Galway or ‘Gaillimh’, as it’s known in the native Irish language, is situated on the picturesque west coast of Ireland. It is one of the five counties in the province of Connacht. It gets its name from the River Corrib (or River Gaillimh, as it was once known) that formed the western boundary of the earliest settlement, which was called Dún Bhun na Gaillimhe (“Fort at the mouth of the Gaillimh”). With it’s reputation, association and close links with the Irish culture, language, music, song and dance traditions, Galway has become fondly known as Ireland’s Cultural Heart. The county is well known for its “Irishness”, due to its designated Gaeltacht regions throughout the county. A Gaeltacht region is an area where its inhabitants largely speak the native Gaelic Irish as their first language. Galway has the largest population of remaining native Irish speakers in Ireland.
Apart from often being termed Ireland’s Cultural Heart, Galway also bears the nickname of ‘The City of the Tribes’. The nickname derives from the ’14 tribes’ of merchant families who came to positions of authority and led the city in its Hiberno-Norman period after c.1450. The most prominent of these 14 tribes was the Lynch family, who provided 84 mayors to the city. The other families included; Athy, Blake, Bodkin, Browne, D’Arcy, Deane, Ffont, Ffrench, Joyce, Martin, Morris and Skerritt. The crests of these prominent Galway families can be seen below.
It is understood that the first inhabitants in the Galway region arrived over 7000 years ago. Studies of shell middens highlight the existence of people in the area as early as 5000 BC. Before County Galway became an official entity around 1569 AD, the county was made up of several kingdoms and territories. The kingdoms included Aidhne, Uí Maine, Maigh Seóla, Conmhaícne Mara, Soghain and Máenmaige.
To learn more about the history of Galway throughout the centuries, click on a century below to read more about some history during this time;
Although exact dates as to when settlement first occurred in Galway, it is understood through findings in stone utensils, that it could have dated back as far as 5000 B.C. Furthermore, it has been discovered that a dún (or fort) was built pre-12th century and it is also believed that the Claddagh area of Galway city was the earliest settlement in the city consisting of fishermen. It’s noted that in 927 A.D., Vikings landed to Galway where they attacked and damaged local monasteries however, strangely, they didn’t form a town in the area as they had done in other location, even though the rivers and lakes throughout Galway gave expansive access to most of Connacht.
The 12th century saw greater settlement throughout Galway, thanks to the construction by the O’Connor family, High Kings of Ireland. In 1124, a dún (fort) was built by the O’Connor’s near the mount of the river Corrib. However, the fort came under siege in 1132 by the O’Brien family, Kings of Munster. O’Brien’s forces were stronger and he destroyed the fort of the O’Connor’s. These battles and warfare amongst clans were common throughout Ireland in the early ages. Nonetheless, the O’Connor’s once again rebuilt the fort at Galway in 1154, where it was recorded that ships docked close to the fort, establishing the fort and Galway as a port town for the first time.
In the early 13th century, the fort at Galway was under the control by the O’Flaherty family however this control was relinquished in 1235, when the fort came under attack by Richard de Burgo, commander of the Anglo-Normans, who were undergoing their invasion of Connacht, and was successfully captured. The O’Flaherty family launched frequent attacks on the fort for some time after but De Burgo and his defenses held firm and remained in control of the fort. Furthermore, in 1270, De Burgo commissioned the erection of a wall around the fort, turning Galway into a walled town protected by the castle. De Burgo’s wall managed to enclose around 25 acres for the town. During this time the Anglo-Norman’s also created several other settlements throughout Galway.
Ireland was swept with a wave of rebellion in the 14th century, where a revival of native Irish power over the Anglo-Norman settlements sparked. As a result, extra defense walls were constructed around the fort at Galway in 1312, which progressively isolated the town from other Anglo-Norman settlements. In addition, to ensure the security of the inhabitants of the town, the church of St. Nicholas of Myra was built in 1320 as the parish church for the town. Previously the villagers used a Franciscan friar outside the town walls as the parish church. To further consolidate the security of the town, walls were extended and improved once more and coins were minted due to a series of charters granted to Galway on petition by Richard II (1361-1400) and Henry IV (1367-1413).
Throughout the 15th century, the famous 14 families (otherwise known as the ’14 tribes’) of Galway started to become prominent and established in the social order of the town by around 1450’s. The fortress town of Galway was still in control of descendants of the de Burgo’s family who had become more or less native. However, Richard III (1452-1485) later instructed a charter which freed Galway from the control of the de Burgo’s descendants and allowed for the election of a mayor and two bailiffs. This gave Galway considerable self-governance. During this time of self-governance, there was some displease from city notables to the fact that the town’s church, St. Nicholas of Myra, was governed by the diocese of Tuam. They forced the matter with Pope Innocent VIII, whom then issued a Papal declaration freeing the church in Galway of diocesan control and allowing it to be ruled by a Warden. The 14 families were responsible for the election of a Warden (this continued up until 1840). By 1484, Galway had gained civil and ecclesiastical independence along with a ‘city’ status due to its settlement size in a remote location of Ireland. During this period, as the fort at Galway was built using wood and thatch structures, the town was victim to two ‘Great Fires’ (1473 & 1500). As a result, after the second fire, the city was rebuilt using stone.
The 16th century was renowned as a great trading period for Galway. The city started to trade extensively with the rest of Europe, in particular, Spain. Galway’s exports mainly consisted of local produce such as fish, leather and wool while its imports were mainly of fruit, oil and wine. As a result of this great trading period, Galway prospered and became extremely wealthy. With its new found wealth and permission from Elizabeth I, the city went about building a hospital (St. Brigid’s), a garrison and a gaol. Perhaps the most notable event of the 16th century was that of the Spanish Armada. In 1588, King Phillip II of Spain sent troops to invade England, however the ships were met with great storms on the seas setting them off course and destroying the ships. Two hundred Spaniards, who came ashore on Galway Bay after their ship was wrecked by the storms, were brutally murdered under the order of the Lord Deputy due to their threat to Queen Elizabeth I. Another notable event during the period came in 1599, when Red Hugh O’Donnell and his army, who were at war with the Queen, burnt a nearby convent to the ground but Galway city itself was left unharmed.
From the late events of the 16th century, the start of the 17th century saw the building of greater defenses of the city and by 1602, the town was fully fortified. The town started to prosper once more and was boosted by the addition of a fair, which was granted permission in 1613. Education in Galway also was also prospering thanks to the famous Free School (which had been established in 1580) and, despite some temporary suppression by James 1 (1566-1625), enrolment numbers are said to have reached 10,000. However the number of scholars soon became a nuisance to the town and in 1627, it was ordered that beggars and foreigners were to be whipped out of the town. In 1652, the Free School was closed down as part of the post-Cromwellian decline. Oliver Cromwell was commander to the English campaign in Ireland in 1649-1650. His forces defeated the Confederate and Royalist coalition in Ireland, where he then occupied Ireland, bringing to an end the Irish Confederate Wars. Furthermore, during this time, a series of Penal Laws were passed against Roman Catholics with a substantial amount of land from Catholics also being confiscated. Cromwell’s success spelt bad news for Galway. In 1651, the town was invaded by land and sea by Sir Charles Coote and in 1652, the town was forced to surrender due to starvation. It was believed the surrender was on apparent favourable terms but these were not adhered to. As a result, all Catholics were expelled from the town and the great town house homes were confiscated from the 14 families and given to soldiers. The homes and the town quickly fell into ruin as the prosperity of Galway declined.
In the 18th century, Galway underwent some brief restoration and looked to recover prosperity and wealth once more. However the War of William and James brought any recover to an end. During this time, under strict Penal Laws, Catholics were strongly supressed and severely punished in relation to education, ownership of property and civil rights. However, after the turn of 1750, religious tolerance returned to Galway, as the focus changed to making money through trade and industry and to prosper again as it had done in previous centuries. This new found wealth and prosperity came from a number of mills, distilleries and breweries which harnessed the numerous rivers throughout Galway. However, although a new found wealth, most inhabitants lived in squalor and filth.
This short term recovery in the late half of the 18th century and early 19th century was brought to an end when the Great Famine struck (1846-1848). The Great Famine was very severe on Ireland with the population believed to have been reduced from 8 million pre-famine to less than 6 million by 1850 and continuing to decline as more and more people emigrated. During the famine years, many poor people flocked to Galway port where they were to travel to the United States on famine ships. Although the opening of the Queen’s College Galway in 1849 and the first railway connection to Galway in 1851 showed signs of recovery, it failed to materialise with Galway remaining in general decline and population hitting an all-time low by the early 20th century.
Galway started to undergo a slow recovery in the in the mid-20th century. Construction and urban sprawl saw Salthill, which was once a small distant resort, become a suburb of the city. This greatly helped the economic recovery of the city, with tourism and students to the college giving the city a much needed boost. However, one casualty of progress was the old Claddagh Village. The Claddagh, a small fishing village that kept to themselves and managed to survive the ups and downs of history, was demolished in 1934 by the Galway Corporation on the grounds of health and hygiene, for fear the plague would break out and spread. Houses were demolished and streets became tarred. Not only were houses and streets demolished, but hundreds of years of history were wiped out with no real remains of the original Claddagh area.
21st Century/Galway Today
Today Galway is a prosperous city and county with its population growing in numbers. Galway is a thriving bohemian & cultural city which still relies greatly on tourism and students to the colleges for its economy but significant industrial hubs across different sectors have also emerged throughout. The city is also well known for its many festivals throughout the year with huge crowds gathering for the annual Galway Arts Festival, Races and numerous other events. Galway also holds many accolades. It is to be the European Capital of Culture in 2020. It is a designated UNESCO City of Film. In 2007 it was named as one of the eight ‘sexiest cities’ in the world. In 2008 it was rank the 42nd best tourist destination in the world (14th in Europe). Galway has once more started to prosper in its illustrious history.