Medieval Galway

This very stylised plan of Galway was made in 1583 by Barnaby Googe and is the earliest surviving map of the city. It shows the walled town as it stood at the end of the medieval period. Galway was packed with houses: the D-shaped circuit of walls with mural towers and gates was complete; there was only one bridge over the fast flowing river, which was also an important salmon fishery, and it possessed a wharf or landing place for ships. The parish church of St Nicholas and the central market place with its market cross were prominent in the townscape, which was structured around the northeast/southwest axis of Shop Street branching into Main Guard Street and High Street/Quay Street.

The compass rose at the base of the map has the needle pointing to the north.

Impressive religious buildings — surrounded by their own enclosures — stood outside the walls, the Franciscan Friary to the north, the Augustinian Friary at the endpoint of the southern ridge, and the Dominican Friary on the side of Fairhill to the west.

Local watercourses and marshland impeded access to the town centre except along the major route-ways; in the words of a later commentator, “the waters concurred on all sides of it, save to the eastward” which side was safe insofar as a “large drye ditch and a thicke high wall, flanked with towers” could ensure. A note on the Browne plot of 1583 gives an insight not just into the local topography but also into how contested and much delayed was the confiscation of Church property in post-Reformation Galway: the northern suburb “environed with water” was in effect an island on which stood a friary “where they used to bury their dead, in the same they continued the Popish prayers in Lattin”.

The island was known as St Stephen’s Island. The main gate beside the compass rose was called the Barbican and would later be known as William’s Gate. You can see the ‘West Bridge’ at the top of the map, and boats moored along the quay. The Fishmarket area was known as “the place for the citadel”. The street labelled C is where Market Street/Lombard Street is today.

All of the above information comes from The Historic Towns Atlas of Galway, which was compiled by Jacinta Prunty and Paul Walsh. For anybody interested in old Galway, this is the best value for €35 you will ever get.

If you would like to know what Galway was like then, you should go to to view the programme it has set up for a Galway Medieval Experience on Saturday May 25 which includes ‘festivities, frolics and fun’. There is a medieval scribe workshop in the museum, a medieval combat display in the museum courtyard, an augmented reality experience in the Hall of the Red Earl, ‘Early Music and Image’ in the Mechanics Institute, and early music on the streets along with many more events. The programme is very varied, exciting, educational, and a lot of fun. Bring your children and enjoy medieval Galway.


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