The story of the Augustinians in Galway began in 1508 when the order opened a house outside the walls. The church and monastery were on a high position which, with the development of artillery, became an important strategic point. It dominated the city on one side and the entrance from the sea on the other. In 1602, there was a plan to fortify the city, so the friary and cemetery were levelled and a military fort built which was occupied by a garrison of English soldiers. Only the church and one other small ecclesiastical building were left standing, and the area became known as Forthill.
The fort was shorn of its military trappings and fortifications in 1643, but its prime situation militated against it and the few remaining ecclesiastical buildings were seen as a threat to the town as Coote and his army were advancing through Connacht. So, the corporation and the Augustinians came to a mutual agreement to demolish the remaining buildings on Forthill, and in return, the corporation would build a similar church on a named site when real peace returned to the country.
Through the Penal times, the Augustinians lived inside the city walls. The corporation was unable to fulfil its promise to build a replacement church within the walls, so they made over the use of the courthouse to the fathers, except during the time of the Assizes. The courthouse continued to be used as a place of worship up to the year 1760 when a spacious, if not very handsome, church was erected in Middle Street. In 1838, the Augustinians moved from their old house in Middle Street to a new convent in Back Street which is now known as St Augustine Street. The building was designed along the lines of a country house... that of Blakes of Cregg, a family who had given refuge to the fathers in their homeless days.
The fathers were now able to focus on the construction of a new church on the same Middle Street site and they began to collect money in Ireland and abroad. Most of the work was done by local craftsmen. The design, by Dublin architect B Moran, was described as ‘Early English and consists of nave, aisles, chancel, and side chapels. The aisles are separated from the side chapels by an arcade of seven arches of equilateral form, with octagon piers of highly polished marble, surmounted with moulded capitals of the same material. The chancel is lighted by a traceried window in three bays, the nave by a triple lancet in front, and clerestory, single lights. It is open in front and supported by four pillars of veined green marble, with capitals of Carrara marble. The slab is of pure Carrara, 3’6” by 4’ wide. The steps and landing are of highly polished Galway marble. The roof consists of framed principals of open timber. Inside the entrance is a holy water font made by a Galway artist, Mr Clare, probably from Forster Street. It is probably the most splendid in any church in the United Kingdom.’
On August 28 1859, 150 years ago, the church was consecrated. It was a great liturgical occasion presided over by Bishop McEvilly, with several other bishops in attendance, and a great many priests. The church was full for what was described as an ecclesiastical occasion comparable to that of the consecration of the cathedral more than 100 years later.
The ‘Augi’ has undergone many changes since, the most recent being the most dramatic. It has changed from being a 19th century place of worship to being a 21st century place of worship but it still retains that wonderful calming spiritual atmosphere that is not to be found in all churches, and is much loved by Galwegians.
So, to honour this notable anniversary we have a photograph, courtesy of the Augustinian archives, which shows a weekday Mass in progress some time in the 1950s. The priest has his back to the congregation and is separated from them by altar rails. All of the women wear hats or scarves. The pulpit looks imposing.
Family history workshop
As part of Heritage Week, The Western Family History Association has organised a workshop which will take place on Saturday August 29 in the Claregalway Hotel from 2pm to 6pm. A good attendance is expected on the day as it will provide an ideal opportunity for anyone interested in family history research to learn and procure information both local and national.
The programme will be a varied one consisting of informative talks, followed by questions and answers. There will be a number of display tables and a number of members will take along their computers and will be very glad to inform and share their knowledge and experience and expand on their research.