by Maddison Rhoa.
Maddison with Oscar Wilde in the city center...
I’ve always thought of Galway as a city of contradictions – one must only take a stroll down its famous Shop Street to see that. It’s simultaneously a diverse university city and charming tourist destination, as well as a distinctly western Irish town that boasts a robust and well-preserved cultural heritage. There is so much to explore and appreciate about Galway… almost too much to condense into a concise blog post!
I could have written about the picturesque, postcard popular Long Walk or the Salthill Prom, or expounded upon Galway’s truly excellent culinary and music scene, or even delved deep into the (admittedly few) things I don’t love about Galway, but none of those angles felt like they did the city justice. To properly capture the place I know, I had to ask myself: what gives a city its character? More specifically, what is it that gives Galway its unique charm?
The thing is, Galway feels like coming home. The city has a wonderful atmosphere of warmth, which is a credit to the people of Galway – after all, the character of a place is determined by the character of its people.
When I think about the variety of people I met in Galway, the ones who really define the character of the city, three faces come to mind: that of a nameless jewelry saleswoman, a stranger on a bus, and an elderly taxi driver.
If it is to happen, it will happen in Galway...
The Jewelry Saleswoman
It’s 2015, and I’m a college student studying abroad at the National University of Ireland, Galway. I’m far from my home, family, and friends in Pennsylvania. I’m a depression-prone only-child, and this is one of the most momentous and terrifying decisions I’ve made in my life thus far.
Only a couple of weeks into my academic program, I venture to the Galway Market at the weekend with three other Americans who are still in the desperate throes of homesickness and culture shock. I feel a disconnect with them; I am not homesick. If anything, I feel like I’m quite comfortably in step with my surroundings for once in my life. And yet I’m alone in that feeling, and deeply aware of having no one to share it with. My peers, through no fault of their own, don’t understand, which forces me to carry loneliness around with me like a second skin.
It’s a unique feeling when a person really looks at you, and even more so when you’re feeling particularly invisible. By “really looks at you,” I don’t mean when someone makes and holds eye contact or matches a friendly smile. I mean the type of look that goes beyond just what the eye can see.
When I stop to admire some rings at a jeweler’s stand at the market, the older woman behind the display peers into my face, concern creasing her brow. At first, I shy away from the intensity of her maternal gaze, feeling like she’s peeling back the first layer of epidermis to see all the damage buried beneath.
“You have lovely green eyes,” she says. Her Galwegian voice is soft, soothing, unintrusive. “No doubt they belong here. Are you a local?”
“No, I’m from the U.S.,” I say. She notices my accent.
“Ah, well then you must have Irish roots with eyes like that.”
I meet her look, feeling not only seen, but humbled by a small aspect of my person being noticed in such detail and subsequently used to justify my existence in this new place. I can feel the heat of emotion rising behind my eyes and I blink it away.
I thank her, and she doesn’t need me to explain why I’m grateful. Instead, she asks if I’m a student at the university.
“I am, yeah.”
“And what are you studying?”
“English and history.”
“Ah, very good,” she says. She rearranges a few of the rings, polishing one of them and nodding her approval as I tentatively try one on. “And what is it that you want to be?”
The dreaded question. I hesitate and debate my answer. Back home, I would have consulted my list of excuses for studying the humanities – realistic, guaranteed jobs with a decent income that no one would question or argue with. Something solid, predictable. Something like “I’ve been told I’d make a decent lawyer” or “I’ll probably just teach.”
Instead, something about this kind woman’s face and her quiet concern for me makes me blurt the truth before I can even think twice about it:
“I want to be a writer.”
“A writer,” she says. I cringe inside, bracing myself for the anticipated lambasting of my dream once again. Instead, she smiles – not only politely, but sincerely. “That’s grand. You’ve certainly come to the right place for it. Galway’s great for that.”
I stare at her, shocked. The heat behind my eyes is back and spurring a few tears, so I quickly wipe at their corners. A jolly throng of people pass behind me in the street, laughing and talking and singing. The woman reaches across the display of rings and grasps my cold hand for a moment, squeezing some life back into it, as if she can read every conflicted thing I’ve been feeling over the past couple of weeks.
She looks deep into my face again, wrinkles lighting up her eyes, her smile.
“Don’t give it up,” she says with the conviction of someone who might have known me all my life. “Writing, Galway, any of it, all of it. Don’t give it up.”
And just like that, the belief of a compassionate stranger leaves me feeling less like a shadow of a person, and more like someone who can – and will –carve out a future in this place.
The Long Walk
The Stranger on the Bus
I’m midway through my time in Galway and have decided to take a trip to the Aran Islands. Just before the bus pulls away from Eyre Square and heads towards Salthill, a middle-aged woman slides into the seat next to me. With a puff of cool air still clinging to her jacket, she greets me with a gentle smile and a quiet “hello.” That moment couldn’t have been more fortuitous.
She’s slight with dirty blonde hair, and she introduces herself to me as simply “Geraldine.” She has gentle blue eyes that tend to water when she speaks, and crow’s feet appear at their edges when she smiles. Her smiles are the kind of lopsided ones that haven’t had the sadness scraped out of them in a very long time.
We fall into genial conversation and spend the entire bus ride chatting; she tells me stories about working for the Irish postal service and how she travels from Galway City to the Aran Islands twice a week to visit her mother who lives in a care facility.
“She, well… my mother… she has dementia, and it’s progressing,” Geraldine says, emotion spilling on to the navy blue fabric of her windbreaker, tear by tear. “Every time I visit her, it seems she’s just slipping away more and more.”
“I’m so sorry, that must be unimaginably difficult,” I say. She meets my eyes – hers are soft and hard at the same time. The clear pain she carries affects me so much that I begin to tear up, as well. Geraldine doesn’t mention the support of a family to help her shoulder the burden of slowly losing her mother.
“It’s… yes. It has been difficult. But I’m lucky to have the time I do have with her,” she continues.
I try my best to offer some small words of condolence and comfort, and in that moment, Geraldine and I build a sort of unspoken trust between us. Even though we are simply two strangers conversing on a bus, there is a sense of inherent and shared understanding.
“I imagine you’re missing your family back in the States,” she says.
“I am, yeah. I love my family and I love Ireland. I love Galway,” I tell her, throwing my arms up in defeat. She nods. “It sounds a bit selfish, but I only wish it were easier to have them all in the same place.”
I tell her, openly now with the help of my encounter with the jewelry saleswoman, about my passion for writing, how I usually feel quite out-of-step with the world, and how Galway has surprised me by becoming a place where I feel a sense of belonging. In return, Geraldine tells me that she backpacked across the United States when she was younger, when she was the age I am now. We admire the passing views outside the bus window while I tell her about the trips I’ve taken across her beautiful homeland, and she returns my stories with her own about her favorite places she saw during her time spent stateside all those years ago.
At Rossaveal, we disembark from the bus and say our farewells before catching our respective ferries. As I watch Geraldine’s windswept, vulnerable form crossing the pavement all on her own, I feel a strange sense of looming sadness. Perhaps this is what some of us are meant to do – meet for a short while, bond over some detail of our lives, and depart with the knowledge that this ephemeral moment of connection, while deep and comforting, must have some greater meaning in the grand scheme of things.
I find that meaning well after I return from my adventures on Inishmore, when I sit with a pen in my hand and my mind humming with ideas for my first novel. Geraldine’s kind face, and the small bit of her life story she shared with me, rise like cream to the surface of my mind. I scribble an outline onto the waiting paper, watching the story take shape.
Little does Geraldine know she will eventually become the basis for a character in one of my stories. I’ll probably never see her again, but I would love for Geraldine to know how much her kindness and trust meant to me. When I think of Galway, I think of Geraldine’s humility and sincerity, and the way she made me feel like we were lifelong friends over the course of an hour-long bus ride from here to there.
This mural is associated with the Hole In The Wall pub on Eyre Street, which features in our Episode 10, Season 1.
The Taxi Driver
Later that year, just before my time in Galway comes to an end, I’m on the precipice of having my very guarded, melancholy heart blown to smithereens when I decide to get a taxi instead of walking back from the center of town.
The driver is a portly elderly man who wears a blue and white striped shirt and smells of an aftershave that was popular before I was born. He wishes me a good morning, and before I can laugh at the mental image I’m carrying of him singing in a barber shop quartet where he surely belongs instead of driving a Galway City taxi, we’re on our way.
“I hope you don’t mind me saying you look a bit forlorn.”
“Not feeling forlorn then, I take it. You’ve a bit of a dark look about you.”
“No, well, I don’t know,” I say, searching for the right word for the puddle of mixed emotions clouding my insides. It’s always been a challenge to name them, but I try. “Maybe ‘wistful’ instead?”
“Sure, it’s your word,” he says good-naturedly.
As we drive, he asks me all the usual questions: am I a student, what am I studying, how do I find Galway?
“I’m in love with it.”
“Is that why you’re feeling… what was that word you used…”
“The very one.”
“Galway’s lovely. I’m only dreading the day I’ll have to say goodbye, which will be soon.”
“Sounds as if you have more than a city to dread saying goodbye to,” he says knowingly.
I don’t tell him I’ve met some of the most genuine friends I’ve ever had, shared plenty of laughs with the friendliest of strangers, and had the misfortune to connect with a man who I think, at the time, is something of a soul mate. In a few weeks, that delusion will crumble, and I will be crushed beyond anything I could ever imagine. But I will also forge ahead with my novel of Galway, all those writings informed by the heartsickness I’m feeling now. Perhaps, at this point, both my elderly companion and I have an intuition of what’s to come – a little extra push that yields that wistful feeling we’ve discussed.
The driver looks over at me for a moment, eyes searching, and offers a grandfatherly nod of encouragement.
“Go on into the glovebox there for me, would you?” he says. I reach forward and open the little hatch. It smells a bit like church, all paper and incense. “The brown book, see that? Yeah, that’s the one.”
I hold the book between my hands, turning it over.
“You know your man Yeats, the writer,” he says, a statement rather than a question. “Go to page 236 there, see it? Go ahead and read it out to us, and then the one on… let’s see, I think it might be page 123 or so, if you’d be so kind.”
As we drive, I read the beautiful, tragic lines of two Yeats poems called “A Crazed Girl” and “When You Are Old” aloud, noticing the driver reciting the words from memory. He puts extra emphasis on the line in the latter that reads “But one man loved the pilgrim soul in you / And loved the sorrows of your changing face.”
We sit in silence then, the ghosts of Yeats’ words swirling in the air as the taxi slows. I notice that this book of poetry is well-loved, with plenty of pages marked and dog-eared. I am not the first passenger to have consulted Yeats, nor the first to have their troubled heart so easily read by this incredibly empathetic and understanding Galwegian man.
The taxi stops and I pay my mysterious driver-turned-poet, but before I depart, he says, like someone’s sage old counselor:
“For what it’s worth, I’ve no doubt you’ll be back to Galway again, and that someday the right person will appreciate that pilgrim soul and changing face.”
As I stand stunned on the sidewalk watching the taxi disappear into the distance, I want to believe him. But for the moment, I’m contented with the realization that strangers who keep Yeats poetry on their person, or in the glove compartment of their taxi, are most definitely the kind of people you can trust.
It’s my hope that my reminiscences of these three Galwegians exemplify a beautiful human decency I’m afraid we lose a bit more of every day. Even though many of my experiences in Galway were not so stellar, I’ve been fortunate enough to associate Galway with the notion of caring for your fellow human, no matter if you’ve known them ten years or ten seconds. That approach to life, I’m happy to report, is contagious.
The thing is, and at risk of sounding a bit cliché, Galway is a place you feel in your soul – deep inside those intangible parts of our human existence that no one can point to and say, “I feel it here.” And that’s because it hits differently when the empathy of a stranger can intuit your truth straight away, or pinpoint exactly where the hurt is, even when you have trouble admitting it to yourself.
The character of a city lies in the character of its people – and if Galway City is taking its cues from its resident characters, then I have faith it will remain as a testament to human kindness for ages to come.
Maddison Rhoa is a writer and editor currently based in Pennsylvania. She holds two Bachelor of Arts degrees in English and History from the Pennsylvania State University and a Master of Arts in History from the College of William & Mary. After studying abroad at the National University of Ireland, Galway, Maddison penned her first novel entitled "A Different Familiar," which probes the ambiguities of early adult life, the misery of lost hope, and the human capacity for connection in modern Galway. Maddison's other literary and historical work focuses on the “in-betweenness” of existing in a space that is both a little bit Irish and a little bit American. She is currently looking for a publisher for "A Different Familiar" and working on her second novel.
Maddison can be reached through this website.