In March 1838, workmen, under the supervision of a Mr Clare, were carrying out repairs on the vaults and tombs near the main altar of St Nicholas’ Collegiate Church. They made a remarkable discovery. A body, which had rested in a tomb for 129 years, had been discovered incorrupt. Incredibly it was the remains of the last Roman Catholic warden John Bodkin, who when handing over the keys of the church to Williamite soldiers, after the town’s surrender on July 26 1691, cried out in despair: “ My God, that my right hand may not decay until the key of this church be restored to its proper owners”.
Because of the hue and cry that the discovery triggered, and later the mutilation of the corpse, even the threat to throw the church sexton off O’Brien’s Bridge into the raging torrent, prompted Mr Clare to gave a statement to a solicitor.* There was considerable interest in Mr Clare’s renovations. As work progressed past the Lynch aisle, ‘ at the right as you look to where the high altar faced Church Lane’, Mr Clare stated, ‘members of the old families, the descendants of the Tribes, began to frequent the church. Many of them pointed out to me the vault which, they said, contained the remains of the Very Rev Warden Bodkin... upon opening the vault I was the first to descend. I found the body of a man, all perfect, except for his toes. Many of the by-standers stated that they had been broken off by one of the covering flags that broke and fell into the vault 100 years before this date.’
Clare describes the corpse as follows: The hands were ‘in all appearance perfect, even to the nails and fingers , not discoloured. The face perfect the ears and top of the nose, all the teeth were perfectly white, all the skin (not ) discoloured. By my pressing my hand on any part of this body, it felt quite elastic.’
Built in 1320, St Nicholas’ Collegiate church was the pride of the 14 Galway merchant families. Typical of many prosperous towns and cities throughout northern Europe in the 13th and 14th centuries, an elaborate church or cathedral reflected the wealth and pride of the community. In Galway “ such families as Lynch, Ffrench, Skerrett, Bodkin and Joyce had built and endowed a fine church which is still a monument to their faith and generosity.” Even after all these years, it is the largest medieval parish church in Ireland in continuous use as a place of worship.
But there was more to St Nicholas’ than a busy church in the centre of a busy trading town. The merchants who built it, and who virtually controlled every other aspect of the commercial and political life in the town, now set their greedy eyes on wrenching control from the archbishopric of Tuam, which up to that point dictated all ecclesiastical appointments and rules for Galway.
Evidence of the Tribal families’ extraordinary influence and power is seen by the fact that they managed to get Pope Innocent III’s blessing to take ecclesiastical power away from Tuam. From 1484, St Nicholas’ Collegiate Church would be governed by a warden, and eight vicars who were presented and elected solely by the tribal families. Such blatant skullduggery was unique in church history. The warden and vicars were a corporate body, who lived contentedly together in the old College House, under the name of the Royal College of Galway. The warden administered and pocketed the large revenues of the college. In his own way he was a kind of little bishop, who had 10 parishes under his supervision: St Nicholas’, Rahoon, Oranmore, Clare-Galway, Ballinacourty, Moycullen, Shrule, Kilcummin, Roscam, and Skryne. Another benefit was that, in common with the Mayor and bailiffs, the Warden was to be served first “ of fish and flesh both in markets and shambles”. Anyone who disregarded this privilege should forfeit what he purchased and twelve pence!
Even after the Reformation, even through the worst of the Penal times, this privileged administration continued. An ‘underground’ Catholic wardenship existed side by side with the ‘Protestant’ wardenship when religious toleration was at its lowest. Deceased members of Catholic tribal families were always allowed to be buried in the Collegiate Church. This cosy arrangement continued until the middle of the 19th century** ; One of the significances of Bodkin’s preserved corpse was that he was the last Catholic warden.
Alarmed and mystified
Even though Bodkin’s remains were looked at in preceding years, (the damage to his toes was probably caused by a previous opening of the vault ), the discovery in 1838 was to electrify the citizens of Galway as never before. Thousands came on to the streets and stood around the church alarmed and mystified at what it meant. Inside the church there was chaos. For three days members of the Tribal families and inhabitants of the town and the surrounding villages pushed their way to stare into the vault. The crowds became so dense that work had to stop. ‘Many false reports were in circulation, some saying that Bodkin held keys firmly in his hand, and other reports (all of which were ) equally untrue.’ Work had to be discontinued. At the end of the third day, the church was cleared of people. Mr Clare locked up and handed the key of the church to the sexton, Henry Caddy. He went home to think about how to progress the refurbishment in such a crisis.
The next morning he was woken at 6 o’clock and told that Bodkin’s arm was missing.......
More next week***.
* I am taking this from By the Corribside, by Maurice Semple, published by the author in 1981.
**The Wardenship eventually fell into disrepute as Tribal families fought each other over succession, and was disbanded. In 1831 Pope Gregory XVI created the diocese of Galway. According to Maurice Semple when Dr George P Browne was appointed Galway’s first bishop, the bells of the old St Nicholas’ Collegiate Church tolled in rejoicing, and Protestant and Catholics joined in a celebration dinner in College House.
*** I have been told I make these stories up. I don’t.