Salthill was a quiet fishing village, existing independently from Galway town, until the Victorian obsession for health and fresh air eventually came to the west of Ireland. Invigorating salt-sea baths, salt-water showers, and, as I mentioned in former weeks, confined bathing opportunities for women; but where men could hire togs for some manly swimming and diving. By 1828 it was noted that there were 40 to 50 neat lodges along its sea shore, where there were only two or three a few years before.
Salthill was physically linked to the town by a single road. But as an immediate result of the Great Famine that link was robustly enhanced. In 1846, Dublin Castle reorganised public works to replace food depots as the principle means of famine relief. Built over a period of time three roads, Threadneedle Road, St Mary’s Road (originally the New Line ), and Grattan Road emerged, and whether it was intended or not, provided easier access to the resort, while greatly extending its boundaries.
I have discussed before that there was no possibility of the British authorities giving away food to the hungry masses for nothing, unless some charitable organisation took on that responsibility. Free food had to be earned. The government firmly believed that free aid would only make the Irish people ‘habitually dependent’ on handouts; and it was seen as a threat to private enterprise which still managed to harvest grain in sufficient quantities to export to Britain during the Great Famine years. Exports of grain was not just from the ports on the east coast; but from the most famine-stricken parts of the west including Ballina, Killala, and Westport.*
In May 1846 three tons of rice and Indian Meal** was being distributed daily among eight charity kitchens around the town. In the Central Soup Kitchen at Back Street (St Augustine Street ), 280 persons actually got the handout free, while 1,961 people paid for it. After Dublin Castle’s ruling that only food would be distributed to those who worked, the main kitchen was moved to Blackrock to accommodate those working on the new Threadneedle Road project.
Today we see the Irish version of Threadneedle Road as Bóthar na Mine, ‘Meal Road’ which tells its own story, even if its origins are largely forgotten.***
The New Line
Though not in Salthill, a second Great Famine road, the New Line, not only provided access to the resort, but also freed up a whole new area for development. It is hard to imagine Galway today without the link from Nile Lodge to Newcastle built through private land. The road really did not go anywhere, but once built it opened up room for housing and for the impressive St Mary’s College, founded in 1912 as a junior seminary for the local Catholic dioceses.
Up to the 1850s (the road was delayed because of a court case in which Mr Michael Dooley contested he had not been paid compensation for his land at Albert Tce (now the beginning of The Crescent, from its Nile Lodge corner ). The compromise necessitated a curve being put on the New Line at its entrance. That curve created a triangular plot of land, which includes sections of Taylor’s Hill, St Mary’s Road and Sherwood Avenue. The curve became the site for a Protestant Mission School, that today is home to Scoil Fhursa.
Twelve years after the Great Famine Galway was still suffering its effects. More than 1,000 families were still dependent on religious charities for survival. In a letter to The Irish Times the Catholic bishop John McEvilly noted that in addition to the dependent families there were 100 families of Claddagh fishermen ‘who in consequence of stress of weather, were unable to go to sea, and are thrown a burden on the town. I believe the benevolent lady who owns the Claddagh, Miss Fanny Grattan, has expended in this relief more money in one year than she has received from them for years together.’
This generous reference was to the single most benevolent contributor to Galway during those desperate decades. Yes Miss Fanny Grattan did own the Claddagh. Her father Henry Grattan jnr (the son of Henry Grattan of Grattan’s parliament fame ), bought the area in 1852 for £1,710. I presume Henry jnr hoped to recoup his investment from rents and fishing dues; but once Fanny inherited the title, she suspended the rent, and embarked on an ambitious project of building a relief road through her seaside property, which would involve draining White Strand marsh, reclaiming 28 acres of fertile land for crops and vegetable growing, and would link Claddagh’s Fair Hill to Salthill’s King’s Hill.
The Galway Vindicator warmly commented: ‘The completion of the Grattan Road will add much to the beauty and salubrity of the handsomest of our sunburn districts. … Since June last there have been over 200 labourers employed, and from 12 to 14 masons regularly. Over £1,200 have been expended on this great work. It will, when finished, completely alter the appearance of Salthill, and contribute much to make that favourite watering place one of the nicest localities in the Kingdom.’
Next week: Some of the oddities that emerged from the new roads. Would you believe Scoil Fhursa?.
NOTES: *Modern research, however, advises that even if all the exported grain was kept in Ireland, it might have eased the crisis for some, but would not have been sufficient to avert the catastrophe that happened. Dublin Castle was reluctant to recognise the extent of the Great Famine, despite reports from doctors, clergymen and local officials on the scene. There is a report that in Clifden, many walked up to 10 miles in search of a day’s work, and returned home in the evening, not having tasted food for 18 hours. ‘Can it be doubted then that famine exists?’ a local doctor asked Dublin Castle.
** Indian Meal (corn or maize meal ) so called because it came from America. It was more difficult to refine, and took some time to digest.
*** What are the origins of the name Threadneedle Road? Paul McGinley provides various ideas in his interesting history of Salthill (now on sale ), but it is generally agreed it was named after Threadneedle Street in London’s financial district. Was it because the bankers there gave a subscription for Irish famine relief?