Galway, The Graveyard of Ambition

A place this beautiful couldn't have such a dark nickname, right?

A place this beautiful couldn’t have such an ominous nickname, right?

The following exchange took place last week between a local shop owner and myself on Quay Street:

Shop owner: “Hey lad, how long you been in town?”

Me: “Just about 6 months.”

Shop owner: “Ah yes, I showed up to Galway for 6 months as well. That was 17 years ago.”

In and of itself the above banter wouldn’t be anything outside the norm, given the various types of characters that line Galway’s main street on any given day. What made me laugh however was the overarching theme that it touches on.

Galway, The Graveyard of Ambition.

I will never forget when I first heard the term. I was maybe 3 days in town, minding my own business at a favorite local pub enjoying a pint. I got to chatting with the bartender as he finished his shift, and after giving my backstory he closed the conversation with, “Best of luck to you lad, and welcome to Galway, the Graveyard of Ambition.” He then proceeded to walk away. My immediate reaction upon hearing this statement was a mixture of confusion, anxiety and amazement. What exactly did he mean? Was this a generally accepted term, or just a case of a local pint puller taking the piss out of a yank? I continued on my night without thinking much of it.

A few days later I met a fellow software industry leader for coffee. In fact, in my first 3 months in town I set more than 20 coffee meetings. Everyone from potential new hires, to various service providers, partner companies, IT leaders, lawyers, and bankers. I wanted to get acclimated to the local business climate as quick as possible. I can’t say enough about how warm of reception I received from everyone I’ve met to date. Everything from offering tips on where to pursue top talent, to where I should be golfing on the weekends, the community has been fantastic. However, nearly every conversation also included reference at some point to this term, “Galway, the graveyard of ambition.” Even more surprising than the consistent use of the term was the apparent understated pride that locals would show when speaking to it.

Most times I would walk back to my apartment after the meeting(s) thinking, wow that was a very nice, helpful person, but what is the deal with this graveyard of ambition talk? Did anyone on my team know this before we selected this town as our new EMEA HQ? How are we going to create and hire 100 jobs in a place with no drive or passion? Surely execs at companies like Cisco, HP, SAP, and Fidelity knew about this before opening their offices here, right? Right?

Like any great Irish term there had to be a story behind it, and I needed to find out quickly or I knew my trip across the pond was to be a short one.

A few weeks passed and I finally got an answer, and some much needed relief. In speaking to the head of one of the Big Four tax firms in town, he explained that the term dates back to the 1950s when describing the career path of a banker in Ireland. Legend has it that an aspiring banker would typically start out in their hometown, and then promotions would mean you get transferred to another location, and then another, and so on. The more cities you were seen moving through was a sign of “climbing the corporate ladder.” So someone might start his or her career in Limerick, move to Cork, then onto Galway, and hopefully someday get called up to HQ and the big city of Dublin.

But a funny thing kept happening: once the employee landed for their stint in Galway, no matter if it was the 2nd or 5th stop on their path, they didn’t want to leave. They loved the town so much that they would actually forego future career potential for the love of the Galway and the culture of the west of Ireland. Yes I’ve only been a “blow in” for 6 months, but count me as one that is officially drinking the local Kool-Aid. Here is a teaser for those who haven’t booked a flight to visit yet:


No we are not Dublin, London, or Amsterdam. We are Galway, and damn happy about it. And if you are reading this and interested in “burying your career” in the rugged west of Ireland, give me a call. We are hiring.



  1. Thanks be to God we got your approval. The whole town was waiting to see if you liked living here… literally.

  2. I’ve lived in Galway all my life and this was the first time I’ve heard that expression. I think the barman you heard it from originally might be taking it up the wrong way. Great write up and all the best with your business venture.

  3. I’m a galwegian and this article and video really pulled on my heart strings. Thank you for the appreciation of our wonderful city and welcome
    Ps think I nearly tripped over ur camera on the ground one sunny avo in Latin quarter!

  4. Lived in Galway for 26 years. Have heard and used the term often. I’m not so sure about the tale about it dating back to the 50’s to be honest. It shouldn’t be a worry to potential startups over here but people who settle here, SETTLE here. They don’t tend to push themselves forward. Unemployment in Galway before the economic downturn was 10%. There’s career unemployed people who some call Government Artists…because they draw the dole. It’s not a bad place though. Just a small, quiet place with a very slow pace

    1. Oh feck off ya miserable git. Half the town are blow ins.

      Perhaps you should brush up on yours history but foreign people have been a very important part of Galway down through the centuries.

      Its the biggest melting pot in the west of Ireland and long may it continue.

  5. I can identify with that term ‘graveyard of ambition”. I visited Galway in 1978 as a young Dublin-based banker and after having a great time there took a decision to get a bank transfer there. Within weeks I got a transfer to a better job within Dublin and the Galway opportunity faded. Every time I set foot in Galway I’m reminded of what might have been. There is something special about that town.

  6. MLK, please don’t be put off by those few curmudgeons who think Ireland/Galway is for the Irish/Galwegians only. They forget their forebears had to go as far afield as the USA to survive the desperate conditions in Ireland and were expected to send their hard earned money back to keep their families afloat, which they did. The grim reality of the quality of life those exiles encountered is well documented. They should be grateful you’re instrumental in bringing WORK to their town instead of disputing who belongs to Galway and who doesn’t. I’m an absentee Galwegian but, more importantly, I’m ME, just me, simply ME – wherever I live!

  7. I’ve lived in Galway for 10 years after coming on holiday here for a couple of weeks and falling in love with the town. I’ve heard & used that phrase a lot but never new the origin, so thanks for the heads up!
    I work for an American Multi National in Supply Chain where we’re told to be boring and monotonous. I don’t want to be either. Save me!!! 🙂

  8. Great article, I’m from Galway but living\working many years now abroad. I have lived and worked in the majority of the big cities the earth has to offer but none has come close to the reception, warmth, relaxed, feel good atmosphere as that which Galway offers in ambudance. The music, the people, the criac, the scenery even the god damn weather which now I welcome with open warms 🙂

    I really hope you continue to enjoy your time in Ireland and who knows you might be one of those to add to the graveyard of ambition!!! or should i rephrase to “First class ticket to living”
    I hope one day soon that i also will join yew that graveyard!!

    P.S: If you are still hiring look no further, as i am full of ambition!! 🙂

  9. Galway is full of people – both blow-ins and real-Galwegians (defined as people with 4+ generations of family members put into Forthill Cemetery by Irwins) – who are working at roles well below what they’re able for, just because that’s the job that they can get here. The amount of sheer talent and energy her is amazing. We don’t exactly bury our ambition here, we just channel it to fit what’s available – or carve out new ambitions for ourselves.

  10. I lived in Galway for 10 years. I always took the phrase to refer to the relatively high number of people who drift in and never drift out again. I found Galway to have a transitory population . Its an arty town, it attracts creative people but there is a certain class of professional layabout that likes to make Galway home.

  11. As American transplants to Galway – and thoroughly, completely head over heels in love with the place – my husband and I prefer to think of it as “termination of trajectory.” Our ambition for travel has not left, we just come back to beautiful Galway at the end of every holiday.

    1. In Wales ‘Graveyard of Ambition’ has been attributed to Dylan Thomas. Wrongly, it’s been said. Apparently it was the work of a slightly less celebrated poet – David Hughes. A punchy, popular phrase I guess!

  12. Thanks very much for this great article! I’m moving to Galway on next October, and I didn’t know I could be more excited than I actually was before reading it!
    Maybe we’ll meet one day!

  13. I lived in Galway for one year in the past and returned there twice…I heard the expression before…and met people who told me their stories illustrating the nickname…I think it is well deserved….Galway is a lovely place, I find

  14. Yes, a colloquialism I’ve hear batted about here in Galway for 30+ years – newbie “blow-in” employers can relax – it’s nothing about losing ambition it’s all about our great living environment and an increasing ambition to continue living here despite potential “promotions” elsewhere.

  15. My slant on this is that you do hear this phrase quite a bit, but I think it comes mainly from the blow ins themselves, not the born and bred Galway folk. In this sense Galway’s a bit like Bath, beautiful place to live, everyone wants to live there, but the remuneration is sometimes not what you’ll get in the capital.

  16. Hey MLK,

    Welcome to Galway! I see you are using one of my photo’s of The Long Walk from one of the many beautiful evening this summer. I also was one of those guys who came to Galway some 10 years ago and have never left. I’m from up near Dublin but find the life down here so good and real strong community feeling. I doubt I’ll ever intend to leave. There’s such a great vibe around the city no matter what. Enjoy it while your here or maybe just stay 🙂

    p.s. If you’d like some more photo’s of Galway drop me a line sometime!

  17. Thank you. This is such a beautiful tribute to a beautiful city. I can totally identify with this – I moved here for 1 year and 8 years later… I hear that graveyard of ambition phrase all the time. Love Galway, love the easy way of life here, and all the wonderful people 🙂 x

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