Buildings a city make. The places in our minds are shaped by the environment they occupy. When we think of cities, our mind is drawn to the concrete and the steel, the glass and the tall, the divided and the small. The built environment has shaped our perception of the last 200 years.
Galway has never been a city too identifiable by its built environment. Our march into cityhood came about in almost one fell swoop with the explosion of the suburbs. So here, we tend to think of Galway as an ethereal place, where we focus on the cultural and the creative when we fantasise about it.
In a city that espouses the arts and the creative, we should however remember that architecture is basically a type of music that remains frozen, an art form that shapes us.
But the buildings we have, we celebrate. Though not always with the reverence that perhaps we should. The Spanish Arch, Lynch’s Castle, the Browne Doorway, even the (former ) O’Conaire grotto are invaluable, yet none has been revered in the manner they ought to have been.
This week, that changes, as we celebrate two city buildings — one half a century on from its opening; the other the doors of which most of us have never been through. Two separate buildings, but both destined to play a part in the architectural and cultural history of this city for the century ahead and longer.
Galway Cathedral turns 50 at the weekend — and as such is a building that is the same age as myself. Its final block was being tapped with a trowel just as I fell into the world in 1965. However, unlike myself, its conception began almost a decade earlier in 1958 and gradually rose from the site that once housed the city jail to support a dome reaching a height of almost 150 feet.
I always feel that the way buildings engage with creation’s eldest daughter, the power of Light, says a lot about how they resonate with us.
In Galway Cathedral, the vast open riverside space is shielded out and the light inside is allowed to filter through to create a vast semidarkness illuminated by powerful colours shooting down in beams through the stained glass.
It is an immense building, one of the youngest great stone Cathedrals in Europe and many felt that what it made up for in vastness, it lost in serenity. And sometimes it does.
I’d often imagined during Mass in the Cathedral looking up at that massive dome peering up at the little windows underneath its peak, and in my mind’s eye, I’d transport myself to those lofty perches and sit, Quasimodo like, legs dangling, looking down at the ceremonies below.
It is built on the site of the old jail, a feat remarkable in itself. It hosts the remains of our deceased bishops. And just a short bit away, the remains of many executed prisoners, a simple white cross marking where their remains were placed and limed so as to expedite dissolution. The horrific and the serene juxtaposed.
It is a building that has aroused many feelings, both friendly and hostile. It made national airwaves back in the day when the Late Late Show was the principal forum of discussion in this country. It is a building that shapes new Galway, although it seems to have been around forever.
And if it does straddle the old and the new, that new is signified by the other building to celebrate this week — the Picture Palace. This unique construction at the docks may be seen as a folly by some, but au contraire, it is a valuable asset in this city’s bid to become the Capital of Culture in five years time.
Over the last decade, the city has become home to some beautiful and remarkable buildings, and over the next century, even more will pop up, all married to their environment. We pay tribute to the architects who will slap paint on the ever changing canvas of Galway and hope that their work makes this city an even more beautiful and fascinating place upon which to feast our eyes.