Suburban mindset – An Irishman’s Diary on Galway’s search for a European vision

I must admit that I hadn’t been to the Galway International Arts Festival since the mid-1990s and I had no plans to go this year until Catriona Crowe, curator of its First Thought Talks, invited me to join a panel to discuss our current housing crisis and what might be done about it.

The whole idea of “home” was a recurring theme of these gabfests, with President Michael D Higgins ruminating on the evolution of housing from Neanderthal caves to the present day while author and playwright Sebastian Barry talked about the fictional homes in his novels.

The festival bills itself as “a creative collision of artists, musicians, actors, writers, performers, friends and fans at the edge of Europe”.

Dutch trio Close-Act, dressed as outsized birds, certainly collided with the punters as they pranced around every evening pecking at captivated audiences.

Galway is en fête, of course. It’s such a huge bonanza for hotels, pubs, restaurants and tourist trinket shops, with an economic value estimated at €25 million.

Quay Street is like a big outdoor party, with throngs of people sauntering past hundreds of others eating and drinking in enclosures.

Eyre Square is turned into the Festival Garden, which patrons were encouraged to think of as “Galway’s Livingroom”, where they could kick back and chill out, or visit the Miracoco Luminarium, a complex of tented structures that promised a “unique and sensory experience”, with tickets for €5.

Enthusiastic volunteers had just built a recognisable (though slightly leaning) replica of the steeple of St Nicholas’s Collegiate Church, under the direction of artist Olivier Grossetête, as a “transient construction” made from cardboard boxes; it lasted for the weekend before being demolished with glee.

Galway is now looking forward to its stint as European City of Culture in 2020, although there is a lot of criticism from the local arts community about how it is being organised. Its artistic director quit after a year, there’s a major shortfall in funding and a serious lack of transparency about it all.

One of the city’s cultural lynchpins is the new Palás/Palace arthouse cinema, a twisted concrete box designed by zany Dublin-based architect Tom de Paor that ended up costing €9.5 million. It finally opened earlier this year, after the publicly funded building was handed over to Element Pictures.

Shop Street, the city’s principal retail zone, was pedestrianised in 1998, after decades of debate. Twenty years later, the concrete paving looks cheap and worn, while the intervening limestone panels are breaking up and now constitute trip hazards for pedestrians, some of whom might sue after a fall.

Footpaths on the Salmon Weir Bridge that leads to Bishop Michael Browne’s great reactionary cathedral are barely more than a metre wide – an insult to hordes of pedestrians.

Upriver, the old Clifden railway line’s bridge piers still stand in the Corrib, crying out to be topped by a new bridge for walking and cycling.

Galway City Council’s principal transport priority is not to provide for a public transport network that the city so desperately needs, but to proceed with yet another major road scheme – the €600 million N6 Galway bypass – in the vain hope that this will “solve” its notorious traffic problems.

In the meantime, it looks as if nothing much will be done to improve meagre bus services or build cycleways.

Neither will there be much inner-city housing – perhaps even none at all – in schemes being planned for the Docks area and at the rear of Ceannt Station, where hundreds of apartments could be built.

NUIG, the city’s university, and Galway Mayo Institute of Technology have lots of expertise and should be involving themselves more actively in what’s going on in Galway, in an effort to put the city on the right track. (Such academic engagement has worked elsewhere, notably in Limerick).

Out on Dublin Road, the former Corrib Great Southern Hotel – once so central to the life of the city – is a now derelict hulk, in the hands of the Comer Group and other investors, whose plans to demolish the entire complex have yet to be implemented. Nobody seems to know what may replace it.

Galway may see itself as city of culture, but it has yet to develop a European vision of sustainable urban development.

And with the National Planning Framework, Ireland 2040, targeting an increase in its population of up to 45,000, or 60 per cent, it is rapidly running out of time to get the priorities right. So far, Galway’s suburban mentality has only succeeded in turning it into Carmageddon.