There is a very interesting map of “St Stephen’s Island” in Mary Naughten’s excellent little history of the Parish of St Francis in Woodquay. It is dated 1785 and shows the beginnings of what would be now known as Newtownsmith. It consisted mostly of small houses, yards, malt houses, and a burial ground. This ‘new town’ was largely built by the governors of the Erasmus Smith estate. In this suburb, a county courthouse was erected between 1812 and 1815, and a town courthouse during 1824. In 1823 it was objected that there were several suitable sites for a new courthouse ‘immediately in the town’ and that it was ’quite idle’ to lay foundations in Newtownsmith, or in any part of the suburb.
Galway’s second bridge (the Salmon Weir Bridge ), completed in 1819, connected Newtownsmith and the courthouses to the new county and town gaols on Nuns Island which had been completed in 1819. There was a legend that a tunnel under the river connected the courthouses and the gaol.
Our photograph of the bridge was taken about 150 years ago and shows the county courthouse on the left. On the other side of St Stephen Street was the convent opened by the Mercy Sisters in 1842 and the adjoining church and school. In December 1846, the nuns provided a ‘daily dinner’ for 100 pupils in Newtownsmith, the ingredients were collected using a specially acquired horse and cart; coarse meal from millers, offal from butchers, ‘broken bread and crumbs’ from bakers, sundry alms from housekeepers.
In May 1845, a schools inspector reported that there were 201 girls on the roles, that there was an average attendance of 180 in the previous six months, and that there would be 100 more pupils if the school could accept them. Six nuns were generally engaged in teaching but the application sought payment for only two, Catherine Lynch (23 ) and Elizabeth Murphy (17 ). Both were judged to be ‘very clever’ and the school ‘a very fine one’. A subsequent application sought payment for an ‘industrial teacher’, Elizabeth Langley (15 ). There was an average of 12 pupils in the industrial department of the school who were taught plain sewing, embroidery, and lace work, the last being described as the ‘chief object since regular work was available from a Dublin firm’. Proceeds from the contract went exclusively to the girls, who earned between two and four shillings a week.
The inspector remarked that there was little work for females in Galway and that the opportunity of acquiring needlework skills was the most powerful incentive to educational participation for the girls.
In 1895, the woollen mills opened next to the school in Newtownsmith. It was set up to provide employment for young women in particular, rather than to generate profits. This initiative came from the Catholic Church rather than the local authority. It was the bishop’s administrator, Fr Dooley, who was responsible for the consolidation of the company and it was known locally as ‘Fr Dooley’s Mill’ for many years after he died in 1911. The mills employed about 100 hands until it closed down in the early 1930s because of the general depression. It was taken over by James O’Flynn of Sixmilebridge in 1940 and closed down in 1957. It was burnt down in 1960.
Most of the above was taken from John Cunningham’s book Galway, A Town Tormented by the Sea. Our thanks to the National Library for today’s image. Mary Naughten’s book is still available in good bookshops at €8.