Galway City: remnants of a medieval town

by Kimberly Ballaro / Oct 30, 2010 / 0 comments

Today, Galway City is one of Ireland's fastest growing cities. It is also rapidly becoming one of Europe's popular cultural centers. Galway is considered by some to be western Ireland's capital, with its blend of traditional and contemporary Irish culture. The Irish language is more commonly spoken in this area and the city has drawn tourists from all over the world to experience some of the best traditional Irish music and to see the artistic displays and festivals throughout the year. The city itself has a long, fascinating history that contributes to its reputation today as a youthful and energetic city with the charm of an old historic town.

County Galway is one of the largest in Ireland and is situated on the west coast of the island in the province of Connacht. Galway City is located on Galway Bay, an outlet to the Atlantic Ocean, making the city an important and prosperous area of trade throughout the centuries. The city was supposedly built in the early 12th century by the King of Connacht. From this time to the early modern period the city was under the rule of many families and experienced various economic phases. Galway City was invaded my the Normans in the 13th century and also became a small walled city. Parts of the original wall remain intact, though reconstructions of the wall can be found in various parts of the city (including a shopping center). After the Norman invasion fourteen merchant families ruled the city throughout the medieval period. This eventually gave the city its nickname, "the city of tribes," which is still used to describe the city today.

One does not have to walk far in Galway City in order to see remnants of this medieval city. The center of town is relatively small and simply filled with attractions which were part of this ever changing city during the medieval period. On the main pedestrian street, Shop Street, you will come to a building that is now a bank but do not be fooled! This is actually a castle built in the early 15th century. It is Lynch's Castle, the original residence of one of the most powerful families in Galway during the medieval period. The limestone building is well preserved and, despite its now modern interior, the exterior provides an excellent example of old Galway architecture.

Another attraction related to this same family is Lynch's Memorial Window, or simply Lynch's Window. It is located just a few minutes walk from Lynch's Castle, on Lombard Street, commonly called Market Street. If you were not looking for it, you might walk right by it! The stone structure encases this "window" which was, according to local legend, made famous by a rather morbid tale. It is more or less understood that the Lynch family was hosting a Spanish man of high rank, many say a member of Spanish royalty, in the late 15th century. The tale reveals that this high ranking Spaniard was killed by the son in the Lynch family. Lynch himself, the head of the family, did not take this to be a valiant deed on behalf of his family and hanged his son from this window as a display of his intolerance. The window is marked by a cross and bones in the stone.

One of the most well preserved pieces of medieval Galway City is St. Nicholas' Collegiate Church, located on Mainguard Street. The parish church has been in use since the 14th century, making it one of the oldest in Ireland. Tours of the church are available but, as long as there are no services at the moment, visitors are welcome to take their own tour of the building. Here, you can take time to admire the beautiful interior and visit the 13th century grave marker for the local "Crusader." Finally, if the rich architecture and tranquility of the atmosphere does not entice you to visit, maybe the church's more famous visitors will rouse your interest in viewing this old parish church. It is said Christopher Columbus prayed at St. Nicholas' Church in the late fifteenth century. On the other hand, the troops of Oliver Cromwell also used this church in 1652. According to the church historians, the troops had used St. Nicholas' Church as a stable for their horses and are responsible for damage found within the church.

As was mentioned earlier, Galway was quite well-known for its stone walls that surrounded the city center. Remnants of the walls can be found scattered about the city. The Spanish Arch, an extension of the wall built in the seventeenth century, has now become the spot to socialize on pleasant days (e.g. days it is not raining). The stone arch was not built by the Spanish, nor do they have anything to do with the structure being built. It was renamed in the last century to recall Galway's trade with Spain in earlier centuries. The structure contains a gate which holds the remnants of a fireplace built in the seventeenth century. The arch also frames what lies beyond it: the Galway City Museum, a cafe and restaurant and a long line of colorful houses with a beautiful view of the Claddagh across the river. The Museum hosts various artifacts from the medieval period to the present and is definitely worth viewing.

Gems of the medieval period can be found all over this vibrant, contemporary city. Galway City attracts visitors from all over the world for its history, art, music, nightlife and its charming residents. Indeed, it attracts people from all over Ireland because of its relaxed and cozy atmosphere. The city has so much to offer and the remains of its rich history is simply one of the reasons to visit this small, but incredibly welcoming, city. The best way is learn about Galway's history is to simply go exploring in your own time. You still stumble upon the attractions mentioned and more with no effort at all. To see the city's history all around you makes simply being there even more enjoyable.

Kimberly Ballaro is the History of Ireland Editor for Wandering Educators