Galway City & Environs

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Galway City History


Recent finds of stone implements suggest that there has been human habitation at the site since neolithic (New Stone Age) times. Gaillimh was the name of the daughter of an Iron-age chieftain who was drowned in the river.


The Vikings visited the area in 927A.D. and ravaged the local monasteries, but, curiously, failed to found a town as they did in other places.


The O’Connors built a dun with wooden fortifications near the mouth of the river in 1124, subsequently destroyed by the O’Briens and rebuilt by the O’Flahertys.


Richard de Burgo captured the dun from the O’Flahertys in 1235, and established a castle there. Despite frequent attacks by the dispossessed O’Flahertys, De Burgo held firm, and built a wall enclosing 25 acres in 1270.


The Franciscans built a friary outside the town in 1296. The walls were extended and improved, and coins were minted.


By 1450 the well-known town houses began to appear, as the famous 14 Families established themselves at the top of civic life. Later, a charter from King Richard III emancipated Galway from the control of the descendants of the de Burgos, who had more or less “gone native”.


By 1484 Galway had both civil and ecclesiastical independence, and its remote location guaranteed it the status of a city-state. For the next hundred years Galway traded extensively with the continent, especially Spain, exporting local produce such as fish, wool and leather, and importing fruit, oil and most importantly wine. Under the rule of a series of Mayors drawn from the 14 families, the city became extremely wealthy and prospered.


In 1578, Queen Elizabeth I sent a garrison to defend the town. In 1588, the year of the Spanish Armada, 200 Spaniards who came ashore after a shipwreck in Galway Bay were butchered by order of the Lord Deputy.


Cromwellian forces invested the town by land and sea, and in 1652 starvation forced the inhabitants to surrender. All Roman Catholics were expelled from the town, and the great town houses of the 14 families were confiscated and given to soldiers of the occupying forces in lieu of pay. They quickly fell into ruin as the prosperity of the town declined.


The Penal Laws were rigorously enforced, but about 1750 increased religious tolerance allowed the inhabitants to return to their primary concern of making money through trade and industry, based on a number of mills, breweries and distilleries.


This short-lived period of prosperity lasted until the Great Famine 1846 – 1848, when great numbers of poor people began to flock to Galway port to travel to America. There were however some signs of better times. Queen’s College Galway opened in 1849, and the first railway connection to Galway opened in 1851. Nevertheless, the town remained in general decline, and the population reached a low of 13000 in 1911.


Greatly helped by the presence of tourists in summer and students attending the renamed University College Galway (UCG) and other educational institutions in winter, Galway staged a slow recovery in the C20th, and the town began to spread.


With the Celtic Tiger, prosperity has returned with a vengeance, and Galway was for a time  reputed to be the fastest growing city in Europe.


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