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A Short History of Galway

Beginnings (BC 8000 - AD 127)

Growth of the City (1127 - 1400)

Galway at the height of its wealth (1400-1600)

The End of the 'Tribes' Era (1600 -1800)

Decay and Decline (1800 - 1900)

Revival (1900 - Present)

Beginnings (BC 8000 - AD 1127)

Galway's story begins soon after the story of the first Irish people. The earliest inhabitants of the country, the hunter-gatherers of the Middle Stone (Mesolithic) Age came to this region. They have left slight traces because of the simple nature of their dwellings and lifestyle. But there is a kitchen midden of shells at Gentian Hill, past Salthill, which shows their presence. It was probably the proximity to fresh water, to freshwater fish, and to the sea that attracted these people. Some idea of the countryside may be gleaned by looking at the wetlands of the Corrib, north along the river that runs through the city. The area was also covered by dense forest.

Later, the settlers of the Neolithic also came here and cleared away portions of the forest to begin the first farms in the region. These people left artifacts - stone axes and dugout canoes found in the Corrib by underwater archaeologists. The population expanded in the region. It happened to be on a north-south axis along the river and lake, and on an east-west axis because the river was fordable at its mouth during low tide. The region saw the coming of the Bronze Age and Iron Age people. Artifacts of these eras have also been found in the Corrib - mainly some swords of both metal types.

It is in the Early Christian era that we begin to get a written account of the Galway region. It is recorded that there was a fishing village at the mouth of the river, where St. Enda, the saint of Aran, bought fish from a boy. A Christian monastery was located farther up Galway Bay, at Roscam, where the butt of its Round Tower and the remains of the monastic enclosure may still be seen. The monastery was plundered by the Vikings in the 9th century and their longships passed up the river to attack other monasteries on the islands in Lough Corrib

. However, there was not in the Galway region what we would now understand as a city. Around Roscam, there was probably a settlement of craftsmen and workers to service the monastery. There may have been a trading post at the mouth of the Corrib where merchants could come to exchange goods, probably beaching their ships on the foreshore, and meeting traders from the interior. Metals goods from Europe could have been bartered for hides and leather.

Internecine strife in Ireland in the 11th and 12th centuries forced the local King to do something about the defense of the region. Turlough O'Connor, King of Connacht, was the most powerful man in Ireland and was recognised as High-King. In order to prevent incursions from Munster, he had a 'dun' or fort built at the mouth of the river, called by the annalists Dun Bhun na Ghaillimhe, the 'Fort at the Mouth of the Galway'. The river was called 'Galway' at that time, probably from 'gaill aimh', meaning 'stony riverbed'. The name is appropriate as the stony river-bed of the Corrib can still be seen at low tides.

Growth of the City (1127 - 1400)

Though the Galway area had the differing elements of an 'urban' settlement (fishing village, monastery, defensive works), these were too loosely connected to be considered a 'city'. It was not until the Normans came into the area in the 13th century that a recognisable 'city' came into existence. The Normans had come to Ireland in 1169 as mercenaries to assist an Irish King in his war against the High-King. Their superior military technology, particularly heavy cavalry and archers, gave them an edge over the Irish in combat and they began to carve out princedoms for themselves. King Henry II of England brought a large army to Ireland in order to being these independent barons to heel. While in Ireland, he accepted the submission of many Irish kings, including King Rory O'Connor of Connacht, the last High-King.

Henry granted land to some of his own barons - land which strictly speaking belonged to his Irish subjects. Among those who received a grant was William de Burgh, or de Burgo, who was awarded land in Connacht. It was William's son, Richard De Burgh who brought an army into Connacht and captured Dun Bhun na Gaillaimhe from the Irish. Here he built a castle and it was around this castle that the city known as Galway grew up.

De Burgh's castle was situated near the modern Spanish Arch, at the end of what was once called 'Red Earl's Lane' (now Courthouse Lane), where the Druid Lane Theatre stands. These streets are therefore the oldest in Galway, something that might be deduced from their narrow width and curved direction! The people who came to live here were from many different races: Welsh, Flemish, English, French. The winding streets stretched out from the castle, St. Nicholas' Church was built (1320) and the city was surrounded by a wall.

The annals of Galway speak of the 'old sects' who 'made their fortune by the drying of fish in the sun'. It is possible therefore that Galway's fortune was founded on trade in dried and salted fish - a lucrative medieval industry with the Church's ban on meat on Friday's and during Lent. Later trade included the export by sea of hides, fleeces and the import of wine and manufactured metal goods such as weapons. Wine was a particularly lucrative trade as it was a luxury item, high in demand. Galway managed to consistently keep the second largest share of the wine trade that expanded towards the end of the Middle Ages and afterwards. Goods were landed at Galway and transported by packhorse into the interior, or by boat up Lough Corrib to destinations like Aughnanure Castle, the O'Flaherty stronghold on the lake.

The townsfolk treated with caution the Irish clans who lived in the West of Ireland. It is said that a gate of the city had the slogan 'From the ferocious O'Flaherty's, Good Lord deliver us' but this is a myth. Among these clans were the de Burghs, who had rebelled against the Crown in the 14th Century. By this time had become so 'Irishized' in their ways that they lived much like the Irish clan chieftains - speaking Irish, dressing in Irish styles, keeping bards and poets in the manner of the Irish nobility, and following Irish (or Brehon) laws and customs.

Galway at the height of its wealth (1400-1600)

As feudal lords, the de Burghs had the right to appoint town officials, collect port revenues and raise taxes. The townspeople got around the obstacle of the feudal relationship by seeking a charter directly from the King of England. This they achieved in two charters of 1396 and 1484, giving Galway the right to regulate its own affairs by means of a Mayor and Burgesses elected annually. The charters were granted by Edward II and Richard III, two Kings who were violently overthrown by rivals, but at least their successors confirmed Galway in its chartered rights.

From 1484, there began in Galway the rule of the 'Tribes', as the leading fourteen families were called. Their names were Athy, Blake, Bodkin, Browne, Darcy, Deane, ffont, French, Joyce, Kirwan, Lynch, Martin, Morris, and Skerritt. Members of these families served as Burgesses, and as Mayors of Galway up to the capture of Galway by a Cromwellian army in 1652.

At this time Galway could justifably be called a 'city state', though this did not put it at the level of the great European city states like Venice or Florence. Galway's status came from its remoteness from the centre of Royal authority as much as from its wealth, which made it the second largest city in Ireland at the height of its prominence.

The Galway people had a close relationship with at least one group of Irish people - the fisherfolk of the Claddagh. These people provided the fish with which the city had started its fortune and the Claddagh remained for centuries a fishing village adjacent to the town, following its own customs. Fearing violence from the more unruly Irishmen who lived farther afield, a bye-law forbade anyone to bring 'Irishmen to brag and boast upon the town', and named families who could not be invited into the town without permission of the Mayor and Burgesses: the de Burghs (or the Burkes as they were now becoming known), the Kellys, the McNamaras, the O'Hallorans and the O'Flaherty's.

However, their is evidence that the two races of Irish and early Colonial English (or Old English, as they are known) were intermingling. Graveslabs in St Nicholas' Church show Irish names, or both Irish and English names. The annals of Galway shows the use of Irish names for locations within Galway, and Irish nicknames for some of the town's wealthy merchants, such as Sean a' tSalainn (or John of the Salt) for John Kirwan. The bye-laws were probably due to the Tribes' fear of cultural assimilation. An example of this was the bye-law that demanded that a freeman of the city speak English and 'keep his upper lip unshaven'.

During the rebellious period of the 1590s ('Tyrone's Rebellion'), the town retained an English garrison, and suffered a short siege in 1594 by Red Hugh O'Donnell, the ally of Hugh O'Neill, Earl of Tyrone. While some in the city may have sympathized with the Catholic Irish in rebellion against the Protestant English, Galway was not ready to give up its allegiance, and the city remained steadfastly loyal to Queen Elizabeth I.

The End of the 'Tribes' Era (1600 -1800)

The peaceful early years of the 17th century saw Galway at its greatest prosperity. But shortly all that was to change. Religious tension had crept into the relationship between the English crown and its Irish Catholic subjects. The Protestant King of England came under pressure from his parliaments to curtail the rights of 'Papists'. The civic leaders of Galway were generally moderate in their dealings with the King, and always sought honourable compromise. However, their hand was forced when rebellion broke out in 1641 and the overwhelming local demand was for Galway to join the rebels. In 1643, Galway send delegates to the rebel forum, the Confederation of Kilkenny. One of its Galway's delegates, Patrick Darcy, was one of the leading moderates of the Confederation.

The 1640s saw a complicated political and military situation. Civil War broke out in England between King and Parliament. In Ireland a complicated four-way struggle ensued: Confederates, Royalists, Parliamentarians and Scots all battled it out in a war of shifting alliances. Eventually, the Parliamentarians emerged victorious in England, Scotland and Ireland, due mainly to the military skills of Oliver Cromwell and his army.

Cromwell landed in Ireland in 1650, and by summer 1651 his army had conquered most of Ireland. Sir Charles Coote and an English army arrived outside Galway in August of that year. The city held out until April 1652, when it finally surrendered. Plague had broken out in the city, and many of the fine houses of the city were plundered by the English soldiers. The 'Tribes' left the city, most of them emigrating or going to live on country estates. They had been deprived of their priveleged position, and new names began to appear on the lists of Burgesses.

Briefly, the pendulum swung back in favour of the leading Catholic families during the rign of James II (16?? - 16??). James tried to relieve the civil disabilites suffered by Catholics, but was overthrown by his son-in-law, William of Orange. Again, Ireland became a theatre for a Civil War. The Irish were finally defeated at the decisive Battle of Aughrim (only 30 miles from the city) and again Galway was besieged. The city surrendered in 1691 to a Williamite army.

The following period of Irish history is known as the Protestant Ascendancy. The Protestant 'New English' settlers, comprised of Elizabethan and Cromwellian 'Adventurers', French Huguenot refugees and Irish apostates, made up the influential political class, and Catholics suffered many civil disabilities. These 'Penal Laws' were gradually relaxed as the 18th century wore on. In spite of these laws, Catholic gentry still retained some influence in the Galway region - again one of the reasons being the remoteness of the West, and the fact that Comwellian confiscations had been few in the area.

Commercially, tribal families continued their merchant businesses, trading in particular with the Gironde region of France, and opening up new markets in the West Indies. Galway names like Lynch crop up in Brodeaux, and others in Barbadoes. The west coast was also ideal for smuggling out Irish fleeces, and smuggling in wine and brandy, and many a local family was involved in this nefarious trade.

The Galway region was unaffected by the violence of the 1798 Rebellion, influenced by French Revolutionary doctrines. A French force which landed in Mayo turned eastward and did not continue south.

Decay and Decline (1800 - 1900)

The Industrial Revolution had come to Galway in the 18th century in the form of water-powered industry. By 1844, no lesss that 25 water-wheels turned in the canals that can still be seen on the right bank of the Corrib. Industries were generally in the food sector - brewing, distilling, flour milling. Transport to Galway was still difficult. Road technology was not well developed, and the awkward geographical fact that Lough Corrib turned westward rendered canal building difficult, and it was never attempted. The port continued to trade with Europe and North America. There was a busy coastal trade to Connemara, Clare and the Aran Islands, and also a river trade along the river and lake.

In the 1840s the Great Famine caused by the onset of potato blight caused a major catastrophe in the Galway region. Etc.

Two major construction projects were carried out in Galway towards the end of the 1850s - the building of Queen's College, Galway, which opened in 1848, and the Eglinton Canal and Claddagh Basin, built to connect the lake with the sea and facilitate the busy boat traffic up and down the river.

Another revolution came to Galway in 1850 with the completion of the Dublin-Galway railway line. The railway station, adjacent to Eyre Square, was completed in ???, and the adjoining Great Southern Hotel in ???. The railway gave Galway its first reliable, all-year-round, easy and cheap means of communication with the outside world. It meant a profound change in the local way of life. Local industries found they could not compete with imported goods and went into decline. Live cattle, once exported to Britain through the port, were now more cheaply transported by rail via Dublin.

A group of locals did try to grasp one opportunity opened up by the railway. Galway was now the closest port to North America in Britain or Ireland. Passengers landing at Galway would find their onward journey facilitated by the railway. With this in mind, the Atlantic Royal Mail Steamship Company, popularly known as the Galway Line, was founded in 1858. The company ships suffered several unhappy mishaps, fortunately without ever losing a passenger. Despite holding the Blue Riband for the fastest Atlantic crossing, the company went bankrupt in 1864. Its failure put an end to any hope of Galway becoming a major Atlantic port. Though the Allen Line, a Canadian company, continued regular sailings to America right into the 1900s, the harbour never expanded sufficiently to take ocean-going liners. Passengers had to embark and disembark by tender, while the liners anchored in the bay, near Mutton Island.

The reainder of the century was one of decline in Galway. One by one, the local mills closed until none was left. In the surrounding countryside, the small cottiers and landholders left in large numbers, leading to larger farms and (paradoxically) more prosperous farmers. The fishermen of the Claddagh found their methods of inshore fishing could not compete with deep sea trawling. Emigration of the young become customary as the western seaboard of Ireland declined and population decreased. As road transportation improved, the lake and river trade, and the coastal trade disappeared, leaving only the ferry and cargo transportation to the Aran Islands to survive (and thrive) in the present day.

Revival (1900 - Present)

It is sad to relate that the emergence of the Irish Free State in 1922 brought no significant change in the West's situation. Indeed no real change occurred until the 1960s when the State finally set out to encourage foreign investment and combat emigration. The problems of the west of Ireland are still great,. Emigration and unemployment are rife in some areas. However, Galway is a success, a bright spot in the decline of the west of Ireland. Besides tourism, it also has a busy manufacturing sector with electronics, healthcare and light engineering factories on the outskirts of the town. It has a lively cultural and artistic life, something which lends an exciting 'buzz' to the town.

As the 20th century comes to a close, the city of Galway is one of the most westerly urban centres of the European Union (EU). It is a thriving community in a peripheral region of Ireland, with Ireland itself as a peripheral country of the EU. It is this remoteness from what are usually considered the centres of power that has given Galway its unique history. During its history is has endured plunder, disease, slaughter and depopulation on more than one occasion. But on the positive side, its history in this century has been comparitively pacific.

Throughout its past, Galway has manifested a particular individuality in each era of its existence, and today it still retains a certain ambience. It has an unique atmosphere, in particularly a welcome for the weary visitor. We hope you will spend many enjoyable hours in Galway during your visit.

Walk Text Written and Supplied By:

Western Heritage Specialists in Heritage and Cultural Tourism Western Heritage Tours offer a series of tours and field trips in the West of Ireland, dealing with the history, archaeology, ecology and culture of this fascinating region.

Visitors from 30th August 2003

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