ByRoute 13.2 Co. Roscommon / Co. Galway

Claregalway (Co. Galway / Central)

Claregalway (Baile an Chláir / Baile Chláir) (pop.1000) is a small town and large Roman Catholic parish on the banks of the River Clare, with several features of historical interest. Although it lies within a Gaeltacht area, an influx of Galway City commuters over the last 30 years has meant that few local residents now speak Irish Gaelic as their first language. The increase in population has led to the growth of the retail and services sector, but in combination with the community’s location at a busy junction of two main roads has also created a notorious traffic bottleneck.

The toponym has no relalationship to nearby County Clare, but derives from the same sources as that of the local Barony. Baile an Chláir means “the town of the plain”, while Baile Chláir refers to the River Clare; the old village was sometimes called Baile Chláir na Gaillimhe “town on / of (the) Clare in / of Galway”.

Claregalway Friary


Claregalway Friary, on the north bank of the river, was commissioned c.1252 for the Franciscan Order by John de Cogan, a Norman knight who took possession of the area following the initial Norman conquest of southern Connacht. (Photo byAndreas F Borchert)


The monastic community lived under the patronage of the de Cogan clan until 1327, when John Magnus de Cogan gave them the building and surrounding lands, in return for which the friars presented a rose to de Cogan’s descendants every year on the feast day of St John the Baptist (June 24).


Pope Eugene IV granted Claregalway Friary an indulgence of 4 years and 4 quarantines in 1433 to support an extensive building programme that included the 24m / 80ft belfry.


The community flourished until July 11, 1538, when soldiers under the command of Lord Leonard Gray ransacked and looted the abbey while on march to Galway. In 1570, Queen Elizabeth I granted possession of the monastery to Sir Richard de Burgo, whose tomb still atands against the north wall of the choir (a position often occupied by the tomb of the founder of such an institution). In 1589, the buildings were turned into a barracks under the administration of the provincial governor, Sir Richard Bingham.


During the reign of King James I, the property was given to the Earl of Clanricarde. By 1641, the Franciscans had reoccupied the abbey, but the building was in poor repair and the community lacked the ability to renovate it.


In 1731, Edward Synge, Anglican archbishop of Tuam, recorded that “there is a friary in Claregalway, where three at least are always resident.” The High Sheriff of the county, Stratford Eyre, reported in 1732 that the monks “lived close” to the abbey. Church records indicate that the community numbered about 220 religious in 1766, but this number had declined to about 150 by 1782. French diplomat Coquebert de Montbret wrote in 1791 that “the monks are settling down among the ruins.”


The size of the community continued to dwindle. By 1838, it was down to only two members. Archives of the Galway Vindicator, a local newspaper, indicate that the community’s last two monks departed for a larger community in Galway in November 1847. For some years after the monastery closed, members of the Galway friary continued to travel to the site on feast days to celebrate Mass and hear confession, but these activities had ceased by 1860.


Lord Clanmorris donated the property to the Commissioner of Public Works under the provisions of the Ancient Monuments Act 1882. Today, the abbey ruins comprise an east-facing, cruciform church (minus a south transept), the bell tower, cloister and living quarters. The burial grounds, containing the remains of Muiris Ó Fithcheallaigh, Franciscan theologian and Archbishop of Tuam, c. 1460-1513, and Tomás Ó Maolalaidh, Bishop of Clonmacnoise (c.1509-1514) and Archbishop of Tuam (1514–1536), are well maintained and still in use.

The medieval Barony of Clare initially took in the vast fertile plains known in pre-Norman times as Magh Seola, but was later more limited in area, nonetheless containing some 33 castles / Tower Houses, most built by the De Burgo Uachtar sept, Lords of Clanrickarde, who maintained a bitter enmity with the rival De Burgo Iochtar sept of Mayo throughout much of the C15th and C16th.

Claregalway Castle


Claregalway Castle is situated on the north bank of the river a short distance from the friary. (Photo – Galway Advertiser)


This Tower House is thought to have been erected in the mid-late C15th, as it shares many architectural features in common with Clanrickard’s Castle at Corofin, known to have been built in 1451; both protected major river crossings.  The Annals of the Four Masters mention that McWilliamUachtar de Burgo (Clanrickard Burke) had a mansion residence in Claregalway in 1469.


It is recorded that in 1470,  in retaliation for an earlier defeat near Athenry of the Mayo Burkes (McWilliam Iochtar), they and O’Donnell of Tir Conallencamped for a night in Claregalway and then burned it and continued for a while laying waste the country around it”. The Clanrickardes pursued them and suffered another defeat at Kilcoona and subsequently at Carigin. In 1485 Ulick Finn / Fionn De Burgo / Burke, became the Clanrickard, and ten years later took his revenge, as Lower Connacht (Mayo) “was entirely destroyed by him”.


The Battle of Knockdoe


The Battle of Knockdoe, fought on 19th August 1504, was an unusually bloody confrontation between Ulick Finn / Fionn De Burgo / Burke, the Clanrickard, and the Lord Deputy,Gearóid Mór Fitzgerald, 8th Earl of Kildare.

The ostensible casus belli was a series of attacks in 1503 by Ulick Burke on the castles of The O’Kelly, Maelsechlainn mac Tadhg Ó Cellaigh / Maoilseachlainn mac Thaidhg Uí Cheallaigh / O’Kelly, Lord of / Hymany, at Monivea , Garbally and what was later to become Castleblakeney. Burke would also appear to have taken up with O’Kelly’s wife. FitzGerald may have been concerned for his own daughter Estacia, given to Burke in marriage and reportedly ill-treated by him, but his main interest was undoubtedly to quell the growing power of Burke and his allies.

Both sides gathered to their side a large contingent of lesser chieftains and their armies. The local ruler was supported by leading Munster dynasties – of O’Briens of Thomond, theMcNamaras, the O’Kennedys and the O’Carrolls. The Lord Deputy’s forces were drawn from Leinster, Ulster and Connacht, including the armies of Aodh Ruadh (Red Hugh) Ó Domhnaill and Art Ó Néill, the McDermotts andMorrisroes of Connacht,  and a contingent provided by O’Kelly, with support from the Burkes of Mayo and the townsfolk of Galway.

The armies met on the slopes of Knockdoe, a low hill almost a mile north of Lackagh parish church and some two miles east of the castle. Heavily armed Gallowglasses (Scottish mercenaries) played a large part on both sides, and it is said that firearms were employed, an early instance of their use in Ireland. The fighting appears to have lasted all day, with the heaviest (according to tradition) taking place along the River Clare in the townland ofBaile Bhróin / Ballybrone.

Local folklore has it that this poem was found in the pocket of a slain soldier: Loud blares the trumpet, the field is set / Loud blares the trumpet, the foe men are met / Steep slopes the hill, at Knockdoe in the West / There stood in Battle, the South at its best / Hi Manny O’Kelly, with the Burkes is at War, / and Clanrickard has gathered his friends from afar. / Kildare he advances like the fox that doth stalk, / O’Kelly sweeps down with the speed of a hawk. / Loud sounds the trumpet, the sunset is fair. / Hi Manny triumphant. The Earl of Kildare.

The precise number of casualties is unknown, though contemporary observers were impressed by the unprecedented extent of the slaughter. Round the summit of Knockdoe are many cairns where the dead are said to have been buried, with one in particular being pointed out as the resting place of the two sons of O’Brien of Thomond.

The Lord Deputy`s army remained the night on the field as a token of victory, then marched to Galway, looting Claregalway castle en route and taking as prisoners the two sons and daughter of Ulick Burke. They remained in Galway for a few days before attacking and capturing Athenry. The Clanrickarde Burkes faded into obscurity for some years, with their rivals, the Mayo Burkes, gaining influence as a consequence.


In 1538 Lord Deputy Grey took the part of Ulick na gCeann (“of the Heads”), one of the claimants in a Clanrickard succession struggle. Aided by 250 regular troops combined with Ulick’s followers and artillery (a half culverin, a saker and double falcons) brought by sea from Limerick, they forced the castle to surrender.


In 1543 Ulick was created 1st Earl of Clanricarde by King Henry VIII. He returned to Connacht with gifts including the Irish Harp which Henry himself had been given by the Pope some some years earlier when granted the title Defender of the Faith.


In 1570 The new President of Connacht, Sir Edward Fitton, was aided by Richard Burke, 2nd Earl of Clanricarde, to take Shrule in an encounter against O’Flaherty and the Mayo Burkes. The following year, camped outside Claregalway, Fitton reported that “we are refused at the Earl’s castle by the Earl’s son where the rebel is the constable of the castle and upon hearing of our coming to pass by it to Galway, he burned the town, uncovered the castle and offered plain resistance”. Fitton captured the castle and put the garrison of 16 men to death.


Claregalway Castle was strongly garrisoned during the Wars of the Three Kingdoms as a Royalist stronghold by Ulick Burke, 5th Earl of Clanricarde, created Marquess of Clanricarde in 1646, and in 1648 the Papal Nuncio in Galway interceded for the release of a Franciscan Thomas McKiernan from the Castle. In 1651 Sir Charles Coote seized Claregalway castle for the Cromwellians.


Recently restored by its current owner, eye surgeon Eamon O’Donoghue, the castle and grounds host the annual Galway Garden Festival every July.

The Nine Arches Bridge, erected in the first half of the C18th across the old course of the River Clare, is above the level of the current road. In 1765, shortly after the construction of the Nine Arches, a local landlord called John Borkin diverted the river to a deeper channel about 30 metres further north in order to improve the drainage in the area. There are two old stone plaques set in the wall on either side of the north end of the bridge that commemorate the work by Borkin. Restoration was completed ijn 2001.

In 1838 Fr Thomas Hosty began construction of a new church, but suffered a major setback when the roof was blown off by the Big Wind on the night of 6th January 1839. According to local tradition, Fr Hosty was later robbed and murdered at the quay-side in America on the day he was due to return home. His housekeeper sister is said to have been so angry at what happened to him that she burned all the parish records up to that date.

The church of the Assumption & St James (RC) was completed in 1975 to replace an edifice erected in 1858.

Lydican was the site of an O’Heyne castle; the last of the chieftains, Connor Crone O Heyne, was living there in 1612.  The land was confiscated in the late C17th and occupied by the Lynch family, ancestors of the Latin American revolutionary Che Guevara.

The Claregalway Drama Festival is held every March. Participants include Compántas Lir, an amateur drama group based in Claregalway and Carnmore, which tours nationally in the springtime as part of the All-Ireland Drama Circuit.

Claregalway is

Cloonacauneen Castle, a Tower House overlooking the peaty plain of the Curraghaline, was the home of Richard Beag Burke in 1574, and was then owned by the Blake family until 1835. It is now run as a Guesthouse, best known for its restaurant.

Next: Galway City & Environs 


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