At the mouth of the River Corrib as it meets Galway Bay, stands Galway. This modern city has at its heart, the fabric of the original medieval settlement. Over the centuries, people have used this location to establish and develop a town, which became one of the most important trading posts along the western seaboard in the medieval period. Galway has a rich and complex history. Archaeological excavations in the city have revealed the story of the walled town and the earliest buildings, including the de Burgo castle first built in 1232 and the Red Earl’s Hall constructed in the late 1200s or early 1300s.
Little is known about Galway before the 12th century. At that time in Ireland the country was divided into kingdoms, each with its own king who in turn was subject to the high king of Ireland. Galway first appears in recorded history as the place where Toirdhealbhach Ó Conchobhair, king of Connacht erected a fortification at Bun Gaillimhe (the mouth of the River Galway). Made from timber, it was destroyed and re-built several times. At that time, the area around the present city formed part of the territories controlled by two local families loyal to Ó Conchobhair; the O’Flahertys to the west of the river and the O’Hallorans to the east.
The origin of the name ‘Galway’ from the Irish ‘Gaillimh’ is uncertain. One theory suggests that the name derives from the Galway (Gaillimh) River, now the River Corrib, from the Irish words ‘gall’ and ‘amh’ meaning ‘stony river’. According to local legend, the town is called after Gaillimh or Galvia, the daughter of the mythical King Breasal, who drowned in the river.
In 1169-70 Anglo-Norman settlers from Britain arrived in Ireland. They made their first claim on Connacht in 1196 when a grant of the province was made to William de Burgo. In 1230, William’s son, Richard de Burgo fought with the Gaelic Irish at Galway but was forced to withdraw. De Burgo returned in 1232 and built the first stone castle in Galway. By 1235, Richard de Burgo had conquered the entire province of Connacht. Richard’s son Walter (who died in the castle at Galway in 1271) is credited with establishing the walled town at Galway having granted the citizens their first mural charter c. 1270, which allowed them the right to levy tolls on goods to finance the building of the town walls.
The ‘Tribes of Galway’, a term reputedly coined by Cromwellian forces, were the merchant families who effectively ran the town of Galway from the 15th to 17th centuries. The fourteen families were mainly of English or Welsh origin (part of the original Anglo-Norman settlement) with the Kirwans and Darcys of Gaelic origin. Located in a predominantly Gaelic area, they gradually became integrated into the Gaelic way of life, adopting the local manners and customs.
The settlers played an important role in the establishment and development of Galway town by commissioning public and religious buildings and developing trade networks. The families prospered through trade with the Gaelic hinterland, Europe and later the Americas. They were involved in all aspects of society from the governance and administration of the town to church affairs. These wealthy merchants built many grand houses filled with elaborate furnishings and fittings. Two of the fortified town houses survive; Blake’s Castle built in the 1400s and Lynch’s Castle built c. 1500.
Throughout most of the medieval period, Galway remained loyal to the English throne. The de Burgo family, original settlers in the town, retained their power and authority until 1396 when a royal charter issued by Richard II instructed that ‘a sovereign’ (a figure head) be elected annually, paving the way for the more prominent merchant or ‘Tribes’ families to take over the administration of the town.
In 1484 the Charter of Incorporation granted by Richard III allowed citizens to elect their own mayor and corporation who were henceforth responsible for the governance of the town. The first mayor, Pierce Lynch FitzJohn, was elected on 1 August 1485. From then on, mayors tended to be elected from the merchant families. By-laws issued by the Corporation regulated daily life in the town. The centre of local government was the Thosel (Town Hall) which also contained the prison.
Crimes were dealt with in a court held regularly. One feature of the legal system, allowed citizens accused of breaking the law to go free if they could convince forty others (oath-helpers) to swear that they were innocent. Local folk tradition recounts one famous case, dating from 1493. It involved the chief magistrate, Mayor James Lynch Fitz Stephen who is reputed to have hanged his own son from a window after he was found guilty of murder.
From the mid-17th century onwards the Corporation was administered by the newly arrived English settlers. The Corporation was abolished in 1841 and was replaced by the Grand Jury of the County of the Town.
The distinguishing feature of a medieval town is the enclosing wall which protected the citizens from attack and defined where the countryside and suburbs ended and the town began. Construction began on the Galway walls before 1272 and most, if not all of the town was enclosed by the early 1400s. Built at a cost of £46, the walls were financed from tolls and fines imposed by the local administration. The walls, which enclosed an area of 11ha, were built from stone sourced locally and incorporated several mural towers and gates.
The gates facilitated the collection of tolls and controlled access to the town. At night a curfew bell was rung to signal the citizens to return within the walls, after which the gates were locked. Entry of the Gaelic Irish into the town was limited. An inscription, reputedly located above the West Gate to the town read, ‘From the ferocious O’Flaherties, Good Lord, deliver us’.
Within the town there was always the threat of fire and damage to the walls. The Corporation regularly issued by-laws in an attempt to prevent outbreaks, such as that in 1521 which decreed that “no man shall build, make or repayre any strawe or tache house, for fear of fyre, no nigher the town walles than fourteen feet, unless they be covered with sklatts…”
By the close of the 18th century, the walls and fortifications were either decaying or being demolished, as the town was extended around Meyrick (later Eyre) Square and the docks area. Some of the last surviving stretches of wall can be seen today beside the Spanish Arch and in the Eyre Square Shopping Centre (partly reconstructed).
The mainly English-speaking town of Galway was a relatively contained unit, in an area surrounded by Gaelic Irish. Each settler, or burgess as they were known, was given a plot of land (a burgage plot), on which to build a house. By the late 1320s there were over 200 burgesses in the town. The plots had a house facing the street with an area behind for outbuildings and a garden. The larger stone houses fronted onto the main streets while smaller dwellings were found in the lanes and alleyways. There was always the threat of fire, and outbreaks in 1412 and 1473 probably led to the decision to construct mainly from stone (as opposed to wood) from then on. By the early 1500s approximately 2000 people lived within the town walls or close by.
The town was well maintained by the Corporation. In 1505, parts of the streets were paved and fines were imposed on anybody who let refuse build up in front of their dwelling. Outbreaks of plague were regular occurrences, sometimes brought in by the trading ships. Leprosy, which in medieval times covered many skin ailments, was endemic in the town until the late 1500s.
Citizens would have worked in a variety of trades and crafts in order to earn a living. Markets were held regularly in the town. The market cross was also where public announcements were made and possibly also where public punishments were conducted. All aspects of town life were governed by the Corporation, even the types of dress, where citizens were encouraged to wear ‘cloaks or gowns…after the English fashion‘ and socialising, as evidenced by a 1528 by-law which placed a fine on citizens found playing ‘cards, dyce, tabulls’.
Religion and pastoral care were an important aspect of medieval society, encompassing the significant events in people’s lives: baptism, marriage and death. St Nicholas’ parish church was founded in 1320, but there may have been an earlier church to serve the de Burgo castle. In 1484 the town took control of its church after the Archbishop of Tuam was persuaded to release its jurisdiction. Once released St Nicholas’ was re-established as a Collegiate Church, with its clergy elected by the citizens. St Nicholas’ enjoyed the patronage of the wealthy merchant families and craft guilds in the town.
Apart from St Nicholas’, other religious foundations established in Galway included the Franciscans (1296), the Carmelites (1332), the Dominicans (1488), and the Augustinians (1508). In Galway as elsewhere, the monasteries provided care for the sick. In 1505 the first hospital or poorhouse is recorded on High Middle St (now Shop St).
Towards the end of the 1500s Galway had formally converted to Protestantism, although there is evidence that many citizens remained loyal to Rome. A successful drive by Counter Reformation clergy briefly re-established Catholicism during 1641-52. After Cromwellian forces took the town in 1652, the Catholic clergy were forced into hiding and a new Protestant order established.
In the 1700s the implementation of the Penal Laws following on from the Jacobite-Williamite (1689-91), war led to the closure of many religious houses and the forced removal of many Catholics from the town. Despite being suppressed, the Catholics continued to practice their faith. The relaxation of the Penal Laws in the late 18th century led to the improved integration of both communities and developments in trade and commerce.