Europe 10 – Galway International Oyster Festival

Galway International Oyster Festival (2)

The Guinness Oyster Trail

Even if you can’t get into the festival marquee, you’re still likely to have a ball. Entertainment for the masses comes in the form of the Guinness Oyster Trail – the real backbone of the party and a permanent feature for the past forty years. The Trail consists of some thirty pubs dotted around the town, each offering free oysters with a pint of Guinness, not to mention a host of live music, comedy and dance acts over the entire three-day period. Almost the entire population of Galway, along with visitors from all over the world, cram into the pubs along the Trail to drink the dark stuff and knock back the slippery bivalves – every pub on the Oyster Trail employs a full-time oyster-opener throughout the weekend, who frantically and ceaselessly liberates the delicious creatures from their shells.

The traditional objective is to down a pint  and a couple of oysters in every pub along the Trail over the three days – that’s around thirty pints and up to one hundred oysters. If you can do this and still attend the Sunday Farewell Party, you need never prove yourself again. If it sounds like your kind of challenge, just get hold of a Trail Map, available from any featured pub, and start drinking. Bear in mind that one of the main obstacles to completing the trail is the weather; perched on the west coast of Ireland, Galway is exposed to the unrelenting gales of the North Atlantic, and the weather at the end of September is usually wet and bitterly cold. It’s all too easy to get stuck in one pub – everyone is usually very friendly and there’s often a roaring log fire. The Trail isn’t especially long – many of the pubs on its route are clustered around High and Quay streets and Eyre Square – but its pubs vary enormously in quality, size and the effort they make to get in to the festive spirit.

The “Mardi Gras” Party and the Oyster Festival Gala Ball

Those with deep pockets who hanker after something more refined than Guinness-guzzling can attend the gala nights on Friday and Saturday. The “Mardi Gras” Party, held at the festival marquee on Friday from 7.30pm, is a gourmet dinner-dance, preceded by a champagne and oyster reception and hosted by the town mayor. Tickets cost €120, and the dress code is smart casual. Saturday night sees the Oyster Festival Gala Ball at the Radisson SAS Hotel, just east of Eyre Square on Lough Atalia Road, at 8pm. Tickets for this cost a hefty €150 each, but you get the chance to mingle with Galway’s great and good over a champagne reception, dinner and cabaret. Dress is strictly black tie, but colour is provided by the spectacle of the oyster-opening competitors parading the flags of their countries – the cue for dancing till dawn.

Clarenbridge: the “original” oyster festival

Clarenbridge, the village where it all began, a few miles outside Galway, hosts its own oyster festival two weeks before the Galway event, which to some extent retains the intimate charm of the early days. Sadly, the man himself is no longer with us, but you can raise a glass to his memory in Paddy Burke’s, the pub where it all started. Held over ten days, the Clarenbridge Oyster Festival is basically a mini Galway, with plenty of traditional music and other special oyster- related events, not least the Oyster Gala Celebration on the second Saturday lunchtime, for which tickets cost €100. Later on, there’s a festival barbecue to round the day off, and the next day yet another lunchtime celebration, at which more oysters are knocked back.

Farewell Party

Final confirmation, if it was needed, that the organizers are on your wavelength comes on Sunday morning with the Farewell Party, held in the festival marquee from 1pm; tickets cost €20 you need to buy them in advance from the festival website. It goes without saying that oysters are on the menu either fried, served with scrambled eggs, or raw – but it takes a cast-iron constitution to face the slippery shellfish after Saturday’s excesses, so most people plump for the full Irish breakfast – the mammoth helpings of sausage, bacon, eggs, et al are just the job after the night before, especially when washed down with a few pints of the dark stuff.

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