Rosita Boland: A tiny cardboard Galway is not the one I want

In the late 1990s I built my own Galway, roaming the city day and night

It’s propped up on a shelf in my living room, still unopened. Sealed in cellophane is a large greeting card, but it’s also something else. It’s a card you can make something out of, should you get busy with scissors and strong glue.

The paper model kit is called Build Your Own Tiny Galway. It’s part of a series designed by an artist called Anke Eckardt. I bought the card in Charlie Byrne’s Bookshop two years ago, and I have been looking at it a lot lately.

The three-dimensional kit features a row of some landmark shops on Quay Street. There are five little bright facades, and vistas of the Spanish Arch, the Claddagh, swans, and a hooker in full sail.

My magnificent postal address that year was Over the Crow's Feather, Market Street, Galway. From the living-room window of my flat I could see the house Nora Barnacle grew up in

A year into the pandemic, the Galway in my head is now almost as small as the one in this paper model kit. It seems so long since I was there, walking its familiar streets, which I got to know and love when living there for a year in the late 1990s.


My lodgings back then were on the upper floor of an old house on Market Street, over a shop called the Crow’s Feather, which sold crystals and incense and bunches of sage. My magnificent postal address that year was Over the Crow’s Feather, Market Street, Galway. From the living-room window of my upstairs flat I could see the house that Nora Barnacle grew up in.

I built my own Galway that year, street by street, roaming it at all times of the day and night. The old Atlanta Hotel, where visiting writers stayed during Cúirt, the literary festival, was still open. I browsed in Charlie Byrne’s, in Bell Book and Candle, and in Kenny’s. We went to Tigh Neachtain’s and Taylor’s for pints, and to Le Graal for wine when we were feeling flush and fancy. The Home Plate, with its gable mural, Cafe du Journal, and the tiny Shakespeare’s cafe were other beloved haunts.

On the narrow city-centre road where a friend lived, someone ceremoniously laid boughs of verdant green chestnut at each door at dawn on May Day. I woke up over the Crow’s Feather one summer morning, opened my shutters, and saw the arts-festival fairies had been at work.

The enormous tree in the grounds of St Nicholas’ cathedral opposite my window had been transformed. Oranges hung improbably from every branch; bright Mediterranean baubles.

I worked at Punchbag Theatre, doing a job of two parts. In the mornings I cleaned the toilets and in the evenings I worked in the box office. After the evening’s performance the place transformed into a club, and it was there I learned the perpetually useful expression “It’s too late to go home early now.”

There were horizons everywhere you looked from the Claddagh, where mercurial skies changed by the minute, and pulled the gaze ever westwards. I didn’t drive back then, but a friend had a car, and sometimes we drove out through Connemara to Clifden and beyond for the day, always hungering for more: more skies, more west, more everything.

I built my Galway over the course of that year, and then I left, to go live in a different country and try out a different life. I’ve never lived there since, but I return often. It’s a place that always makes me feel happy, and although many of the places I frequented back then are long since closed, the bones of the city remain the same. The swans still cluster at the Claddagh, and the skies still endlessly remake themselves above the Spanish Arch.

This past year feels as if it has gone on for decades. All our worlds have become smaller and smaller. Galway, and all the other places more than 5km from our homes, seem so surreally far away right now.

There have been days when I have considered taking the cellophane off Build Your Own Tiny Galway and doing just that. Cutting around the drawings, and folding and gluing tabs to create a miniature version of the city I know so well and miss so much. But I haven’t done it.

I’m holding out, as we all must do, for better days. A tiny cardboard Galway is not the one I want. I want to walk through the streets of the real one again. And I will. These restrictions will end some day, and all of us will walk once again in the places we love and miss so much.