By Kitty Nichols

GALWAY, Ireland – In 2020, Galway was named a European City of Culture, an honor awarded to only a few European cities each year. According to a government report, the city subsequently spent 23 million euros in preparation for the influx of tourists expected after garnering an award such as this.

Then, of course, Covid arrived. Most of that 23 million, therefore, became lost opportunity. The nearly 1 billion euros in expected economic impact from tourism? Gone.

About 20 million of the spending amount, or 87 percent, came from public funds, money the city government expected to be recover from ticket sales.

Aideen McNelis of Claddagh and Celtic Jewelry in Galway.
Photo by Kitty Nichols

Aideen McNelis, co-owner of Claddagh and Celtic Jewelry, which is located on Galway’s main shopping artery, said Covid has cost the city and its business owners millions.

The City of Culture distinction is “like the Olympics of arts and culture,” she said. “We had been awarded that. It cost our city millions on the program, setting it all up, and obviously that all died.”

What Galway and the rest of the world could never have predicted was that a global pandemic would change the course of everyone’s lives and that business sectors such as tourism and retail would be especially hard-hit.

Two years removed from the worst of Covid’s shutdowns and restrictions, even a casual survey of the shops, restaurant and pub doors and windows up and down Galway’s city center reveals that this pandemic isn’t giving up. The many “help wanted” signs and postings of Covid-altered hours and days of business are visual reminders of the pervasive impact of Covid.

Its lingering effects show that Galway’s business sector is still grappling with the pandemic’s effects.

Rainbow Gifts and Souvenirs is a source for witty slogans and Irish-themed merchandise.
Photo by Michael Myers

Rainbow Gifts and Souvenirs is located on Shop Street, Galway’s primary pedestrian shopping street. Owned by Gerry Gilmore for 20 years and still a popular spot for tourists, Gilmore said his store has endured several periods of mandated closings.

“We were closed twice, once for four or five months and then for three or four months,” he said. “The first time we closed was terrible. Galway was the European City of Culture so there would have been a lot of visitors, a lot of business, and we lost all of that.”

Community rallies

McNelis said she has run Claddagh and Celtic Jewelry with her husband, Níal, for more than 23 years. He is a former mayor of Galway, filling the post from 2018-2019.

Though they closed for nearly three years, she said she is thankful for the government’s participation in bailing out businesses during this time. She attributes the commercial resilience of Galway to the community’s discipline in following the many health mandates.

“Galway is different from other places,” she said. “There are a lot of family businesses. There aren’t many chains. We were all in it together. Everybody was in it together. The city was on a shutdown, but we all obeyed it.”

More difficult to quantify than lost sales and Covid-squandered revenues is, of course, the effects of quarantine on mental health.

Dungeons and Doughnuts combines videogames and pop-culture themed treats.
Photo by Michael Myers

Jerry O’Leary, who has worked at the gaming store Dungeons and Doughnuts in Galway for about eight years, emphasized the importance of interacting with other people and the role games played in that.

“Playing games is good for people,” O’Leary said. “Painting kept me sane for the last two years. My support group was gone from under me. I know a lot of our customers, it’s the same thing, it kept them sane. It’s important to interact with other humans in the flesh.”

Tucked alongside the prominent Saint Nicholas’ Collegiate Church, an Anglican parish church established in 1320, is the Saint Nicholas open air market, an alleyway populated by pop-up tents and locally sourced arts and crafts.

Provençail, a purveyor of garlic graters owned by Derek Spillan and managed by Bertha Kasonde, is one of these tent merchants. (See separate story on Kasonde’s pandemic experience.) Kasonde said her mental well-being suffered due to forced isolation necessitated by the pandemic. But, she said, she willingly participated in consideration for everyone’s health.

Rising labor costs, inflation

Spillan said he believes there will always be a place for local crafts markets due to their social aspects, but that they, too, are not immune from the pandemic’s lingering effects.

“Labor costs have increased big time, at least 30 percent,” said Spillan, who has owned and operated Provençail for 12 years. “It’s harder to get people to work. The cost of materials has gone up, and the cost of the product has gone up. It has changed dramatically.”

The Covid-caused business shutdowns would have killed off Provençail if not for government intervention, Spillan said.

“I was closed for two years – March 2020 to this last December,” he said. “The Galway community really did support the market when Covid was on. When things opened up, it really helped us to have a High Street that wasn’t totally abandoned and knocked down, which would have happened. You wouldn’t have a business standing if (the government) hadn’t intervened.”

Inflation has affected even that most Irish of commodities – Guinness beer. In mid-July, the Sult pub on the campus of National University Ireland Galway, raised its price of a pint of Guinness to 5.20 euros from 4.80. In fact, it raised the price of all its beers on tap.

“The CEO came in and said, ‘Inflation boys! We have to raise our prices,’” said one of Sult’s daytime bartenders.

Despite difficult times, business owners remain optimistic for the future of Galway.

“There’s no worries,” Gilmore said, trotting out an oft-heard Irish phrase. “Tourists are starting to come back to the country, business is starting to pick up. You know, it’s going to take two or three years to fill the hole, but it should happen, so I wouldn’t be distressed about it.”

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