In the early years of the 16th century, Stephen Lynch fitz Dominick was returning from an extended trading voyage in Spain. He set out with a full cargo, probably of hides, wool, and fish, which he hoped to trade for wine and iron with Spanish merchants. As he approached Galway port he was surprised to see a church and buildings almost completed on Fort Hill (originally called St Augustine’s Hill ), a prominent site visible from both the town and the sea. They were not there when he left.
Lynch came from an influential family of wealthy merchants, and land owners, who held high political offices in Galway. They were generous with their wealth.* In 1504 he founded St Nicholas’ hospital, a ‘poor man’s house’, just off the market place. He married Margaret Athy, a devout and wealthy townswoman, from an equally important family; and again renowned for her charity. It was she who organised the building of the new church and a convent as a gift to the Augustinian nuns. Her husband approved her decision, and later bequeathed all his arable lands east of Galway to the order.
Some years later, possibly 1512, she set out on pilgrimage to Santiago, and ambitiously, hoped to continue to the Holy Land ‘if her infirmity did not hinder her.’ Clearly unwell as she began her pilgrimage, history does not tell us if she arrived at either destination.
Margaret Athy, however, most likely left Galway for Spain by boat. If you had the funds travelling by sea was, by far, the quickest way to get to Santiago. But it had its dangers. Pilgrims often had to wait weeks before favourable winds allowed the ship to leave harbour. There were the potential risk of storms at sea, particularly in the Bay of Biscay; or being captured by pirates, who terrorised shipowners off the south coast of Ireland.
Damaged at sea
But none of these threats seemed to deter pilgrims from Galway and elsewhere. During the the 15th and 16th centuries pilgrims went to Santiago probably in their thousands. One man, a Galway merchant and goldsmith, Germyn Lynch, was determined to get to Santiago for the 1473 jubilee year. He got into serious debt when his boat, The Mary, was damaged at sea. He tied up at Kinsale, and rushed back to Limerick and Galway to borrow money for repairs. He eventually made it, but the financial consequences troubled him for years.
By the 15th century the sea journey could be relatively short. Richard Mac William Burke sailed from Inisbofin in the summer of 1603, reaching A Coruna, on the northern Spanish coast, having spent just 10 days at sea. Four days later, partly on horseback, he arrived at the shrine of St James some 75km away.
The scallop shell
The great symbol of the pilgrimage is the scallop shell. A perforated scallop shell is proudly worn around the neck, or sewn into a backpack, of pilgrims today just as it was in medieval times. The deep ridges on the shell supposedly represents the many routes pilgrims travel from all over the world; the longest one pointing to Santiago itself.**
Evidence of early pilgrims to Santiago are identified in medieval graves in Galway. Galway heritage officer Jim Higgins has written about scallop shell carvings on stones in the Convent of Mercy. Unusually a happy effigy of St James can be seen on a wall tomb in the Franciscan friary at Kilconnell, Co Galway, dated late 15th century. It has been remarked that he looks ‘a cheerful and amiable saint’.
The dead proudly proclaimed their pilgrimage by being buried with their scallop shells. Many examples have been found in graves in the Augustinian friary in Galway, at Claregalway abbey, and spectacularly in two pilgrim burials at St Mary’s Cathedral, Tuam, discovered by Miriam Clyne. One showing a man of about 45 years of age, buried with the shell positioned near his hip, suggesting that it was pinned to a satchel hanging from his shoulder. At least one Galway church was dedicated to St James ‘near the river’ at Newcastle ‘visited on St James’s eve and day (July 25 ) by the people of Galway for devotion.’ ***
Next week: The decline of the pilgrimage from Galway until modern times.
NOTES: * Stephen’s father, Dominick Dubh Lynch, who died in August 1508, was influential in securing collegiate status for St Nicholas’ parish church, which was dedicated to the patron saint of mariners, and ‘bestowed upon it three stately houses of marble within the walls of the town’, intended as residences for the warden and vicars. He also helped fund the building of its south aisle, making it the largest parish church in medieval Ireland (Journal of the Galway Archaeological and Historical Society 1936-37 ).
** Nobody quite knows how the scallop shell became the symbol of the journey to Santiago. Its deep bowl shape could be used as a cup or a plate. It has been described as having fertility powers for couples seeking a child, or simply representing the setting sun, thus bringing to an end another day on the pilgrim trail. In the fourth century a scallop-shell design was used to decorate the shrine of the tomb of Christ in Jerusalem. Today, if you get lost on the walking route to Santiago, or need confirmation that you are on the right path, it is certainly a welcome sight to see the shell, with a yellow arrow, pointing the way.
*** Article in the Journal of the Galway Archaeological and Historical Society by Paul Walsh, 1989/90.
I am leaning on Bernadette Cunningham’s Medieval Irish Pilgrims to Santiago de Compostela published by Four Courts Press, on sale €20.