I'm nervous. It's my first time visiting Galway City since lockdown and, parking up near the docks, I don't know what to expect.
Will the city still have its sizzle? Or will I find a ghost town? Will I respect its resilience, but feel sad because it just isn't the same?
Will it feel like, well, Galway?
Walking up Druid Lane, past the red doors of this storied theatre, I hear the first warm barks of a busker's voice. Two people are eating at a table outside. Turning on to Quay Street, my heart lifts. Walkers are streaming through the Latin Quarter. The blues and yellows of Tigh Neachtain are bright, with pods of people eating and pinting outside. McDonagh's exudes its whiff of chippy vinegar, and dozens of little groups are gathered on the canal basin wall by the Claddagh, sneaking coffees, kisses and cans of cider. The sun is shining; the peaty River Corrib as fast-flowing and uppity as ever.
Stopping into Coffeewerk + Press, a beautifully-curated café, design shop and gallery, I manage to nab the best window seat in town - a single chair by a sash window, propped open with an enamel cup, overlooking Quay Street. Afterwards, I find free tables outside Kirwan's Lane and, going with the moment, am soon plucking mussels from a pot. Phew. It's a pick-me-up in the pandemic.
"We weren't sure we were going to get a summer," says the city's tourism officer, Ruairí Lehmann, who I phone over lunch. "But it was better than what we expected."
Locals came into the city, he says. Online creativity and campaigns like 'Dine in Galway' kept food and culture front of mind. Compared to Dublin, Galway saw a half-decent bout of staycationing. But now, the question is the same one facing everyone. As days shorten, schools return, overseas visitors stay away, festivals are curbed and winter winds start cutting across the Claddagh, what next?
"It's starting to drop off now," one restaurateur tells me. "If it continues like this, it could be bleak."
Last January, when Galway was on the crest of a wave, feels like a lifetime ago. Back then, it was a European Capital of Culture, tipped as Ireland's No 1 home holiday in our Reader Travel Awards. Lonely Planet named it one of the world's Top 10 cities to visit in 2020. Its most pressing problems felt like pants traffic, crummy public transport, a lack of cycling lanes and controversial bye-laws for buskers.
Then... well, you know the story.
Today, as with every city on earth, life has been upended. I hear no American accents. I see no tour guides. While it's great to see Tig Choilí and Tigh Neachtain open serving food, other pubs are shuttered. Souvenir and knitwear shops are mostly empty as I walk by. The Galway Races ran behind closed doors. Aniar, one of the city's Michelin Star restaurants, is on hiatus (though it's running live online cookery classes). Will winter tip the balance?
This feels personal. I grew up in Ballinasloe and, like many families in the county, we paid regular visits to Galway as kids - popping in on odd Saturdays or for Christmas shopping, elbowing through the market at St Nicholas's Church, scoring cake at McCambridge's or swimming at Salthill. As we got older, we'd be let walk around ourselves, with a few pounds to spend, meeting back somewhere on Shop Street. Later, there were nights out, festival trips, brilliant gigs burnt into my brain at Róisín Dubh. Now, as a travel writer, return visits are among my favourite trips, loaded down with lists of new places to try, bringing both a shot of city life and a nourishing nibble of home.
So, what now?
"We are worried coming into September and October," Lehmann concedes. But his soft-spoken positivity reminds me that we shouldn't let recession become a self-fulfilling prophesy. A 'Make a Break for Galway' autumn staycation campaign is under way and no less than 28 projects aim to "bring the city to life" under Covid-19 restrictions between now and spring, he tells me. They include a new Urban Walking Festival, with out-of-work tour guides pivoting to show locals around places like the canals, Bearna and Merlin Woods. There are plans for a reimagined "Christmas experience", too.
In the Galway City Museum, I stop by to view 'Monument', a new exhibition celebrating the cultural landscapes of the Aran Islands and Galway Bay. "I don't want to spend the rest of my life in tedious comfort," is a quote that catches my eye from author and cartographer Tim Robinson, who died this year. It's displayed beneath one of his deliciously detailed maps. "We took off to Aran, thinking to stay for a month or two while we reinvented our future. But the islands hijacked me."
Nearby, I peer into (and at) a new reflective installation at the Claddagh. 'Mirror Pavilion' is a 7m³ cube created by John Gerrard for the Galway International Arts Festival, which has replaced its usual summer events with a once-off "autumn edition" combining online and live, socially-distanced events. Three sides of the cube reflect the city and water, like shimmering, panelled sheets of mercury. The fourth features an ominous video loop in which straw boys parade around the same site. Onlookers seem both fascinated and mildly freaked out.
"It's so creepy!" one says.
Next, a new one-way system sucks me into Charlie Byrne's, where I lose myself in its fusty old bouquet of books. I also make the trip out to Kenny's Bookshop and Gallery in Liosbán Business Park. I remember the place from its former life on High Street - it now feels like a warehouse on the edge of town, but nosing through the organised chaos of paintings, photos and books slows me down a little. I browse down long, crowded rows of bookshelves with old armchairs left at the end, eventually rooting out a signed, second-hand volume by Galway poet Rita Ann Higgins as a memento of my trip.
It's called 'Hurting God', and in one piece, 'Brides of the Stitch n' Time', she writes of the 1970s in Mervue. "This was a very young, boy-chasing industrial-estate-tasting me. Wonder was the only fruit in town... Sexy was the word made flesh that dwelt amongst us. It was in the oxygen and in the trees. Energy was the second prayer of the day. Have it, keep it, use it. Waste it at your peril."
It's about another time, another space, other things, but it seems apt. For me, Galway always feels like it has an extra fizz, like its attitude is more easy-going, its golden hour lasts a little longer. Partly, that's down to my own nostalgia, to the romantic licence of a visitor that doesn't live here year-round. But it's also a fact. The mix of bo-ho buzz, of big-city cosmopolitan and small-town intimacy are there for all to see. It's in the oxygen and trees.
Back at Kirwan's Lane, as I'm finishing lunch, a local man greets two ladies walking down the street.
"Were ye in for a swim?" he asks.
"We were. Gorgeous!"
"It is," he says. "But it won't be in six weeks' time."
Six weeks? It takes just a day for the weather to turn from anything-is-possible sunshine to rain bulleting off the pavement. I'm forced to cancel a planned boat trip and traipse around in my waterproofs, finding the next restaurant on my list closed. It's a graphic illustration of the challenges a Covid winter may bring.
But then I remember another option. I don't have a booking, but across town, there's a table free at the Pálás Cinema's in-house restaurant. "We missed you!" reads a mural outside the modernist-style concrete building, and the server's eyes are smiling over her face mask.
I sit down, shed my own jacket and mask, and tuck into a crispy flatbread loaded with spiced lamb, harissa, mint yoghurt and pomegranate seeds. 'Tenet', the movie that's supposed to save cinema, is one film on show, and a meal deal comes with a movie ticket for just €21. It's a rainy-day option if ever there was one, and a little shot of hope.
Galway's got this, whatever the weather.
Aran Island Ferries welcomes new ship Saoirse na Farraige next year. For now, get 20pc off return crossings up to October 22 using the code #makeabreakforgalway
Wildlands is a new adventure park set on 20 acres outside Moycullen. Expect zip lines, play villages, climbing walls, archery, playgrounds and much more. wildlands.ie
Join fisherman Ciaran Oliver on a trip with the new Galway Bay Boat Tours, €20pp, or €35pp with a visit to the Galway Hooker restoration project. galwaybaytours.com
Sign up for our free travel newsletter!
Like what you're reading? Subscribe to 'Travel Insider', our free travel newsletter written by award-winning Travel Editor, Pól Ó Conghaile.
Reader Travel Awards Premium
"The atmosphere, the craic, the feeling of Irishness" - that was how one reader summed up a visit to the City of Tribes, named Ireland's Favourite Home Holiday in our Reader Travel Awards 2020.