Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 5/The city of the tribes

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Can there be anybody not yet tolerably familiar with the Galway subsidy? During the time that the discussion lasted, no one could take up a newspaper without seeing the unfortunate subject, “toujours perdrix,” in some shape or other, whether debate, letter, or article, though the interest that Galway affairs excited in English news was nothing to the prominence that they received in the Irish papers. There the difficulty was to find a column in which anything but the subsidy was mentioned, or the systematic injustice of the English government descanted upon.

As I happened to be staying in Galway during the fever-heat of the affair, it may well be imagined that I heard enough of it to last my natural life; but apart from the politics, I found in the town so much to interest, that I cannot refrain from writing about it, in the hopes that some of my readers may be induced to visit it en route to Connemara. There are two points of view from which to examine Galway;—the present, upon which the success or ill-success of its future will hang; and the past, which is still visible in an uncommon degree in the style and architecture of its streets, as well as the dress and features of its inhabitants.

Hundreds of years ago, when Ireland was all but a terra ignota to the rest of the world—when the natives of Connaught passed their rude lives little better than did the beasts of the field—when to be an Irish king was synonymous with every species of dissension and turbulence, there was yet one bright spot amidst the gloominess of those uncivilised times. A pleasant, busy little town had sprung up on the shores of one of the many lovely bays that indent the west coast of Ireland,—so ancient was its first foundation, that even Ptolemy mentions it in his writings; and although in subsequent times it had been destroyed over and over again by the Danes, or by the people of Munster, who regarded the colony with a jealous eye, the little town of Dune-pun-na-Gaillve, or the Fortification at the mouth of the Galway, rose up after every attack with renewed vigour to fulfil its destiny. Of its early inhabitants, previous to the invasion of Connaught by Henry II., tradition says little or nothing; but after that event a few families settled in Galway to such good purpose, and with such tenacity, that their descendants, even at this period, are found high and low, and indeed make up the bulk of the leading citizens. These colonists are known to this day by the name of the Tribes of Galway—an expression first invented by Cromwell’s forces, as a term of reproach, to denote their attachment to each other during the troubles, but afterwards adopted by them as an honourable mark of distinction between them and their oppressors.

Amongst these fourteen so-called Tribes, the names of Blake, D’Arcy, Bodkin, French, Joyce, Lynch, and Martin are as household words in the annals of the town; and were a stranger required to hazard the name of any given Galway inhabitant, he might pretty safely pronounce it to be either Blake or Lynch.

If their Connaught or Munster neighbours regarded them with no loving eyes, it must, on the other hand, be allowed that the Tribes were particularly careful in keeping themselves to themselves, and scarcely ever permitted the natives to enter their strongly-walled property. Many amusing anecdotes are still extant, showing the determined opinions that they held on this point, one of which is related in Hardiman’s “History of Galway,” to the effect that it was ordered, in 1518, “that none of the inhabitants should admit any of the Burkes, McWilliams, Kellys, or any other of their sept into their houses, and that neither O’ nor Mac shoulde strutte ne swagger through the streetes of Gallway.” It is a fact that the following singular inscription was formerly to be seen over the west gate:

From the ferocious O'Flaherties,
Good Lord, deliver us.”

And in one of their bye-laws, of the date of 1518, we find it enacted that, “If any man should bring any Irishman to brage or boote upon the towne, to forfeit 12d.” From this exclusive system it naturally followed that the Galwegians formed a tolerably happy and contented community, neither marrying nor giving in marriage save with their own people, and keeping up a constant succession of their own name, to inherit their riches and honours from father to son. From its excellent situation as a trading port, Galway was particularly famous for its commercial intercourse with Spain, which year after year furnished not only many a good cellar of luscious Andalusian wine, but also Spanish visitors, often of the fair sex, who mingled their blood in marriage with that of the sturdy Galway merchant, and introduced those peculiarities of feature, dress, and architecture for which the town was so celebrated. With all the advantages derived from this rapid tide of civilisation, it soon extended in size and importance; and a map, of the time of Charles II., of which there are only two copies extant, gives an interesting account of the topography of the city, and of the enthusiastic feeling with which it was regarded by the inhabitants.

Not content with marking all the boundaries, streets, and buildings, the compilers formed a margin of Latin mottoes, emblematic of the glories of Galway, and wound up by the following modest description:

Rome boasts seven hills, the Nile its seven-fold stream,
Around the pole seven radiant planets gleam;
Galway, Conachian Rome, twice equals these;
She boasts twice seven illustrious families.
Twice seven high towers defend her lofty walls,
And polished marble decks her splendid halls.
Twice seven her massive gates, o’er which arise
Twice seven strong castles towering to the skies.
Twice seven her bridges, thro’ whose arches flow
The silvery tides majestically slow.
Her ample church with twice seven altars flames,
Our heavenly patron every altar claims;
While twice seven convents pious anthems raise
(Seven for each sex) to sound Jehovah’s praise.

Whatever we must allow for the pardonable exaggerations in this account, there is no doubt that Galway was singularly a-head of its time, and was moreover sharply looked after by its governors and mayors, in respect to public morals. Indeed, some of the laws might be quoted with great advantage, and applied to other towns, not only in Ireland, but in England.

To ensure commercial honesty the following law—date 1538—speaks well for the merchants: “That any person of this towne, that shall make any bargayn or contract in Spayne, Franch, or any other lands, for wyne, salt, yernes, or any other kind of wares, shall, afore he put the said shop or wares in booke or custome, fynde to the mayor and officers of this towne sufficient and substantiall surties that he or they shall wel and truly contente and pay the stranger of his payment, for the discharge and credit of the town and inhabitaunts thereof.”

Neither was the Board of Health and public morals neglected, as we find “that thaguavite that is soulde in town oughte rather to be called aqua-mortis, to poyson the people than comforte them in any good sorte, and in like manner all their bedere; and all wherein officers in reformynge the same, have nede to be more vigilante and inquisitive than they be.”

The female population was also carefully looked to, and in a manner that I fear few corporations would venture to act upon in the present day, and least of all with the fair Irish ladies, viz.: “That no woman shall were no gorgiouse aparell, but as becometh them to do, accordinge to ther callinge, and in espetiall they shall all together foregoe the wearing of any hatts or cappes otherwise collored than blacke, and upon them they shall weare no costlie hatt bands or cap bands of gold treede; the mayorasses only excepted.” The reader will notice here the precaution taken by the mayors, who passed this law, in avoiding home discussions by the saving clause, “the mayorasses only excepted!”

In the long list of mayors of Galway we find the same family often occupying the civic seat of honour for many years in succession; and in no case is this more evident than in the family of Lynch, who flourished from the thirteenth to the seventeenth century, with amazing regularity. It appears that eighty-four Lynches filled the office of mayor, without a break, for a period of 169 years. Touching this family, and the manner in which the laws were administered by its members, a singular legend is still told, which to disbelieve in were rank heresy. In 1493, the mayor’s seat was occupied by James Lynch Fitz-Stephen, who had done much towards promoting commercial intercourse with Spain, and to that end had even undertaken a journey himself to Cadiz, where he was received by Señor Gomez with every hospitality and mark of distinction. That he might in some degree show his sense of gratitude for all the kindness thus lavished upon him, he asked and obtained permission to take back the Spaniard’s favourite son, promising him safe conduct and parental care. The merchant arrived safely with his young charge in Galway, and introduced him into the bosom of his family, where he soon became a favourite, from his beauty and his winning manners.

The worthy mayor had an only son, unfortunately addicted to wild courses, but who had formed an attachment to a fair Galway lady—an attachment which the father fondly hoped might wean his heir from loose companions. And so might it have been, had not foul jealousy seized the unfortunate swain, who saw, or fancied he saw, his inamorata beam too lovingly on the handsome Spaniard. He watched him out of the house, stabbed him to the heart, and then, overwhelmed with remorse, gave himself up as the murderer, to the horror and despair of his father, who foresaw the fearful part that he would have to play in the tragedy.

The legal inquiry which followed was necessarily short, and on his own confession the unhappy lad was condemned to death. He was, however, as most wild fellows are, a favourite with the populace, who, on hearing the sentence, assembled at the prison, and demanded the reprieve of the criminal. Even the other magistrates of the town, struck with the peculiar situation in which both ather and son were placed, added their entreaties that the life of the latter should be spared; but they, one and all, met with a stern refusal from the lips of the modern Brutus, who declared that as his son’s life was forfeited by the laws of the town, nothing could stay the progress of justice. Whereupon the row commenced with redoubled force, and the people in large numbers blocked up the entrance to the prison, which communicated with the magistrate’s house, so as to prevent the victim being led to the place of execution. But the mayor was equal to the occasion, and rather than justice should be baulked, led his son to an arched window looking out on the street, and then and there hung him with his own hand, to the horror and grief of the townsmen, who nevertheless could not help admiring the stern fortitude of the father in thus vindicating the laws at such a cost to himself. The latter, as in duty bound, shut himself up for the remainder of his life, overwhelmed with trouble. The visitor to Galway will find a portion of building forming part of the wall of the churchyard, on which is carved beneath a window a skull and crossbones, with the inscription “Remember Death. All is vanity of vanities.” It is from this window that the execution is said to have taken place, although some believe that it originally occurred in another part of the town. Tradition, however, is not the only thing left of the Lynches in Galway; for luckily for the antiquarian, there is something more tangible in the shape of a very picturesque and singular house, known as Lynch’s Palace, situated at the corner of Shop and Abbey Gate Streets. Probably a more unique specimen of domestic architecture does not exist in the United Kingdom. It is a square block of buildings, remarkable for the Moorish style of decoration which is so plentifully lavished over the walls and windows. The numerous and rich medallions, containing coats of arms of the Lynch family, together with the minutely cut mouldings of the windows and the corbels carried round under the roof, at once impress the visitor as something belonging to another age and another country. One almost expects to find it tenanted by Moors in all the barbaric splendour of the East, yet instead of this, we find that the lower story is devoted to the selling of tea, candles, and general grocery. Ichabod! how are the mighty fallen! Lynch’s house is by no means the only relic of Galway’s glorious era.

There are many fine old buildings belonging in times gone by to members of the other tribes, such as the Blakes, Arcys, and Joyces; but none are so conspicuous in situation or condition as that of Lynch, and, moreover, all, or nearly all the curious street architecture of Galway requires to be looked for in the back streets and alleys, many of which are essentially foreign in their character. There is a venerable mansion not half a minute’s walk from Lynch’s house with a magnificent sculptured doorway, and the pious motto, “Nisi Dominus domum ædificaverit,” inscribed over it. If any antiquarian visitor will have the courage to explore some of the interiors (no very pleasant task amidst these crowded and dirty beehives), he will find many a noble staircase and gallery trodden in days of yore by Spanish beauties and courtly gallants. Of the walls but little remains, but that little attests the strength of them. It is an archway leading into Spanish Place, which, as we can guess from the name, was an open square by the quay, devoted by the busy Galway merchants to the daily business engagements with their foreign customers. How many a cask of Xeres wine and mellow Muscatel must have been rolled along these flags into the vintners’ cellars hard by, as the vessels disembarked their cargoes here, together with articles of a less bulky and more personal character, such as mantillas for the ladies, or rapiers for the gallants. It was evidently the high change where all the idle as well as busy population floated about, wondering at the fresh arrivals of merchandise, welcoming their Spanish customers who had so boldly ventured to these wild coasts, or discussing the political news from the Court of London, which in those times was almost as inaccessible as Seville itself. The foreigner has not left his impress upon the houses only, but also on the people; for although the locomotive speeds daily across the kingdom from the capital, and as a matter of course brings down in its track the latest “tricks of dress,” the natives have an unmistakeably peculiar garb which would at once strike even a careless traveller. “The mayorasses” are not the only ones now excepted from wearing “gorgiouse aparell,” for I fear that excellent byelaw must be obsolete, to judge by the “get ups” that I observed on Sunday parading the road to Salthill, which is the fashionable residence of the good citizens. The lower classes of Galway, on whom fashions do not exert such a marked influence, have a handsome olive complexion, which, when backed up by the red petticoat, bare legs, the scarf over the head, and frequently a pair of massive ear-rings, gives a remarkably foreign tout ensemble which does not seem to belong to a native of the United Kingdom. But to see costume or physiognomy, there is no place like the Claddagh, an extraordinary suburb of low thatched huts, tenanted solely and wholly by a clan of fishermen and their belongings. It is on the opposite side of the river to the great bulk of the town which it adjoins, though in appearance, habits, manners, and customs, it might as well be 100 miles distant. The early history of this curious settlement is not known, but it is certain that the Claddagh fishermen have been established in this corner for a very great number of years, exercising a peculiar self-government and owning no other. One of the clan is elected a sort of mayor, to whose decisions all defer with such good will, that quarrels have seldom been obliged to be carried before the civil powers of the town. Of course they intermarry only with each other, and have such an aversion to strangers that they will not even suffer them to reside within their district, although the visitor need not fear any incivility or unpleasant attentions in walking through the Claddagh; indeed I have generally been struck with the little notice that is bestowed on the stranger, not only in this district, but in many parts of the west of Ireland. As I have now come down from the antiquities to the inhabitants of Galway, I will briefly wind up with the present state of the town and the advantages which it possesses, which are twofold; first, in the amazing amount of water-power which it enjoys, and, second, in its situation as a packet-station.

1st. As regards water-power, there is not such another town in the kingdom, for not only is there a rapid river emptying itself into the sea, but there is also the vast area of Lough Corrib, which stretches for twenty-five miles from the foot of the Joyce country mountains, almost close to the outskirts of Galway. A canal, known as the Eglinton Canal, was constructed to connect the Lough with the sea, and a convenient harbour was made at the same time for the accommodation of vessels which made use of this inland navigation; but, when I was there, both canal and harbour seemed but little used, and the great inland navigation scheme, I fancy, appeared better on paper than it has done in practice.

2nd. As regards the packet-station, Galway may be pronounced, to all intents and purposes, the nearest and best port for the transmission of passengers and mails from Great Britain to America. It is situated nearly at the head of a long sheltered bay, at the mouth of which, some nine-and-twenty miles off, the huge cliffs of the Aran islands may be seen in clear weather looming in the distance; indeed so peculiar are the physical features of Galway bay, that we should naturally expect it to have a legend. According to tradition it was once a freshwater lake which, by an irruption of the Atlantic was converted into sea-water, what are now the islands of Aran having been the western frontier of the coast. It is very singular by the way that legends and geological phenomena so often tally, the one merely conveying in the form of fiction (but often word for word) what really did happen. But whatever might have been the previous condition of the bay—there it is now, forming a splendid harbour, with good holding ground, and requiring no very large outlay to make it one of the most secure on the whole coast.

It is certain that it is the nearest port to America, as the Atlantic Company’s steamers have, and are still, performing the journey between St. John’s, Newfoundland, and Galway in five days, the distance between the latter place and London being run by rail and steamer in fourteen hours.

I have no intention of going into the awful question of the subsidy, but would merely remark, that if proximity and speed are the grounds on which Government should discuss the matter of pecuniary aid, irrespective of any other circumstances, then Galway is facile princeps the Transatlantic packet-station. Let us hope that the hitch in Galway affairs is but temporary, and that there may be no cessation of American traffic, and still more of the stream of business and personal intercourse which such traffic causes between England and the west of Ireland, feeling assured that the more the two countries know each other, the more cordial will be their accord, and the greater their mutual benefit.