History of Galway

Mother Earth Travel > Ireland > Galway > History

Galway - a place where days long vanished gather into a rich cocktail of historical interest. Waterways dominate the town centre so it's not altogether surprising that the original name of the town was Baile na tSruthain, meaning town of the rivers. Its present name seems to have come from the name of the river Galoia, or Galvia, which, according to folklore took its name from a beautiful woman who drowned in its waters; eventually evolving into the Irish Galliamh, then anglicised to Galway.

Galway was not an established town until after the invasion of the Normans under the De Burgos toward the end of the twelfth century. By 1270, the city walls were under construction, encircling an area of around 25 acres. Over the next two centuries this compact, easily defended town was established.

The town began to expand with merchants, servants and tradesmen crossing the Irish Sea to seek their fortunes. Native Irish landowners were gradually dispossessed and forced into the wilds of Connemara, west of the city. By 1450, Norman castles, or Tower Houses, were built to the east of the town. Trade, both local and international, thrived. Certain families, or tribes, came to the fore due to business success and involvement in local affairs. Over time, the most prominent fourteen tribes - Athy, Blake, Bodkin, Browne, D'Arcy, Deane, Ffont, Ffrench, Joyce, Kirwan, Lynch, Martin, Morris and Skerrett became closely identified with the city; hence Galway is often referred to as The City of the Tribes. Keep a look out for these names on businesses and in street names; they're still a part of everyday life.

Towards the end of the fifteenth century, emerging merchant princes made a successful petition for a new charter which allowed them to elect a mayor and two bailiffs every year. The first mayor of Galway, Pyerce Lynch, was elected 15th December 1484. This same Lynch family built Lynch's Castle, now the Allied Irish Bank, which still stands on Shop Street in the city centre. Dating from the late fifteenth/early sixteenth century, it is constructed in the Tower House style and is rated the finest surviving town-castle in Ireland. Also in 1484 the church of St. Nicholas, which dates from 1320, is still standing and in excellent repair, was granted collegiate status by the Pope. These events effectively made Galway a city-state, and one which continued to grow and prosper over the next 150 years.

The Lynch family has another interesting claim to fame. The story goes that the mayor's son killed another man in a local bar because he had shown an interest in his lady love. The young Lynch was subsequently charged, convicted for murder and then sentenced to death by hanging for his crime. However, as he was the son of the mayor, no-one would carry out the sentence. Finally, the mayor himself put the noose around his son's neck, held on to the rope and threw him out the window of Lynch's castle and hung him there by the neck until he was dead! This is apparently how the well-known term 'lynching' and 'lynch-mob' originated; one of the more chilling aspects of Galway's history.

The Reformation caused religious disruption and after a nine-month siege by Parliament forces, Galway surrendered in 1652 and all Catholics were expelled from the city. Cromwell's famous choice, 'To hell or to Connacht!', which was given to Catholics after the reconquest of Ireland, saw an influx of the dispossessed to the county. Most of the fine houses and castles of the prominent tribes were confiscated and fell into disrepair, trade declined and the greatness of Galway came to an end. During the next century, the Penal laws made life a great deal more more precarious for Catholics. Although Queen's College Galway -- now the National University of Ireland, Galway -- was established in the middle of the nineteenth century, the Great Famine of 1845-1851 devastated the region with a combination of death and emigration; by 1911 the population dropped to just 13,000.

Independence came in 1923, the mayoral office was re-established in 1937, the 1960s saw the establishment of the first industrial estate and lifeblood began to flow into the city again. Galway is today one of the fastest growing cities in Europe with a young vibrant population and a rich cultural and economic life.