The power merchants who ruled Galway

Week II

Under Norman rule Galway rapidly developed from an obscure village into an important seaport with trade contacts all over Europe. This transformation was entirely due to the merchant community who made themselves into an oligarchy who not only owned and directed the town’s trade, but completely controlled the municipal government, the election of mayors, and, uniquely, the appointment of priests and wardens to St Nicholas’ Collegiate church. They enjoyed total power. They lived in opulent houses, many of which had elaborately carved doorways, secure within the walls of the town, indifferent to the Gaelic natives who were kept firmly outside the gates.*

I mentioned last week that in the 14th and 15th centuries Galway was the third busiest port on these islands after London and Bristol. The main trade out of Galway was hides (tanned and raw ), used for many important day-to-day functions including saddles and tack, shoes and jackets, furniture, books and manuscripts. Other important exports were linen, fish, honey, butter, woven fabrics, and meat. Imports included iron, salt, figs, dates, tar, glass, timber, cloth and silk, and especially wines from Spain. In fact Galway was the chief importer of wines distributed throughout the island.

Some of these merchants became immensely wealthy. In her engaging history of Galway, M D O’Sullivan** tells us that in the will of Dominick Duff Lynch, dated 1508, he mentions trade carried on with merchants of Pisa and Florence in Italy as well as with merchants of Spain and Portugal. At the time of his death, he owned numerous houses, and land, as well as large amounts of gold and silver. He also held great quantities of linen in rolls of 100-yard lengths, Irish coloured cloaks or mantles, silks and woollen stock.

As well as numerous charitable bequests, and money for additions to St Nicholas’ church, he craftily reminded his benefactors that his son owned him 4,000 ducats. Presumably they had to collect it.

Henry’s interest

The settlers who came to the west of Ireland in the 12th century, were in fact sons of English and Welsh families who were direct descendants from the Norman invasion of England two hundred years before. They were land hungry, experienced travellers and warriors with contacts throughout Europe and the Mediterranean world. This was a watershed in the history of Ireland, marking the beginning of more than of 800 years direct English involvement here.

Above all, these Anglo Normans were loyal to the English crown, which in turn supported their claims to territory, and endorsed laws aimed to copper-fasten their hold on power. In the old annals of Galway there are frequent references to the various kings, and queens confirming all the privileges that they sought including total control of who enters the town: ‘that no person, not even the Lord Lieutenant or the Chancellor, as previously privileged, should enter the town without a licence’, which kept the gates firmly locked against the natives.

The merchants were entitled to collect and keep all the custom fees and taxes; and even Henry VIII, whom I imagine had little time for anything else but his obsession to beget a son, took great interest in Galway. He allowed money to strengthen the walls, strong enough to mount guns on them, and to build a new quay and a new tower gate, which would further support the merchants’ dominance over a ‘mountainous and wild people’.

Money was soon spent making the town a more comfortable place to live. Edmond Lynch built the great west bridge (now the Salmon Weir ) at his own expense. Streets were paved, a canal built, and a hospital was founded in High Street. In 1320 St Nicholas’ church was built.*** Through the generations, families generously contributed to its expansion adding new altars, decoration and carvings. As well as the new fortified walls, a trained military guard was established which patrolled the streets at night, keeping its citizens safe in their beds.

The Pope’s support

The one thing that really annoyed the merchants was the Irishness and coarseness of the priests who said their daily Mass, who were ’totally lacking English decency, rite and custom’. All of whom were appointed by the Archbishop of Tuam, who probably did not like the arrogance of the merchants in the first place, and sent them the most peasant-like, uneducated, priest that he could find.

In an exercise of extraordinary power the merchants took back the right of the archbishop to appoint their priests, and petitioned the king to allow them to create St Nicholas into a collegiate church empowered to train and produce their own warden and vicars, which would be solely elected by the inhabitants of the town. Not only did King Richard III heartedly agree, but Pope Innocent VIII, in February 8 1485, issued the requisite Bull in full support.

The system of locally appointed warden and priests continued into the 19th century, and the town with its church survived and changed through the vicissitudes of history. Gradually, however, barriers broke down, and Irish and Anglo Norman mixed their blood in marriages and contracts. The Reformation, where St Nicholas changed from Catholic to Protestant, was a very gradual affair taking more than a century to complete.

Loyalty to the crown, however, proved to be a disaster. In 1651 Cromwell’s men sought out royalists, confiscated their wealth, and houses, and sold their women into slavery.

Next week: Stories in stone

NOTES: *We know the names of many of those merchant families, who, over time, gradually intermarried and merged culturally with the Gaelic natives as some of these names suggest: Athy, Blake, Bodkin, Browne, Deacy, Deane, Font, Ffrench, Joyce, Kirwans, Lynch, Martin, Morris and Skerret. We learned at school that these were the ‘Tribes of Galway’, but ‘tribes’ was a Cromwellian slur. These were the aristocracy of their day, and would have been appalled to have been called a ‘Tribe’.

**Old Galway - The history of a Norman Colony in Ireland, published 1942, republished by Kenny’s Bookshops and Art Galleries 1983.

***Many of the main cathedrals, or large churches, in European towns were built about this time, which still proudly stand today including Notre Dame, Paris 1260, Chartres 1220, Westminster 1245, St Stephens’, Vienna, 1147, and others.


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