On August 31, 1939, Dr Douglas Hyde, President of Ireland, signed his name in Irish in a small leather-bound book as the first Freeman of Galway.
He had travelled to the city the day before, stayed at the Eglinton Hotel, and attended performances of some of his own plays in An Taidhbhearc. At 11am the following morning, he was driven in an open motor car through flag-bedecked streets to University College. The pavements along the route were lined with citizens and visitors from all parts of the country. He carried a bouquet of flowers which had been presented to him by seven year old Rita Curran from Salthill.
On arrival at the college, the Army Pipe Band of the first Irish-speaking battalion played the National Anthem and Dr Hyde inspected a guard of honour composed of officers and men. He was introduced by Alderman Costelloe, Mayor of Galway, to Rev Monsignor Dean Hynes, president, University College, Galway, Bishop Michael Browne, and Mr Frank Fahy, Speaker of the Dáil. Then, escorted by Army officers in full dress uniform, he walked through the university grounds to the Aula Maxima past another guard of honour composed of members of the Ambulance Corps of the Knights of Malta.
Observing that he had the honour to announce that the President was about to be enrolled as a Freeman of this city, the Mayor convened a special meeting of the Corporation, and the town clerk, Christopher Clerkin, called the roll – to which each robed member replied by rising and bowing – read the declaration of welcome, and handed Dr Hyde a parchment scroll; the official document making him the first Freeman.
Dr Hyde replied, speaking in Irish, that it was an honour to receive the freedom of any city but it was an honour above all to receive the Freedom of Galway. “A great change has come over Galway in the last 20 years, possibly the only city whose national progress could go step by step with the old spirit of the old national revival, so that it was known to all as ‘The City of the Gael’. An Taoiseach, An Tánaiste, and myself never speak to each other in any language but Irish. You have advantages in Galway not found in other parts of the country. You have the Irish speaking soldiers and the Gardaí giving good example in the speaking of Irish, you have the Gaelic Theatre spreading Irish drama, these are of great assistance but they are not enough. The people themselves must revive Irish by speaking it each day.”
The ceremony over, the party motored to the Great Southern Hotel for the official luncheon where the Mayor presented Dr Hyde with a silver casket to mark the occasion.
Eamonn de Valera, 1946, was the second Freeman, followed by Seán T Ó’Ceallaigh, 1950; Rev Dr Gerard P O’Hara, 1954; Cardinal Dalton, 1957; Cardinal Marella, 1961; Robert Wagner, Mayor of New York, 1962; Cardinal Browne, 1962; John Fitzgerald Kennedy, 1963; Cardinal Cushing, 1965; Cardinal Conway, 1965; Christy O’Connor, 1970; Bishop Michael Browne, 1973; Brother Leonard McCabe, 1978; Pope John Paul II, 1979; Cardinal Arns, 1983; Fr Damian Byrne, 1984; Ronald Reagan, 1984; Colm Ó hEocha, 1985; Hillary Clinton, 1999; John Hume, 1999; Christy O’Connor Jnr, 2000; Richard Daley, Mayor of Chicago, 2003; Aung San Suu Kyi, 2005; Garry Hynes, 2006; John Killeen, 2010; Mary Bennett, 2011; Michael D Higgins, 2012; Billy Lawless, 2015; and Martin Walsh, Mayor of Boston, 2018.
Our photographs show Dr Hyde inspecting the An Céad Cath guard of honour, and signing the book watched over by Mayor Joseph Costelloe, Bishop Michael Browne, Mr Frank Fahy, and Mr Christopher Clerkin.