What is the most romantic food? Is it falafel? One of the show’s characters came over to ask us for our opinion as we settled into our seats, taking notes of our suggestions.
This was just one of the interactions we had as part of the Galway International Arts Festival (GIAF). It has been a cultural catalyst since 1978 and attracts over 200,000 visitors to the city every July. For two weeks there are over 200 amazing events in Galway including theatre, music, dance, opera, comedy, drama and street extravaganzas. It features international and local acts, many critically acclaimed artists, writers and performers, and has helped the town win European Capital of Culture in 2020.
Also happening at the same time is the Galway Fringe Festival, which presents even more artistic productions with a focus on the best of homegrown and Irish language shows. With two festivals at the same time, we could pick and mix a variety of experiences.
First out of the bag was Tristan and Yseult, an epic romantic tragedy from the 12th century inspired by Celtic stories. This production brought the old fable bang up to date in a very engaging, enthralling sell-out show. The story was brilliantly retold from the perspective of the main victim of the story using current chart hits and a huge range of dance styles.
The skills of the actors were amazing, including acrobatic routines and slapstick comedy scenes, playing musical instruments and executing marvellous vocal performances, as well as delivering the intense, heartbreaking, drama. From the outset the audience was interacting with the members of the ‘Club of the Unloved’ and I was taken on an emotional joyride. A brilliant, slick and polished delivery ensured the ensemble received a standing ovation upon the curtain call.
We exited the theatre on a high and craved more live artistic performances. Luckily we strolled around and someone gave us a flyer for a show called Squinty that was just about to start. Hurrah! A bit of blurb told us that this was about four friends who meet up for a 40th birthday party and a dark secret from their past resurfaces. That was enough intrigue for us to purchase tickets and take a seat. This was a pared back, authentic fringe play, held and set in a room above a pub and completed in only a single act.
After a little audio adjustment to the accents and we were deep into the story, which raked up controversial events that these guys had got mixed up in as young teens. Years later the consequences of these actions were slowly revealed to us, as the old school pals realised that all wasn’t it seemed to be. I was completely engrossed with this dramatic yarn; the fine acting was fiercely accentuated with an f-bomb heavy dialogue. It was deliciously rural and chock-a-block with character. Loved it.
We had worked up quite an appetite by this point and so we headed to the highly recommended hip food and dance joint, The Bite Club. Up on the roof, it’s a nice recipe of covered street market meets funky bar space that converts into a club later on. It was quite difficult to choose something from the eclectic menu but I decided on the West Coast crab tacos and a side of macaroni cheese with smoked haddock. The tacos came with a slaw of apple and fennel, which was excitingly teamed up with a green goddess salad dressing. They were light, fresh, zippy, crunchy, and brilliantly crabby.
In contrast, the fishy mac and cheese were a deep cuddle of food, soft, warm and familiar. I enjoyed the culinary journey so much that I broke the first rule of Bite Club. Oops.
The next day we were keen to devour more culture so a lunchtime comedy show was a perfect way to warm us up with some laughter. Lorcan McGrane promised to divulge all of his geeky secrets and it turned out to be quite a different comedy hour than I have experienced before. McGrane narrated a slideshow with his most embarrassing moments, weird everyday observations and small Irish village life frustrations.
Comedy has to be the hardest craft to perform, especially at 1 pm when most of the audience are sober. You have to give a high five to the brave soul who attempts this, especially when the subject of his routine was essentially his personal peculiarities This was a valiant effort by McGrane, with content I could definitely relate to.
The festivals were not just about grand performances and evening shows. Luckily there were several art installations across the town that was an ideal way to view static visual creativity whilst also getting to know Galway a little better. Using the festival’s pamphlet as a guide we visited the featured galleries. Our favourite was the Ana Maria Pacheco exhibit at the GIAF’s purpose built temporary display space. Her large wooden carved sculptures were incredibly emotionally charged and placed in intense and disturbing scenes. The figure’s faces used human teeth and their expressions were hauntingly powerful.
After our self-guided tour, we were keen for some hearty sustenance. I’m a sucker for a place that has a queue outside the door; it means the food is worth waiting for. So, after a reasonable twenty minutes, we were seated in the small retro cafe The Pie Maker. It’s basically a one-stop shop; if you are not a fan of pastry products then you will be disappointed. However, if you are seeking fluffy flakiness surrounding hunky meaty bites then this is your nirvana. I plumped for the Irish sausage, black pudding, leek and sherry pie with a leafy salad and devoured the lot.
I was worried that the black pudding would dominate the plate but it was well balanced and yes, the salad was worthy of riding shotgun. Service was swift and chummy. We enjoyed our mains so much that we felt compelled to assess the dessert pies too, with the rhubarb and ginger version the outright winner. With a sneak peek of the historic Galway city walls as part of the decor, this is one restaurant destined to become as legendary.
We dove straight back into the culture club after our mini pit stop. I had heard of Hedy Lamarr before, legendary silver screen siren and inventor. When I saw that there was a show dedicated to this lady I was curious to find out more. Little did I know that we were to be given an extraordinary treat of a performance. Heather Massie not only wrote the biopic but she also played every single character.
We were taken on an epic safari through Hedy’s transformation from striving young actress lured into a lewd movie role to the global superstar. We also learned about her hobby as a savvy scientist and her family life, including her six marriages. Massie, like Lamarr herself, used her charm to enthrall audience members with her portrayal of the formidable Lamarr, which was a delight to witness; a wonderful celebration of Girl Power.
Next up was the final act of our Galway festival experience. A witch screeched obscenities from her fish shaped throne atop of a steel wire wagon that was propelled through the streets of Galway by two rats spinning the vehicle’s giant wheels, accompanied by a roving band of painted drummers. ‘Chariot of the Sea’ was a spectacle that unfolded before us as an operatic pageant that featured crowd participation, comedic moments and so much energy.
French company Transe Express executed a performance that encapsulated the essential ingredients of carnival. The massive, moving, striking theatrical display was so much fun to follow and participate in as it paraded through town, despite the damp weather. It’s a particularly nice experience to feel a city in fiesta time, a vibrant and spritely atmosphere of collective artistic celebration.
For us, that was the end of our Galway cultural adventure. The quality, diversity, and variety that we witnessed were rewarding and inspiring. I particularly enjoyed the audience participation in shows and the level of intimacy that was achieved, where I almost felt I was on stage too. Despite the popularity of the festivals, it wasn’t too hectic or frustratingly sold out, plus there were options for all ranges of budgets. After the talent heavy couple of days, I didn’t know whether falafel was romantic or not but I did know that Galway’s festivals would be hard acts to follow.
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