A coat of arms is described as a heraldic visual design on an escutcheon surcoat or tabard. The coat of arms on the escutcheon forms the central element of the full heraldic achievement which in its whole consists of a shield, supporters, a crest and a motto. A coat of arms is traditionally unique to the armiger.
Since its foundation in the early 13th century, the town of Galway has used at least five different coats of arms. The first three of these did not, as far as is known, belong to the town proper but were used by townspeople for official purposes in the absence of specific town arms.
The earliest set (A ), comprising a red cross on a gold shield, dates from about 1270 onwards and were those of the De Burgo family, Earls of Ulster. In 1368 the De Burgo possessions passed, by marriage, into the control of Edward Mortimer, Earl of March (in England ) and Galway began to use his arms, now combined with those of his wife, through whom the earldom had come into his possession. In heraldry, the usual manner of representing an alliance of two great families is by dividing the shield into four parts and placing the respective arms in the opposite quarters. In this instance (B ), the upper left and bottom right quarters contain the original De Burgo arms and the other two quarters show the Mortimer arms (a series of horizontal bars of gold and blue with a superimposed plain silver shield ).
The next set of Galway arms (C ) began to be used by the town officials in the 15th century and consists of a blue shield on which appears a gold chevron and three silver castles. Little is known about them as they appear to be derived from personal arms. In fact, they bear a remarkable resemblance to the arms of the notable Galway family, the Lynchs. Both have the same shield colour and gold chevron, the only difference being that the Lynch arms has three trefoils instead of castles.
This new set did not supersede the Ulster-March arms as both were in simultaneous use. The reason why they came to be used is probably related to the fact that this was a period of growing independence for the town and the adoption by some townspeople of a different set of arms – one that did not hint at allegiance to any master – was one further declaration of their intentions.
Galway finally managed to get its independence in 1484 and it was only natural that its citizens should ultimately want a new coat of arms to mark them out as different and special. However, we do not know precisely when this was decided upon. All we can say is that sometime after 1578 – possibly when the charter was renewed in 1580 – a new set of arms was granted to the town. This, the fourth set (E ), is close to the arms as we know it today. It consists of a golden single-masted galley with sails furled, floating on waves and placed on a silver shield. Hanging from the mast is a smaller black shield bearing the device of a golden lion. The galley clearly represents the town’s maritime trading connections, but the origin of the golden lion is unclear.
The central design (the galley with a hanging shield ) has remained, though in a number of instances. In a version of the current arms used in the 18th and 19th centuries (D ), the shield is shown not with a golden lion, but with a version of the royal arms of England, that is, a quartering of the arms of France and England formerly used by English sovereigns. This set was used in the 18th and 19th centuries. Why this was so is a mystery, and no satisfactory explanation for its occurrence has been found.