Galway’s rich heritage

This photograph of the interior of St Nicholas’ Collegiate Church was originally taken c1890 and was given us by the National Library. The Leper’s Gallery can be seen over the arches to the left.

The church was originally built in 1320, a cruciform building without aisles. It was dedicated to St Nicholas of Myra, patron saint of mariners. The site selected was long conservated to religion, a church having existed there for a long time, subject to the Cistercian Abbey of Knockmoy.

When it was built, it commanded a full view of the river, of the country beyond, and of the sea. As a result of a Papal Bull received from Pope Innocent VIII in 1484, it ceased to be a parochial church and was constituted a collegiate church. This conferred on the corporate body of the town, ie, the mayor, bailiffs and other members of the corporation, the power to elect, under certain conditions, the clergy who would be known as the vicars and wardens. It was a unique type of ecclesiastical government in Ireland. The warden was elected from among the vicars annually.

At various times, different people subsidised extensions and improvements to the church. John French, who was the mayor in 1538, erected the northern aisle. In 1590, James Lynch Fitzambrose erected the tower which rests on four massive pillars, and he furnished it with the church bells.

In 1537, the allegiance of the church changed from the pope to King Henry VIII. The 1641 rebellion changed that and two years later, Roman Catholic worship recommenced. Some few years later the Cromwellians arrived and wrecked the church, defaced the monuments, broke the stained glass windows, even stabled their horses there. Once again, the church became Protestant. It briefly became Catholic again, but, when General Ginkle took the town in 1691, the church was handed back and Anglican worship has continued there since.

The wardenship was discontinued in 1864. Several restorations have been carried out on the church since, probably the most radical was begun in 1955 when it was discovered the building had become unsafe because of dampness. This work was divided into six stages and finished in 1962.

In 2005, when the Augustinian church was being renovated, the Reverend Patrick Towers invited Fr Dick Lyng and his congregation to celebrate Mass in St Nicholas’ while the Augi was inaccessible. This historic and ecumenically important gesture opened up the church to a whole new audience, many of whom would have been of the it’s-a-sin-to-enter-a-Protestant-church generation.

The history of St Nicholas’ is a microcosm of the history of Galway.

From Saturday next, August 21, to Sunday August 29, the Galway Civic Trust is organising a Galway Heritage Festival. The group has lined up an exciting programme, all of which is free, that includes guided walks in urban woodlands, visits to Nora Barnacle’s house, Galway’s ‘Dead Zoo’, theatre, music, a talk on herbs and remedies in Barna Woods, a lecture on poaching in Galway, and a visit to Renmore Barracks Museum. There are guided tours of St Nicholas’ which take place on Saturday 21, on Monday 23, on Thursday 26, and on Saturday 28, all at 3pm. Booking for many of the events is essential. You can find details on the programme which is available at outlets throughout the city or by logging on to their website at, or indeed by calling them on (091 ) 564 946.

We have a unique and important heritage, and this free festival offers us a wonderful opportunity to learn more about it. Enjoy!


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