By the 16th century Galway was a compact, well laid out town with handsome buildings. The wealth of the Tribal families, built up over decades of canny and adventurous trade, was reflected in their luxurious homes; fragments of which, in delicate carved limestone, remain around the old town.
Lynchs’s Castle survives intact, again incorporating some interesting carvings.
Another remarkable survivor is St Nicholas’s Collegiate church - which had the distinction of being the largest parish church of the medieval period, and reflects the wealth of the Tribes, many of whom contributed to its building.
The church began in 1320, and was afterwards continuously added to until late into the 16th century. It is a very imposing building. It stands proudly in the centre of Galway, a defiant survivor of seven centuries. It contains many impressive and beautiful carvings, interesting wall plaques, areas of light and shade. Its tower could be seen far out into the Bay - an important landmark for sea captains guiding their boats into the harbour.
One of its main contributors was Margaret Athy, from a very wealthy trading family, whose coat of arms and that of her husband, are carved into two windows at St Nicholas’. A woman of extraordinary devotion to St Augustine, Margaret invited the Augustinian order to Galway, building them a church and accommodation on a commanding view of the harbour, at the present Fort Hill.
Her husband Stephen, several times mayor of the town, and a trader who was frequently at sea for long periods, buying and selling goods, returned from Spain about 1510. He was astonished to see the new buildings on the hill:
‘He was surprised, on entering the bay,’ historian James Hardiman tell us: ‘to behold so stately a building in a place where, at his departure, not a stone had been laid; but when, on landing, he found that it had been erected by his own good wife, in honour of St Augustine, his surprise was converted to joy, and the good man, kneeling down on the seashore, returned thanks to heaven for inspiring her with a pious resolution’.
Santiago de Compostella
Some time later Margaret went on a pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostella, which had a powerful attraction for Christians at the time. Surprisingly she probably took ship with another Galwayman, Germyn Lynch, who among other trades, ferried pilgrims to Spain.
Sea travel in those perilous centuries was full of danger. Hauling back to Galway with a full cargo, the captain ran the risk of losing all to pirates. But by far the oldest, and most lethal foe was nature. There are endless stories of fortunes lost in terrifying storms bringing ruin to families and businesses. Charles Athy was one of three men who freighted the ironically named Fortune of Kirkcaldy in 1632, ‘a voyage from Ireland to Bilbao. And the ship was laden with Irish pilchards, cow hides, and butter.’ But the Fortune disapeared without trace. There are many stories of disasters at sea.
Yet experienced Galway sailors must have been highly prized. They were described as ‘rich and great adventurers at the sea’. Adrian Martyn writes that three young Galwaymen, Guillen, William and John (no surnames given ), are listed as serving as cabin boys on Ferdinand Magellan’s great voyage of 1519, supposedly to find the legendary Spice islands, which he did. Then his flotilla continued westward to complete the first circumnavigation of the world.*
The ill fated Spanish Armada, was sent to invade England in 1588, but instead was scattered by its navy, and forced to flee around the English, and Scottish coasts, to escape down the west of Ireland, only to have been mauled by a series of fierce storms. At least 20 ships were wrecked, some 6,000 men drowned. Rewards were offered to the Irish lords who found survivors and slaughtered them on the spot. All that was needed were the heads of the victims to claim the reward.
It was believed that 200 Spanish sailors were hidden in Galway; but not for long. Lord Deputy Fitzwilliam made his way here and demanded that mayor Andrew Morris produce the survivors for immediate execution. They were taken to the Augustinian monastery, originally founded by Margaret Athy more than 70 years previously, and beheaded. Tradition tells us that the women of Galway, some of whom may have formed closer relations with the unlucky Spaniards, carefully wrapped their bodies in fine linen for burial in the cemetery known as Forthill today.
When the merchant families of Galway described themselves in the famous 1664 map of the town, they drew upon the example of Rome. Text accompanying the map depicted Galway and its principle families as heirs and equals to the civitas eterna (Eternal City ).
Rome boasts sev’n hills, the Nile its sev’n fold stream.
Around the pole sev’n radiant planets gleam;
Galway, Connacht’s Rome, twice equals these;
She boasts twice sev’n illustrious families.
(translated from Latin )
The ‘twice sev’n illustrious families’ Athy, Blake, Bodkin, Browne, Darcy, Deane, Font, French, Joyce, Kirwan, Lynch, Martyn, Morris, and Skerrett, over the course of 400 years, they and their fellow Galwegians survived and prospered against warlords and sieges, recessions and famines, ship wrecks and invasion, all within an urban outpost on the very edge of western Europe.
Ó Flaithbheartaigh tell us that ‘there is a story that a merchant abroad, who had frequent dealings with the people of this town, once asked an Irishman what part of Galway was Ireland situated?’
NOTES: Portuguese Ferdinand Magellan set out from Spain in 1519 with five ships, to open a western route to the ‘Spice Islands’ (the Maluku Islands near Indonesia ), renowned for their greatly desired nutmeg, mace and clove spices. Brilliant navigation brought them into the Pacific Ocean having found a passage through the labyrinthine islands at Tierra del Fuego. His ships reached the Maluku Islands, and sailed home, westwards. Sadly Magellan was killed in the Philippines.
I am taking most of the above from the informative The Tribes of Galway, 1124 - 1642 by Adrian Martyn, which will be launched by Gerry hanberry at the City Library, on Tuesday November 22. Now on sale at €20