Galway might be the second largest county in Ireland, have the second largest lake in Ireland in Lough Corrib and have the shortest river in Ireland, the Corrib, but the city and county and its people have been to the forefront of Ireland’s history and culture for centuries.
The city of Galway is today a vibrant bustling urban settlement with a history going back to the 13th century and the remnants to show for it. Fourteen merchant families of the fifteenth century brought trade and prosperity to the town and left us Lynch’s Castle and St Nicholas’ Collegiate church as their legacy. The reputation of the city was such that in the fifteenth century Christopher Columbus came to visit and pray in St Nicholas’s. It was Cromwellian soldiers who labelled families such as the Lunches and the Martins ‘the Tribes’ and they were not being complimentary. Today Galway proudly calls itself ‘The City of the Tribes’.
The county of Galway offers by contrast a rural tranquillity where the Atlantic washes the coastline and in Connemara, with its bogs, lakes and mountains, the Connemara ponies lazily look out over stone walls. In the east of the county the disappearing lakes intrigue geologists and lakes with artificial islands or crannogs are of interest to archaeologists.
The Aran Islands at the mouth of Galway Bay have a landscape more in common with the barren Burren of Co Clare. On these three islands the Irish heritage of storytelling in the Irish language was preserved long after it had disappeared elsewhere in Ireland. In the late 19th century people like W. B Yeats, and Lady Gregory found inspiration from their simple way of life of the islanders, and their fluent lilting spoken Irish. From their experiences on the island the Celtic Literary Revival movement began. At Lady Gregory’s home at Coole Park near Gort, playwrights such as Yeat’s, Millington Synge, O’Casey and Lady Gregory herself, found a peaceful place to work on plays set in Ireland and about Irish people. These plays were then performed at the theatre founded by the movement in 1904, and located in Dublin: The Abbey Theatre. The visual arts also benefited from this revival of Celtic heritage with St Brendan’s Cathedral in Loughrea becoming almost an art gallery for Celtic revival stained glass windows and art work.
Today the culture and heritage of Galway is kept alive through the county’s variety of festivals, old and new, which fill the summer calendar. From the racing of Galway hookers at Kinvara, to extolling the virtues of oysters and recognising the best films Ireland has to offer, the heritage of the past and present thrives in every corner of Galway.
Two passions of the people of Galway are horses and Gaelic games. From horse fairs, horse racing and fox hunting a traditional love of horses is obvious. There is a passion for the Gaelic games of hurling and Gaelic football with the maroon and white clad faithful living in hope of a repeat of the 1960s three in a row All Ireland Gaelic football wins, when the Sam Maguire Cup came west.
Singers from Bing Crosby to Ed Sheeran have sung about Galway, the former crooning about ‘Galway Bay’ and the Ireland of yesteryear and the latter praising the ‘Galway Girl’ about which there is not one, but two modern songs.
On the subject of Galway girls, one who made history was Alice Perry who, in 1904, was the first woman in Britain or Ireland to be awarded an engineering degree.
Galway has played its part in the history of Ireland. The little known battle of Knockdoe, when Irish, Anglo Normans and mercenary soldiers from every part of Ireland, fought along side each other and against each other in the battle which took place on a hillside near Tuam on a summer’s day in 1504 and brought an end to the reign of Gaelic lords in the west. There were dark days in 1882 when Galway hit the international headlines for murderous deeds. Even Queen Victoria had an opinion on the Maamtrasna Murders. During the struggle for Irish independence the Irish Volunteers of Galway heeded the call of their Dublin leaders and rose out in force on that Easter Monday in 1916, the only part of Ireland other than Dublin, to do so. Galway and its people even play a small part in the stories of the Titanic and Napoleon Bonaparte.
From the ancient fort of Dun Aengus, perched on a cliff edge to the twentieth century Galway Cathedral which dominates the city skyline, the built heritage of Galway tells a story. The ruined abbeys of Ross Errily and Abbeyknockmoy, were abandoned by their monks and today only cawing crows remain. Kylemore Abbey’s story begins as a manor house, to convent to visitor attraction.
Although sometimes second to other counties, Galway and its people have made important contributions to the history, culture and heritage of Ireland.
By Helen Lee