Galway, one of the largest cities in Ireland, situated on the west coast of Ireland, has a complex history going back around 800 years. The city was the only substantial medieval city in the province of Connacht.
The city takes its name from that of the river, the Gaillimh. The word Gaillimh means "stony" as in "stony river". Today, the river is commonly called the River Corrib, after Lough Corrib, just to the north. In Irish, Galway is also called Cathair na Gaillimhe ("city of Galway") which is a modern creation to prevent confusion with Contae na Gaillimhe / County Galway which is often incorrectly called Gaillimh in Irish.
There are multiple alternative derivations of the name, some conjectural and some mythical:
The commonly held view that the city takes its name from the Irish word Gallaibh, "foreigners" i.e. "the town of the foreigners" (from Gall, a foreigner) may be incorrect, since the name Gaillimh was applied to the river first and then later on to the town. However there are many placenames with this form.
The daughter of a local chieftain drowned in the river, and her name was Gailleamh. The chieftain was so distraught that he set-up camp at the point to mourn her spirit and keep it company. Later, a town sprung up around the point, and was called Gaillimh in her honour.
Dún Bhun na Gaillimhe ("Fort at the Mouth of the Gaillimh") was constructed in 1124, by the King of Connacht Tairrdelbach mac Ruaidri Ua Conchobair (Turlough O Connor); the Annals of the Four Masters note that in that year "Three castles were erected by the Connaughtmen, the castle of Dun-Leodhar, the castle of the Gaillimh, and the castle of Cuil-maeile." This fort is also called a castle in the annals. Its significance may date back even further, as the Danes of Limerick successivly attacked the area in the 9th and 10th centuries, perhaps even making a seasonal camp in the area. At any rate Dún Bhun na Gaillimhe became the naval base of the Kings of Connacht and was attacked in this capacity in 1132 and 1149. Galway lay in the district of Clann Fearghaile which covered the parishes of St. Nicholas (the medieval city), Roscam and part of Baile an Chláir / Claregalway parish. This district was held by the Ó hAllmhuráin / O Halloran clan. Clann Fearghaile itself was a sub district of the tuath of Uí Bhriúin Seola the territory of which is called Maigh Seola ("plain of Seola"). The Ó Flaithbheartaigh / O Flaherty clan held this tuath up until the Anglo-Norman invasion of Connacht in the 1230s. As Dún Bhun na Gaillimhe lay in the territory of the O Flahertys they are often recorded as holding this fort for the O Connor Kings of Connacht.
Following an unsuccessful week-long siege in 1230, Dún Bhun na Gaillimhe was captured by Richard Mor de Burgh in 1232. Over the following century Galway thrived under the de Burghs, becoming a small walled town. After the sundering of the de Burgh dynasty in 1333, Galway sought its independence, receiving a murage charter (authority to build a defensive wall) from the Crown in 1396.
Galway endured difficult relations with its Irish neighbours. A notice over the west gate of the city, completed in 1562 by Mayor Thomas Oge Martyn fitz William, stated "From the Ferocious O'Flahertys may God protect us". A bye-law forbade the native Irish (as opposed to Galway's Old English citizens) unrestricted access into Galway, saying "neither O' nor Mac shall strutte nor swagger through the streets of Galway" without permission.
During the middle ages, Galway was ruled by an oligarchy of fourteen1 merchant families (12 of Anglo-Norman origin and 2 of Irish origin), the 'Tribes of Galway. The city thrived on international trade. In the middle ages, it was the principal Irish port for trade with Spain and France. There is a legend of uncertain truth which claims that Christopher Columbus, on a trip to Iceland or the Faroe Isles, found signs of land beyond the Atlantic Ocean in or near Galway in 1477.
The population of medieval Galway is thought to have been about 3000.
After the Irish Rebellion of 1641, Galway was in a delicate position, caught, in effect between the Catholic rebels (Confederates) and an English garrison ensconced in a fort just outside the city. Eventually, Galway citizens, who were predominantly Catholic, went against their garrison and supported the confederate side in 1642. The fort was besieged with the aid of Confederate troops until it surrendered and its garrison was evacuated by sea. During the 1640s, Galway was heavily fortified against an expected counter-attack by English forces, which eventually materialised when English Parliamentarian forces re-conquered Ireland in 1649-52. Galway surrendered to Cromwellian forces in 1652 after a nine-month siege; plague and expulsions of Catholic citizens followed. After the demise of the English Commonwealth and the Restoration of the monarchy in 1660, Catholics recovered lost ground and the economy of Galway recovered somewhat. In the next crisis, centred around the deposition of the Catholic King James II, in 1689, Galway supported the Jacobite side. It surrendered without a siege under the articles of Galway of 1691 after the annihilation of the main Jacobite army at the nearby battle of Aughrim. Thereafter, the city become somewhat of an economic backwater, and the capital of its old great families were spent overseas. The Acts of Settlement and of Explanation caused major upheavals, as peoples from east of the Shannon were transplanted to Connaught and slipped back. It took about 300 years for the city to regain its former status. See als sieges of Galway
After the 17th century wars, Galway, as a Catholic port city, was treated with great suspicion by the authorities. Legislation of 1704 (the Popery Act) stated that no new Catholics apart from sea-men and day labourers could move there. On top of that, when fears arose of a French invasion of Ireland in 1708 and 1715 (during a Jacobite Rising in Scotland), all Catholics were ordered to leave the city. The corporation, which ran Galway was also confined to Protestants. This is all the more surprising given that a 1762 census showed thatof the town's 15,000 or so inhabitants, only 350 were Protestants. The persecution of Galway's old Catholic merchant elite meant that trade declined substantially, and the once busy harbour fell into disrepair. Local traders compensated somewhat for this by smuggling in goods like brandy through gaps in the town walls.
Galway's economy recovered somewhat from the late 18th as the Penal laws were relaxed. However the city's rural hinterland suffered terribly in the Great Irish Famine on the 1840s. Unlike other urban centres in 19th century Ireland, which experience an explosion in their populations, Galway's population actually declined such was the devastation wrought by the famine.
Thee second half of the century saw some improvement in Galway's position however, as the railway lines reached the city in 1850.
Galway city played a relatively minor role in the upheaval in Ireland from 1916-1923. In 1916, during the Easter Rising, Liam Mellows mobilised the local Irish Volunteers in the area to attack the Royal Irish Constabulary barracks at Oranmore, just outside Galway, however they failed to take it and then dispersed. During the Irish War of Independence 1919-21, Galway was the western headquarters for the British Army. Their overhwelming force in the city meant that the local Irish Republican Army could do little against them. The only initiatives were taken by the University battallion of the IRA, who were reprimanded by the local IRA commander who was afraid they would provoke reprisals. This fear was not without justification, as the nearby town of Tuam was sacked on two occasions by the Black and Tans in July and September 1920. In November 1920, a Galway city Catholic priest, Fr. Michael Griffin was abducted and shot by the British forces. His body was found in a bog in Barna. Galway businessmen launched a boycott against Northern Irish goods from December 1919 onwards in protest against the loyalist attacks on Catholic nationalists in Belfast, a protest that later spread throughout the country.
In the Irish Civil War 1922-23, Galway saw little fighting, as the city and its military barracks were occupied by troops of the Irish Free State's National Army.
In 1972, part of the city center was destroyed by fire. The area involved the southern-west corner of Eyre Square, where the Bank of Ireland used to be situated.
In more recent years, the resignation of Eamon Casey as Bishop of Galway in "scandalous circumstances" in 1992 came to be seen as pivotal in the Roman Catholic Church's loss of influence in Ireland.