The Spanish Arch, one hundred and seventy years ago

Antique paintings can be very important documents of social history, giving us an insight into what life must have been like when the picture was painted. They can recreate for us the streets and scenes and buildings where our ancestors may have lived or worked, show us how they dressed, the games they played, etc, before the Famine or before photography was invented. Such images of Galway are rare, so it is a pleasure to come across this descriptive watercolour of the back of the Spanish Arch, which is in a private collection.

It was painted in 1835 by an English artist named William Evans who was an art teacher in Eton College. At that time very few artists were known to have visited the Galway area. George Petrie had made a series of careful accurate outline sketches in 1824, and an English painter named WH Bartlett produced some images of Galway, but Evans’ work was groundbreaking in that it brought a new area to the attention of artists in the UK. He made a number of journeys to the west of Ireland in the 1830s and spent a lot of time in Galway and Connemara. He has left behind a number of sketchbooks of these visits which are archived in the library of Eton College.

Our illustration today shows a number of fine buildings at the back (or was it the front? ) of the Spanish Arch. There was definitely a Spanish or continental influence evident in the architecture... even the colours of the buildings are not typically Irish. You can see why it was known as ‘the Blind Arch’ with the house built up against it on the left hand side, and there is a strange lean-to (made from timber? ) built into that corner where the houses meet the arch. The artist has taken a little licence by widening the facing wall on the right, giving his painting a little more width, and by making the arch higher than it is, thus letting more light into the centre of his picture and focusing us thereon. Later photographs show the buildings on the right to be much closer to the arch.

The poles sticking out from the first floor windows were used as clotheslines, as you can see in the top right hand corner. There is also a line of clothes on the top of the arch and some garments hung out of windows to dry, so it was obviously a bright morning, and probably breezy as well. There is a figure on top of the arch who appears to be hanging up, or maybe taking down, the large white notice. What might the content of the notice have been? Could it have been a list of regulations for those entering the walled town? It looks too big to be an advertisement for a play or entertainment, but the fact that it was there at all would indicate that there was a lot of traffic through here. The population of this area would have been much greater then. The sign over the door on the left would suggest at least one retailer had a business here.

Through the arch you can see a number of masts of boats moored along the quay. There is an interesting variety of shawls and cloaks to be seen and a number of red petticoats. Note also the sciobs and ciseans. There was no Wolfe Tone bridge at the time, so if those women in the centre were from Claddagh selling fish, they would have had to cross the river at what is now O’Brien’s Bridge to make their way down here. The tracks on the street were made by carts carrying produce into or out of town.

Griffith’s Valuations, published in 1855, lists the people living here at the time as Denis Quinn, Patrick Commons, and Michael Derrane. All the other residents are referred to as lodgers.

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