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Galway City: Introduction

Galway, which has an affluent, artsy population of 70,000, is one of Ireland's most prosperous cities and also one of its most appealing. It is a busy workaday town, but it also has a lively art and music scene that has made it the unofficial arts capital of the country. The excellent Galway Arts Festival, held every summer, is an accessible, buzzing culture fest. It's not surprising that Galway attracts droves of visitors, but it does so without alienating its long-standing population or losing its character.

Tucked between the Atlantic and the navy blue waters of Lough Corrib, Galway was founded by fishermen. After an invasion by the Anglo-Norman forces of Richard de Burgo in the early 13th century, it walled itself in, as so many cities did then, although little remains of those old stone walls.

In the center of town, on Shop Street, is Lynch's Castle, dating from 1490 and renovated in the 19th century. It's the oldest Irish medieval town house used daily for commercial purposes (it's now a branch of the Allied Irish Bank). The stern exterior is watched over by a handful of amusing gargoyles. Walk northwest 1 block to Market Street and you'll see the Lynch Memorial Window in a wall above a built-up Gothic doorway. It commemorates the tragic story of the 16th-century Galway mayor James Lynch FitzStephen, who condemned his own son to death for the murder of a Spanish merchant. After finding no one to carry out the deed, he acted as executioner. The act destroyed him and he retreated into a life of seclusion.

In the 16th and 17th centuries, Galway was wealthy and cosmopolitan, with particularly strong trade links to Spain. Close to the city docks, you can still see the area where Spanish merchants unloaded cargo from their galleons. The Spanish Arch was one of four arches built in 1594, and the Spanish Parade is a small open square.

Local legend has it that Christopher Columbus attended Mass at Galway's St. Nicholas Collegiate Church in 1477, before one of several attempts to circumnavigate the globe. Originally built in 1320, the church has been enlarged, rebuilt, and embellished over the years. It has also changed denominations at least four times.

The hub of the city is a pedestrian park at Eyre Square (pronounced Air Square), officially called the John F. Kennedy Park in commemoration of his visit here in June 1963, a few months before his assassination. A bust of JFK shares space in the park with a statue of a man sitting on a limestone wall -- a depiction of Galway-born hero Padraig O'Conaire, a pioneer in the Irish literary revival of the early 20th century and the epitome of a Galway Renaissance man.

From Eyre Square, it's a minute's walk to the medieval quarter with its festive, Left Bank atmosphere. Here it is clear that, despite Galway's population boom, the city core remains strikingly unchanged from the Middle Ages. In fact, a street map from the 1700s would still get you around today. That enticing blend of history and modernity make Galway stand out, even in Ireland.

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