On the main road south (N18) of Galway you’ll pass two unremarkable small fishing villages, Clarenbridge and Kilcolgan. If you’re here at the end of September, however, these villages become an essential stop, when they host the annual Galway Oyster Festival (www.galwayoysterfest.com; 091/394-637). The 5-day festival, which has been held every year since 1954, is packed with traditional music, song, dancing, sports, art exhibits—and, above all, oyster-tasting events.
Following in the Footsteps of Poets
In the early 1900s, every summer the area southeast of Galway City became a sort of Bloomsbury Society West, as Dublin’s greatest literary minds decamped to a cluster of nearby manor homes. About 36km (22 1/3 miles) southeast of Galway City, near the northern border of the Burren, you’ll see signs to the beautiful Coole Park National Forest (www.coolepark.ie; 091/631-804). This was once a country home of the dramatist and arts patron Lady Augusta Gregory (1852–1932), who, along with W. B. Yeats and Edward Martyn, founded the Abbey Theatre ★ in Dublin. Sadly, her house no longer stands, but her influence is memorialized in a tree on the grounds on which the following people carved their initials while visiting with her: George Bernard Shaw, Sean O’Casey, John Masefield, Oliver St. John Gogarty, W. B. Yeats, and Douglas Hyde, the first president of Ireland. Clearly, she was an exceptional woman, and this is an exceptional place. The visitor center shows a number of films on Lady Gregory and Coole Park, and has a tearoom, picnic tables, and some lovely nature trails. The visitor center is open daily, 10am to 6pm from June to August; it’s open 10am to 5pm in April, May, and September (closed last weekend in September.) Admission is free.
Not too far from the home of his friend, the great poet W. B. Yeats (1865–1939) had his own summer home in Gort at Thoor Ballylee (www.yeatsthoorballylee.org; 091/631-436). The restored 16th-century Norman tower house served as the inspiration for his poems “The Winding Stair” and “The Tower.” In the interpretive center, an audiovisual presentation examines the poet’s life. Also on the grounds are the original Ballylee Mill, partially restored, and a bookshop specializing in Anglo-Irish literature. The tower suffered serious flood damage in 2014, but has now been restored by a local community group, the Yeats Thoor Ballylee Society, who run it as a cultural center. There are exhibitions and regular events, such as poetry readings—see the website for a current schedule. The center is open from May through August, daily 10am to 6pm (May hours are shorter—Monday to Friday 10am to 2pm, Saturday–Sunday 11am to 5pm); admission is €7. The rest of the year, the grounds are still open but the tower itself is closed. The site is on the N18 at Gort.
Not too far away from Yeats’s and Lady Gregory’s summer homes, Dunguaire Castle (www.shannonheritage.com; 061/360-788) sits on the south shore of Galway Bay, between Gort and Kilcolgan in Kinvara. Once the royal seat of the 7th-century King Guaire of Connaught, the castle was taken over by Oliver St. John Gogarty (1878–1957), Irish surgeon, author, poet, and wit; his great friends Yeats and Lady Gregory were frequent guests. Today, you can enjoy exquisite views from its battlements of the nearby Burren and Galway Bay, and stay for a medieval banquet on a summer evening.
Athenry: Faded Medieval Splendor
Remarkably intact after more than 6 centuries, the medieval town walls of Athenry—about 25 minutes’ drive east from Galway—surround a charming small town that feels like a time-warp experience. Those walls are some of the best-preserved in Ireland, constructed in the 1300s, with well over half of the original 2km (1 1/3 mile) circuit still surviving—up to 5m (16 1/2 ft.) tall in places.
Start with a visit to the Athenry Heritage Centre on The Square, in the town center (www.athenryheritagecentre.com; 091/844-661). As well as providing all the usual orientation—including maps for walking routes—it has a lively Medieval Experience. Aimed mostly at kids, it has plenty of interactive exhibits, dress-up areas, and recreations of a torture dungeon and medieval street. Admission costs €8 adults, €6.50 children, €26 families. You can also play Robin Hood by trying your hand at archery; hour-long lessons cost €25. The center is open June to August, daily 10:30am to 5pm; and April to May weekdays from 10:30am to 5pm. It’s closed September to March.
Just a 10-minute walk away, on Court Lane, is the medieval Athenry Castle. Inside its modest tower keep—the only substantial part that survives—look at the interesting carvings on the main doorway and window arches. Admission costs €5 adults, €4 seniors, €3 students and children, and €13 families. From April to September it’s open daily 9:30am to 6pm (last admission 5:15pm); in October, it’s open Monday to Thursday 9:30am to 5pm (last admission 4:15pm). (It’s closed from November to March).
Just around the corner from the castle on Bridge Street, check out the ruins of a Dominican Priory, built in the mid-13th century and comprehensively destroyed by Cromwell’s forces 400 years later. Today it’s just a picturesque ruin, incongruously surrounded by modern houses; to medievalists, however, it’s of particular interest because of its elaborately carved gravestones.
To reach Athenry from Galway, take the M5 motorway east about 25km (15 1/2 miles) to junction 17, signposted for Athenry and Craughwell. There’s also train service hourly from Galway City; the trip takes between 15 and 30 minutes and costs around €6 round trip.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.