Irish history and Galway

14 April 2016 Thursday afternoon

On the coach on the way to Galway, our tour guide Jennifer summarized about a thousand years of Irish history in an interesting and engaging way so that we would be able to view the sites in Galway in the proper historical context. I continue to be amazed by the complexity of Irish history, and I definitely learn more with each site we visit.

In the early 12th century, the King of Connaught (Connaught is one of the four regions of Ireland; the other three are Ulster, Leinster and Munster) constructed a small fort and three castles on the site of what is now Galway.  The city was attacked a century later by the Anglo-Norman Burkes, who wrested control of the fort from the O’Flahertys and built a wall around the city, enclosing an area of 25 acres.  In the early 14th century, Galway requested and was granted by the King Richard III independence from the Gaelic Burkes. The city was largely under the control of fourteen ruling Anglo-Norman families (“tribes”), which—since the tribes were English—had the effect of isolating the city politically and culturally (as well as physically, as the wall built by the Burkes was extended) from its surrounding Gaelic neighbors. (The name Galway is derived from gall, meaning foreigner.)  The English ruling tribes did not have a good relationship with their Irish neighbors and went so far as to declare that “neither O’ nor Mac should strut or swagger through the city” without permission.

Under the auspices of the fourteen tribes, Galway thrived as a seaport and a trading center and the ruling tribes (and their support of the English king) brought prosperity to the city. Meat and grain were exported while spices and wine were imported from Spain and France. The Galway citizens excelled at shipbuilding and built a thriving fishing industry.

Galway went into decline during a series of wars in the 17th century. The citizens of Galway were mostly Catholic, and they backed an Irish rebellion that proved to be unsuccessful. The city surrendered to Cromwell after a long siege in the mid-17th century. In the mid 18th century, Catholics were ordered to leave the city. This decimated Galway’s role as a port city, since the members of the merchant elite were all Catholic. Further devastation of the city’s population occurred during the mid 19th century potato famine. Galway participated very little in the events that occurred in Ireland from 1916-1923. A 1916 uprising failed, and Galway was the headquarters for the British army during the War of Independence, thwarting the Irish Republic Army in their participation in the quest for independence.

With this brief historical context as a backdrop, our first stop was the Galway Cathedral on the Corrib River, the seat of the bishop of the Roman Catholic diocese of Galway.  While the diocese of Galway was established in 1831, it did not have a cathedral, so the St. Nicholas parish church served as the pro-cathedral. Construction began in 1949 following the demolition of a gaol on the site. It was dedicated in 1965 by Cardinal Cushing of Boston and is the newest of Ireland’s cathedrals. It is dedicated to the Assumption of Our Lady into heaven and to St. Nicholas. The cathedral is built of Galway limestone and the interior is breathtaking, with a large dome, an imposing recently-refurbished organ (I wish I could have heard it!) and marble floors made of local Connemara marble. Our stop was brief, and I didn’t pay as much attention to the stained glass as I should have. A Lonely Planet source reports that one of the stained glass windows features JFK praying at a scene of the Resurrection, but I didn’t learn about his until after my visit, unfortunately. I also learned after my visit that another stained glass window shows the Irish Holy Family, with Mary knitting and Jesus offering Joseph a cup of tea! The pews are constructed of west African mahogany and have a seating capacity of 1500.  The old gaol doors were recycled and used when constructing the cathedral.

Galway cathedral.jpg

Next we crossed the river into the city and Brian parked the coach near Eyre Square. We all spilled out, in singles, pairs and small groups to explore the city. I set off on my own and went for a long walk, enjoying the pedestrianized “high” street thronged with tourists shopping, dining at the pubs, and enjoying the many buskers providing musical entertainment.

At Eyre Square, after a quick picnic lunch, I spotted a sign advertising free 45-minute walking tours.  The guide would later confide to me that it was his second day in business, which explained why I was the only patron.  So I had my own personal guide to retrace the steps I had taken through the city to point out the significance of the sights. My guide was Joe, who had emigrated from Germany 30 years ago and married and settled in Ireland. Joe first guided me around Eyre Square and showed me the Brown door, which was actually a window that originated from a residence belonging to one of the ruling tribes of Galway. Another home has since been built on the site (which Joe pointed out to me later), but the window itself was saved as an example of early 17th century craftsmanship and prosperity. (In his Ireland travel guide book, Rick Steeves opines that very little of medieval Galway remains, so the city makes a big deal about what does remain.) Next to the Brown door was a fountain with a sculpture of sails reminiscent of the unfortunately-named “hooker” boats (so-called because the fisherman used multiple hooks on a single line) that comprised the 17th century fishing fleet. In a small corner of the square, which I hadn’t noticed before, was a small plaque commemorating the June 1963 visit of John F Kennedy to Eyre Square. Joe told me that his mother-in-law was in attendance at that event and still talks about it. In fact, Joe mentioned, the actual name of the Square is Kennedy Park, but everyone in Galway refers to it as Eyre Square, its original name. I’ve checked several maps since I learned this, and Joe is correct; every map I consulted refers to the space as Kennedy Park.  (Rhode Islanders reading this post will understand the motivation to call a landmark by its original name.)

At the top of the square are 14 flagpoles, each flying the flag of one of the original 14 tribes of Galway. Each tribe would have had its own castle, but only the Lynch castle survives to this day (it is now a bank).

Before we left the Eyre Square area, Joe told me that the statue that I had viewed earlier when walking around the city on my own (which was labeled in Irish, so I didn’t know who it was) was Liam Mellows, a member of the Irish Republican Brotherhood and Sinn Fein. He participated in both the Easter 2016 uprising in Galway (a similar but smaller skirmish than the one that took place in Dublin that was quickly squelched by the British) and the War of Independence.

We then left the square and proceeded down William Street.  Our first stop was a pub with an outside clock labeled “Dublin” time. Joe explained that before time was standardized, Galway was 20 minutes behind Dublin. The clock allowed the residents to know the time in Dublin, which was important because the trains ran on Dublin time. Joe also pointed out other interesting features of landmarks that I had missed on my earlier walk. The gargoyles on the church and the cathedral are hard to spot, so it was nice to have Joe point them out to me. The King’s Head pub was given to Oliver Cromwell after Cromwell’s conquest of Ireland, and the king’s head, as it were, belonged to Charles I. The next block featured the Four Corners pub, which was, of course, located on the intersection of the main two streets of the city, in the same location as the two main roads in medieval time. We stopped to put a coin in the music case of a very accomplished woman playing  the Irish bagpipes. Joe explained to me that the Irish bagpipe has three octaves (the Scottish bagpipe has two) and according to Joe, the Irish bagpipe is “easier on the ears.”

Busker in Galway.jpg

The Claddagh village on the River Corrib no longer exists, but if you want to purchase a Claddagh ring, there were quite a few shops on the high street selling them. The ring features two hands (friendship) holding a heart (love) that wears a crown (loyalty). If the wearer of the ring positions it so that the tip of the heart points to the wrist, the wearer is taken, but if the heart points toward the fingertip, the wearer is available. Joe showed me his ring and demonstrated this for me, and was quick to properly position the heart back to his wrist to indicate that he was married (“in case one of my wife’s friends sees me”).

We were now at the end of the end of Quay (pronounced “key”) Street, where we had a good view of the River Corrib. Joe showed me the Spanish arch, another remnant from medieval times, which was the place where Spanish ships would unload their cargo (the wine trade between Galway and Spain was especially lucrative). Joe pointed out that the Spanish arch is in the shadow of a much taller modern building, a fact that irked long-time residents of the city. Joe also told me about the many festivals hosted by the city–an arts festival, an oyster festival, and horse-racing events.

We also talked about the Easter 1916 rising and Joe pointed out to me that many of the pubs were displaying posters of the original seven organizers of the protest, all of whom were executed by the English and were viewed as martyrs. Joe explained to me that the 100-year anniversary of the event was being commemorated throughout the Republic during 2016, and that many establishments were flying the Irish flag in support of the event.  The preponderance of flags hadn’t really made an impression on me, since the American flag is a common sight in our country, but Joe said that the Irish typically don’t fly the flag.

I needed to be back at the coach for the journey back to Castlebar, so we headed back, passing by the cathedral (a “pro” cathedral since the 1965 construction of Galway Cathedral), the Lynch castle, an archaeological dig site, and then finally we went through The Eyre mall, a modern shopping center that was obliged to incorporate the old Norman wall into one its interior walls. One of the towers was also still standing, incongruously, in the middle of the mall, and housed a small photography studio.

I gave Joe a tip, bade him goodbye, and boarded the coach.  Incidentally, if you happen to be in Galway, look for Joe’s “Free 45-minute Galway walking tours.” I hope his new business flourishes, and I highly recommend him as an engaging and knowledgeable guide.


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