking for an excuse to wake up near the west-coast outpost once dubbed ‘The Bluestone City at the Edge of the World’.

For Galway may have a storied past, and those in the know insist it gave the world ‘lynchings’ and a had its own gallows green in medieval times.

But it is fast emerging as the Emerald Isle’s capital of culture - home to its own arts and oyster festivals and with one of the largest student populations - so the future’s quite rosy too.

Undergraduates swell the population of Galway by 35 per cent from autumn to early summer and add a little vibrancy to the atmosphere.

Our travels took us to just some of the highlights, including traditional Irish music mecca, Tis Coili, in Mainguard Street, where for a the price of a few brews, you can marvel at the free-form, hour-long jams, with fiddle, accordion and bodhrain to the fore.

Virtually every kind of cuisine under the sun can be found a short jig away but for refined Irish fare look no further than Nimmo’s, on the banks of the Corrib.

Like later stop-offs such as Ashford, Glenlo Abbey Hotel and the Masters restaurant at the Galway Greyhounds, honest food, well prepared, is the order of the day.

(Though the abbey had a Pulman restaurant featuring a 1927 carriage from the Orient Express. You could have served me tripe and onions, or foie gras, in that kind of setting and I’d have been equally as happy).

Just a stone’s throw from historic Ashford Castle, now a five-star hotel, is the tiny village of Cong, on the Galway-Mayor border, which was made famous by the John Wayne epic The Quiet Man.

In 1951 the hamlet was turned upside down when director John Ford brought The Duke and co-stars Maureen O’Hara and Barry Fitzgerald.

The castle was hired as lodgings for cast and crew and locals earned many times their weekly wages as extra and stand-ins.

Today a museum stands as testament to that whirlwind summer and many of the film’s landmarks survive for film buffs to ponder.

Back in Galway, our inside man Connor Riordain took us for a wander around the city’s highways and byways and shared some secrets of the place where was once a student.

Like all bits of blarney, some of his gems were cast-iron facts, and others had to be taken with a fair snifter of salt.

City fathers claim the invention of ‘lynching’ as their own, after the cautionary tale of ex-Mayor James Lynch Fitzstephen, who was said to have hung his own son in 1493 for murder. A memorial window still stands in Market Street.

And the Collegiate Church of St Nicholas, a Protestant place of worship, with its three-sided clock tower is said to be the catalyst for that well-worn phrase ‘wouldn’t give you the time of day’.

The missing clockface looked out onto the city’s Catholic community, in times past, hence the claim.

Historians are a little sceptical of the origins of the city’s Spanish Arch, and the newly-dubbed Latin Quarter, but marketers can point towards a visit by Christopher Columbus and a healthy trading history with the Spanish galleons.

Relayed with a twinkle in the eye, who am I to know. And by the time we depart for Knock Airport I’m full to the gills with folklore, myths and legends.

Just before we jet off to murky Manchester, I spy a display dedicated to Monsignor James Horan, the Mayo padre who fought tooth and nail to bring an international airport to the sleepy west coast.

He campaigned tirelessly to bring the faithful to the world-renowned Marian Shrine at Knock and, with a little help from a local lad, Irish premier Charles Haughey, he succeeded against all expectations.

And with that last pearl, I’m ready for home, but I’ve a feeling I’ll be back.

* Low cost airline bmibaby offers up to a daily service from Manchester Airport to Ireland West Airport Knock. Fares for spring start from £9.99 one way including all taxes. bmibaby offer many passenger benefits including allocated seating, free online check in if travelling with hand baggage only and the opportunity to join bmi’s Diamond Club - the UK's most generous frequent flyer programme. For lowest fares and to book a flight, visit www.bmibaby.com.

* Ireland West Airport Knock: In the last five years Ireland West Airport Knock’s position has been further strengthened as Ireland’s fourth international airport with a major increase in the number of passengers using the facility. Ireland West Airport Knock is the main international air access gateway for the West, North West and Midland regions of Ireland. The Airport has also experienced rapid developments and now serves more than 20 scheduled and charter destinations across Ireland, the UK, Europe and beyond. Ireland’s West is packed with uniquely atmospheric towns and villages, long stretches of stunning coastline, soaring sea cliffs, historic monuments and warm welcoming people. Tourism Ireland: Consumer Information: 0800 039 7000. Website: www.discoverireland.com.

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