The Augustinians and Forthill

The Augustinians have been associated with Galway since the year 1500. Their first convent, or priory, was built on Fort Hill between 1506 and 1508. Its patroness was Margaret Athy who was the wife of the then mayor, Stephen Lynch. He sailed for Spain in search of a cargo of rich wines, and when he returned, he was astonished to see the graceful outline of a new church, with tower and tapering spire, on the elevated promontory that was Fort Hill. Not one stone of it had been laid when he left the city.

In 1551 the churches and cemeteries of the Dominican, the Franciscan, and the Augustinian orders were handed over to the Reformed Collegiate Church by Edward VI, but nevertheless Catholics continued to use Fort Hill until the end of the century. In 1596 Red Hugh O’Donnell attacked the city from St Augustine’s Hill and caused a great deal of damage. The townspeople realised the strategic importance of this high hill, and as the Lord Deputy, Lord Mountjoy, contemplated a possible invasion by the Spanish, he saw the need for fortifying the hill on which the church stood. Thus, over the next couple of years, walls were built around the church and outside them a deep ditch was dug.

The outer wall was 16 and a half feet high and was built of stone. Inside was a higher wall, also of stone. There was a drawbridge entrance to a strong gatehouse, and here and there were sallyports through the defences. Inside, the spine of the church rose high above it all, looking down on the bulwarks extending out at each corner. The church itself was altered by the addition to one wall of it of a shelter for the soldiers of the garrison. The commander and the officers were provided with headquarters in a separate building.

Because of the fear in Cromwellian times that the fort would be used against the town, the Augustinians and the corporation drew up an agreement allowing all the buildings and the fort to be demolished, with the stipulation that the corporation would build a church elsewhere when true peace returned. In 1855 the historian James Hardiman laid the foundation stone for the Augustinian church in Middle Street.

In August 1811 the extensive burial ground on Fort Hill was enclosed by Mr Robert Hedges Eyre as a mark of respect and esteem for the inhabitants of Galway. Our photograph today was taken c1905 and shows that wall, the entrance gate, and the mortuary chapel. The cemetery was often neglected, but in recent years a team of parishioners have done a wonderful job in cleaning it up. It is said that you cannot claim to be a true Galwegian unless you have some ancestors buried in Fort Hill.

Just down the road, on Lough Athalia (Loch an tSáile, the Salt Lake ) is St Augustine’s Well, ‘the waters whereof wrought miraculous cures’. This holy well was much resorted to by pious pilgrims on the Feast of St Augustine, and there was a strong belief in its curative powers until comparatively recently. As next Sunday is the Feast of St Augustine, it might be worth a visit if you are not feeling very well.

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