Sure, that could also work. There's nothing magical about going counter-clockwise (Galway then south); you could just as easily do as you suggested, take the train (or a bus, aka a "coach") first to Cork or somewhere in the south, get that first good night's sleep, and after picking up the car there the next day, proceed clockwise. You could continue up the west coast (the best part of the country, IMHO), from Galway continuing north and around into Northern Ireland, before swinging down to end in Dublin.
There are three critical benefits, I think, in using this strategy (CW or CCW direction doesn't matter):
- You skip the whole (dangerous and not-fun-at-all) 'driving after arriving exhausted' issue.
- Because flights from the US typically arrive in DUB in the morning, your arrival day is "wasted" to some extent; you can reclaim some use from that blurry day by pushing on immediately after landing, ending the day in someplace distant from Dublin that gives you a better place to actually begin your trip the following morning...but because you use public transportation to get there, it's safe and not demanding (you can fall asleep on the bus or train if you really have to, though for many folks, it's best to tough it out and stay awake until dinner, then sleep very deeply, the next day you wake up and most of the fatigue and jetlag is behind you).
- You have to spend your last night in (or very close to) Dublin anyway, so spending your first day or two there is logistically inefficient. See Dublin last, instead.
The only specific benefit to starting in Galway (rather than, say, Cork) is that, IF you are going to do a little side-trip out to the Aran Islands (very highly recommended), you do that from Galway, and you leave your car parked there (in Galway), and you're paying for a car you're not using that day(s). If you do that Aran Islands side trip at the start of your trip, you can pick up the rental car after you get back to the mainland, and you're not paying for the rental for the day(s) you are out on the island. It's a minor efficiency, not a deal-breaker to build your trip around.
The Irish rail system is OK (here's a map) but it's not what most Americans think of when they dream of European rail adventures. Trains are perfectly OK, comfortable, etc. but are not sleek, fast TGV-types. It'll get you to Cork in comfort though, and it'll feel good to be out of the plane (when I finished my west coast of Ireland trip, I dropped my car off in Cork and took the train back to Dublin; you would be just doing that in reverse). I did not spend any time in Cork, for us it was just a place that had both a car rental agency (which was open on a Sunday morning) and a railway station (took a taxi between them). Starting in Cork would put you within striking distance of all the great stuff in the southwest.
The southwest of the Republic is spectacular. The entire west coast is very special. I would plan to spend a large chunk of your 3 weeks around the SW, west and NW coasts. Continuing up into Northern Ireland would be great (I saved that for next trip).
May is a bit before peak season, be ready for any mix of weather, you'll probably get a bit of everything.
You'll have a blast.