The Collegiate Church of St Nicholas of Myra is the largest medieval parish church in Ireland and its history is a kind of microcosm of the history of Galway. The earliest part of the present church dates from the beginning of the 14th century and includes the chancel with its three windows in the south wall. However it is possible that there was an earlier structure on the site. There is a legend that a man from the Aran Islands who died in 1580 aged 220 years could remember a time when the church did not exist but that just sounds a likely story. The records that exist suggest that the church was founded in or about the year 1320.
In 1484, Donatus O’Murray, the Archbishop of Tuam issued letters under his seal which gave the church “Collegiate” jurisdiction by which it was to be governed by the mayor and burghers of the town. This was confirmed by Pope Innocent VIII the following year and so many of the local parishes were granted to the college that its area was as large as a small diocese.
Worship in the church changed from Catholic to Protestant in 1537 when Lord Deputy Grey arrived to demand the transfer of allegiance from the Pope to Henry VIII. Six years later, Roman Catholic worship resumed in the church and continued until Cromwell's troops arrived and destroyed all the old stained glass, defaced many of the monuments, and stabled their horses in the church. About that time, some of the wall statues or plaques were removed.
When King James II arrived in Ireland in 1689, the Catholics petitioned for possession of the church and James granted them this under privy deal the following year, but this situation was short lived as General Ginkel took over the town and the church was handed back to the Protestant clergy. Anglican worship has continued there uninterrupted since, except for a few months in 2005 while the Augustinian Church was being renovated. In a remarkable gesture of goodwill and ecumenism, the Reverend Patrick Towers invited the Augustinians and their congregation to share the Collegiate church while renovations were going on.
There have been some alterations and renovations done to the church in the interim — you can see the tower has changed since this photograph was taken about 150 years ago — but it remains probably the oldest and best loved building in Galway, though it looks quite different as the beautiful tree inside the railings has not been planted yet.
A more modern version of the above mentioned Aran man’s story was often told by the late Johnny Cloherty who often claimed he "could remember back to the time when the town clock was only a wrist watch".
The Galway Archaeological and Historical Society’s lecture will take place in the Harbour Hotel on Monday next, April 11. The title is “Our Citizen Army, the 1916 Rebellion in Galway Town” and it will be given by Dr Conor McNamara. All are welcome.