Living in Ireland during the mid 17th century was a frightening and a bloody time. Following the extreme political crisis that resulted in civil war in England, Ireland was plunged into a period of despair that would lead to the surrender of Galway, and the beginning of its gradual demise. The invasion by Oliver Cromwell’s New Model Army, a ruthless exterminating machine, in 1649, led by Cromwell himself, not only destroyed all military opposition, besieged and ransacked towns, and imposed harsh penal laws on Catholic survivors, but it changed the demographic of the cities and lands with the resettlement of faithful Cromwellian generals, and their families. And in a new twist: tens of thousands of Irish people were transported to plantations in the West Indies, and elsewhere.
Fearing just such consequences, there were moments of excitement in Ireland when eight years before Cromwell arrived, many of the leading Catholic families, including most of the tribal families of Galway who were Catholic and royalist, rose up in rebellion. For a time, a Catholic Confederation became the de facto government for the island in Kilkenny. They had sided with the ill-fated King Charles I, and following his arrest and execution, they knew there would be consequences for their support.
The Irish rebellion was controlled and restrained in most places. But it went wildly out of control in Ulster, where savage revenge was inflicted on both long-time established English Protestants and Scottish Presbyterian planters. It is said that Cromwell’s cruelty was prompted by the slaughter of these settlers.
Cromwell was decisive in his victories. He met a combined Irish army of Royalists and Confederates at Rathmines, south of Dublin, and so annihilated it that he wrote: ‘An astonishing mercy!’ He besieged Drogheda, commanded by Royalist Arthur Aston. Cromwell demanded that Aston surrender. Aston refused. In the ensuing battle, Cromwell ordered that no quarter be given, and the majority of its citizens were put to the sword. Aston was beaten to death with his own wooden leg. His army treated the citizens and soldiers of Wexford with similar contempt.
But unlike Drogheda and Wexford Galway was a wealthy town. It had built extensive modern defences which gave it confidence that it could hold out until favourable terms were achieved. Under the command of Charles Coote, the Cromwellians decided to bide their time, and not risk a perilous assult. Instead in the winter of 1651 the town was besieged, and Coote patiently waited until a combination of hunger and disease forced Galway to surrender the following April.
Initially mercy was shown. The garrison was allowed to sail away unharmed to Flanders, but once the Irish soldiers were out of the way the new governor of Galway, Colonel Peter Stubbers, tore up the surrender agreement between the corporation and Coote. He seized Mayor Lynch’s splendid house, now the King’s Head bar, where he lived.* Other houses were seized for his officers.
The town was swept clean of the clergy and any remnant of loyalty to the king, executed three years earlier. Snubbers and his men went about raiding houses seeking ‘mainly women and young girls who were rounded up as vagabonds and idlers and dispatched to the Barbados , there to be sold as slaves.’
To add to the misery of the people a monthly collection of £400 was ‘carried out in the most brutal manner by the occupying army every Saturday. Eventually when the impoverished inhabitants could no longer pay, their furniture and belongings, even the clothing of their women folk, were seized and sold in the market place.’**
In despair many quitted the town and, as a result, on March 15 1653, their houses were confiscated. The town went into rapid decline, its once fine buildings fell into disrepair and ruin, never really to recover until the latter half of the last century.
End of an era
The Cromwellian occupation was a turning point in the story of Galway, and nowhere is the destruction of the town more evident than in St Nicholas’ Collegiate church, which on Sunday celebrated its 700th anniversary. Cromwell’s men stabled their horses in the church, and went about looting its vessels, pictures and religious objects, and more than likely smashed the great stained glass windows.
Tombs were defaced and destroyed. Some of them took a hammer to the faces of the angels on either side of the Lynch’s Altar Tomb, and you can still see the damaged faces today.
It exactly marks the end of an era when the powerful trading families (mocked by the Cromwellians, as ‘Galway’s 14 Tribes’ ) traded throughout the known medieval world. In fact the early Anglo Norman adventurers who founded Galway, strategically located on the west coast, quickly established trading links with continental Europe. By the 14th century Galway was acknowledged as the most important trading port in the islands of Britain and Ireland, outstripped only by London and Bristol.
As befitting many other successful trading towns in medieval times. the leading wealthy families built a great church, which stands today in the centre of the city. It was dedicated to St Nicholas of Myra, the patron of mariners and children. Its illuminated clock tower was an aid to navigators as they approached Galway by sea. Today, the alignment of Nimmo’s pier, and the spire of St Nicholas are the point to enter the shipping channel.
St Nicholas’ Collegiate church, in its simple grandeur, serves a thriving community as the largest medieval parish church in Ireland. Its stones and altars, its commemorative plaques and monuments, tell the story of Galway through the centuries.
I will try to tell some of them in the weeks to come.
Next Week: A cathedral in all but name.
NOTES: * Stubbers’ neighbour, Richard Gunning, is thought to have executed King Charles I, but local historians believe the actual culprit was probably Stubbers himself. After the Restoration, Stubbers disappeared though it is believed that he lived quietly on his estate in Co Louth, and probably died 1685.
** Taken from Old Galway - The History of a Norman Colony in Ireland, by M D O’Sullivan published May 1942.
My thanks to Rachel Latey and Catherine Moore Temple for their help and information.