An important event occurred 360 years ago this week, which changed the fortunes of Galway town forever.
On the 12th April 1652, having endured more than nine months of a siege marked by famine, disease and death, the town of Galway surrendered to the forces of the English Parliament. Although little physical evidence remains of this siege, which lasted from August 12 1651 until April 12 1652, it is still possible to find traces of it in Galway’s landscape.
Medieval Galway was a wealthy trading port with a Catholic local government. Described as a place fit for kings and princes, the town’s wealth derived from its long established trade with Spain, Portugal and France. Visitors to Galway were impressed by the wealth of the town evident in its many illustrious mansions and civic buildings, of which only fragments exist today. We can still find these echoes of the past in the facades and niches of Galway’s streets. Carved window frames, inscriptions, ornamental fireplaces, coats of arms and the doorways of long demolished medieval mansions (the Browne doorway at Eyre Square and the D’Arcy doorway in the Mercy Convent just off Eglinton Street ) give us some idea of the near vanished glory which was medieval Galway.
The Irish Rebellion and the English Civil War
How did Galway come to be under siege in 1651? Prior to the 1640s, Ireland was part of the Three Kingdoms of England, Scotland and Ireland. In 1641, a rebellion began against English oppression of Irish Catholicism which eventually merged into part of the English Civil War (1642-51 ). This conflict was fought between King Charles I and the English Parliament. In return for their assistance, Charles I promised greater religious freedom to Irish Catholics. This they did and Ireland became a new front in the English Civil War. Galway declared support for the monarchy at this point.
Cromwell in Ireland
King Charles I was executed in 1649 by Parliament who then dispatched one of their best generals, Oliver Cromwell, to Ireland to crush the Royalist forces there. Cromwell landed at Ringsend in July 1649 and stayed just under a year. His campaign was marked by atrocities, most notably at Drogheda and Wexford, where civilians and disarmed soldiers were slaughtered. Cromwell himself viewed the Irish as “murderous and bloodthirsty” who deserved such treatment. This view of the Irish as “barbarous” was prevalent among the Parliamentarians.
In 1650, Cromwell returned to England to fight Charles II, son of the executed king. Charles II was only recognised as king in Scotland and so he looked to Ireland for help against Parliament. He wrote to the “trusty and well beloved” townspeople of Galway, praising them for their loyalty and promising to reward them once he was victorious. Galway would subsequently pay a terrible price for this loyalty.
As he departed Ireland Cromwell appointed his son-in-law, the “gloomy” Puritan and able general, Henry Ireton, as Lord Deputy of Ireland with responsibility for the Irish campaign.
The War comes to Galway
One by one, Irish cities and towns fell to Ireton and his generals. Waterford fell in August 1650 and the following year, in June 1651, Athlone surrendered. Athlone’s capture left Connacht wide open to Ireton who brought more troops and artillery across the river Shannon. Ireton prepared to attack the last Royalist bastions in Connacht – Limerick and Galway. From June to October 1651, Ireton laid siege to Limerick. Simultaneously, he sent his general, Sir Charles Coote, to surround Galway and hold it captive until Limerick had surrendered. When Limerick capitulated in October 1651, Galway alone remained the “last of all the towns of England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland to remain faithful to the King”. Ireton died from disease soon after.
Sir Charles Coote’s siege of Galway
Ireton’s choice for Galway’s capture, Sir Charles Coote, was a virulent anti-Catholic with a reputation for brutality. Coote’s men dug a series of trenches linked by three forts which went from Lough Atalia, up over the modern Bohermore cemetery and down towards a marshy area (known as Suckeen ) leading into the River Corrib (across where the present Bodkin or Tesco roundabout lies ). The remains of one of these forts (Bolingbroke Fort ) is now a grassy hill on the Sean Mulvoy road directly across from the ESB office. Facing Coote’s siege works were the medieval walls of Galway which kept the Parliamentarian army at bay. They have largely disappeared except for a section at Spanish Arch and a reconstructed piece inside the Eyre Square shopping centre.
Before his siege of Galway, Coote captured the castles of Oranmore and Claregalway. He chose Claregalway Castle as his headquarters for the duration of the siege. Claregalway castle, an early 15th century fortress, stood overlooking the river Clare. It controlled the water routes into Lough Corrib and the land access from Galway to the north of the country. While Coote was comfortably established in his new quarters, his adversaries in Galway were not.
Coote’s opposite number in the beleaguered town was a battle hardened soldier, Thomas Preston. With a garrison of about 2,000 men and limited provisions for a population of approximately 10,000, Preston was under no illusions as to the reality of what was upon the town. Galway’s walls had been refortified years prior to the Cromwellian siege and there were more than 12 large cannon protecting the town from the east. With the sea and river to its back, Galway was well defended for a siege, so long as it could receive supplies. Unfortunately, as the siege wore on, Galway became a virtual prison for the inhabitants. Coote’s land cordon along with a naval blockade made life inside the walls unbearable.
Conditions in Galway
Parliamentary ships prowled Galway Bay and the River Corrib hunting for prey. Their presence made it difficult to bring supplies in by water. Instead plague entered Galway, spreading quickly through the starving population, killing many and lowering their morale. A plague in 1649 had already killed over 3,700 people. An exceptionally harsh winter along with the arrival of thousands of refugees from Limerick created more misery for the town. Sir Charles Coote permitted the refugees to enter Galway, fully aware that of the problems that they presented to the town. There were, after all, other ways to force surrender than through direct military assault which would cost many Parliamentarian lives.
With thousands of people crammed into a walled area of 11 hectares (27 acres ), Galway simply could not cope. Over the course of the siege, several proposals for surrender were conveyed from the Parliamentarians but none were acceptable to the defenders. The town’s commander, Thomas Preston, fled to the Continent as did many other important Royalist figures. Galway became increasingly isolated.
Ulick Burke, Earl of Clanricarde
By late 1651, the main Royalist commander for Ireland was the Catholic Ulick Burke, Earl of Clanricarde, whose main seat was at Portumna Castle. For centuries the Clanricardes had been disliked by Galway’s leading families. Burke wished to send his own army of over 5,000 men into Galway to strengthen its defences. The town refused, preferring to control its own destiny and to perhaps seek good terms from the Parliamentarians. Rather than working together in harmony against a common enemy, the leading figures of Galway argued continuously with Burke. For his part, Burke hoped to prolong Irish resistance as a kind of rearguard action to keep Parliamentarian troops in Ireland, while Charles II launched a counter offensive against Cromwell in England. Charles II was defeated in England. He escaped to France where he remained in exile for years. The Civil War in England was over but for the Irish Royalists they faced an uncertain future.
Discord and Apathy
Inside Galway there were uncertainties as to what the best course of action should be. Some leading citizens urged immediate surrender while other more defiant souls wanted to hold out for as long as possible so as to force the enemy into offering good terms. Fear of atrocities such as those at Drogheda, Wexford and Limerick were fresh in people’s minds. Years before the siege, one Galway mayor wrote that the treatment of other parts of Ireland by the Parliamentarians “did put us in mind of what we were to expect.” Certain notables, including the Catholic clergy, invited foreign mercenaries to help their cause. These debates undermined Ulick Burke, the king’s Lord Deputy, who by now had retreated with his men to one of his castles at Aughnanure, Oughterard.
Through his spies inside Galway, Sir Charles Coote was pleased that there was discord amongst the enemy. In the meantime Coote rested his men and replenished his supplies. His army was sick and worn out from years of hard fighting. War fatigue was everywhere. One homesick Parliamentarian officer wrote home that he hoped for “the war to be nearly over by summer and that Galway could not hold out for much longer”. It was not only the Irish who desired the end of a war which by now had entered its eleventh year.
Amidst the despair, there were individual acts of heroism. Some citizens, acting on their own initiative, left the town to try to find food. Most were killed by the besiegers. Another effort to bring supplies into Galway, by two ships, failed when one was captured and the other sunk off the Aran Islands. The city awaited its fate…
On the 5th April 1652 “the town, despairing of any relief by sea or land...much impoverished and exhausted…surrendered itself up on very good and honourable terms”. A delegation from the Mayor, Richard Kirwan Fitz Thomas, signed Articles of Surrender with Coote, probably at Claregalway Castle.
Coote sent the articles to the Commissioners of Parliament in Dublin for ratification. For Parliamentarians, travel in Ireland was dangerous for although the chief towns and cities were theirs, the countryside was full of Irish guerrilla bands. Thus, bad road and weather conditions ensured the document arrived late on the night of April 12 to Dublin Castle.
A meeting was convened to discuss the articles which the commissioners found too lenient. They dispatched a changed set of harsher terms for Coote to impose upon Galway. This new set, however, did not reach Coote in time before he sent Colonel Peter Stubbers with his regiment into the town on the morning of April 12. Stubbers’ men marched through the town gates, where Brown Thomas and the Galway Camera Shop stand today. They jubilantly banged their drums and blew their trumpets as they paraded down the streets of Galway. Galway’s part in the war was over.
Galway’s hope for fair treatment was misplaced and, as the 19th century Galway historian James Hardiman asserted, “…from the moment the articles were signed, it was resolved to violate them”. If, as Hardiman maintained, the siege was “an indelible memorial of the perseverance and bravery of the inhabitants” then the mistreatment of the town after capitulation should be a damning indictment of the victors.
A new cruel era had begun in Galway’s history. Colonel Stubbers became the first English mayor of Galway and resided at No. 15, High Street, now occupied by the King’s Head pub. Utilising connections he had with sugar plantation owners in the West Indies, Stubbers seized thousands of dispossessed people from around the town and county, mostly women and children and priests. Galway was not unique in this practice and nor was Ireland. This policy of white slavery was applied in England and Scotland also. In what has been termed the “ethnic cleansing” of Ireland, an enormous part of the population was shipped to Barbados as slaves.
The original articles of surrender which Galway signed advocated leniency and toleration. Subsequent laws of Parliament reversed this. By 1654 the former leading families had been expelled and the “once opulent, populous and respectable town” was reduced to a shadow of its former self.