The sea, the lifeblood of the town

Sails in the Bay: The Illustrated London News 1858, shows Galway Bay full of sails. We will see the same again when the Volvo Ocean Race arrives shortly.

Sails in the Bay: The Illustrated London News 1858, shows Galway Bay full of sails. We will see the same again when the Volvo Ocean Race arrives shortly.

In the 13th century the Anglo-Normans settled here and built their castle and town and called it Baile na Srutháin because of its many streams. They later changed the name to Galway after the river on which it stood, and from then on water was a major asset to the town’s development. These streams were to supply many fish, turn many mill wheels, and give access and egress in ages before roads were built, canals dug, or railways laid.

The sea was a link to the rest of the world and, for the Anglo-Norman, the only link to the authority to which he owed allegiance. Boating and shipping were thus the breath of life of Galway, and the townspeople endeavoured to maintain exclusive control of the bay and the river. The ancient records of the corporation contain many regulations for boatmen or shippers of other wares from outside Ireland, and also for those who carried turf or wood to the town from around Lough Corrib. These regulations were particularly directed to prevent the native Irish from outside the walls having the same access to boats as the townsmen had. In 1516, the mayor, Stephen Lynch and his corporation ordered “That no man of this town shall not lend galley, boat nor barque, long, small or great to no Irishman, nor yet sell none of them, nor no furnitures or necessary to them appertaining, (such ) as pitch, canvas, resin, ropes, boards, yarn or iron or anything else to them belonging.....on pain to lose and forfeit the said galley, boat or barque and stuff and also a hundred shillings.....”

To add to that, if any loss were suffered by any inhabitant of Galway through the lending or selling of a boat to an Irishman, the lender or seller would be imprisoned until he made good the loss.

The power of seafaring was very important to the merchants of Galway. Their success in business depended to a large extent on the port and on their ships. The levies and duties of goods imported helped to build the city walls and protect the inhabitants. In 1517, the corporation levied “Every ship that cometh afishing with the haven of Galway to pay for the upkeep of the Collegiate Church of Saint Nicholas”. Any Galway man buying goods from any foreign ship without licence from the mayor suffered heavy penalties, and the corporation also prohibited any local person from acting as a pilot to lead any foreign vessel into any creek or other harbour where the captain might unload goods without paying corporation dues,

Trade was the staple diet of the city, but around it lived some notable sailing families whose prowess at sea was famous. For instance, Granuaile sailed her galley into Galway in 1576 and took the Lord Deputy, Sir Henry Sidney, on a tour of the bay so that he could admire the Burren and the Twelve Bens from the sea. It is recorded that she charged him for the trip.... an auspicious beginning for a tourist industry. In the 17th century people had ambitions for the port “Both as an outwork to Europe and an invitation to America”, but their hopes were never realised. Similarly, after the Famine, there were moves made to develop Galway as a transatlantic packet station, but bad luck and bad planning put paid to that.

In the Galway area there were some 1,000 rowing boats and 450 sailing craft, mostly engaged in coastal fishing and smuggling. These trades produced a distinctive craft, the Galway hooker which was made possible by the building of piers and harbours around the bay by Alexander Nimmo.

Our image today of sailing craft on Galway Bay was published in the Illustrated London News in July 1858. The bay will be a very busy place in the next few weeks with the arrival of the Volvo Ocean Race, and we wish the organisers every success with it. Much of today’s piece is taken from an article written by Professor Tom O’Neill in Afloat magazine in 1984.

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