13 June 2019
Saint Nicholas … a 700-year-old
city church at the heart of Galway
During the family visit to Galway yesterday [12 June 2019], seven of us visited the Collegiate Church of Saint Nicholas in Galway, which is the largest mediaeval parish church in continuous use as a church in Ireland. It is the Church of Ireland parish church in Galway city, and was built in 1320 on the site of an earlier chapel.
The church is dedicated to Saint Nicholas of Myra, best-known today as Santa Claus. Galway is a major port, and in the Middle Ages Saint Nicholas was revered as the patron saint of sailors and seafarers.
The Collegiate Church of Saint Nicholas is the largest medieval parish church in Ireland in continuous use as a place of worship. The earliest parts of the church, the chancel, nave and transepts, date from the foundation of the church.
Local legend claims Christopher Columbus worshipped there when he visited the city in 1477.
The church was given the status of a collegiate church by Donatus Ó Muireadhaigh, Archbishop of Tuam, on 28 September 1484, the same year Galway received a Royal Charter and the right to elect a mayor. This collegiate status was confirmed on 8 September 1485 by a papal bull issued by Pope Innocent VIII (Super Dominicum Gregem).
With the grant of collegiate status, the City of Galway and some surrounding parishes were separated from the Archdiocese of Tuam, and the priests of the city formed a College of Vicars, with the senior member of the college known as the Warden of Galway.
The Warden of Galway held a position that was unique in Irish Church history. The wardens were elected every year in August by the mayor and members of the Corporation or city council. The members of the College of Vicars were elected for life from among the secular clergy of the city. They were to be learned, virtuous and well-bred, and were to observe the English rite and custom in the Divine Service. The Archbishop of Tuam retained visitation rights.
For many years the triennial elections of the mayor and corporation were held within the church.
The church was extended in the 16th century, when Galway’s prosperity was at its height. The additions included the south transept, the Blessed Sacrament Chapel, and the belfry.
After the Reformation, two Wardens – one Church of Ireland and one Roman Catholic – continued in office. The College House, which stood near the west end of the church, was demolished in 1836.
After Disestablishment, the position of Warden of Galway was discontinued in the Church of Ireland and replaced by the Rector of Galway. In the position of Warden came to an end and the city and a large area of its hinterland formed a new Diocese of Galway.
Galway was captured Cromwell in 1652 after a nine-month siege. Tradition says the Cromwellians destroyed many of the features in the church, and used the building to stable their horses.
The chancel is one of the oldest parts of the church, incorporating part of an older church that stood on the site. Features in the chancel include the stone seat or sedilia, the small piscina, and the canopied bishop’s seat. The stained glass East Window commemorates members of the Persse and Fleetwood-Berry families.
The chamber above the crossing holds a peal of ten bells, originally ranging in date from 1590 to 1898. They were recast in the 1930s with levers instead of ropes to enable music to be played on them.
The pulpit commemorates the Very Revd James Daly, who was the last Warden of Galway.
The organ in the former Saint Patrick’s Chapel is by Norman and Beard (1912) is in the former Saint Patrick’s Chapel. It contains pipework from the earlier Walker organ (1845).
The Chapel of Christ, off the south transept, includes the ‘Crusader’s Tomb’ dating from the 13th or early 14th century. It is decorated with an elaborate cross, and the inscription is in Norman French. It may have been moved from a nearby Chapel of the Knights Templar that was destroyed in 1324.
The Lynch family extended the south transept in the 16th century, and ever since it has been known as the Lynch Chapel. In the wall, near the Chapel of Christ, is a long, 16th century gravestone.
The elaborate Lynch window tomb bears the coat of arms of the Lynch family and the figures of two angels, defaced by Cromwellian troops in 1652. A plaque commemorates Stephen Lynch, the ‘darling’ and ‘terror’ of the city: ‘Stephen Lynch of illustrious lineage, the darling of his soldiers and the terror of his enemies, in years still a young man, but old in valour, of whom the world was not worthy, was exalted to heaven 14 March 1644.’
In the corner of the south transept is the tomb of James Lynch, the first Mayor of Galway. A local – but unfounded – legend says he hanged his own son, giving the English languages the verb ‘to lynch.’
The Transfiguration window in this chapel is by John Francis Hogan (1948) and a fine example of Irish stained glass.
The ‘Apprentice’s Column’ in the south-east of the nave differs in design from the other columns. Its name comes from a tradition that an apprentice mason had to produce a ‘masterpiece’ before being recognised as a master craftsman.
Among the unusual features of the church, a freestanding beniter or holy water stoup in the north aisle dates from the late 15th or early 16th century.
The Blessed Sacrament Chapel takes its name from the mediaeval custom of reserving the sacrament in a side chapel. The features in the chapel include a stone desk that once stood in the college house, a piscina made of a reused gravestone.
The banners hanging at the entrance to this chapel are the Battle Standards of the Connaught Rangers used in the Peninsular Campaign during the Napoleonic Wars.
The large Celtic cross in the north-west corner is a memorial to parishioners who died in World War I.
At the west end, near the south porch, the Baptismal font dates from the late 16th or early 17th century, and is beautifully carved. One side displays carvings of three fleur-de-lys, a royal heraldic symbol, a triskele and a dog.
The vaulted south porch, used as today’s entrance to the church, dates from the 15th century, and the doorway was inserted in the 16th century. The small room above was once used for meetings of Galway Corporation, and later as the sexton’s residence.
High above the entrance to the church, a series of gargoyles display a number of animals, including a monkey and an eagle. The decorative windows around the windows on the outside include a dragon, two mermaids, a lion and Jacob with his ladder.
The church was used by the Augustinian community of nearby Saint Augustine’s Church when their church was being refurbished in April-December 2005. The church is regularly used for worship by the Romanian and Russian Orthodox Churches, and the Malankara Mar Thoma Syrian Church.
Since September 2018, the Very Revd Lynda Peilow has been the Rector of Galway. The church marks its 700th anniversary next year.