In spite of the sunshine, this is a dreary 1960s photograph of Kirwan’s Lane which was originally taken by Derek Biddulph.
There were 14 medieval lanes in Galway and this is one of only five that still exist. It was originally two lanes, separated by a building which blocked the street. On the 1651 map, the section in our photograph was known as “Vicus Kirvanorum” while the other section that ran towards Quay Street was “Vicus Mole Martini”, Martin’s Mill Lane.
When the separating building was knocked, the entire lane became known as Kirwan’s Lane. Kirwans were one of only two of the Galway Tribes who were of Gaelic origin. They were successful merchants and landowners who moved into the city c1490, whose wealth help Galway reach the peak of its economic powers during the 16th and 17th centuries.
One of the Kirwans, an aspiring actress, married ‘Humanity’ Dick Martin, whose townhouse was where Tigh Neachtain is today. He was a major landowner, a member of parliament, a duellist, and a founder of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. He opened a theatre for her in 1783 (where Judy Greene’s is today ) and a number of plays were staged there including one which featured the patriot Wolfe Tone in the cast alongside Mrs Martin. This resulted in their having an affair, so Humanity Dick sold the theatre on to Alexander McCartney who enlarged it and staged many productions there.
At the top of the lane, there was a Dominican Nunnery on the site where Busker Browne’s is today. The sisters were there from 1686 until 1845, mostly operating a school for ‘poor female children’ in the lane. From this time on, some of the buildings were used as commercial yards and stores. For example, at the end of the last century, John Faherty had a yard where he stored sacks of meal, Colleran’s Butchers had a yard there, McDonaghs had a fish filleting room, there was a dipping shop for pine furniture and a biker’s yard there. Most of the rest was derelict.
Down at the end was Burke’s Distillery, which was replaced by McDonogh’s Chemical Works in 1910 – “A modern plant which manufactured superphosphates and compounds from rock pyrites and sulphuric acid.” Depending on the direction of the wind, the fumes from this plant often had people coughing and choking on the street.
Some of the others who had premises on the lane were Malachy Hanley, the plumber, Griffin’s Bakery, Carr’s Paint Shop, and Paul Keegan. The building on the corner at the end of the lane, where Goya’s is today, was for a time occupied by Gerry Madden who had a paint shop for cars there. It was later taken over by Stephen Treacher who restored old furniture, and Paddy Geoghegan who sold pine furniture in a shop called “Auld Stock”.
Redevelopment began in the mid-1990s and today Kirwan’s Lane has been transformed into one of the jewels in the crown of the inner city.