We were driving the 205km from Doolin to Sligo and of course for such lengthy travel time, you need a place to stop for lunch. When your route takes you past Galway City, there is no choice. Galway is a place of myth for young Australians of Irish descent. While we didn’t have much Irish culture in our daily lives as school children, we regularly had to dance and sing along to Irish songs at parish dances. ‘Galway Bay’ was a favourite with its opening verse speaking of a faraway bay where folk watched the sun rising and the moon setting as part of their daily lives. We lived a long way from the ocean so sunsets and moonrises over foreign seas were events of great romance…but we also had no idea what a ‘Claddagh’ was. Here we were, many years later with the privilege of spending half a day in this legendary city…bucket lists don’t get much better than Galway!
Like the rest of Ireland, the prehistory of Western Ireland Counties such as Galway, Mayo and Sligo arises from about 10000 years ago when the ice sheets trundled their way back north to the Arctic. The first period of human habitation was the Mesolithic period (8000-4000 BCE) when hunter-gatherers foraged for food and used stone tools. The next period was the Neolithic (4000-2500 BCE) when humans began settling in one place, cultivating grains and rearing animals for food. This was the period when so many of the megalithic tombs were built that we encountered on our trip up the West Coast from the Ring of Kerry. Bronze and Iron age periods of habitation lasted until about 500 CE when iron technology became common place. During this period of prehistory, given its many lakes and rivers, the Galway area was home to significant populations of humanity. With the transition to written historical records, we have record of a fort constructed at the mouth of the River Corrib in the early 12th century CE by the King of Connacht, Tairrdelbach Ua Conchobair (1088-1156) where a settlement gradually grew around it. Since then, life around mouth of the Corrib River where it enters Galway bay has been very busy!
Of the three major invasions of Ireland over the millennium from the 8th century, Galway got off reasonably scot-free from the marauding Vikings. The first incursions of the Danes in 795 down the West coast of Ireland meant that they stopped off at the Island of Inishboffin off the coast of Connacht as well as a few other Island communities but Galway escaped much of the Vikings’ onslaught.. This continued to be the case for the next few hundred years when the Vikings concentrated on the east and southern coast of Ireland where places like Dublin, Wexford, Waterford and Cork were targeted.
This situation was not to be repeated in the case of the next set of invaders, the Norman conquerors of England. Henry II of England organised his loose control over Ireland from 1171 and this developed into a slow but steady take-over of land from the locals. In 1235, the Anglo-Norman Richard de Burgo captured the Galway fort from the O’Flaherty family. He not only began building the usual Norman Castle, he started to build a wall around Galway that kept being expanded over the next century. The main purpose of such a wall was to keep at bay the restive locals. The O’Flaherty’s and O’Hallorans continued to attack de Burgo’s fortified Galway. It was this wall that set the structure of the city of Galway for the next 8 centuries. The image below is a diagram of the walled city of Galway from 1651.
The 1651 city plan shows clearly the street design of the walled city and many of these structures are still in place today. For example, the Church of St Nicholas can be seen dominating the town, built in 1320. O’Brien’s Bridge is in place, having been built to replace the original West Bridge over the ford. One historical note that refers to the conflict between the Anglo-Normans who controlled Galway town and the local Irish families who wanted it back, tells us of a prayerful piece of graffiti reputedly written on the West Bridge in the 13th century: “From the ferocious O’Flahertys O Lord deliver us“.
Another section of the 1651 map above illustrates the geographical term ‘Claddagh’ that I originally encountered in my childhood when listening to the song, ‘Galway Bay’. One of the consequences of Anglo-Norman invasion of Galway was the removal of the native Irish from the Galway settlement to the opposite bank of the River Coribb at the mouth of the river. It was here the local community of Galway Bay fisherman settled for centuries. The extract, above right, (Many thanks…http://www.eyresquarecentre.com/) gives an insight into the fraught community relations at the start of the 15th century between the Anglo-Normans and the local Irish families.
The third major invasion of Ireland in the 17th century severely impacted on Galway. After many parts of Ireland broke into conflict over resentment of English rule over Ireland between 1641-1653, Oliver Cromwell sent in his New Model Army in 1649 to restore English rule. One of the major battles of this war was the siege of Galway. One of the consequences of Galway being a walled city, the English army chose not to attack it directly but to place it under siege. The siege lasted 9 months with starvation as well as the Bubonic Plaque causing huge losses in the city before it surrendered. This complex history of invasion and recovery is a Galway pattern and can be seen in the structure of the city we visited. I have always argued that to get to know a city, you have to understand its history.
We started our walk around Galway city by gaining a car park not far from St Nicholas Collegiate Church that is the largest medieval parish church in Ireland in continuous use as a place of worship. It was founded in 1320 after the Anglo-Normans had settled into their control of the city. ‘Galwegians’ are proud of the fact that Christopher Columbus visited both Galway and this Church in 1477 on one of his earlier voyages before crossing the Atlantic to the ‘New World’. These same ‘Galwegians’ aren’t as happy about the visit of Cromwell’s troops in 1652. As they were no doubt serious Protestants who did not believe that Churches should contain religious idols in the form of statues or paintings, these troops spent some time removing the faces of most of the angels in St Nicholas. In a strange irony, these same damaged angels (eg. image on right below) are part of the tour of St Nicholas today.
Rather than turn back towards the centre of town, we decided to go and check out the Galway River views from the Wolfe Tone Bridge. This bridge is one of the newest bridges that allowed citizens to cross the Corrib River and was named after the Irish Revolutionary of the late 18th century. One of the issues for the wives of the fishermen from Claddagh was getting their catch to market; walking to O’Brien Bridge or its predecessor was difficult but if it was closed, it was an even longer walk to the Spanish Arch where the fish market for Galway City was held. The image below shows the Wolfe Tone Bridge with the Fishery Tower on the left and the Spanish Arch on the right. It was built in 1853 to assist in monitoring fish stocks in the Caribb as well as keeping an eye on illegal fishing. Today it has been revamped as a small museum devoted to fishing in the River Caribb.
The 1905 photo, below left, shows the Claddagh women mentioned earlier, at the fish market on the edge of the Caribb River near the Spanish Arch.
The photos below show the views looking back down the River Caribb towards the O’Brien Bridge from the Wolfe Tone Bridge with a distant view of the dome of Galway Cathedral. The first bridge built across the river here was called the West bridge and it was fortified at the end where it provided entry into Galway city. It was replaced in 1506 by O’Brien’s Bridge that can be seen in the 1651 city plan earlier in this article. It has been upgraded over the centuries and still provides access over the Corrib into the centre of the city.
One of the great tourist walks in Galway is to take a stroll from the Wolfe Tone Bridge along the River until it reaches the Salmon Weir Bridge. This can be done via the Cribb Walk which for much of the way is a path structure that is separated off from the right bank of the river as can be seen in the photo below. It provides great views of the city on either side of the river as well as the fishermen and salmon at water level.The Salmon Weir Bridge was built in 1818 when the land over the river from the centre of town was the site of the old city gaol. It was originally referred to as the Gaol Bridge. The gaol was removed in 1902 around the same time as a weir was built on the river nearby. It was renamed the Salmon Weir Bridge
APPENDIX 1…Iconoclasm and Insult…the weapons of victory sowing the see of future hatred.
I couldn’t help but be both puzzled and moved when we visited St Nicholas Church in Galway and noted the results of the iconoclastic actions of Cromwell’s troops who broke off the faces of the stone angels on the walls of the Church. I shouldn’t have been surprised as the trashing of your enemy’s house of worship has a long history. It wouldn’t have been the first example but the Romans when they conquered Jerusalem in 70 CE didn’t just desecrate the Temple, they destroyed it completely and took some of the spoils of this famous building back to Rome. They were so proud of this event that they carved the removal of the Menorah onto a celebratory arch back home in Rome.
Although Cromwell’s troops can be commended for not burning down St Nicholas, they apparently made use of this building to house their horses. This was a practice that Napoleon’s troops over a century later used when they conquered Rome and made free with the Churches and the palaces of wealthy Romans.
With religious conflict still a potent issue in the modern world, destroying what your enemy holds dear is still a favourite tactic. For example in 2001, the then Taliban government of Afghanistan dynamited the giant Buddhas of Bamvan to celebrate their intention to force their religious orthodoxy on the nation. This is just one example of many in recent centuries where states at war attempt to punish and subjugate their enemies by destroying what is most valuable to their political and ethnic opponents.
Given that history is full of stories of the changes of fortunes of military states whose horrific actions come back to haunt them (“What goes around, comes around!”), rewritten military handbooks might suggest that invading forces should at least not trash their enemies places of worship and certainly not house their horses in churches, temples, mosques or synagogues.