The place where magic happens
The City of the Tribes was the place to be last week. In a new series about vibrant places outside Dublin, Barry Egan ventures into the west
They don't make 'em like John Monroe any more. His every utterance seems to offer an impassioned eulogy of old Ireland - a poetic defence of the past in the face of progress's onward march.
He says that he used to be in regular correspondence with the late John B Keane in Listowel, Co Kerry. "I'd write to him on a Monday and I'd have a letter back by Wednesday, without fail," he smiles.
His eyes betraying an ever-youthful mischievousness, the 82-year-old adds: "'John B', I said, 'I observed something and you might be able to help me out: I have never seen so many small fellas marrying fat women'."
"'He wrote me back - eight pages! - and the last paragraph said: 'Those fellas, when they were young, didn't have any balloons to prick. So they're pricking fat women now instead!'."
Monroe talks in a language that transports all around him to another world, a vanishing Ireland, when we meet last Thursday in Galway. The stories pour out of him like the Guinness he is drinking, not because of the Guinness he is drinking. He barely touches his pint for the night. A simple question about how he came to buy his bar, Monroe's on Dominick Street Upper - where a gathering of glorious Galwegians and others convene on the night - elicits an answer which would have done justice to a John B script.
"I'll tell you what I did. I wasn't too long back from America. This was 1964. I had been in the American army. I was staying in my wife's place near Glenamaddy," he says as Margaret, his wife, sits beside him.
"I went up the country one Saturday. I got to Kilcock. I don't know how I got there but I bought a car there. And on my way home, didn't I run out of petrol. And every place was closed at night.
"I tried to go to sleep in the car. It was so shagging cold, I couldn't sleep. It was late at night. I walked. I knocked at a few doors.
"There was this lady who put her head out the top window, and she says to me: 'We have only enough petrol to go to Mass in the morning'. That's all I had to hear - that she had some. I got some from her and I got home. I'm not sure whether I siphoned it from the woman's car!
"So I got home with my new car. I was driving the next day, driving around Roscommon and Galway looking for places to buy, and I drove up the street here," he says, pointing.
"This fella from Westport who was in the car with me - he was a brother of the Bishop - and he said the place on the corner was for sale. Jesus, it didn't look too bad! So I bought it!"
The good people of the West, as you can see, are almost congenitally prone to having the craic. Galwegians seem to have found a way to accommodate culture - whatever about craic agus ceol - in their everyday lives. Dolores Keane and her younger brother Sean are two of the county's most famous musical exports.
"The music would literally be in the air in Galway," smiles Dolores - a founding member of De Dannan and one of the greatest singers from Galway, or anywhere for that matter. What defines a Galway person, says Dolores, is "that we're great craic and easy-going".
"We are artistic and musical. It could be in the land and it seeps into our blood. Our grandparents were musical on both sides," she says.
"Mammy and Daddy come from very musical families. There was no such thing as a time of the day when you didn't sing, or you didn't pick up an instrument. You'd just play the whistle or the flute or an accordion when you felt it, because the instruments were there. It was taking turns at knocking screeches out of them, as we would when we were kids."
Her younger sibling, Sean, adds: "We were born in Caherlistrane, which is the last parish in north Galway before you go into county Mayo at Tuam. There's a slight difference in the music. There's a slight difference in the set-dancing.
"I remember when I was 12 and coming to Galway going to a few places like The Cellar, upstairs in The Crane Bar, The Thatch in Salthill. They were the only places where there would be sessions. That was 1973. The arts and culture has taken on a whole new life now in Galway."
I ask Mr and Mrs Monroe what Galway was like in the early 60s. "It was very quiet," says Margaret, from Williamstown, County Galway, as her County Mayo husband John, whom she married in 1962 in New York, adds: "When I was a young fella, I used to go to the Seapoint Ballroom in Galway every Thursday. There was a sign at the front of the stage: 'No jitterbugging'. I was 19," says John, 63 years later.
His son Gary (41), who runs the hugely popular Monroe's venue now, says: "We've known for a long time that Galway is Ireland's heartbeat with regards to culture, music, the arts, food and fun.
"So, as a city, what we are working towards now is European Capital of Culture 2020. Everyone in our city is working together to reach this goal."
Shay Livingstone, general manager of the ultra-cool Connacht Hotel on the Dublin Road, echoes the feeling of many when he says: "Things are excellent at the moment in Galway. We are having a very, very good year. Things are buoyant. We are certainly seeing the benefits of all Galway has to offer, including the Wild Atlantic Way and the people coming with the M6 [motorway]."
Pat McDonagh, founder and owner of Supermac's, tells me later: "Galway is the most vibrant city in the country.
"I own it with the bank!" laughs Pat, who is "Kiltullagh born and bred, between Loughrea and Athenry".
Fine Gael Senator Hildegarde Naughton, from Oranmore, believes "what is unique about Galway is the people are on for the craic and the fun".
"That's why everyone wants to come and live and work here," she says. "It is a festival city. People are coming here for fun. And for a bit of music. Galway is in a key location. I think we have the credentials to be like [the] Barcelona of Ireland."
"I think we're going OK," adds John Monroe, with uncannily well-timed wisdom. "You can take a little check on it. We don't want to over-run ourselves. We'd like to keep it natural," he says.
"Galway has something special. When you come here you feel it," says director of Catwalk Models, Mandy Maher, who is from Tipperary but who has lived in Galway for 24 years.
"My husband is from Galway. No matter where you work in the country, there is nowhere like Galway."
Tracey Ferguson, editorial manager with Galway International Arts Festival, tells me: "Having lived in New York for over a decade, I've been up close and personal [with] world-class theatre, dance, music and visual arts. On moving back to Galway almost 10 years ago, I noticed that they all come here, to Galway, from all around the world, to us.
"Movie stars Cillian Murphy, Danny De Vito, fabulous people like Blondie, Jimmy Fallon, Enda Walsh [Once], John Mahony [Fraiser], Tony award-winners Druid Theatre, the astounding Macnas, are most likely routinely sitting in the pub on the corner, already planning their next critically-acclaimed project.
"Nowhere in Ireland, nowhere else in the world, does this happen routinely. Galway itself is magic and where magic happens."
Seamus Sheridan, director of Sheridans Cheesemongers, tells me: "There is more to Galway than the races and the arts. In Galway, there are lots of people living ordinary lives. It is a brilliant, functioning city, but it has that extra bonus of tourists.
"If you go to Sligo or Limerick or Waterford," claims Seamus, "they are really suffering. The last years have been nightmares for many friends I have who have restaurants or businesses. So Galway is blessed."
Samantha Bruce, of the Roza Model Agency, says: "Galway is relaxing and calm as opposed to Dublin, where it is hectic and chaotic. Dublin would wreck my head.
"It [Galway] is a very tolerant, liberal, and quite progressive city," says floppy-fringed Labour councillor, Niall McNelis. "I think the arts links into all that. It is all very much part of that cultural freedom, and that works its way into freedom of thought."
Later, at a separate table, I ask Dolores Keane what she thinks of Galway politicians.
"Some of them are okay," says Dolores. "But there's an awful lot of them not okay. They [go] from Galway up to Dublin and they fit in grand with the rest of them," she laughs, "Mark Killilea [former FF TD] in his day was brilliant."
Let's end where we started, with a certain 82-year-old character.
"I'm married to one, so I better say the right thing," John Monroe says when I ask him what Galway women are like.
"Well," smiles Margaret, "we've stuck it out for how many years now? We're married since February, 1962, in New York."
"I was out the night before with my friend, Clogs, a fiddle player from Roscommon," says John.
What's the secret of your happy marriage?
"We're not always happy!" jokes the ever-youthful Monroe, with a look of pure love for his wife.