As we passed yet another anonymous hotel flying the familiar ten top tourist flags, my driver asked if I'd even been to Galway before. No, I told him, this was my first visit, but it was hardly worth calling it a visit as I was merely popping into a conference to give a quick talk on globalisation and then driving straight back to Shannon. The silence from the front seat suggested something more was required.
For a couple of minutes I peered desperately through the rain-spattered windows in search of some evidence of natural beauty that might allow me to express regret about having foolishly left it so late in life to visit such a delightful town. But the grey drizzle yielded nothing but indistinct shapes.
"Actually, I feel as though I've known Galway all my life," I announced. "My dad's favourite song was 'Galway Bay'. He sang it every day of his life. But he only knew the first and last verses. So I was always all right on the bit about going across the sea to Ireland and the other bit about the life hereafter, but the rest was a complete blank." "Ah," said my driver. "It's a grand song. A grand song."
I thought I'd probably done enough to quieten him for the last ten minutes of the ride, but I quickly realised he'd taken my admission of ignorance as an invitation. From the front seat came the sound of a light tenor voice embarking on the opening verse of my dad's all-time greatest hit. "If you ever go across the sea to Ireland,/Then maybe at the closing of your day . . . " He stopped and glanced encouragingly over his shoulder. I knew what the gesture meant. Now he'd found the appropriate key we could sing together.
He duly began again. "If you ever go across the sea to Ireland . . . " For a moment I thought I might be able to get away with a gently hummed accompaniment to his increasingly vigorous singing, but another strict backward glance from the front seat showed that a great deal more was expected from someone who'd so recently declared "Galway Bay" to be part of his formative years.
I had one other shot in the locker. As he reached the line about watching the moon rise over Cladagh, I leaned forward and said: "I've always wondered. What is Cladagh? A mountain of some sort?"
"No," said my driver, "it's the place we're going through now." And then, without drawing another breath, he was back into the chorus.
It was the final verse I was dreading. This was the one I'd foolishly claimed to have learnt from my father and I could tell by the way he was now re-arranging himself in the seat that this was going to be a big moment. "And if there is going to be a life hereafter,/And somehow I am sure there's going to be . . . " Perhaps it was the insulation from the rest of the real world provided by the car or something about the particular lilt of his voice, but I suddenly relaxed and realised I was singing as enthusiastically as my partner. By the time we swung into Galway Town, we were both stretching the vowels to breaking point as we belted out the final lines: "I shall ask my God to let me make my heaven/In that dear land across the Irish sea."
As we rounded the final corner before the hotel, he slowed the car and pointed out of the left-hand window towards a grey, leaden smudge on the horizon. "Look down there. That's the real Galway Bay." Oh no, it isn't, I thought, my face still flushed from my choral triumph. We've just done the real Galway Bay.