Click to Book The Great Southern Hotel in Galway

Mass tourism began in the Victorian age (the Industrial Age) when Thomas Cook packaged rail tickets along with guest house stays fpr Londoners who traveled to breath the clean air in the Scottish Highlands. There were few luxurious hotels or resorts at the end of the rail lines or scenic stopovers.  Thomas Cook, still in operation today, and a leading travel supplier, made a fortune.  It was the era of adventure and discovery, and the railroad companies took notice of Cook’s success by building huge limestone and granite monumental hotels along their rail routes.

One such hotel was the regal Railway Hotel built in Galway, Ireland, opening its doors in 1852. Queen Victoria of England had been in power for about 15 years and travel was in full swing. Ireland at the time was part of the British Empire and the hotel, today called the Great Southern Hotel, still stands, beckoning adventurers through its revolving doorway. 

Crisp linens greet diners at
the Oyster Room Restaurant.

The hotel was completed at a cost of £30,000 for the Midland and Great Western Railway Company. The architect, John Skipton Mulvany, also designed the Galway railway station. Just over the entrance on the façade of the hotel is Mulvany’s favorite motif, the wreaths. The hotel is built of limestone ashlar, just like many of the ancient Celtic castles in the region, and there is a cornice over the heavily rusticated ground floor.  The ground floor also has recessed architrave windows and a heavy string-course, making the morning breakfast light natural in the Oyster Room Restaurant. Prepare to be spoiled on a grand scale, enjoy the good things in life in the Oyster Room Restaurant, and sample the delights of afternoon tea to the sound of the resident pianist.

The original Victorian
fireplace in the lobby.

The original facade was topped by a shelf-like Doric cornice. Among the surviving internal features in the present majestic hotel is a beautiful marble fireplace incorporating a pair of bronze discs, emblazoned with the Midland and Great Western Railway coat of arms, and it is dated to 1845, about the same time Thomas Cook began his tours in England.

While waiting for my new found Irish friends, the fireplace was the most popular spot on cool autumn evenings, and with the Oyster Room Restaurant and Bar not far off, it often means sitting warmly with a stiff drink in hand to ember the interior regions as well.

It must have been a magnificent era for those that traveled to Galway a hundred and fifty years ago. The Galway Subscription Ball was held in 1855 by Lady Clanmorris and Lady Redington, a notable early historical event when the Galway Militia paraded in Eyre Square, a square block of city park green, but not so green when I visited. It was all torn up for a complete renovation, but due for quick completion.  President John F. Kennedy,of Irish descent, spoke in the Square in 1963, and the park within the Square is now called Kennedy Park. I stopped to talk to archaeologists who were digging in an ancient Irish housing unit, complete with bars, on the top end of the park.  The most evident relics they found were whiskey bottles and beer casks.

The local Galway residents got a real shocker one day in July 1857, when Prince Louis Napoleon of France sailed up Galway Bay on his steam yacht La Reine Hortense, and had lunch at the hotel. The bureaucrats in Dublin and England were fearful of yet more French Imperial expansionism, but I think Louie was here just for the superb lunch and high tea that are still served!

A traditional bedroom.

At the end of World War I, in 1918, the hotel was requisitioned by the British Army and then later handed over to the Irish National Army after the signing of the Anglo-Irish Treaty in 1922, the year of Ireland ’s independence.  But during the Irish Civil War of the same year, the Renmore Military Barracks was taken over by the Republican forces and set ablaze, along with the Officers Mess and accommodations blocks. So they occupied the hotel, but later the Republicans retreated and the hotel fell into the hands of the Free State troops. Sandbags were erected on the front entrance and troops guarded the hotel until calm prevailed.

The Victorian age ended with the death of Queen Victoria in 1903 (still the longest reining British Queen at 66 years), the hotel was still vibrant as ever, now ushering in the new era of air travel. In 1919, Galway got its first glimpse of this new mode of transport when the first non-stop trans-Atlantic flight landed at Derrygimla Bog near Clifden. The pilots, Captain John Alcock, DSC, and Lieutenant Arthur Whitten Brown, were greeted as heroes and driven around town in a Marconi motorcar and then entertained at the Railway Hotel. Both men stayed at the hotel and the festivities lasted into the next day. Despite heavy rains thousands of citizens waited for hours outside the hotel to see the two pilots. More parties ensued with invited guests at a hotel reception.

The hotel was renamed the Great Southern Hotel in 1925 with the merger of various railway companies in southern Ireland, now called the Great Southern Railway Company. Then in 1933, another famous pilot and his wife arrived after landing a seaplane near Mutton Island. Charles and Annie Lindbergh visited Galway as part of a Pan Am aerial survey. During my two day sojourn at the beautiful hotel, I didn’t realize the celebrity status of the charming edifice. That’s what so great about staying in historical hotels.

During the Second World War years people didn’t travel as much as before. Rationing of butter, tea, and sugar was enforced, even at the hotel. But after the war, in 1946, the pent-up demand for discovery saw the hotel over run with tourists, and often times people even slept in the lobby.  While soaking in the Canadian hot tub on the fifth and top floor in the hotel’s Square Spa & Health Club, I had a bird’s eye sunset view of Galway Bay and the dockyards that still flourish with arrriving and departing passengers at the rail station and tour buses grinding out of the bus station to take present day adventurers on their voyage of discovery.

After the railways came under public ownership in 1945, the hotel was owned by CIE. In 1952 the General Manager, Brian Collins, began the Galway International Oyster Festival that is still a regional legacy.

A modernized bedroom.

Other celebrities that have rested their bones at the hotel include: Queen Salote of the Tonga Islands; British Paratroopers, Sergeant Chay Blythe and Captain John Ridgeway, who arrived as the first to row across the Atlantic Ocean. Presidents that have stayed at the hotel or at least lunched there include: Sean T. O’Kelly, Eamon de Valera, Erskine Childers, Patrick Hillery, Cearbhall O’Dalaigh, Mary Robinson, and Charles De Gaulle. Lord Oranmore and Browne took over the 5th floor for two weeks during the shooting season for many years, with members of the peerage including Lord Longford and Lord Killanin.  Now that blood sports such as fox hunting are banned in England, more sports shooters are seen at the hotel.

Actors who have stayed at the hotel include: Siobhan McKenna, Ray McNally, Rex Harrison, David Hemmings, Bing Crosby and his wife, Cathy, Michael Mac Liammoir, Hilton Edwards, John Ford, and David Lean. Lunch visitors have included: Richard Harris, Fred Astair, Jack Nicholson, Anjelica Huston, John Huston, Paul Newman (who starred in the Mackintosh Man nearby Burren region), John Wayne, and Maureen O’Hara (both starring in The Quiet Man).  Yes. I was in fine company while dining a la carte in the Oyster Room Restaurant.  O’Flaherty’s Bar in the basement of the hotel is named after the writer, Liam O’Flaherty, who often stayed at the hotel while pounding out the screed in the 1940s. So as a Scottish writer myself, I had to toast my Irish counterpart. Well, maybe more than one toast!

A fifth floor suite
maximizes comfort.

Although the hotel bedrooms on the lower floors are not overly large, they are appointed with modern amenities, including modern baths, internet email access, personal fax service, TVs, and lovely and comfortable beds. Some of these bedrooms are more traditional. The fifth floor is only elevator accessed with your room key, and offers the plushest rooms in the house. The hotel underwent a renovation of €8 million in 2003, so you are assured a very high standard. During the renovation, many of the Victorian features were enhanced and restored.

The hotel is still in the heart of Galway, with Eyre Park on one side and Galway Bay on the other.  Just a short stroll away is the wonderful streets filled with bargain shopping that ends at the River Corrib. All traffic is banned along the narrow shopping streets after 11 a.m. so your credit card spree is pollution free in the hectares of shops. Save your crystal purchases for the famous and modern Galway Irish Crystal Heritage Center factory store at the edge of town; the artful pieces rival that other Irish crystal — Waterford. Save some euros for shopping at the Spiddal Craft Centre along the coastal road, where you will find traditional artisans creating beautiful crafts in leather, wood, and wool.

Hmm . . . a Galway shop devoted to women's lingerie. Irish Lace? Excuse me for a moment!

Cold ambient air and hot
water = the Canadian hot
tub overlooking Galway Bay.

After shopping, it is back to the Hotel's Square Spa and Health Club, a unique location on the fifth floor overlooking the city. It is a real oasis of Galway. Facilities include an outdoor Canadian hot tub, hydrotherapy baths, Jacuzzi, steam room, and a fitness suite. The hydrotherapy baths are the ultimate in luxury, an energizing water treatment using different types of oils for relieving muscle aches and pains. The expertly trained therapists will guide you through the menu of body treatments, facials, massage, and alternative health and beauty treatments, including hot stone massage, reflexology, and aromatherapy.

The panoramic fitness center.

The facilities at the Great Southern Hotel are world class; each of the hotel's 99 bedrooms is individually decorated combining old world features with modern facilities. Wide marble corridors lead you into opulently decorated rooms, some with wonderful views over Eyre Square.

Yes, we live in the fast paced and stressful jet age, but take your body and soul and your jetlag back to an era when travel was more sedate, refined, exciting, and authentic, back to the days of the superlative Victorian era that still lives on at the Great Southern Hotel Galway.

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The Southern Hotel Galway is not the only property in the chain. You can stay at Great Southern Hotel Cork at the airport; or the Great Southern Hotel Dublin at the airport; or the Great Southern Hotel Shannon at the airport near Limerick; or the Great Southern Hotel Killarney, a classic since 1854; or the Great Southern Hotel Parknasilla overlooking Kenmare Bay; or Great Southern Hotel Rosslare on a cliff overlooking the harbor.

By Kriss Hammond, Editor, Jetsetters Magazine.