Alone amongst Irish cities, Galway wears the badge of its past
with special pride. Thus, as you stroll through the streets of
the inner city, look carefully at the facades of the buildings
and be prepared for a surprise. For amid the modern mantle of
paint and plaster, the delicate work of an ancient coats of arms,
merchant marks and marriage stones refer to a time when Galway
was a powerful city-state, rich, opulent and extremely proud. It
was ruled then, in the 17th century, by fourteen wealthy merchant
families, who were delighted to adopt the term "Tribes of Galway"
mockingly given to them by an unimpressed Cromwellian.
"As proud as a Galway Merchant" was a common quote just then, and
the city's famous 1651 Pictorial Map compares Galway's fourteen
Tribes to Rome's seven, just to prove a point. Certainly these Tribes
were proud, for they pointedly chose their own special coat of arms,
often without heraldic authority, and had them carved on the finest
Galway limestone, which we see today. They displayed them above their
mantelpieces and on the walls either singularly, or in pairs called
marriage stones, and placed their own individual merchant marks,
again in stone, on the facades of their premises.
1484 was an important year for these Tribes for their power reached right
to King Richard III, who allowed them elect their first mayor, a Lynch,
of course, from the most powerful of the Tribes. They even reached the
ear of Pope Innocent VIII, who made their church of St. Nicolas a collegiate
and granted them the right to elect its warden administrator, rather than
have it ruled by an Irish Bishop far away in Tuam.
The aftermath of the terrible sieges of the city during the 17th century saw
them lose control over civic affairs and the establishment of the diocese of
Galway in 1831 saw their ecclesiastical power finally vanish.
Today, the names of Athy, Blake, Bodkin, Browne, D'Arcy, Deane, Font, French,
Joyce, Kirwan, Lynch, Martin, Morris and Skerrett are mostly noted in the
history pages and on the stone plaques in
Lynch's Castle in Shop Street or
scattered elsewhere among the fourteen streets of the medieval heart of the city.