Mechanics’ institutes originated in Scotland in the 1820s. In 1826 a committee formed the first such institute in Galway when it set out a library and newspaper reading room in the ballroom of the Corn Exchange in Eyre Square. Its primary aim was educational and it had rules prohibiting discussion of politics and religion. Difficulties arose when some of the patrons of the facility presumed they could tell the members how to vote in an election and so the institute collapsed.
The movement was re-established in 1840 and was now connected to temperance societies. The rules stated that “no persons shall be admitted members of this society unless tradesmen, the sons of tradesmen bound to their respective professions, or apprentices who are in the 2nd year of their apprenticeship... that no person be admitted a member unless he can produce testimonials of his pledge from the Very Rev Theobald Mathew, or any of the clergymen of the town.”
The institute was formally established in 1840 but by tradition it dates from 1838 when its precursor, The Galway Trades Temperance Society, was formed. In 1844, members did some major reconstruction on a large early 18th century house of six bays and three storeys in Middle Street and this became their HQ. The cost of the project put them under financial strain so they expanded the membership by admitting ‘professional gentlemen’ as members, but it still remained the focal point of the Galway trades. Attention was paid intermittently to the continuing education of apprentices, though they lacked enough resources. A grant from the Board of National Education in 1870 meant it was recognised as a national school, running evening classes for young workers.
The library was much used, members formed a literary and debating society, and in 1883 they bought a billiard table. Card playing was very popular but a plan to build an extension for a card room was knocked on the head by the priests of the Pro-Cathedral next door who did not want their church darkened by a card room. In 1927 a new dance floor was installed. During the 1930s and 1940s one of the social highlights of the year was the annual ball in the Mechanics’ Institute.
In 1948, they voted to open a bar as a source of much needed revenue. It was now a club where members could enjoy a drink, good conversation, a game of billiards or snooker, darts, etc. The purpose was always educational and broadly cultural, so in recent times the institute has made spaces in the building available to FÁS/SOLAS training courses, to public seminars to community organisations, and cultural and heritage groups. In 2013, the institute admitted female members for the first time. There is a rich mix of activity in this venerable Galway institution.
All of the above is taken from a pamphlet written by historian John Cunningham to celebrate the notable anniversary. Our photograph, courtesy of the National Library, dates from about 1870.