Irish at Heart: Why Galway?
By Natalie Keller
I believe cities have distinct personalities. Boston, which I visited recently, is a city steeped in the past, with a Freedom Trail that winds through historical landmarks and pivotal places during the Revolutionary War — while New York City, by contrast, is preoccupied with the present: its streets pulse with modern art, theater, and music. Cleveland, where I live, has an aura of resilience, rebirth, and rock n’ roll. We know Paris as the city of love, London as the city of classic English literature, and Rome as the city of ancient grandeur.
People often ask me: why Galway? After all, there are numerous cities and towns across Ireland with their own distinct charm and culture, so what drew this American migrant to the western edge of the country? There was a great deal of research that went into my decision, but ultimately, it was a matter of intuition and heart.
But Galway… Galway is the city of music, and I heard its song from thousands of miles away.
City of Music
“Music” was the word that popped up again and again during my research on Galway, and as a violinist of twelve years, that naturally piqued my interest. Galway is famously home to the best music pubs in Ireland, many of the greatest musicians in the country, and numerous music festivals every year. I was especially drawn to traditional music, featuring harps, guitars, accordions, and, of course, fiddles. And boy, did Galway deliver.
When I first walked through the streets of Galway, music was everywhere — spilling out of open restaurant doors, windows, or played openly in the September air. Galway’s cobblestone roads are teeming with street musicians every day of the week: soloists with just a fiddle and a microphone or entire eight-person bands with speakers and full drum sets. Music is not simply a part of Galway — it is the essence of it: the city’s rhythmic, beating heart.
The night we signed the rental agreement for our new apartment, my friends and I were euphoric. We finally had a home in Galway and the occasion called for celebration, so we headed to a nearby pub called The Crane Bar. Toasting our future downstairs, we suddenly heard traditional music playing above our heads.
Curious, we found the stairs and wound our way to the second floor, where, sure enough, there were several musicians gathered in an intimate and candlelit room full of low tables and bar stools. Nearly every seat was taken, but somehow, we managed to squeeze in.
A Holy Place of Sorts
The room was quiet and reverent — I could immediately sense this was a holy space of sorts, a hidden gem within the vast city. Between songs, there was conversation and laughter, but when the first strum of a guitar rang out, the audience fell silent. This was a place where music was taken seriously. It wasn’t just the background noise of a usual pub — it was the entire reason we were here.
I was in awe of the talent on display. It amazed me how these Irish musicians seemed to have a universal repertoire memorized: one player would begin a song, and the rest joined in, playing by heart without the help of sheet music. It was as if these jigs and melodies ran in their bloodstream, and that playing was as natural as breathing.
At one point, a member of the group turned to the audience and invited us to sing along to his rendition of “I Can’t Help Falling in Love with You.” Of course, we sang, and that was the precise moment I fell in love with Galway. I knew, in my heart, that I had chosen the right place to live.
Learning to Listen
In our daily lives, music is almost always a solo experience. I normally enjoy music through earbuds or while driving alone in my car, but the type of listening we did in The Crane Bar that night was wholly communal — a shared experience. I’m not a religious person, but these are the moments in life when I feel most spiritual.
I am reminded of something John Cage once said, that “good music can act as a guide to good living.” Sitting there in that room, surrounded by my fellow human beings all tuned in to this transcendent beauty, taught me a lot about living — and about listening, with respect, awe, humility, and appreciation.
Here in America, we can find similar experiences during live concerts and performances. As a member of several orchestras throughout my life, I’m well-acquainted with the power of collective listening — the stillness of held breath as an auditorium of people are entranced by Mozart, Beethoven, or Vivaldi.
But there was something distinctly Irish about that night in The Crane Bar. Perhaps it was the instruments, the musical style, the spontaneity of musicians dropping in, the camaraderie of the room, the Guinness in my hand, or something I can’t even quite put my finger on. But I know I’ve never experienced that anywhere in the world but Galway.
These days, I don’t feel that we listen enough. Listening, after all, is an art form — an act of empathy and understanding in which we pause our own internal monologue to appreciate the voices of others. In conversation, most people only listen with the intention to speak, formulating their own reply instead of thoughtfully paying attention to the other side. Many national and international problems could be solved by simply listening to each other instead of engaging in screaming matches and battles of ego.
What Does Music Teach Us?
But music — particularly live music — teaches us to clear our heads, to set aside personal ego, and to listen. It invites us, for a moment, to forget our singularity and connect to something larger than ourselves, which is an invaluable and beautiful practice.
The atmosphere of that night, as I stood shoulder-to-shoulder with friends and strangers in the flickering candlelight, was nothing short of magical. That was perhaps my happiest memory of Ireland: a time of beginnings, possibility, belonging, and of course, music.
*Natalie Keller is a graduate of Kenyon College and a former resident of Galway, Ireland. Her poetry and fiction have appeared in various online platforms, and she is currently editing a novel, much of which is set in the Emerald Isle. She loves to hear from readers at email@example.com.