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The City and the Writer: In Galway with Stephen Byrne

By Nathalie Handal

If each city is like a game of chess, the day when I have learned the rules, I shall finally possess my empire, even if I shall never succeed in knowing all the cities it contains.
Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities


Can you describe the mood of Galway as you feel/see it?

Galway has a fair share of homelessness, crime, poverty, and suicide. But this unique Irish city blows away all other cities and towns in Ireland with its upbeat, high-energy positive buzz that attracts students and tourists. Galway is one of the best cities you could ever live in. It’s a place you come to for a weekend and stay for years, as I did fourteen years ago. It’s alive. It’s an artist’s dream home, a place packed to the rim with musicians, poets, writers, painters, puppeteers, sculptors, actors, every possible artistic skill you can think of, and these people constantly shape the mood of the town, swing it, breathe it. Not a month goes by without some sort of festival, and add to that history, great food, music, dancing, bars, laughter, and tons of sports, it never stops humming and pulsating.


What is your most heartbreaking memory in this city?

I live right beside the River Corrib and on a regular basis, mostly at night, as you sit inside reading or eating, you can suddenly be distracted, alerted to the sudden sound of a helicopter above the river, the shining of the searchlight, the arrival of a rescue team and family members. You know instantly whoever jumped into that river is dead. It’s a fierce, fast, unforgiving cold beast and has no memory of the countless suicides over the years. It’s an unforgettable feeling, knowing another father or mother, brother or sister has taking their life. You always wonder and fear you may know them.


What is the most extraordinary detail, one that goes unnoticed by most, of the city?

That on Christmas Day the city center finally breathes, rests, puts down its head to sleep. It’s an extraordinary feeling to go for a walk early Christmas morning up through the town, and there’s not a sinner, not a busker, no money-spending tourists; no shops, bars, or restaurants open; just you, your footsteps, a few hungry seagulls, and the cool, calm slow-breathing town in a crisp, chill air.


What writer(s) from here should we read?

Ireland is full of brilliant writers, past and present. Galway is wedged with extraordinary talented writers. Ken Bruen was born here, as was Rita Ann Higgins. I feel privileged to have met, listened to the work of, and even had a drink with so many outstanding writers from here. Just go check out the poets, established or up-and-coming, Elaine Feeney, Sarah Clancy, Kevin Higgins, Susan Millar Dumars, Trevor Conway, Pete Mullineaux, Elaine Cosgrove, and the brilliant novelists and short-story writers Mike McCormack, Nicole Flattery, and Alan McMonagle. And I highly recommend my favorite Irish writer, Liam O’Flaherty, born on the Aran Islands.


Is there a place here you return to often?

A brick wall across from my apartment on a street called the Long Walk. It is by the river and it is where I like to go lie down, back against brick, and read. Though the river sings of sorrow it also celebrates life. At high tide it seems so still and peaceful, friendly, and at low tide it smashes against rock and stone, always in a hurry to Galway Bay. It is a beautiful place to sit; gulls, seals, boats, and the Clare hills across the bay. Sometimes it’s just good to do nothing, sit, and listen.


Is there an iconic literary place we should know?

Charlie Byrne’s Bookshop, in the heart of the city. It is one of the best bookstores in the country. Nora Barnacle House, the former home of the wife of James Joyce, is worth a visit. Just outside the city there is Lady Gregory House, where W. B. Yeats and other artists of that era spent a lot of time.


Are there hidden cities within this city that have intrigued or seduced you?

The immigrants who have arrived—European and South American workers and people from all over Africa—have brought with them their own cities and educated the local population with new foods, dance, languages, and color. Galway is Treibheanna na Gaillimhe, Tribes of Galway or City of the Tribes, due to the fourteen prominent families who go back as far as the thirteenth century. These families have carved scars of history into the city and I would like to think our new residents can now do the same. I’m also a chef, so I can’t think of a better seduction than new foods and dishes to wake up the palette.


Where does passion live here?

Passion is in every corner. It’s in the hands of the chefs and bakers putting the city on the map. It’s in the writers, poets, musicians, and artists with their never-ending energy-boosting creativity. It’s in the conversations in the bars, the hand movements, the humor, the unending chattering. It’s in the support of local sports teams. And come spring, summer, and autumn, when the festivals are in full swing, you have passion for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, and a dose of sleep to wash it down.


What is the title of one of your works about Galway and what inspired it exactly?

In my recent collection, Somewhere but not Here, many of the poems were written in response to something that had happened in the town, whether it is homelessness or suicide. The latter dominates a lot of my work. “To All Mothers, Fathers, Brothers & Sisters—A Sonnet,” a poem from the book, tries to understand teen suicide while reflecting on the reality that every family in Ireland has been touched by suicide. “Sea” was written from my balcony, describing the organization that comes after a river jumper. And “Disco Ball” was written for a friend who committed suicide after trying to get help but was turned away, a mental health issue the country shamefully tucks under the carpet. Fourteen years of living in the city and fourteen years of a rising suicide rate.


Inspired by Levi, “Outside Galway does an outside exist?”

I have come to realize that there is an outside as I now get ready to make my permanent move to Chicago, though nothing is permanent. It will be a challenge. Even if I leave to visit my hometown of Dublin or anywhere outside, I crave to be back in Galway, back by the river, by the sea. But I’ve lived in many places and the outside can always become the inside once you quickly learn to adapt.


Stephen Byrne is an Irish chef, poet, and food writer. He was born in north Dublin and has lived in Galway, Sydney, Vancouver, San Francisco, and Chicago. His debut poetry collection, Somewhere but not Here, won the RL Poetry Award, 2016 International Category, from the RædLeaf Foundation for Poetry & Allied Arts India. He was also shortlisted for The Redline Book Festival Poetry Competition, 2014. His work has appeared in numerous journals and online magazines, including Warscapes, Poets Reading the News, The Galway Review, Riseup Review, and Tuck Magazine. He creates recipes and food articles for the This Is Galway website and writes on

Published Apr 2, 2018   Copyright 2018 Nathalie Handal

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