Medieval Times

Medieval Galway

Galway City today differs little from the Medieval town it developed from. A walk from Eyre Square to the Spanish Arch leads you through centuries of history and antiquity. The town's anatomic narrow lanes and winding streets were constructed by the Anglo Norman settlers who secured control of the town in 1232. By 1270 Richard de Burgo had built a strong castle and surrounded the 25 acres of city land within a thick, 16 foot high wall for protection against surrounding native attacks. The three centuries to follow encapsulate Galway's Medieval era, during which it flourished as a mecca for trading in the West.

The Hall of The Red Earl

This is the site of the oldest surviving structure from medieval Galway. It is of great archaeological and historical importance, when considering the establishment of an early Galway City. It was uncovered in 1997, during the extension of The Custom House next door. What once stood here, was the Hall of the Red Earl.

The hall once acted as the tax office, court house and town hall of a budding Medieval society, under establishment by the Anglo Norman De Burgos, in the late 13th century. They prospered for two centuries until a shift in power meant that the 14 Merchant Families had a greater hold of the city. The hall’s services became obsolete and the building fell into ruin. This can be seen on the 1651 pictorial map of the city.

You can see today where the pillars once stood to support the roof. The large cruciform structure in the centre was developed as a mould for iron works in the later medieval period. 

Over 1,100 artifacts were found during the excavation. Some of these pieces have been replicated and are on display along the viewing pathway.
The site today is enclosed within glass panelling, and is open for public viewing. 


The 14 Tribes of Galway

Athy, Blake, Bodkin, Browne, D'Arcy, Deane, Ffont, Ffrench, Joyce, Kirwan, Lynch, Martin, Morris, Skerritt.

From the Medieval era emerged 14 Merchant Families, or Tribes as they became later known, who collectively established a prosperous, democratic society.

Shortly after Richard de Burgo captured the Dhún bun na Gaillimhe from the O'Flaherty chieftains in 1232, the Anglo Norman families traveled West from England seeking their fortunes, dispossessing the native Irish. Here they built large townhouses and established themselves as a high society. The town began to expand with the development of a strong trades industry and Galway became a major port town. Trade both local and international thrived.

In order for Galway to effectually maintain itself as a city of increasing wealth and opulence, two things were necessary. Firstly to obtain and establish a separate jurisdiction within the town, independent of de Burgo influence. And secondly to achieve ecclesiastical independence. They had a vision of how to harness and develop Galway into a competitive European City.

In December 1484 their case was heard and approved. Richard III issued a new charter which granted the families liberty to elect a mayor and bailiffs. The first mayor elected was a man named Pyerce Lynch. The same Lynch family held mayoral office 84 times over the following 150 years, and their townhouse still stands today on the corner of Shop St and Abbeygate St.
To attain their further independence, pope Innocent III issued a papal bull in that same year. Before this, Galway was governed by the diocese of Tuam. The bull freed the Church of St. Nicholas of diocesan rule, and allowed the Merchant Families to appoint a vicar and chapters.

The invasion of Cromwell and his troops in the mid sixteenth century that saw the decline of the city. The townhouses were seized and fell into disrepair. Trade reclined, and the Reformation caused religious disruption. 'To hell or to Connacht' was Cromwell's famous ultimatum given to the Catholics who were expelled from town. The Merchant Families began to recline, their influence no longer the governing force.

An interest in trades and industry would not be revived again until the eighteenth century with the opening of flour mills and a distillery on the banks of the river Corrib. However it is widely considered that the links made with Spain and France as trading affiliates developed by the Merchant Families, carved a path for future trade and local wealth.


Marriage Stones and Fireplaces

Each of the 14 Merchant families were represented by their unique Coat of Arms. These crests were often carved into their house's stonework and were regarded as a mark of a family's success. 
During the early Medieval era, the Anglo Norman settlers rarely socialised outside of their own, bounding many of the Fourteen Families by marriage. To celebrate such occasions, a heraldic panel would be carved for the new couple to symbolize the joining of the families.  These were known as marriage stones, and displayed the man's Coat of Arms on the left hand side and the woman's on the right. Usually after the couple were wed, their marriage stone would be used to form a keystone above their fireplace. 

Taken from the King's Head pub, Galway

There is vast collection of Medieval fireplaces which are still intact dotted around the city. The fireplace within the King's Head pub dates from 1612 a panel above which bears the arms of the Lynch and French families. 
Other fireplaces can be found in Lynch's Castle, Cookes Restaurant, Druid Lane Restaurant.


The Church of St. Nicholas of Myra

St. Nicholas' Church dominates the skyline in the heart of Old Galway. Dedicated to the patron satin of merchants and sailors, it was built to facilitate the spiritual demands of a growing community. Construction of the church finished by 1320, making it the country's largest Medieval church still in use today. It has successfully withstood two city fires, continuous power struggles between the Anglo Norman settlers and the native Irish, and the Cromwellian invasion during the seventeenth century. The latter is held accountable for the ruinous state of the internal church statues. Throughout his invasion, Cromwell stationed the cavalry within the church. The result of which lead to the horses knocking heads and hands off the unsuspecting sculptures!

During the fifteenth century, the trades industry was flourishing, transforming Galway into the wealthy and prosperous capital of Connacht. The wealth being gained was reinvested in infrastructure and both the French and Lynch families donated funds towards building two extra aisles either side of the nave of the church. 

This extension is what gives St. Nicholas’ Church its three roofed profile and almost square interior.

 The surrounding graveyard is inhabited by past mayors and respected noble men. Adam 'Crusader' Burnes being the oldest among them, his gravestone marked 13th century. 


The Lynch Hanging

The 19th Century Lynch Memorial window, Lombard St., Galway

There is little officially recorded of this particular tragedy. Like many incidents in Galway's history, it is shrouded in mystery and confusion. However, this seems to be the most widely accepted account of events. 

This is the story of the 'stern and unbending justice' of former fifteenth century mayor of Galway, James Fitzstephen Lynch. As the mayor, he was also the city's magistrate. He convicted his son Walter of a young Spaniard's murder. and hung him from an upper story window in 1493. He performed the execution to upkeep public justice. 
As I previously mentioned, there are a number of unresolved myths surrounding the circumstances of the unlawful murder. One account of the incident suggests that the young Spaniard was killed for courting the young Lynch’s girlfriend. Another tells the tale of a financial dispute, as Galway had strong trade links with Spain at the time. 

This tragic incident gives us an insight into the mind of one of Galway’s most powerful and influential bureaucrats, whose devotion to his civic duty overshadowed his paternal allegiance.


** More Medieval stuff to follow .....**

Establishing the City

**Usually, when somebody tries to tell me about something I'm not very interested in, my brain will make a lazy attempt to try and listen. This generally tends to be pointless: I'm already thinking about dinner. Equally, when I eagerly share stories about vikings and invasions to unsuspecting comrades, their glassy eyed glaze says "...oh great. I forgot to buy milk..." 

Accordingly, this section 'Establishing the City', is really for those of you who are interested in a historical timeline of the establishment of the City. I make no excuses, it is packed full with names, dates and other relevant facts. 
So please, refrain from the stress of reading beyond this point if what you want is a juicy dollip of gallant debauchery, and see section 'To the pub'.**

1651 Map of Galway City

Throughout the Centuries

Galway is known as the City of Tribes. This alluring title makes reference to the fifteenth century Merchant Families, who are accredited with establishing Galway as a democratic and prosperous society. Throughout the  centuries the city has been through numerous power struggles, two major fires, a Cromwellian invasion and has endured to establish it's own cultural identity.

To tell the tale of the town known as the 'Gateway to the West', let's go back to the first known settlers, pre 12th century. They were a group of fishermen who lived near the river Corrib and had built a monastery, which the vikings later ravaged on their rampage along the west coast. Little else is known about who they were.

From this point on, I will use the centuries as sub headings so that you can skip to the eras that you're interested in.

12th Century

  • 1124 O'Connors built a wooden Dún (fort) near the mouth of the river Corrib.
  • 1132 O'Brien, the King of Munster, destroyed it which was common clan warfare at the time.
  • 1154 Ships sailed from beside the Dún, establishing Galway's first port

13th Century

  • 1235 The Anglo Norman Richard de Burgo captured the Dún from the O'Flahertys.
  • 1270 De Burgo builds a wall encircling the 25 acres of the city, fortifying the town.

14th Century

  • 1312 Wall extended and a revival of Irish power.
  • 1320 The Church of St. Nicholas of Myra is built as a parish church.
  • Charters granted throughout the century under Richard II and Henry IV, walls extended and coins minted.

15th Century

  • 1450 Well known town houses began to appear and the 14 Tribes were established as the top of civic life. Later, Richard III emancipated Galway from control of the descendants of the de Burgo's who had practically gone native. Galway became self governed and elected a mayor .
  • Pope Innocent VIII issued a Papal Bull, declaring that the Church of St. Nicholas would be free of diocen control and ruled by a Warden assisted by 8 vicars. Until 1840 the wardens were elected by the 14 Merchant Families. 
  • 1473 The first Great Fire- the Medieval wooden buildings burned to the ground and were rebuilt in stone. 
  • 1484 By this year Galway had both civil and ecclesiastical independence. 

16th Century

  • Traded extensively with Spain- exporting fish, wool and leather, importing fruit, oil and wine. Under the rule of a series of mayors elected by the 14 Merchant Families the city became wealthy and prospered.
  • 1578 Town gaol (jail) was built and a garrison defended the town.
  • 1580 The Free School was established and prospered enormously, enrollment reaching 10,000.
  • 1588 The Spanish Armada. 200 Spaniards were butchered after becoming shipwrecked in Galway Bay, by order of the Lord Deputy.

17th Century

  • 1627 All foreigners and beggars were whipped out of town, an unsustainable population.
  • 1631 Eyre Square, known as 'The Green' became a popular trading place for local fishermen and farmers. 
  • 1651/52 Cromwell's success in his struggle with the King was bad news for Galway, Sir Charles Coote invaded, starvation forced a surrender and all Catholics were expelled.
  • 1652 Free School was closed as part of post Cromwellian decline. 
  • 14 Merchant Families' town houses were confiscated and given to soldiers of occupying forces in lieu of low pay. These quickly fell into ruin as the prosperity of the town declined and the Merchant Families were renamed 'The Fourteen Tribes' by Cromwell. 

18th Century

  • The war of William and James stunted the restoration of the city and Catholics suffered severe disabilities in relation to education, property and civil rights.
  • After 1750 religious intolerance subsided and a return to primary concerns of trade and industry.
  • This time of new growth in prosperity was water based and the river's force was harnessed to power a number of mills, breweries and distilleries. Most of the city's inhabitants still lived in squalor and filth.

19th Century

  • 1846 - 1848 the Great Famine made the previous recovery period short lived. The Irish population dropped from 8 million people pre-famine to 6 million by 1850. The decline continued throughout the century as people emigrated across the globe.
  • 1849 Queen's College Galway opened, showing signs of prosperity.
  • 1851 Galway's first railway line opened.

20th Century

  • 1911 Population at an all time low, 13,000 inhabitants.
  • Throughout this century the city staged a slow recovery. Salthill was revived as a tourist attraction.
  • One casualty of progress was the Old Claddagh Village. This was a tightly knit fishing community. It was a maze of thatched cottages clustered behind the Dominican Church that kept itself aloof from the rest of the town and survived all of the ups and downs of the city's history. The inhabitants kept it's culture and customs largely intact.
  • 1934 Galway corporation demolished the Claddagh cottages and tarred over the cobbles on grounds of health and hygiene. Local council houses were built in their place. At a stroke, hundreds of years of local history and autonomy were wiped out of existence.

1 comment:

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