James Hardiman, the Galway historian, wrote the following in 1820, “This colony has from time immemorial been ruled by one of their own body, periodically elected. This individual, who is dignified with the title of Mayor, in imitation of the head municipal officer of the town, regulates the community according to their own peculiar laws and customs, and settles all their fishery disputes. His decisions are so decisive, and much respected that the parties are seldom known to carry their differences before a legal tribunal, or to trouble the legal magistrates”.
In the 1840’s, Mr & Mrs Hall published a book of their travels in which they wrote about this officer of the Claddagh as follows: “This singular community are still governed by a king, elected annually -- at one time this king was absolute – as powerful as a veritable despot but his power yielded like all despotic powers so now he was more like the Lord Mayor of Dublin”. This book was very popular and so the idea of a King of the Claddagh became widespread. Before that the king was known as The Admiral (of the fleet ) when he was at sea, and as the Mayor when he was on land. Owen Concannon, who later was given the title of King said “There was never a King of the Claddagh, away back in the old days, there was a man named Owen King fishing out of the Claddagh and he was the best man in the boats or at the nets or for racing or for working and when those writers heard about King of the Claddagh, they thought, God help them, that it was a real king that was in it”. Owen preferred to be called the Claddagh Chieftain.
Mary Banim described the duties of the king in 1892 as follows: “In former days, the King, or Mayor was elected annually with great pomp and ceremony. He was chosen because of his intelligence and wisdom. His duty was to guide the fleet safely at sea, and understand the laws of the bay and see them enforced. While on land he was the lawgiver for the entire colony, none of whom ever dreamt of going into a land-shark’s law court, but abided rigidly by every decision of their own chief”.
He regulated the days on which the fleet sailed and punished those who broke the rules. He chose the fishing ground and gave the signal at which every boat cast their nets, so that all might be equal sharers in the harvest God was pleased to send. He was in no way different to the other villagers except that his boat was decorated with a white sail and with colours at the masthead.
Claddagh people would celebrate the election (always on St, John’s Eve ) of a king by parading through the town preceded by men carrying bundles of reeds tied to the ends of poles which they set fire to at night.
We know that Dennis King was the admiral in the 1830’s and he was followed in the office in 1846 by Bartley Hynes, a man well qualified as he and his crew once rescued several fishermen from drowning. Bartley died from cholera during the Famine. Owen Jones took over the title until his own death in 1853. He was followed by a Dominican priest, Rev. Fr. Folan “who made valiant efforts to advance the interests of Claddagh fishermen”.
When he died, Padge King was elected, “A man of little over middle height, grave and quiet in manner, with an honest, earnest look, like that of a man who thinks a good deal and does not talk much; a something in his face, a good, kind look in his eyes, makes one wish to shake hands with him, and he has the natural ease and refinement of manner so often met in our people”. He is featured in our first photograph standing with his wife and son and he has the look of authority about him. Padge was the great-grandfather of the late John Francis King who became mayor of Galway.
The first King in modern times was the aforementioned Owen Concannon who features in our second photograph. When he started out, there were some 200 boats fishing out of the Claddagh. He died in the early fifties and the tradition of the king died with him but then a group of people got together and decided to revive the office purely as an honorary one. The first one selected was ‘Ladneen’ Curran and he was followed by Martin Oliver.
The current incumbent is Mike Lynskey, a man who was never professionally involved in sailing but who has always taken an active interest in the lifestyle and traditions of the Claddagh. He was an avid sailor who had his own gleoiteog and is proud to carry on the custom that signified the independent spirit and unique cultural tradition of the Claddagh people. He celebrated his 93rd birthday last Sunday and we wish him many happy returns.
Long Live the King!