Saturday, July 22, 2017

Welcome to the City of Bluster

Did you know there was a "prayer crisis" in my city this week? No?

Well, I guess you might be more familiar with the homelessness crisis.                                  
It's festival season in Galway, but our councillors are
bickering over their pre-meeting prayers

At this time of year, Galway is buzzing with life. The pubs and restaurants are packed, the arts venues are heaving, but every night visitors are taken aback by the number of people they see bedding down in shop doorways.

They can’t imagine what it must be like to bed out in the most western city in Europe during the cold, wet, and windy months when tourists don’t fill the hotels and the rain and winds sweep in from the Atlantic seaboard.

The scenes in Galway this year are unprecedented, reminding me of the alarming level of homelessness I witnessed in San Francisco - where at least the climate is much better - two decades ago.

The problem in Galway has become more and more acute and more visible. Last winter, for example, homeless people could be seen to brave the harsh elements in a shelter in Salthill for the first time.

Photos circulated of the number of people lying in doorways on Forster Street on the morning of the funeral of a prominent campaigner for the homeless in the city. The sad irony was not lost on his family members and friends.

What the tourists don’t see are the women and children in distress, who have escaped from domestic violence in order to stay in safe houses run by charities at locations throughout the city.

Or how those safe houses can be full to capacity at certain times of year, forcing the members of some families to sleep in cars or on friends' couches.

You won’t see them lying in shop doorways, huddling together in sleeping bags, but they are homeless all the same.

On a special Facebook page, people literally beg for rooms and offer favours as students compete with workers to find places for the academic year.

There have been very few houses built since greedy bankers and developers bankrupt the economy almost a decade ago, putting a massive strain on accommodation as the economy continues to recover.

With rents rising alarmingly, and tourism booming, ordinary people feel they are being squeezed out of their own city and the waiting list for local authority homes includes hundreds of families and individuals who have been stuck in a limbo for years.

There is a transport crisis in my city.                                                    
The people who run this beautiful city spent 75 minutes
arguing over whether they should pray at meetings

In their infinite wisdom, city planners built hundreds of homes on the west side of the city for people who would then find work in factories on the east side.

They have planned everything around the car, in a city which was built for pedestrians or horses when it was founded over 500 years ago.

The roads are choked with traffic, to such an extent that friends living in Dublin tell us it takes them as long to get across Galway on a Friday evening as the entire journey from Dublin to the eastern outskirts.

Every morning, we hear about the huge tailbacks experienced by workers stuck in traffic on their way to the city from satellite towns and villages. They all sit, frustrated, in their cars for hours because nobody ever thought about providing decent public transport for them.

They rage against the city planners, because commuting times are comparable to those in cities ten times bigger than Galway. There is no sign of a decent bus service, safe cycle lanes, or the kind of light rail tram which would encourage so many people to leave their cars at home.
The Catholic Cathedral dominates the city's skyline
There is a health care crisis in my city.

People living as far away as Donegal or Sligo have to come to Galway to spend hours upon hours waiting for treatment in our choked up public hospital.

The frustrations of dealing with illness, or visiting close family members or friends who are ill or in need of urgent treatment, are magnified by trying to negotiate gridlocked roads.

When they manage to make it to University Hospital Galway, they find the cost of parking prohibitive – if they are ‘lucky’ enough to find parking spaces at all. They don’t have the local knowledge to try to find a cheaper parking place in a city where the local authority views car parking as a serious source of revenue.

You’d imagine these important issues would be of huge concern to our local representatives, given that Galway is the European Capital of Culture for 2020 and this beautiful city relies so much on its reputation for friendliness to generate tourism revenue.

But, if you look at the local paper, the biggest issue to engage the members of Galway City Council before their lengthy summer break this week was a dispute over whether or not they should have a Roman Catholic prayer at the start of their regular meetings.

Flags flying over Galway City Hall, scene of this week's
enlightening 'debate' over the pre-meeting prayer
Housing, homelessness, or the health care crisis did not get a look in when the councillors managed to spend 75 minutes arguing vehemently over whether or not they should retain their Catholic prayer.

This week, before the break, they only had one thing to talk about – their precious Standing Orders and the prayer. The meeting had to be adjourned twice by Mayor Pearce Flannery (FG), on one occasion to allow the City Councillors to “cool off” during a heated debate.

There were even allegations of bullying and grandstanding among the pious Fianna Fail members of  Galway City Council, who were enraged that their precious prayer was being disposed of.

For non-Irish readers, these are the members of the political party which managed to bankrupt Ireland as recently as 2008. You might imagine they have more pressing issues on their minds.

So, to their shock and horror, the Councillors will no longer have a prayer in Irish before their meetings from September. They will replace it with a short period of silent reflection.

During the course of more than 20 years of reporting on the local authority, I always found it extremely odd that councillors, officials, journalists, and members of the public were expected to join in a Catholic prayer at the start of every City Council meeting.

I even felt distinctly uncomfortable about it during the 1990s, when the Irish people were being rocked by a succession of scandals involving the Catholic Church.

What kind of message did that convey to Protestants, Muslims, Buddhists, Pagans, or people of no religion, to see that those who governed them lived by an ethos of a “Catholic country for a Catholic people”?

Tourists enjoying the vibrant street culture of Galway
The council chamber hardly felt like the most inclusive or welcoming place when one religious group was given preference above all others at the start of every meeting.

Scrapping the pre-meeting prayer was surely a no-brainer in a society which may hope to welcome one million Protestants to a secular, pluralist United Ireland some day. It should have been abolished decades ago, despite the heated – and vocal – protestations of the Fianna Fail representatives.

They actually did not move on to any other issue because the councillors became so animated in their debates over the precious prayer.

If they can get so animated over a matter as trivial as a divisive prayer, imagine how heated the exchanges will be when they get around to solving the city’s housing and traffic problems.

Oh, wait … That’s not actually on their agenda!

Ciaran Tierney is a journalist, blogger, and Digital Storyteller, based in Galway, Ireland. You can find his Facebook page here

To hire a writer or blogger, contact Ciaran via


  1. no change there in galway seems to be just as hypocritical now as it was when i was born there in the nintey thirties. i really hoped that FATHER TED might have put paid to all that faux religious nonsence?

  2. Excellent analysis Ciaran. But have you any suggestions as to how we can improve this great city of ours?

  3. Hi Tommy,

    I've been away in Belfast all week so only got a chance to reply to your comment now.

    I don't think it's rocket science to say that people should stop electing politicians who think it's ok to spend 75 minutes arguing about Standing Orders and their precious prayer.

    The wider public don't give a damn about Standing Orders or whether or not they have a prayer at meetings. It seems like a complete waste of taxpayers' money and time.

    Of course there aren't instant solutions. But about a decade ago I wrote a series of articles about GLUAS, a dedicated light rail for the city, for the Galway City Tribune. Here we are a decade later and they are still arguing about the outer bypass.

    The whole culture of the city needs to change when it comes to transport, and the reliance on the car has to cease.

    The homelessness issue is far more problematic. Yet look at all the empty buildings in the city which once belonged to greedy speculators.

    In Ireland, we reward the corrupt and the crooked, and condemn ordinary people to years upon years on the social housing waiting list.