Word from the West

Galway Continental Christmas Market

With Galway’s famous Christmas Market in full swing and casting its magic spell over the city, West of Ireland food writer Anne Marie Carroll celebrates Galway markets old and new

In America they have sugar cookies and candy canes but it's shrimp on the barbie and drinking tinnies in the sun in Australia. The French have buche de Noel while in Italy, there is panettone and the Feast of the Seven Fishes while KFC is the traditional Christmas dinner in Tokyo (Yes, really!) From our oversized turkey feast to the potato, cheese, and anchovy casserole known as Jansson's Temptation that is a traditional part of the Julbord (Christmas smorgasbord) in Sweden, it seems there are as many festive traditions related to food as there are countries in world. 

Now in its seventh year, the Galway Continental Christmas Market as much a part of an authentic Galway Christmas experience as a tin of USA biscuits, a brisk dip in the sea or the giant inflatable snowman tethered jauntily outside McGaughs Garden Centre. There is no doubt that a good Christmas Market can really make the season come alive and these festive fairs can cure even the worst case of the 'bah, humbugs'. It is nearly impossible not to fall under the spell of the spiced mulled wine and good cheer. This year there are more wooden chalet style stalls than ever located on Eyre Square along with Santa's Grotto.

This year the market features amusement rides including a Big Wheel, Helter Skelter and a cheerful Carousel along with live performers, puppet shows and the popular bier keller on the plaza. Gifts and stocking fillers include hand blown glass ornaments, wooden toys and jigsaws, paper stars, jewellery and accessories, wood sculptures, ceramics, and there are all manner of seasonal indulgent treats including the ever-popular Czech chimney cakes, classic French crepes, authentic Belgian waffles, German bratwurst and gluhwein, donuts, handmade Italian chocolates, candied nuts, and Irish fudge from the Aran Islands. How very different from the markets that used to be held here before.

Galway Continental Christmas Market

Galway has always been a market town and at the turn of the 19th century was a buzz of activity with produce of every sort openly traded on the streets. In Eyre Square, a hay, turf, fowl, pig and cattle market ran each week. Just by the Small Crane potatoes were weighed and The Spanish Arch was the historic site of the Fish Market, where a John Dory could be had for sixpence.

At Easter, during the Galway Food Festival, we see the annual revival of the Woodquay Market (pictured below), the roots of which go right back to the early 1800s when potatoes, eggs and butter were sold, together with wood and timber brought down by boats. Historically, this was a real country market with fresh and smoked fish, simple soda bread, good salty butter, double cream, marmalade, fat blue duck eggs, bacon and crumbly black pudding. Strawberries and tomatoes, cabbages and apples followed in their seasonal progression, with Irish cheeses and potatoes early and late. One could buy willow baskets too and, occasionally, scallops for thatching. It is lovely to see it revived even if it is only for one or two days a year.

The area around Mainguard Street and St. Nicholas Church especially was a hive of activity with cartloads of vegetable, eggs and butter for sale from people who had travelled in from the country. This bustling street market has been trading in Church Lane by St Nicholas' Church in the centre of the city for centuries.

The following observations of a Galway Saturday 100 years ago were made in a book entitled 'The Charm of Ireland' by Burton E Stevenson, published in 1915. “We found the streets crowded for it was Saturday and so, market day, and the country folk had gathered in from many miles around. The men were for the most part buttoned up in cutaways of stiff frieze, almost as hard and as unyielding as iron; and the women, almost without exception, wore bright red skirts, made of fuzzy homespun flannel, which they had themselves woven from wool dyed with the rich crimson of madder.

The shaggier the flannel, the more it is esteemed, and some of the skirts we saw had a nap a half inch deep. They are made very full and short, somewhat after the fashion of the Dutch, but the resemblance ends there, for most of these women were barefooted, and strode about with a disregard of cobbles and sharp paving stones which proved the toughness of their soles."

Galway Continental Christmas Market

“The countrywomen ranged along the curb with great baskets in front of them containing eggs and butter and other products of the farm. How far they had walked that morning, carrying those heavy burdens, I did not like to ask, but we met one later who had eight miles to go before she would be home again. A few had carts drawn by little grey donkeys; and the old woman sitting in one of these was so typical that I wanted to get her picture.

She was sitting there watching the crowds with her elbows on her knees, and a chicken in her hands, but when she saw me unlimbering my camera, she shook her head menacingly, so I asked a quaint looking old man if I might take his picture. ‘You may and welcome’‚ he said. ‘Look at the ould saftie standin there to get his picter took’, she shouted, and she went on to say other, presumably less complimentary things in Irish."

“One row of women were offering for sale a kind of seaweed, whose Celtic name, as they pronounced it, I could not catch, but which in English they called dillisk; a red weed which they assured us they had gathered from the rocks along the beach that very morning, and which many were buying and stuffing into their mouths and chewing with great relish. It did not look especially inviting, but the women insisted, with much laughter, that we sample it and we finally did, somewhat gingerly.

The only taste I detected was that of salt water in which it had been soaked; but it is supposed to be very healthy, and to be especially efficacious in straightening out a man who has had a drop too much. No matter how tangled his legs might be, so the women assured us, a few mouthfuls of dillisk will set him right again and no man with a pocketful of dillisk was ever known to go astray or spend a night in a ditch.”

Galway Continental Christmas Market

The Market still thrives around St Nicolas Church and Market Street and, as you walk between the stalls you will be arrested by the smells, tastes, sights and sounds and the lively atmosphere created by stall holders and browsers alike. These days you will be met by fresh food and flower vendors, scarf weavers and wood carvers selling their goods.

There's a great variety of food available, Madras curry, Crepes, Sushi, and mouth watering breads and bakes, to the fresh fruit and veg stalls, where the stall holders often throw in fresh herbs or extra items for good measure. There are the quality gourmet stands too, selling many different types of olives, fresh pasta, cheeses, home made relishes and sauces.

Novel gift ideas include candles of all shapes and smells, beautiful hats, handmade soap and freshly caught fairies. Beautiful Celtic and delightfully novel jewellery crafted from silver and copper is also sold, as are books, paintings and prints. It is no wonder that locals and visitors flock to the market every Saturday, rain, hail or shine.

The market is open all year round on Saturdays and The Traditional Christmas Market runs everyday 9 am to 6 pm from the 14th to the 24th of December with lots of home made Christmas foodstuffs and a lovely atmosphere with all the stalls decorated and decked with lights and candles.

While the list of things to see and do at this time of year in Galway is long, put the Christmas market right up at the top of the list. A true Galway Christmas tradition.


Anne Marie CarrollAnne Marie Carroll is a freelance food writer and member of the Irish Food Writers’ Guild who lives in Galway with her husband and two children. 

With a background in design and illustration, Anne Marie made the switch to journalism with a regular food and wine column in The Galway Advertiser. Her work now mainly focuses on restaurant reviews, writing and editing recipes, the development of food photo shoots, including styling and photography. She also writes for a number of other publications and works as a consultant for small producers, food retailers and restaurants.

Anne Marie writes about all things food from the West of Ireland at her blog, Warm & Snug & Fat. You can also find her on twitter as @Biscuits4ABear


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