The West Chapel

One hundred and ninety eight years ago this month (August 4, 1815 ), the first High Mass was sung in the West Chapel, and about 50 years later this photograph was taken of the exterior of the building. It was the third church the Dominicans had in the Claddagh.

In 1488 the Dominicans took possession of an abandoned building outside the city walls known as the Church of St Mary’s on the Hill. When the Cromwellians threatened the city in 1651, the citizens were afraid that the building, which overlooked the city, might be used as a base from which to attack it. An unusual document was drawn up promising, if the friars agreed to the church being razed to the ground, it would be rebuilt exactly as it then stood when peace was restored. The Dominicans agreed so it was demolished and, in 1669, a new church was built. It was described by St Oliver Plunkett as “The most ornate church in the whole country” and was made of hewed stone, contained a chapel and a choir, and had a steeple.

James Thomas French was the prior of the Galway Dominicans in 1777. In 1792 he built a new friary, which can be seen to the left of our photograph. In the year 1800 he started work on a new church to replace ‘the thatched chapel’.

The new building was further down the hill than the old one, and the construction took some 15 years. It was a slated building, 100 feet by 28 feet, with a spacious gallery and side altars, one of which was dedicated to St Dominic. The altars had an elegant simplicity, though large pillars on each side of the main altar gave a sense of ornament and decoration. The bell was set up in the bell tower on March 30 1809, and may have been the first Catholic church bell to be rung in Ireland at the end of the Penal Days. Fr French presented the tabernacle in 1813. There was a balcony for the choir and it had a well-toned organ. There were candle holders along the side walls.

The building was eventually too small for the population, and in 1889 the foundation stone for the present Claddagh Church was laid. It opened on October 25 1891. In 1922 the centuries old statue of Our Lady of Galway was rediscovered and placed on a side altar in the church. The grotto was built in 1847, and the following year the statue of Fr Tom Burke, carved by Seán Kavanagh, was unveiled on Fr Griffin Road. In 1978 a new priory was built in front of the old one, and the old one was demolished. The beautiful grey granite statue of St Martin De Porres, showing him in the act of pouring soup into a bowl for a hungry child while laying a comforting hand on the youngster’s head, was unveiled in April 1989.

This photograph, dated about 1865, is another one from the album recently discovered in Chetham’s Public Library in Manchester. Our sincere thanks to them for permission to reproduce it today. All of the above information comes from The Dominicans in Galway, 1241 – 1991 edited by Eustás Ó hÉideáin OP, published in 1991.

This evening , August 22, in Druid Theatre, Peadar O’Dowd will give an illustrated lecture on ‘The Archaeology of the Merchant Tribes of Galway’. Admission is free and all are welcome.


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