11 January 2010

Tall sails and tall tales on a weekend in Galway

There is a cultural vibe in Galway ... a concert in Saint Nicholas Church (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

My previous visits to Galway have been busy and business-like, including General Synod a few years ago, or lectures in the NUI Galway. But it was a long time since I had time to stroll through its streets or to head off through Salthill and out into Connemara. And so it was nice to spend a few relaxing days in Galway, and I was fortunate to enjoy the delights and surprises of the western capital before so much of the country was hit so badly by the recent downpours and floods.

Initially I had planned a quick visit, just to take photographs of two Comerford houses – one beside Spanish Arch, the other on the edges of Kinvara. But I ended up staying a few days, and saw and read more than I had expected to.

With its large student population, its creative buskers, its street markets and its multilingual atmosphere, Galway is still alive and bright late at night, with people strolling and walking in an open and safe atmosphere, cafés and restaurants full to the doors.

There is a continental air to street life in Galway (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

With its own “Latin Quarter in the oldest part of the city, around High Street, Church Lane and Quay Street, the mediaeval capital of the west has a relaxed continental ambience. On the other hand, with the country’s largest Gaeltacht region as its natural hinterland, it is no surprise to hear Irish spoken naturally and without pretence on the streets and in the shops, or to see shop signs and pub fascias with their names in Irish.

And so it was a surprise to learn that in Irish even the name of Galway itself means that this has long been the City of the Foreigners – the city not of the Gaels, but of the Galls or foreigners, as in Gaillimh.

The vibrant market in the streets around Saint Nicholas Church (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Mediaeval Galway

Above and below ... A pair of mediaeval doors in Galway shopfronts (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Indeed, Galway owes its origins to the Anglo-Normans who settled here in the 13th and 14th centuries after capturing a dún or fort from the local Gaelic rulers, the O’Flaherty Clan.

Richard fitzWilliam de Burgh is said to have captured the O’Flaherty dún in 1232, and the history of the city is traced from that year. For centuries, the Great West Bridge of Galway, spanning the River Corrib, was inscribed with the words: “From the Ferocious O’Flahertys Deliver Us O Lord.”

Richard’s grandson, Richard fitzWalter de Burgh (1259-1326), the Red Earl of Ulster, was among the last of his family to hold Galway as his personal property and excavations in the courtyard of the Customs House ten years ago unearthed the remains of his great hall. After his death, the Burke family was torn apart by internal disputes, and the vacuum created by this family conflict was filled by the merchant families of the burgeoning city, who took control of civic affairs in Galway.

The Tribes of Galway

Richard II’s royal charter to the city in 1396 effectively transferred political and economic power in Galway to the 14 leading merchant families. These families became known as the Tribes of Galway: the Athy, Blake, Bodkin, Browne, D’Arcy, Deane, ffont, ffrench, Joyce, Kirwan, Lynch, Martyn, Morris and Skerrit families.

The majority of these merchant families were of English or Anglo-Norman origin, some of them settling in Galway as early as the 13th or 14th century, and many of those names are still to be found in the shop signs, street names and the mediaeval symbols that symbols and remains that survive throughout the city.

The Browne Doorway in Eyre Square (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

In Eyre Square, which has received a welcome makeover in recent years, one of the much-photographed sites is the Browne Doorway, which comes from the mansion built in Abbeygate Street in 1626 by Martin Browne fitzOliver. Lynch’s Castle, on the corner of Shop Street and Abbeygate Street, and Blake’s Castle on Quay Street and are examples of how the names of these tribes have survived to this day.

The Lynch family has been in Galway since at least 1274, when Thomas de Linch was Provost of Galway. The Lynches were instrumental in taking the town from the Burke lordship and moving it towards civic autonomy. When Richard III granted the city a new charter in 1484, Pierce Lynch fitzJohn became the first mayor, and in all 34 members of the Lynch family have been mayors of Galway.

Lynch’s Castle, with the Lynch arms and the Lion of Saint Mark of Venice (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Lynch’s Castle is four storeys high the only complete mediaeval building that has been left intact and that is still in use in Galway. It is decorated with high mediaeval heraldic devices, including coats-of-arms of Henry VII and the Lynch and FitzGerald families and the Lion of Saint Mark of Venice. Since 1930, the castle has been the premises of a bank.

The Blakes are descended from Richard Caddell “Blake” or “black” who came to Galway from Wales at the beginning of the 14th century. Later members of the family were mayors, sheriffs and bailiffs of Galway, although Captain James “Spanish” Blake is better known for plundering the shipwrecks of the Spanish Armada and taking prisoners from the survivors, and for his role in the suspicious death of Red Hugh O’Donnell in exile.

Blake’s Castle in Quay Street, near the Spanish Arch, served as Galway’s over-crowded city jail until the early 19th century. Today it is a much happier place as home to KC Blake’s, one of Galway’s many fine restaurants.

Tigh Neachtain is one of Galway’s best-known pubs, richly decorated with murals (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Galway’s best-known pub is probably Tigh Neachtain on the corner of Cross Street and Quay Street, which has been run by the Neachtain family since 1894 and has delightful murals on its street walls. Busker Browne’s in Cross Street, which backs onto Kirwan Lane, was once a Dominican convent, dating back to the late 17th century.

Kirwan Lane was also home in the 18th century to a theatre founded in 1779 by “Humanity Dick” Martin – actors who performed on the stage included a young Theobald Wolfe Tone, who later took a leading part in the 1798 Rising.

The west’s oldest parish church

Saint Nicholas ... said to be the oldest parish churches in the west of Ireland (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

The Church of Ireland parish church in Galway, the Collegiate Church of Saint Nicholas, was the largest and most important building in mediaeval Galway. The Warden of Galway was independent of all diocesan structures, and in their collaboration successive wardens and mayors made Galway one of the most independent city states in mediaeval Europe.

As the patron saint of sailors and seafarers, Saint Nicholas of Myra was an obvious choice as patron saint of this mediaeval church, which claims to be the oldest parish church still in use in the west of Ireland. The church building was completed in 1324, but there is evidence of an older church on the site, and the oldest surviving tombstone inside the church, that of Adam Bure, dates from about 1280 and is known as the Crusader’s Tomb.

The original church was a simple, narrow, rectangular building, but it was added to and rebuilt over the following three centuries, when it was endowed by all the Tribes of Galway.

Many of the fine mediaeval tombs were destroyed or vandalised during the Cromwellian period in the 1650s. But many of the Lynch tombs in the Lynch Aisle or south aisle of the church survive, including a flamboyant one that has no inscription but has a flame-like canopy with elaborate tracery.

It is recorded that opposing factions in the Confederate cause drew swords with each other inside the church, and at least one of the combatants was killed.

A royal executioner

The King’s Head tells a tale of royal death and low blackmail (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

After the siege of Galway ended in April 1652, many of the fine mediaeval merchant houses and buildings were sequestered by Cromwellian officers and soldiers. These officers included Colonel Peter Stubbers, who received the surrender of the city and then took possession of a three-storey house in High Street that once belonged to the Deane family.

Although Deane resented the confiscation of his house, the merchant and the colonel are said to have met and regularly for drinks, and eventually Deane and Stubbers struck up a business deal, importing and selling tobacco from Virginia.

One night, however, Stubbers had a drink too many. Gesturing with his arm, he boasted to Deane: “This hand knew the strength of Charles Stuart’s neck.” The word spread that Stubbers was in fact the unknown executioner of King Charles I in 1649.

When the Stuart monarchy was restored in 1660, the story continues, Deane blackmailed Stubbers, and with the money bought an estate at Balroebuck near Tuam, while Stubbers fled Galway in search of his safety.

Like most legends, it is difficult to sift fact from fiction and fancy. Although the Deane family did own land in Balroebuck, the house at 15 High Street appears to have been owned in the mid-17th century by Thomas Lynch fitzAmbrose, who became Mayor of Galway in 1654. Stubbers seized Lynch’s house, and replaced him as Mayor of Galway.

And despite the story of flight, the Stubbers family continued to own the house until at least 1912. Today, the romantic story is kept alive, for the house is now a public house known as “The King’s Head,” with images of the monarch’s head decorating the façade, and a claim on the fascia board that the pub itself dates back to 1649, the year Charles I was executed. He was executed on 31 January, and was commemorated in some parts of the Anglican Communion as a martyr.

Romantic interludes

Galway City Museum, Comerford House and the Spanish Arch by the banks of the River Corrib (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

These and many other Galway stories are told delightfully in the new Galway City Museum, behind Spanish Arch, which opened in April 2007. Until then, the City Museum had been housed in Comerford House, one of the two houses I had come to Galway to photograph. The best-known tenant of the Comerfords in this house was the sculptor Clare Sherridan, a cousin of both Sir Winston Churchill and Sir Shane Leslie. She is said to have had romantic interludes with Trotsky, Mussolini, Ataturk and even Charlie Chaplin, and after her conversion to Roman Catholicism she used one large room in the house as her private chapel.

Civic relics in Galway City Museum (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Today, the house is suffering sadly from neglect, beginning to crumble and decay, and in need of restoration. Behind it and alongside it are the extensions to old city walls, built in 1584. For many years, the Spanish Arch was known as the Blind Arch, and its present name is only a recent innovation, perhaps an attempt to enhance Galway’s romantic, Latin reputation.

Galway claims to have inspired the voyages of discovery by Christopher Columbus (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Across the open space in front of the Spanish Arch and Comerford House stands a small monument dedicated to Christopher Columbus. Local lore claims Columbus visited Galway ands that looking out to the Atlantic from this spot he was inspired to set out on the voyage that led to his discovery of America.

Tall tales and tall sails had coalesced to make this an interesting weekend.

Canon Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute, Dublin. This essay was first published in the January 2010 editions of the Church Review (Dublin and Glendalough) and the Diocesan Magazine (Cashel and Ossory).

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