Around the year 1890, this four storey building at the top of Prospect Hill was derelict. It was bought by the Sisters of Mercy and used by them as a ‘House of Mercy’, a training centre for girls. The nuns called it St Patrick’s House but their scheme failed due to lack of finance and staffing problems, so they let the building out on rent.
In 1914 they had a distinguished tenant in the shape of the internationally famous English painter, Augustus John. He had sailed into Galway from across the bay with Francis ‘Fireball’ McNamara from Doolin. He liked the place so much he decided to stay. He had rooms over ‘Gas Tank’ Flaherty’s pub on the docks, but he needed a studio in which to work. He approached the Mercy nuns with a view to renting St Patrick’s House. They were concerned about his morals and his reputation, so they referred the application to Bishop O’Dea. The bishop and the artist met and it was agreed that he could rent the property for three years on condition that he did not paint any nudes there. “I have found a house here,” he wrote to a friend, “with fine big rooms and windows which I’m taking – only £30 a year.”
John stayed for some months, making a lot of sketches and some paintings around Galway, especially in The Claddagh and around the docks. With the outbreak of World War I, he was increasingly concerned that people watching him making drawings along the docks during wartime would regard him as a treasonous spy, and so he left Galway, but he was not finished with the city. “I’m thinking out a vast picture synthesising all that’s fine and characteristic in Galway City – a grand marshalling of the elements.” He produced an enormous cartoon which is over 40 feet long, a collage of many images that represented Galway to him, which is in storage today in the Tate Gallery in London.
St Patrick’s House was then rented out to Sinn Féin which used it as a meeting hall and for drilling practice which, of course, made it an obvious target for the authorities who, on this day 100 years ago, March 25, 1921, set it on fire and, as you can see from the burnt out shell in our photograph, they made a thorough job of it. Some of the sparks from the fire blew across the road and landed on the thatch roofs of the houses opposite and a number of locals spent the night dousing the roofs with buckets of water and wet sacks and by doing so, managed to save the buildings. Myles O’Leary was the hero of the hour.
The building on the right of our second photograph was later occupied by Paddy Molloy’s shop. The houses we see were, going from the right, Pat Costelloe’s, Ethel Healy’s, and John McKeon’s, which was slated. May Costelloe was due to leave for America the following day so her main concern was protecting her passport. Mrs Murray from Middle Street was the caretaker of the Sinn Féin Hall at the time.
All of the above is take from an article written by Mrs Josephine Raftery of Prospect Hill in St Patrick’s Parish Magazine in 1979. The photographs originally appeared in the Irish Independent of March 28, 1921.