200 years ago the Belles of Galway spent their time ‘buying, laughing and chatting’

‘Sometimes full dress’: A young couple take to the floor in one of the Assemblies Le Chevalier de Latocnaye noticed in Galway in 1797 which patrons enjoyed for a ‘very moderate price of entry’. (Painting by Francis William Topham 1808-1877).

‘Sometimes full dress’: A young couple take to the floor in one of the Assemblies Le Chevalier de Latocnaye noticed in Galway in 1797 which patrons enjoyed for a ‘very moderate price of entry’. (Painting by Francis William Topham 1808-1877).

Week II

“Those who have not the means to travel the world seem to make Galway a general rendezvous. They come here from all parts of the province under pretence of sea-bathing, but I venture to say that the attraction is quite other, and more important. There are few counties which can show prettier brunettes, or such a number of them, and all things here seem to conspire to further their humane projects...The milliners furnish them, on credit, with ribbons and finery to any extent, refraining from any request for payment until after the wedding, when the poor man finds himself in much the same situation as vanquished nations, forced by their conquerors to pay for the bombs and bullets by which they have been brought into subjection.”

These are the observations of an amused Le Chevalier de Latocnaye. On a round Ireland tour in 1797*, he walked into Galway and was charmed by the attractive women, and the infectious excitement of people enjoying themselves. Was he to come back today, he would say: Plus ca change, nothing changes.

Le Chevalier’s first impression of Galway was how Spanish it looked. ‘It was different from any other Irish town.’ He claims that it was built by the Spanish ‘to whom it belonged’. He tells a delightful story about the bridge across the river. ‘It was paid for by a good lady whose name was Joyce. As she watched the masons building the bridge, an eagle dropped a chain of gold in her lap, and placed a crown upon her head’. The gold chain is still preserved by the Joyce family. Galway people have always loved fables. Had Galway become a Rome this one would certainly have been believed.’

Juice of the grape

Le Chevalier was surprised to notice that even though everyone went to church on Sundays, shops were open that day. ‘Perhaps the whiskey-shops more than others. But the merchants on Sunday have a custom of keeping a few shutters closed on the shop window, while the door remains open’.

But, then as now, trade was in recession. ‘This city had formally an extensive commerce, but it is much decayed in recent times. Efforts are needed for the encouragement of industry, and it is desirable that some means should be adopted to make beggars work, and to lunatics from running about the streets.

A wine merchant gave me, in good faith, and explanation of the decay of commerce. ‘Before France knew how to make wine,’ said he, ‘We made it here.’

‘What,?’ said I, ‘I never heard that you grew grapes at Galway’

‘Oh, we never did,’ he replied, ‘but in France the wine was simply juice of the grape, and we brought it to Galway to make it drinkable. Unfortunately, the Bordeaux merchants can prepare it now as well as we did, and that has cut the feet from under us...’

A Land of Cockaigne

But it was in the night clubs of the day, or the Assemblies as Le Chevalier calls them, that the fun was to be ‘with a very moderate price of entry, nearly every day, sometimes full-dress, sometimes half-dress, sometimes undress...’

‘There is an air or merriment and good humour about these gatherings, and the Galway belles frequenting them could certainly teach their French sisters something in coquetry. It is to be expected that such concourses of pretty women should attract a great number of young men, who, for the most part, go at first for simple amusement , but finish, often, by returning to their homes with one rib more!’

A speedy marriage can be arranged. A former Catholic priest ‘augments his meagre income by solemnising marriages according to the Scotch manner.’

‘In the morning the young damsels, packed five or six on a car, legs dangling, go to refresh their charms in the sea about two miles from the city. In the evening, if there is no assembly, they wander from shop to shop, buying, laughing, chatting with friends they meet. The stay at Galway for three summer months is, for the young folks, a veritable Land of Cockaigne!’

And what about those who do not marry? ‘There are maids who grow old in this city without knowing it, and who continue to shop, dance, and bathe until they have reached the mature age of 50 or more years. I am sure that there is nowhere else in any country where they could pass the ageing years more agreeably or happily.’

That’s Galway for you. When it comes to a party, Galway girls are still the prettiest, the ‘Assemblies’ or night clubs still do a roaring trade, and the bracing air in Salthill still revives a long night on the town.

Long may it be so.....


* de Latocnaye published his walk through Ireland, Promenade d’un Francais dans l’Irelande in 1798. It was translated into English the following year, and a 1917 translation can still be found in some bookshops. (The Blackstaff Press reprinted it in 1984 ). It is an invaluable snapshot of Ireland on the eve of the 1798 Rebellion. It is both amusing and humane, and written in an easy style. It is sympathetic to the United Irishmen’s cause.

A Further Note from K.W.

Last week I quoted a note pinned to a bookshelf in Charlie Byrne’s bookshop. It was a cutting from Alan Bennett’s Diary 2008 where he quotes a poem by Galway writer Kevin Whelan called ‘Getting it off my chest’.

I received the following letter this morning:

Thanks for quoting my poem. It was picked up by an American website Sedulia’s Quotations last January. A few of my, er, aphorisms are also collected there. Apart from anything else it is a very original site, the best of its kind that I have come across. Now if you type my name and Alan Bennett’s into Google the poem also appears. To be linked in perpetuity with the great man - it doesn’t get any better than that.

Below is a poem I wrote two weeks ago and sent it to my agent Jonathan Williams, who is currently trying to sell my new novel Cutting Loose.

Story of My Life

In the dreamy dark,

I leapt on the train

I wanted as the one

I needed rang on by.

The theme is missed opportunities and regrets. ‘Rang’ is meant to suggest the clanging, ringing noise some trains make as they pass each other.

All good wishes,




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