by Karen Babine
“Though earth may hold no more echo of what took place upon it than a well-used library book retains traces of the multiple readings it has hosted, there remains a kind of spectral inheritance—invisible, undetectable, but strongly felt—etched into the lineaments of the things around us and the places we inhabit.” —Chris Arthur, Irish Elegies
The city of Galway, for me, is a Galway of the page, a place where I find stories that I never knew I couldn’t live without.
Charlie Byrne’s Bookshop is where I find the neediest of those stories. It’s the place where I found a copy of John Millington Synge’s The Aran Islands, the one that my soon-to-be favorite Irish essayist Tim Robinson wrote the introduction to, a volume that I took with me on the ferry to the Aran Islands, read on the ramparts of Dun Eochla on Inishmore. Once, I found a romance novel with a castle on the cover that looked familiar and I stared until I realized that it was Dunguaire Castle, just south of Galway, down to the boulders in front in exactly the same place as in actual life. Charlie Byrne’s is the place where, with Synge in hand, I realized that there is a special romance to reading the literature of a place in its setting. It’s surprisingly, gorgeously, intimate, best explored alone, when you and the text suffer no distractions. You can read Synge or Robinson or any of the Irish Revival writers who were inspired by the Aran Islands—but everything changes when you’re sitting on the beach at Kilmurvey or on the ramparts of Dun Aengus, feeling the smooth pages under your fingertips. You wonder if you really ever knew this book at all, given how open your eyes are right now.
This is what David Abrams would consider “animal attention” to the physical world, recognizing how the sunlight presses down on your skin while your skin presses up against the spine of the book. This is a kind of physical attachment to the presence of stories that I understand. I won’t say that I found myself in Galway, because I’d never lost myself, but there still is some kind of emotional, chemical, mental reaction between myself and this city. Maybe I continue to feel the pull, simply because Galway has never been a closed book for me, like an extended conversation, one that hasn’t been finished in more than ten years. I still feel permanently tethered to that place, to the gray stone of Shop Street, to Nimmo’s Pier, to the swans on the Corrib near the Claddagh, to the Promenade that’ll take me to Salthill. Or that stretch of beach right next to Nimmo’s Pier that’s my favorite place to sit and breathe, the place I saw my first hooker sail past the pier and out into Galway Bay, the kind of animal attention that Abrams is talking about, the scrape of the place against me as I scrape against it.
Consider this moment: one July evening, later than I like to be out, I remember walking home alone from Sheridan’s Wine Bar—which is across from the Anglican St. Nicholas and above the Sheridan Cheesemonger shop—with the determined pace of a woman who will mow down any creature who gets in her way. I am not wearing the right shoes to be doing such long-strided speedwalking, but I’m walking home alone on a trek that will take me ten or fifteen minutes and don’t want to be bothered or look like I’m of a mind to be waylaid by any of the people spilling out of the pubs on Quay Street. I do not make eye contact, yet I am still catcalled by men who may or may not be drunk. Being a woman in Galway is not much different than being a woman in any other city in the world.
The night is spectacular. Quay Street is lit up with lights strung from shop awnings, tall street lights, all in warm shades of yellow-gold, lingering in the Irish twilight that will last for another hour. The thick clouds give way to the dark of a backlit sky and I wish for my camera: this combination of dark blue and dark gold is the stuff of dreams. People lounge at the Spanish Arch and my fingers itch to leave the shutter open and see what happens. It’s not enough to say that this city comes alive at night, because it’s as alive for me during the day as it is when the pubs become the gathering places. But it’s this particular moment, on this particular walk, on this particular evening that is, for me, the essence of Galway: I cross the Wolfe Tone Bridge, leaving the energy of Shop Street and the pedestrian zone behind me and on the Claddagh side of the Corrib River, St. Mary’s and the piscatorial school are perfectly reflected in the glassy water as I cross the bridge. Galway is both the energy and the calm.
Then I pick up my stride. I’m cold. I want to be home. I’ve had enough of people tonight.
Galway isn’t a flashy city. The stones of the buildings, the stones of the streets, the stones of the quays are too matte for flash. The city doesn’t have a recognizable skyline; it doesn’t have a history celebrated as the site of this-or-that or a landmark that makes it a prime tourist destination. There’s an obvious awe that those places evoke—and Galway is neither obvious nor intentionally awe-inspiring. It is what it is, on its own terms. The stone is gray, the shop fronts colorful, the streets of the city center dangerously narrow—but whatever Galway is, charming is not the right adjective. There is a degree to which Galway is an introverted city, not extroverted like Dublin, which thrives on people, its energy multiplied by them. Galway’s energy, it seems, would be drained completely if it was surrounded by people for long periods of time. Galway is content by itself, going about its business, minding its own. Perhaps this is why, as an introvert, I feel most at home here.
Galway doesn’t have the sharp feel of Dublin, where you can look at the streets and say this is the General Post Office where the 1916 rebels had their headquarters or look at the music hall on Fishamble Street and say that Handel’s Messiah was first performed there in 1742. The history in Dublin feels almost oppressive to me. Every street has a name you feel you should recognize, each statue of a person you should be able to identify, a story you should know by heart. These are the ways that stories are written on the streets and stones of Dublin, as much in blood as with any other ink. There are place-names there that trigger a feeling of familiarity—or actual places where you think “oh, that’s where that happened!” And you feel like you should have an emotional reaction to those places. I always feel unworthy when I’m in Dublin and while there are good reasons to visit, I’m always relieved when I’m on the bus out.
Galway isn’t that type of place. It has its own history, its own stories, but the history is an enigmatic one, and more personal effort is required to find the stories, mostly because the “important” history wasn’t being made in a place that the British considered a wasteland of soil and humanity. Even the Vikings found something unique here—and as a result, they left the place alone. All the other major Irish cities were founded by the Vikings, but not Galway.
Regardless, it’s still an old city, dating back to the original Claddagh fishing village in the 6th century. The city itself took root in the 1200s, with the DeBurgo family in control, though Galway did not receive its official city charter until 1484, after the DeBurgo stronghold was broken. But it’s also a new city, the fastest growing city in Europe, prosperity that now must balance the city’s ancient and medieval roots with urban sprawl. But this city has seen many changes of power and momentum over its centuries, so I wonder if its essential qualities have remained the same, simply because this is the place where the Norman invaders became more Irish than the Irish themselves, or so the saying goes. The contradictions that this city offers aren’t mutually exclusive and the tang that those contradictions give are addictive.
For myself, the stories of Galway are stories of light, the bright of sunshine, the muted quality of light through rain clouds that still requires sunglasses. I realize that my experience of the city is limited, not just by the time I’ve spent there, but by the geographies I’ve come to know, the paths I trampled as a student along the Corrib River from student housing to the University, the route I generally followed when I walked to the city center. The way I have experienced this city is based on my own worldview, with a certain reading of this city given I am female, white, professional class, and carry an American passport. When I first arrived, in 2000, the country was still riding the high of the Celtic Tiger; in later visits the Tiger was dying; I have not yet been back in the wake of the Tiger’s spectacular death. Since Galway, perhaps more than other Irish cities, was so affected by the boom that this prosperity brought, I wonder what I would see if I were there now. I do not pretend or presume that my Galway is a complete reading, because such would be impossible for a native, let alone a visitor. I could not even give a complete picture of the place in northern Minnesota where I grew up and spent most of my life. Much of my reading of Galway is romantic; it still remains largely a Galway of the imagination. It is still real, but it’s real in a different way than we think it is—or know it is. Perceptions and how we perceive a place are still real.
My sister Kim once sent me a postcard from San Francisco that closed with this line: “I may start traveling by bookstore.” Knowing how many of my books greet me with “Kenny’s Bookshop, Galway, 2005” or “Charlie Byrne’s, Galway, 2000” or “The Strand, New York, 2007” when I open the front cover, traveling by bookstore seemed an excellent way to mark my place in the world and I wonder what traveling by bookstore looks like to my sister.
In a stack of my papers in a dusty cardboard box in my grandparents’ basement that turned out to be full of letters and cards, I found a postcard I sent to my grandparents when I studied in Ireland in 2000. The photograph was of the Long Room of the Trinity library in Dublin, that barrel roof framing two stories of books, punctuated by busts of famous Irish writers, a long em-dash in the middle of the corridor protecting rare manuscripts, including one of the surviving copies of the 1916 Proclamation of the Irish Republic. The colors of the postcard are shades of brown, the rich color of earth, the color of life, not darkness. These are colors I still see in my dreams.
Charlie Byrne’s Bookshop in Galway is the kind of bookshop that calls to mind Virginia Woolf’s observation that “Secondhand books are wild books, homeless books; they have come together in vast flocks of variegated feather, and have a charm which the domesticated volumes of a library lack.” This is the place which makes me recall George Orwell’s “Moon Over Water,” his rumination on what his perfect pub would look like, and I think that if I were to craft a collection of wild books ex nihilo, Charlie Byrne’s would be something very close. Do other people have this reaction when they walk into a collection of books, that little, slow exhalation of breath that takes the air from your nose first, the release of air you can feel all the way down to your toes, the way that the possibilities in those spines makes your own spine tingle? And that smile, something closer to a predatory grin: do other people have this reaction? I never have this response walking into Eason’s on Shop Street, the shiny titles and cheerfully fluorescent lights, and my reaction to Kenny’s Bookshop, before it closed, was somewhere between the two.
The shop front is a color of twilight—a deep medium blue that a former student of mine would have called Northern Exposure Blue, the letters of the name in rich butter-golden yellow. This is not the sunshine-yellow that is delight; this is the rich yellow of belly-laughter. Inside, this is what a bookstore should be: topped to the ceiling, a feeling of comfortable clutter, as if every available cubic inch of space has been filled. Books, stacked willy-nilly, haphazard, on the sides of the steps that lead to other areas of the shop, tables stacked in the middle of the rooms. Shelves that owe their origins to practicality and function, pine 2x4s, rather than aesthetics, because the shelves themselves are not important. The wood in this place is light, the floors, the shelves, a texture of gold that reflects the harshness of the lights overhead. Paperbacks mingle with hardcovers, first editions with pulp, the colors of the spines turning the flat view into a raging kaleidoscope of riotous color. This is a place where you’re not afraid to take a book off a shelf. This is a place that feels comfortable, like you can talk in a normal tone of voice, like you can exclaim—if only to yourself—glee in what you’ve found. This is a place that if you do exclaim out loud, the stranger next to you will grin and share your joy.
But in those moments of standing in Charlie Byrne’s Bookshop in Galway, any time I find myself there, whether physically or imaginatively, I want to turn those streets like pages and I question what it means to be literate, the ways we come to know the stories of a place. On my bookshelves at home, the dark texts bleed back into the wall, leaving the colors of the books themselves to catch my attention, wild books that bear creased spines of wear, library stamps, thrift store stickers, their placement on my shelves a reminder that they had a story before they came to me and they will have a story long after I cannot read them. It is a collection of tales and thoughts, lives and loves, that gives me pleasure. I look at them while I sit on the couch, a gathering of ideas and phrases and insights that pulls in the visitors to my house to lose themselves in. I have not read all the books on my shelves, but I hope never to have read all of them, that there is always one more wild book to surprise me.
Christopher Morley writes in his 1920 essay “On Visiting Bookshops”: “It is a curious thing that so many people only go into a bookshop when they happen to need some particular book. Do they never drop in for a little innocent carouse and refreshment? […] They go in not because they need any certain volume, but because they feel that there may be some book that needs them.” A.A. Milne, in “My Library,” writes of moving into a new house and putting his books on shelves with no thought to organization, thinking he would organize them on a rainy afternoon. “As they are now,” he writes, “I have to look along every shelf in the search for the book which I want. To come to Keats is no guarantee that we are on the road to Shelley. Shelley, if he did not drop out on the way, is probably next to How to Be a Golfer Through Middle-Age.” Alexander Smith writes in “A Shelf in my Bookcase” of his favorite books milling about on the same shelf, rather than where they should be in a traditional sort of organization.
On my own shelves, filled with wild books, whose titles read like a found poem—A Year in Place, The Singing Wilderness, The Middle of Everywhere, Not Just Any Land—I have a black and white tourist replica of a street sign that promises Galway in six kilometers, pointing east. The horizontal line of it breaks the vertical lines of the books in a way that startles me, visually, every time I look at it. The promise of Galway is so close, and the truth is that it is close, with the books that it points to, because the reality is that my Galway is of the imagination. But that Galway sign points to a replica map of 1651 Galway on my wall, a placing of accidental providence, not design. The black and white of that sign, the black and white of the map and the black frame, to the black and white of the page, pointing to the black and white and gray of Galway itself.
Galway has always been a place of conscious identity-forming, a place that forced a choice: Who are you? Who will you be? What stories will you tell? That choice is still as valid today as it was when the Normans arrived. The province of Connaught was the place most ignored by the British government, the place they pushed all the Irish to when they wanted them out of the counties surrounding Dublin. To Hell or Connaught! was the slogan. Standing on the banks of the Corrib River, I want to wrap this river around my throat like a scarf and bury my face in it, inhale everything that makes Galway what it is. I want to scratch beneath the surface of this city, just to see what stories are there, the ones I cannot see. I know there’s more here than meets the eye. That, amid everything, is the real reason I love this city, that I want this city, that I keep returning to this city long past the point where I should know all its secrets, all the stories it holds.
Who are you? Who will you be? Will you become a part of this new place—or will you resist and hold tightly to everything that ties you to “elsewhere”? And I remember the colors of Charlie Byrne’s, the stories it holds in its pages, the way the bookstore writes its stories on the streets, and I wonder: How do you read a city? How do you write a city? How do you start to understand the nature of storytelling and how many ways there are to tell a story? And, perhaps just as importantly: how do we read them?
When I recently picked up Sanctuary, one of Ken Bruen’s noir thrillers set in Galway, in the non-literal way of reading on my iPad, I chose it simply because it was a noir thriller set in Galway, one in a long line of novels featuring ex-Guard Jack Taylor who is one of the most thoroughly unlikeable characters I have ever spent a book with. Bruen has been a staple of Irish noir for a long time, but his work only recently appeared on my radar. I wanted to read Sanctuary simply for how it would put my feet back on Galway streets, as it opened with “I was standing on the bridge that faces the Spanish Arch in Galway city and the rain was pelting down, drenching me to the core” and a few pages later, “The Spanish Arch, of course. Still intact, portal to the Long Walk and gateway to the Atlantic. Primarily, it acts as overseer to the old fishing village of the Claddagh and literally, as the line goes, ‘Age has not withered its appeal.’ The Virgin sits atop the arch, like a forlorn illusion of hope.” At the end of Sanctuary, I was sure that I never needed to read another Bruen novel, but then I found him in my local library, checked out three of the books in their traditional paper form, and decided to give Bruen—and Jack—another chance, without really having any good reason why. Nearly the only redeemable quality Jack possesses is his deep need for books and his deep appreciation—something the character shares with his creator— for Charlie Byrne’s.
Once I got used to Bruen’s craft, knowing how he fits into this larger world of noir, how Jack is moving through the mean streets of Galway in the post-Celtic Tiger era, I realized I was holding something extraordinary. I read Ken Bruen to give me the side of Galway that I’ll never know, a story I know must exist, a story of Jack Taylor’s Galway that is no less truthful for being fiction.
I could feel the grit, the dark, and it was all in places I knew, places that bore my own footprints, and there was a part of me that liked these shadows. In Bruen’s first Jack Taylor novel, The Guards, he writes, “I was heading down Quay Street. Hardened locals pronounce it ‘Kay’ and it’s ‘Key’ to the rest. A rib must have broken in the devil as a shard of sun hit the buildings.” This is a place where the light I knew was a dangerous, detrimental thing, a thing to be feared.
But then I realized that every book I ever read on my iPad I disliked, so I started to wonder if electronic reading had something to do with my inability to absorb the story. I like to know where I am, physically, in a book, the shifting of a page from one hand to another, to feel one side of the book getting thicker as the other thins.
It’s more than the physical smell of a book—something chemically analyzed by scientists and detailed by Luca Turin and Tania Sanchez in Perfumes: A Guide (who explore a fragrance called Dzing!, which whether by design or accident smells like old books): “Lignin, the stuff that prevents all trees from adopting the weeping habit, is a polymer made up of units that are closely related to vanillin. When made into paper and stored for years, it breaks down and smells good. Which is how divine providence has arranged for secondhand bookstores to smell like good-quality vanilla absolute, subliminally stoking a hunger for knowledge in all of us.” It’s more than wondering what smells the books on my shelves are absorbing, wondering about the fingerprints on those pages that do not belong to me, whatever previous history they contain. At its simplest level: a book is how I know where I am in the world. And I wonder what will happen if the world switches to electronic reading, if we will lose our ability to read spatially. Why I felt I needed to continue on this digital path, to look through YouTube for Bruen, I’m not sure, the pressing curiosity that I don’t usually experience when reading books in hard-copy. I found photographs that turn the hollows and planes of his face into something you would expect to find on those mean streets, a character you would expect to feel the rage and anger he says fuels his books, but the videos I found don’t give that impression. And then, I started to question the digital quality of the storytelling I was finding here, a strange mix of non-page mediums, oral words in an internet video, the pseudo-pages on my Kindle app. Curiosity providing the adrenaline, I emailed Bruen via his website, an email which was promptly rejected by the server. Perhaps I should not have been surprised. Undaunted, I sent out other emails to track him down, and as I did, I was warned that he is quite hard to find. But I was given an email that worked, asked him if he would be willing to do an email interview, and he returned the email within hours, agreed, with surprising enthusiasm.
Bruen’s Galway has an edge to it, but it still holds the same sort of gravity in his pages that I had come to know, physically, myself, standing on those streets. Clearly, the city has a hold on him in a way that I recognized. He told me that “The city is the fourth main character, shapes, coddles, beguiles, and seduces and to do this, it has to be ever present, like a banshee, just slightly in the mist, keening. […] My favourite cities have a vibe, it’s in the very air like a charge, a jolt, an electrical frisson that is almost impossible to articulate.”
This is the Galway I know, with mist like a banshee over the Corrib in the morning, mist over the Burren Mountains across Galway Bay, with sunshine that looks like it comes from nowhere. This is a familiarity with the city that I can understand, because I know what that “electrical frisson” feels like. Later, he tells me that “The test of a great city is if you wake in the wee hours and think, Thank fook I’m in this place. […] Too, Galway has a sense of irony and that is rare to rarest found and even better, the city would deny any such highfalutin claim.”
Thank fook I’m in this place.
Yes. God, yes. But when I ask him about what it means to write the city, rather than write about a city, I hear the grit of the streets in his answer, even in the text, which I cannot literally hear, the rising shadow of that place I know we will be going: “I want to obliterate the Ireland of The Quiet Man and merry priest and lovable Mums and all that horseshite we lay under for generations, to have a cool unique city that young people can feel is theirs and not some relic from the years of grinding poverty.” This is a place of contradictory images, of poverty and power, of families strong and broken, of religion powerful and painful.
Because my only experience with the city is as a visitor, an American, a woman, any number of identities that prevent me from fully knowing what he means, I ask him what the Celtic Tiger did to his cool, unique city. He tells me that that “Prosperity brought drugs, greed, obesity, and the developers brought ugliness, luxury apartment buildings on site of lovely old homes. The very air is now one of……. money………… the stench of it, once it were the aroma of home stew and hope. Now, we’re like a dead end suburb of bum fuck nowhere in Des Moines.” This makes me laugh, because the first line of Bill Bryson’s “Fat Girls in Des Moines”—“I come from Des Moines. Somebody had to”—is one of my favorite beginnings, finding the unique qualities in a place generally considered to be “bum fuck nowhere.”
I had this feeling of wishing hard to be drinking a pint with Bruen or wandering around Charlie Byrne’s with him, rather than in this artificial digital conversation. But then, I finally asked him about this relationship he seemed to have with this particular bookstore, not only his relationship but Jack Taylor’s relationship as well. I wanted to hear about his affection for Charlie Byrne’s, as a place, how he came to it, why he returns. I always feel like the best bookstores—and I do prefer used bookstores full of those wild books—seem to give you the book you never knew you couldn’t live without.
“Vinny and Charly, who own the shop,” he wrote, “began with a market stall over 20 years ago as my first novel had just come out; they thought I was a shady character, with a pea jacket and always travelling. Each year, I’d have a new book and they’d move to a premises, then a bigger one, so we kind of grew together which is a brilliant opportunity for a writer to literally grow with bookstore, like Larry McMurty in reverse.” I wish I could see his facial expressions as he contemplates other bookstores that hold his imagination in similar ways, because I know that this kind of memory searching is not a process that can be separated from the physical.
Intense love of books, the greedy love of words and stories, that intense intimacy of bookstores is a visceral thing, a bone-marrow thing.
Then he tells me: “My fav bookstore was The Black Orchid in NY.
I did readings there with Ed McBain.
The romance of Sylvia Beach and her Parisian store, and stores like the famous one in Charing Cross Road make me yearn.”
The arrangement of these three thoughts on three separate lines gives me the pause of thought that I assume would have happened in real life, had we been sitting across from each other, drinking pints of something, me drinking my usual golden Bulmer’s cider, Bruen drinking something hard or dark. Earlier when he referred to the post-Celtic Tiger air that smelled “of……. money………… the stench of it,” I left his pause-inducing ellipses in place as he wrote them, because this interview, this conversation, is supposed to be an oral thing, an aural thing.
But we eventually close our conversation with my hope that I can buy him a pint the next time I’m in Galway and he thinks that’s a grand idea. I also wonder about the natural hybridity of Irish storytelling, the movement of forms that the Irish story has always taken. I wonder about the negotiation of fiction and nonfiction in the oral tradition, that the story of a thing is more important than the fact of it, something that I struggle to understand as an essayist, but something I come to understand as an answer for the prevalence of memoir in the national tradition. I don’t ask Bruen many questions about the rise of Irish crime literature and my emerging ideas about crime literature being the literature of social order, the stories that get told to respond to a specific societal fear, the tales of people and events and things we hope we never have to encounter, but we need to know that they are out there. I am a woman traveling alone, one who packs a fairly healthy dose of paranoia with her passport, simply because these are the stories we tell our daughters, to be afraid, to be vigilant, at least to be aware and wary.
We women are taught never to go anywhere by ourselves, we are taught that the likelihood of suffering some sort of violence during our lifetime is a when, not an if. These are the stories that we will raise my niece with—and on—not to scare her, but to protect her. And these are the stories that fill the pages of newspapers, the stories that fill the pages of Bruen’s novels. There is a darkness here. But the story of dark is what matters, just like the story of light is not the whole story.
The whiff of cigarette smoke in the air winds around me like a sparkler through the air on the 4th of July and I want to believe that if I concentrate hard enough, I could see it, follow it, and find myself somewhere in Galway. It doesn’t matter which continent I’m on when I smell the smoke, because I always end up in the same place, following smoke down the hallways in the shopping center, through the pubs, winding its way down Shop Street to the Spanish Arch or the Claddagh. That smoke and its Cheshire cat grin that forms and disappears as the winds shift, whispers of the nights I’d come home, sick as death with a migraine that the smoke had caused, but even years after the smoking ban in Irish pubs went into effect, the gray of cigarette smoke speaks to me of gray stone under my feet, against my fingertips, and these are good memories. My stories, they smell of smoke, the smoke of a cigarette, the smoke of a peat fire on a rainy night.
Some of my books smell of this smoke, some that came to me in that way, some that picked up the smoke as I read them in various places. In “Bookmarks,” the Irish essayist Chris Arthur writes, “It was the sense of a community of readers that changed me from a lover of new books to a lover of used books. As a boy, I liked any book I bought to be perfect, virginal, unread by anyone. Mint copies were what I sought. But as I aged I preferred my books to bear traces of other readers who had passed that way before me.” He writes of valuing the books that belonged to his father, dead for twenty years, the covers marked with his name, the place where the book was bought, and the date. In the pages of Chris Arthur’s Irish Nocturnes, a receipt from Charlie Byrne’s, though I did not buy this book there. But it puts me back on the cobblestones of the Galway pedestrian zone, the smoke gray of the stones under my feet, the buildings that block my view of the bay, and it turns these streets into bookmarks, marking a place written in something-you-don’t-know-but-can-only-feel. It is a kind of marking in itself, as Ken Bruen said to me: “To apply the sublime test, on leaving a city, does it, like a great love affair, break your heart in smithereens and the dread you will never return.”
Karen Babine is the author of the essay collection Water and What We Know: Following the Roots of a Northern Life (University of Minnesota Press, 2015) and the founder and editor of Assay: A Journal of Nonfiction Studies. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in River Teeth, Weber Studies, Ascent, and more. She lives and writes in Minneapolis, Minnesota.
SLAG GLASS CITY • Volume 2 • January 2014
Images by Karen Babine.