13 June 2019

Saint Nicholas … a 700-year-old
city church at the heart of Galway

The Collegiate Church of Saint Nicholas, Galway … the largest mediaeval parish church in continuous use in Ireland (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

Patrick Comerford

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.

An icon of Saint Nicholas of Myra in the church (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

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).

Inside Saint Nicholas’ Church, Galway (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

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 pulpit commemorates James Daly, the last Warden of Galway (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

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.

Inside Saint Nicholas Church (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

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 ‘Crusader’s Tomb’ in the Chapel of Christ (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

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.

Part of the Lynch memorials in the South Transept (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

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.’

The Transfiguration window in the Lynch Chapel (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

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.

The freestanding ‘beniter’ or holy water stoup in the north aisle (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

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 is off the north aisle (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

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.

The Baptismal font displays carvings of three fleur-de-lys, a royal heraldic symbol (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

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 and doorway date from the 15th and 16th centuries (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

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.

Inside Saint Nicholas Church, looking towards the West End (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

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.

The church is also used by the Romanian and Russian Orthodox Churches (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

Comerford House in
Galway looks neglected,
but all is not lost … yet

Comerford House … looking a little neglected beside Spanish Arch in Galway (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

Patrick Comerford

I spent much of yesterday [12 June 2019] with family members and cousins visiting Galway. Our walking tour of the city brought us through Eyre Square, to Saint Nicholas’s Collegiate Church, Shop Street, Kirwan Lane, Lynch’s Castle, Blake’s Castle, the King’s Head and the Spanish Arch, as well as many other historic sites in the centre of the city.

There was music and lively busking on the streets, and it was good to show first-time visitors to Galway from England that the ‘West is Awake.’ But it was sad to see the sorry, neglected state of Comerford House, beside Spanish Arch and the banks of the River Corrib, which was donated to Galway City by the Comerford family many years ago and which, for a time, had been the home of the Galway City Museum.

Spanish Arch, a 16th century part of the city walls, between Comerford House and the River Corrib (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

Comerford House, beside the Spanish Arch in Galway, was home to the Comerford family for a number of generations before being donated to Galway Corporation. It has been an award-winning city museum and the name of Comerford House recalls close links between Galway City and the Comerford family.

William James Valentine Comerford, a solicitor from Tuam, Co Galway, was born in 1903. He qualified as a solicitor in February 1924, and started to practice in Tuam as Henry Concanon & Co. In 1954, he moved the practice to 9 William Street, Galway. At that time, he was in partnership with Frank Meagher.

William Comerford was also a well-known local historian in Co Galway, and he believed his branch of the Comerford family was descended from the Comerford family of Inchiholohan, Co Kilkenny. His historical papers included: ‘Some notes on the Borough of Tuam and its records, 1817-1822,’ in the Journal of the Galway Archaeological and Historical Society, vol 15, Nos 3 and 4 (No 19), pp 97-120 (no date, ca 1932-1933), and he was a founding member of the Old Tuam Society in 1942. He was the author also of an unpublished autobiography, ‘Harp sheds Crown.’

Bill Comerford moved to Comerford House, beside the Spanish Arch, in the 1950s, but when he retired in the 1970s he moved to Dublin, where he died.

Bill Comerford married Elizabeth Meagher and their children included: Dr Francis Rory Comerford, Vice-Dean of the Medical Faculty at University College Galway (now National University of Ireland Galway), and the father of Judge Francis Comerford, President to the Circuit Court; and Henry Comerford (1936-2016), a well-known Galway solicitor, a member of the Radio Éireann Players, who had two plays produced in the Peacock Theatre, and a Fine Gael candidate in the 1981 General Election.

Comerford House in Galway forms part of a National Monument site, the Galway City Walls, which is within a ‘Zone of Archaeological Notification.’

Comerford House in Galway is a detached three-bay, two-storey house with an attic storey, and was built ca 1800 as a private residence. It has a full-height, projecting square-plan entrance bay and a later flat roofed single-bay two-storey addition to south-west end of the façade.

Galway’s old City Wall forms a boundary to the small yard behind the house, and the south-west end of house is built onto and incorporates two of the northern arches of Spanish Arch, one of a series of arches of mediaeval gateways.

The Venetian-style windows at the end bays date from 1947. The entrance doorway has a carved limestone doorcase that includes panelled pilasters with plinths, a supporting moulded lintel and an open-bed pediment with a plain fanlight, and a replacement timber panelled door. The square-headed door at the addition has fluted flanking piers with plinths, and one pier retains a finial with acanthus leaves and a barley-sugar cone.

Clare Sheridan, a sculptor and cousin of Winston Churchill, lived in the house from 1948 to 1952 and converted one room into a private chapel. The doorcase came from Ardfry House.

A flood warning on the walls of Comerford House, close to Galway Bay (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

The Connacht Tribune reported late last year [17 September 2018] that unless Fáilte Ireland came up with at least €5 million towards the refurbishment and extension of the Galway City Museum into Comerford House and onto the top of the Spanish Arch, the flagship 2020 project would be dead in the water.

The cost of the project is significant because of the complexity of the site beside Spanish Arch, which is a national monument, Comerford House, which is a listed building and the River Corrib and looking out onto Galway Bay.

Graffiti on the corner of the walls of the house in the name of Extinction Rebellion warns how global warming and rising waters in the River Corrib and Galway Bay threaten the future of Comerford House.

However, there was some good news at Comerford House yesterday. A year-old site notice by Galway City Council on the building outlines the latest plans for Comerford House that include refurbishing the house, providing exhibition spaces, visitor and staff facilities, flood protection measures, a new attic storey, a new three-storey building north of Comerford House that would provide additional space for exhibitions, storage and visitors to Galway Museum, as well as new landscaping for Museum Square and in front of Comerford House, Spanish Arch and the Fish Market.

All hope is not yet lost for Comerford House in Galway.

Comerford House in Galway was built an attic storey, and was built ca 1800 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)