Wednesday, May 25, 2016

So .. what are the ten best pubs in Galway?

For a city with a population of less than 80,000 souls, Galway certainly tends to punch above its weight. 

Recently designated a UNESCO City of Film, and currently in the reckoning to become European Capital of Culture in 2020, it was voted the friendliest city in the world by a New York-based magazine late last year.

According to Travel + Leisure magazine, Galway stood out due to its festive nature, lively population, and the love of music which ensures you will always find a talented busker on the city’s narrow streets or a rousing session in one of its hospitable pubs.

More than 23,000 full-time students help the city’s bars to maintain a thriving trade through the wet and windy winter months, but it’s in summer time that Ireland’s western capital really comes into its own.

There is hardly a weekend between April and October when the city’s citizens are not celebrating one festival or another, from the major international Arts Festival in July to raucous celebrations of film, literature, music, theatre, and all things culinary.

If you do happen to visit the City of the Tribes during the forthcoming peak season, for what it’s worth, here is a local’s guide to the ten pubs you must visit if you really want to sample the best of the night life the city has to offer.

An Pucan
11 Forster Street.
A pub which underwent a major renovation after new owners took it over a couple of years ago, the new-look An Pucan has become a huge favourite on the locals’ social scene. Boasting live music seven nights a week, good food, and a cavernous beer garden, the pub is a huge hit with students and young professionals at weekends.
Also popular with sports fans, the pub has become a 21st century Galway institution and regularly wins awards for the quality and innovation of its social media campaigns.

Eyre Square
Once a small grocery and bar, O’Connell’s boasts a fantastic location in the heart of the city. Overlooking the green space in John F. Kennedy Park, where the late US President addressed a huge crowd just months before his assassination in 1963, it has been trading solely as a pub since the 1970s. It also has one of the best beer gardens in the city.
A preserved building, the pub’s stunning, traditional décor includes tiled floors and stained glass windows, with historic photographs on the walls. It attracts a diverse clientele throughout the year, although it is particularly popular with professionals (who frequent the pub after work in the early evenings) and rugby fans. The home ground of the Connacht rugby team, currently enjoying their best ever season, is just a five minute stroll away.

Tig Coili
Photo; Aidan Coughlan
Mainguard Street
If you wander the narrow streets of Galway in search of a lively, impromptu traditional music session, chances are you will end up in this pub in the heart of the pedestrian zone. During the peak tourist season it can be almost impossible to get a table, as many of the region’s finest musicians are regularly found here belting out the tunes free of charge. ‘Tig’,incidentally, is Gaelic for “the house of” and affable owner Coili is hugely popular with the punters.
Often the musicians just sit around a table, without any amplification, so getting in early to grab a good vantage point should be at the top of your priorities for the evening. The pub has an attractive outdoor seating area, where you can watch the world go by on sunny afternoons. Some of the city’s best buskers regularly set up for the day right outside the front door.

19 Shop Street
Just up the street from Tig Coili, this is another pub which has been synonymous with music in Galway for many years. Amplification is actively encouraged here as guest bands blast out the ballads and rebel songs for a young, lively crowd.
The pub has been owned by the Lally family, who have had strong connections with both the Connemara Gaeltacht and Galway’s Gaelic Athletic Association (GAA) teams for many years. It’s a great place to sing along to ballads, to watch a GAA game in summer, or to hear locals speaking their native tongue.

Photo: Aidan Coughlan

Tigh Neachtain
17 Cross Street
Local comedian John Donnellan recently quipped that you need to drink in Tigh Neachtain at least three or four nights a week if you are to be considered a “serious artist” in Galway. There was an element of truth to his provocative claim, as many a novel, poem, or screenplay was conjured up – if not quite completed – within the pub’s four walls.
With a splendid location in the heart of the city’s Latin Quarter, good food from the stylish restaurant upstairs, open fireplaces, and live music, this has been a firm favourite with a Bohemian otoclientele for decades. It’s also a great place to watch the world go by from the outside seating area in high summer.

McGinn’s Hop House
19 Woodquay
This new pub in the historic Woodquay area showcases the boom in craft beers which has taken place across Ireland over the past five years or so. With 18 types of beer on draught, you will be spoilt for choice when you enter this friendly bar which is a big hit with the city’s sports fans and native Irish speakers.
Although it’s one of the newest additions to the Galway pub scene, the affable Fergus McGinn has over two decades of experience in the pub trade behind him. Killer pizzas and slow roast meats, cooked around a wood-fired oven, set this premises apart from the competition.

The Salt House
Raven Terrace
There is nothing particularly notable about the décor or lay-out of this pub, tucked away beside a canal on the west side of the River Corrib. A lot of Galway pubs are brighter, breezier, and bigger, but none can match the sheer variety of craft beers available at The Salt House. This place boasts 120 varieties of bottled craft beers from all around the world, and 21 different types of beer on draught at any one time.
The bar staff here are knowledgeable and passionate about their beers, so much so that they love to make recommendations about their favourite brews. You could spend an entire week sampling the wide variety of beers here, some of which are brewed locally in Galway. Just don’t ask for a Guinness or a Heineken when you make it to the top of the queue!

Monroe’s Tavern
Dominick Street Upper
This cavernous venue on three floors is a Galway institution, as it has been owned and run by the same family for decades. You can find traditional Irish set-dancing, rousing ballads, and good food on the ground floor; while the late night upstairs bar features visiting acts seven nights a week.
Late night bars have taken over from night clubs somewhat on the Galway social scene in recent years and venues such as Monroe’s, the Front Door, and The Dail cater for those who want to enjoy a late drink after the ‘normal’ pub closing time.

Roisin Dubh                                     
Photo: Aidan Coughlan
Lower Dominick Street
Just a stone’s throw away from Monroe’s, you will find the city’s other main live music venue in the part of the city known to locals as ‘The West’. Roisin Dubh is probably the best place to see touring live international and national rock bands in Galway, while it also provides a welcome stage for emerging local artists.
Some of Ireland’s best live acts, such as Le Galaxie, Villagers, and Two Door Cinema Club started playing free shows here on Thursday nights and the venue is also a huge hit with the city’s comedy fans. Management at the Roisin also put on occasional gigs at bigger venues such as the Seapoint ballroom in Salthill, and co-promote the music programme for the Big Top at the Galway International Arts Festival in July.

Upper Salthill
The sleepy seaside suburb of Salthill might not have the night life to match Galway’s thriving city centre, but it boasts one of the most attractive pubs in the city in O’Connor’s, which has been run by the same family since 1942.
First established in 1845, the pub is as famous for its hospitality as its free live music sessions. One of the country’s original singing pubs, its décor has to be seen to be believed. Not too many pubs across Ireland boast a bicycle hanging from the ceiling!

* An edited version of this article was published by on Wednesday, May 18. 

Thursday, May 19, 2016

Have we really moved on?

When my best friend Joe died, I was an angry young man. We got drunk, we got stoned, we attended the Funeral . . . and then life just went on. The world kept turning and there was no such thing as counselling or grief recovery in the early 1990s.

It was nobody’s fault. Everyone around me was trying to cope with their grief in their own way and my little sister, Cliona, had passed away less than a year earlier. People shrugged and told me to get on with things.

As a young Irishman, I didn’t know how to talk about feelings . . . not without alcohol on board at any rate.
Sinead O'Connor: one of the best Irish singers of all time

Of course, there was no Internet in those days. I didn’t rant on Facebook after returning home from the pub at 4am or put up photos on Instagram of my friends and I drinking ourselves into oblivion, which was the norm for most of my friends at the time.

We didn’t think there was anything unusual about our hard drinking, we were just wild, out for the craic, living all the Irish clichés. It probably took years for me to realise that there was a lot of pain hidden behind that heavy drinking.

For me, one of the constants at the time was the music of Sinead O’Connor. I came home from a summer in London to become enraptured by this gorgeous, provocative diminutive singer who seemed to speak out for my generation in a way nobody else dared to.

I was 20 and I hated Ireland. I wanted to be back in London, going to punk and metal gigs, following my beloved Liverpool FC around. I wanted the freedom of meeting women from Italy or Spain or England, who were far more liberated than I was.

Back home, I wondered how somebody from my generation could be so daring, so sexy, so sure of her own voice in late 1980s Ireland.

When she sang ‘I Want Your Hands On Me’, Sinead was sexy in a way which seemed almost impossible for a young Irish person at the time. In those days we wore woolly jumpers as though we were ashamed of our own bodies.

In a country in which there was no contraception, no divorce, no abortion, this young woman from Dublin sang with a raw honesty which was simply incredible. Hell, there were still women living in Magdalene Laundries at the time.

Women who had committed the ‘crime’ of getting pregnant in Catholic Ireland were locked up barely a ten minute walk from my newspaper office, the sex abuse cases which rocked the Church had not yet been exposed, and hardly anybody questioned what was going on.

When Sinead (she’s so familiar, we call her by her first name) combined with the brilliant Benjamin Zephaniah to sing a song about the crimes committed by the British Empire, I was immensely proud.

When she reached number one with ‘Nothing Compares To You’, it felt as though there were boundless possibilities for a young Irish person who spoke out or sang the truth. I wasn’t mad into pop songs, but there was such passion in her voice.

I grew up on metal and punk, outlets for my rage in a very repressive Catholic Ireland, and here was an amazing young woman from Dublin who was willing to take on the world.

When she tore up a photo of the Pope, I thought she was a little misguided but I was also immensely proud. Nobody, yes nobody, was that brave in Ireland at the time.

Sinead O’Connor's music has been a constant in my life for more than half my life. I don’t claim to know her, although I did meet her once in Galway during the height of a summer Arts Festival. I was struck by how unassuming and shy she was that night, for someone who was a hero for so many of my generation on the Emerald Isle.

I thought about Sinead again this week, when a friend of mine alerted me to a troubling post on her Facebook page.

It was deeply personal and should never have appeared on a public social media site in the first place.

It shocked me when I did a Google search to find that quite a number of media outlets had shared the post in full, as though this very public meltdown by a ‘celebrity’  – or cry for help – deserved to become a form of entertainment.

No doubt the post, and the subsequent media reports, must have caused anguish to her close friends and family members as Sinead was clearly not in a good place when she wrote it.

I didn’t read it in detail and I most certainly didn’t want to read the comments underneath, but what shocked me was the fact that more than 1,000 people had taken the ‘trouble’ to ‘share’ it with their friends.

This was just two days after she had been reported missing by friends where she was staying, near Chicago. Thankfully, she was found safe and well.

Social media has transformed our lives in many ways, but have we become so dehumanised that we see entertainment value or ‘news’ in someone else’s anguish?

She might be a famous singer, but she is also a human being, facing the kind of troubles, challenges, and life-changing events we all have to face every day.

If she was clearly not in a good place on Tuesday night, where was the value in reading her deeply personal rant, aimed at some of the people closest to her, or sharing it on social media?

Or, worse, making jokes on Twitter about the whole sorry affair?

When Sinead went missing two days earlier, The Daily Telegraph felt that the ‘event’ merited a ‘live blog'.

It was clearly of no concern to the online editors that this in-depth coverage of such a vulnerable woman in distress might be deeply hurtful to Sinead and her family and friends.

Getting clicks on their website was clearly of far more importance than the well-being of a woman who was going through a tough time.

In 2016, a public figure’s meltdown can become a form of entertainment which would have been unthinkable back when my friend Joe died back in 1990.

Life was hard enough for me and my friends back then, without people making jokes on Facebook or posting insensitive remarks.

So … have we really moved on?

Ireland is going through a mental health crisis and the turn-out at this month’s Darkness Into Light walks (an estimated 120,000 across the country) showed that thousands upon thousands of people felt that the State is not doing a good enough job in this area.

Organisations like Pieta House and Console exist because our State health service is not addressing the crisis in mental health.

When I was in A&E with the MRSA ‘superbug’ last year, a young man who clearly had mental health problems was left languishing in a hospital corridor for hours.

He should have been in a state-of-the-art unit, not mixing with elderly people and accident victims lying on trolleys in an overcrowded corridor.

I wonder sometimes if the support available to a 20-year old whose best friend dies in 2016 is any better than it was in Ireland a quarter of a century ago.

I treasure Sinead as one of the most gifted songwriters of my, or any, generation. I firmly believe that people will still listen to the music of Sinead and Shane MacGowan long after most of today’s artists are forgotten.

But her personal demons are none of my business. I’m not going to ‘share’ them on Facebook as some form of titillation for my friends. I’m certainly not going to make hurtful jokes about a troubled soul on Twitter.

Sinead back in 1990 when she reached number one.
I only hope she gets the help she needs.

That’s all that matters right now for Sinead, her family, and her friends.

This week’s reaction on social media made me wonder whether we really have progressed from the witch trials and public hangings of the Middle Ages.

For all our technology, have we become so dehumanised that a public figure’s tragic meltdown is worthy of a click on a keyboard, or a Facebook share, on social media?

Do people even stop to think about the damage they cause when they post vicious or mocking posts about someone who is clearly going through a tough time?

It doesn’t seem that way. People post words on social media which they would never dare to utter to a person’s face.

We might be “connected” to each other 24/7 through our laptops, tablets, and smart phones, but in many ways we’ve become “disconnected” from our fellow human beings … We sit behind keyboards, poking fun at people who only need our help and good wishes as they struggle to make the most of this crazy, complicated life.

And, what’s worse, many of us don’t even think we are doing anything wrong.

Wednesday, May 4, 2016

Justice at last for the 96

How sad – and yet how fitting – that the biggest “newspaper” in Britain decided to leave any mention of the result of the longest-running Inquests in British legal history off its front page when a two year hearing came to an end last week.

For, in its own way, The Sun had done as much damage as any lying South Yorkshire police officer or Tory politician in compounding the grief of so many families who lost loved-ones on the day 96 people went to a football match and never came home.

It really is hard to imagine now how much hurt was caused to the families of the Liverpool FC fans when they read the appalling headline which adorned the entire front page of Britain’s biggest-selling tabloid just five days after they lost their loved-ones in such terrible circumstances.

Under the headline ‘The Truth’, Rupert Murdoch’s tabloid printed lies about the fans and survivors which facilitated a despicable ‘cover-up’, tarnished an entire city, and allowed all of 27 years to pass before the world finally discovered the truth about what happened on that April afternoon in 1989.

According to The Sun, some fans pick-pocketed the victims as they died beside them in the overcrowded pens. 

According to The Sun, some fans urinated on the “brave cops”. Ask anyone who was at the game, and there were 54,000 witnesses, and they would tell you the exact opposite – from the outset, some of the policemen present at the ground treated the victims as criminals and actually went out of their way to prevent the dying and injured from being rescued.

According to The Sun, on the same front page, some fans beat up a PC as he gave the kiss of life. In reality, it was the fans behind the goals who were the heroes, using advertising hoardings as stretchers as they attempted to help the dying and gravely injured in the midst of an appallingly poor, or even hostile, response from the authorities.

By spreading vicious lies under one of the most inappropriate headlines in newspaper history, the newspaper literally allowed the authorities to get away with murder.
Remembering the 96 at Anfield in 2007

Even though nobody in the ground witnessed any of these terrible scenes, because they never happened, the tabloid sowed the seeds of doubt in people’s minds which allowed detractors, and the authorities, to denigrate a club, a city, and a group of fans for almost three decades.

Like all Liverpool FC fans of my vintage, I remember the day well. The sun shone all day and there was a real summery feeling in the air as we sat around the television to watch one of the most eagerly-awaited games of the year. I would have been envious of those who were “lucky” enough to have tickets for the big game.

I had been at a number of Liverpool games in London earlier that season, including one at Arsenal where overcrowding prevented me from seeing most of the first half at Highbury. Fans were herded like cattle onto the terraces in those days. That’s just the way it was.

It was terrible to sit in front of the TV and watch the scenes unfold ‘live’ as fans were squashed to death in front of a global audience of millions. It only took minutes to realise that something was seriously wrong. 

Looking back, it was unbelievable that the match kicked-off at 3pm when so many people were crowded into the pens behind the goals. Had Peter Beardsley scored a goal – he hit the bar just a few minutes into the game as fans were still streaming down the tunnel behind the goals –the death toll might have been even worse.

If it was distressing to watch the scenes unfold back at my parents’ home in Galway, the anguish of relatives watching on Merseyside – knowing their family members were on the Leppings Lane end – must have been unthinkable. 

There were no mobile phones in those days, so many of them just jumped into their cars and hit for Sheffield as the news filtered through that so many fans had died.

The Sun's despicable front page which caused so much anguish
Hard to imagine now the anguish they experienced when they were escorted into a gym, which had been converted into a makeshift mortuary, only to be quizzed about the drinking habits of their loved-ones even as they were in the process of identifying the dead.

Phil Scraton outlined the appalling treatment of the families in his comprehensive book, ‘Hillsborough’, a distressing but riveting read which was first published as far back as 1999.

In it, the families and friends of the victims outlined how disgustingly they were treated even as they searched for their missing loved-ones. Imagine, your brother, son, or daughter has just died in an appalling, avoidable accident at a football game ... and the police want to question you, aggressively, about how much alcohol they had to drink before the game kicked-off at 3pm.

If the pain began with the live TV coverage, it was compounded in the first 24 hours by the heartless reaction from the police – already intent on a cover-up – in response to the distress of the families.

Many of the police officers in Sheffield that weekend looked upon the victims and survivors as though they were criminals when their only ‘crime’ was to follow a football team and to be ushered, like cattle, into overcrowded pens.

They showed no compassion to the survivors, even as they were delivering the most devastating news to them in a cold and heartless manner.

It's now known the police officers went drinking in their private club that night. 

Within days, the South Yorkshire Police were changing their statements, more intent on covering up the truth of what really happened than finding out why such a terrible tragedy occurred.

Officers were told not to apportion any blame to their superiors and any who did had their statements redacted or changed. If David Duckenfield, in charge of the police operation on the day, had not ordered a gate to be opened outside the terrace, it is believed far fewer fans would have died.

It was a heartbreaking week for everyone on Merseyside. There were so many funerals, so many injuries, and so many survivors who found it hard to live with the guilt of coming out of Hillsborough alive. 

For many people, football died a death that day. After all, how could so many suffer so much merely for following a football team? The game just didn't seem to matter any more.

And, in the middle of it all, the shock of seeing that headline, that devastating front page, in The Sun. It resulted in a boycott of Rupert Murdoch’s tabloid right across Merseyside which has continued to this day.

The police, the Tories, and The Sun looked on the victims as expendable, people who could be lied about in court, at inquests, or in print, because they were mainly from Merseyside and mostly working-class. They didn't have a voice.

The subsequent report by Lord Justice Peter Taylor changed the face of football forever, with the removal of terraces and the introduction of the all-seater stadiums which are taken for granted in the English Premier League today.

Over a year after the tragedy, the Director of Public Prosecutions decided there was insufficient evidence to press charges against the police, or any other individual or group, as a result of the tragedy.

An inquest returned a verdict of “accidental death” in March 1991 and the authorities expected that to be the end of the tragedy. 

They wanted the families to simply fade away or disappear. Two years later, the 96th and final victim, Tony Bland (22), passed away after he was taken off a life support machine.

A change in Government saw Home Secretary Jack Straw ordering for evidence to be re-examined eight years after the tragedy, but he ruled out a manslaughter charge the following year.

And the taunts continued. Imagine the grief of the families when they heard some rival fans chant “Always the victims, It’s Never Your Fault” or, worse, “Murderers” when Liverpool travelled to play clubs such as Manchester United or Chelsea.

Honouring the 96 following the historic verdict
They were still being tarred with the slurs depicted in The Sun back in 1989.

To their credit, the families never gave up. They opened a little shop under the shadow of Liverpool’s Anfield Stadium and mingled with the fans, reminding them of the tragedy, on match days. 

And so, gradually, the calls for justice grew. By the 20th anniversary of the tragedy, they had reached a crescendo.

I remember one FA Cup game against Arsenal in January 2007, when three-quarters of the ground chanted “Justice for the 96” throughout the first six minutes of a game which was shown live on BBC TV. 

Liverpool lost that night, but anyone present in the ground was moved to tears by the conviction of the chants and the huge mosaic, The Truth, which adorned the Kop at the start of the game. Somehow the result of the game did not seem to matter.

The fans mimicked the hurtful headline from The Sun and turned it into a rallying cry.

And, somehow, despite the legal barriers they faced, the families decided they were no longer going to play the role of victims.

At the Hillsborough memorial service at Anfield in 2009, chants of “Justice for the 96” drowned out the politicians and Andy Burnham MP, a fan of city rivals Everton, became a champion of the Hillsborough Justice Campaign.

Everton, although footballing rivals, and Burnham were hugely supportive of the campaign and Burnham spoke brilliantly about the grave injustice inflicted on the families of the 96 following the verdict of the new Inquests last week. 

It was the 20th anniversary memorial which prompted the setting up the Hillsborough Independent Panel and, two years later, British lawmakers agreed to hand over all Government papers relating to the tragedy. Quite simply, the families refused to give up.

Fans at the game were convinced that lives could have been saved if the authorities had reacted in an appropriate manner but, shockingly, official confirmation of that fact did not emerge until 2012, 23 years after the tragedy.

By then, some survivors had committed suicide and some key family members, including Anne Williams, did not live to see last week’s verdict of unlawful killing. Anne lost her son, Kevin, at Hillsborough.

There was good news in 2012 when the Hillsborough Independent Panel found that the South Yorkshire Police orchestrated a cover-up, falsified witness statements, and blamed innocent supporters who, if anything, were the heroes of a terrible afternoon.

Thanks to the dogged determination of the families, the High Court quashed the original coroner’s verdicts of accidental death and so began the new inquests, the longest in British history, in March 2014.

For two years, the family members turned up daily to hear the evidence at Warrington, including that of the police officers who caused so much pain in the immediate aftermath of the tragedy.

Not in their wildest dreams could they imagine that the jury would return a verdict of unlawful killing – vindication, at last, 27 years on from a tragedy which should never have occurred.

If the Hillsborough disaster changed football, the dogged determination of these ordinary heroes in the families of the 96 changed British legal history. 

The front page The Sun should have printed in 1989
It wasn’t their fault.

It took 27 years for the wide world to learn something which the whole of Merseyside had known from the start.

Justice, at last, for the 96 . . . and for the families who refused to be bullied or silenced by a rotten police force, a hostile Tory Government, or the vicious lies published by a sensationalist tabloid. None of whom ever seemed to consider, or care about, the hurt they caused.

An amazing "victory" for ordinary people who stood together and were not afraid to take on the most powerful in British society.