Hardiman's History of Galway

Chapter 1: Chapter 1

The origin and signification of the name of Galway

Chapter 1

Chapter 1

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Old map of Galway

The general opinion concerning etymological inquiries seems to be, that they are rather curious than useful; at the same time it stands confessed, that, in many instances, such disquisitions may become material and interesting, particularly should they lead to the establishment or corroboration of historical facts, or tend to illustrate the ancient state of the places under investigation. With these objects in view, an attempt shall here be made to elucidate the origin and signfication of the name of Galway, a point which, though often touched upon by many writers, has hitherto been left undecided.

It is well known that amongst the ancient Irish, all foreigners were indiscriminately termed Galls, [a] hence, arose, a supposition, that Galway took its name from a foreign colony alleged to have settled there at an early period. Tradition informs us, that previously to the arrival of Henry II, Galway was but an inconsiderable fishing village, under the protection of an Irish dune or fortress, and that it was then called Ballinshruane, or the town of the little streams; because, when the winter floods were high in the river, the water flowed through the present scite of the town, and formed it into small islands; in one of which (where the church of St. Nicholas was afterwards built,) this primitive hamlet was situate. We are further informed, from the same source, that when the English settlers afterwards came hither, they were called by the native Irish Clann-na-Gall, the Foreign clan, sept, or colony (an appelation, which however originating, their descendants still retain,) and that the place was from thenceforth named Ballinagall, or Gallibh, the Foreigners' town, or fortification. These traditionary relations, though to many they might appear probable and satisfactory, are not borne out, but seem rather controverted by written authority. In the life of Hugh Ruadh O'Donnell, hereditary prince of Tyrconnell?, written by Cucoigcriche O'Clery, one of the four masters, after reiating the sacrilegious burning of the convent of St. Brigid, near Galway, in 1599, by that chieftain, the writer adds, "that the city took its name from the river, in which was drowned Gaillimh, the daughter of Breasail." [b] This derivation receives support from the old map of Galway, (of which a full description will be found in another part of this, volume;) it is there stated, that a woman, named Galva, was drowned, near a great rock, in the river, (which is delineated on the map,) and that from this circumstance the town originally took its name.

Other antiquaries have, however, given sifinifications widely different. Camden is of opinion that Galway was derived from the Gallaeci of Spain. a country with which the town carried on a very early and extensive commerce. Ware, a much better authority, so far as relates to Ireland, says, that the river Galoia, or Galiva, mentioned in the annals of Roscommon. under the years 1177 and 1190, seems to have given name to the town; but he leaves it to others to discover its meaning. [c] Geoffry Lynch FitzDominick, a native of Galway, in his MS "remarks drawn from antiquity," and written in 1661, agrees with Ware; [d] and Irish and O'Flaherty, in his Ogygia, says expressly that the town takes its name from the river. De Burgo asserts, that Gallimh, the name of the town in Irish, is the same as locus anglorum, i.e. residence of the English, and says, it was very properly so called, because the town was built by a colony which came thither from England about the year 1300; [e] but this writer appears mistaken as well in his assertion, as in the truth of the fact adduced in its support. The learned Vallancey, who was fond of investigations of this nature, gave several ingenious derivations of the word; at one time he supposes it to be Galmhaith, an Irish compound, which he translates Galway, and says, signifies a rocky barren country; [f] at another time he deduces it from Port-na-Gall, Gallorum portus; and again, from Gall-amhan, Amnis Gallorum; but he was finally of opinion, that the town received its name from a company of merchants that settled there; Gael, derived, according to him, from Gaelis, or Geilis, traffick or commerce, signifying a merchant, and ibh, in Irish, signifying tribes or families, whence Gailibh, tribes of merchants. [g] Of all these conjectures, the latter, being the result of more mature deliberation appears most entitled to attention, as having approached nearest to the truth, which a brief illustration will sufficiently demonstrate.

From a very early period, and until after the invasion of Henry II the territory in which the town stands was called Clanfirgail, the land or habitation of the Gail or merchants. [h] This circumstance, though unobserved by Vallancey, very forcibly corroborates this opinion, both names evidently agreeing in meaning and derivation, and each serving to illustrate, and very satisfactorily to explain, the origin and signification of the other: when, therefore, we consider the weak foundation of traditional report, and tho fabulous complexion of the story, attributing the name to the woman, Gaillimh, or Galva, mentioned by the writer of Donegal, and alluded to on the old map, [i] it seems most reasonable to conclude, that the town and river of Galway both derived their name from the territory in which they were situate, and that the district itself was originally denominated from the Gael, or merchants, by whom it was inhabited; to strengthen this conclusion, might be adduced the authorities of Tacitus and Ptolemy; add to which, that in the annals of Roscommon, already mentioned, the name of the river Galiva is nearly similar in ortLography, and entirely so in pronunciation to Gailibh, pronounced Gallive, and throughout the most ancient documents, wherein the name of the town appears, down to the year 1400, it is invariably written Galvy, in which, the transposition of the two final letters, is the only deviation from the Irish. In process of time the world Gal-iva, was altered into Gal-via, the literal translation of which, Gal-way, first occurs about the year 1440, and from that time, it has remained uniform and unchanged, by any variation to the present day.

Having thus far dwelt upon the etymology and orthography of the name of Galway, it is now time to conclude a disquisition which has already become tedious, leaving the reader fully at liberty to form or retain his own opinion on the subject. What has been collected, however, appears strongly to support the position that the town of Galway and the district in which it is situate, were, from an early period, distinguished for trade and commerce, a circumstance from which they derive their name; and, when in addition to these, the excellent situation of the place, its local advantages, and many capabilities for foreign commerce, and inland traffick and navigation, [k] is noble bay, the finest perhaps in the kingdom, and the natural security of its harbour, shall be taken into consideration, powerfully corroborative reasons will be found in favour of the same conclusion.

A curious supposition has been entertained relative to the original formation of the bay of Galway, it is related, in one of the old Irish annals, that in the year of the world 1969, there were but three lakes of consequence in the whole island, namely, Loch-Foirdream, said to have been at Slievmis, near Tralee, in the County of Kerry, Finloch, the present Loughcarra, in the County of Mayo, and Loch-Lurgan, which is described as a spacious lake between the County of Clare and West Connaught, to the South of Galway, and extending a considerable distance towards the east. This lake is supposed to have been the present bay of Galway, which was once, say the annalists, separated from the ocean by strong banks, until the Atlantic bursting over them and uniting with the water within, formed the bay, leaving the three islands of Arran, the towering remnants of the chain or barrier, which were too high to be overflown by the billows. The position of these islands, with relation to the main land, as it favours, seems also to have given rise to this idea, O'Flaherty says that in his time, a lough in a neighbouring inlet of the sea, was called Lough Lurgan, but how far the entire circumstance is deserving of credit, is left, without any comment, to the judgment of the reader.

It has been generally agreed that this bay was the Ausoba of Ptolemy. Camden and Baxter are however of opinion that Lough Corrib was the place. Ware thinks it the river Galvia which takes its rise out of that lough, and washing the town, falls into the bay [l]. Richard of Circencester makes it Clew Bay in the County of Mayo, but Beauford, with more accuracy, thinks it the bay of Galway, which, he says, was the Abhsidhe or Abhansidhe [m] of the Irish, and as such, it has been almost universally taken. The writer, last mentioned, states, that the word signifies Oestuarium, derived from the Irish, Auscobha, a projection of water, and although this might very properly have been classed amongst the other visionary derivatives of the same author, yet it remained uncontroverted, until Vallancey advanced another conjecture, and apparently discovered the significance of this obscure word. In his essay on the primitive inhabitants of Great Britain and Ireland, he says "commerce, with the Irish and Arabs, was esteemed honourable, and hence, in both countries, the adjective, asob, noble, was prefixed to the word implying commerce, to signify a merchant.--- Asob Gaelibh, the merchants of Galway, and hence Ptolemy names the bay of Galway sinus asobus." Were this far fetched though ingenious supposition correct, it would add considerable weight to the preceding conclusions, concerning the former name and commerce of Galway; but being equally fanciful with the other, it must be abandoned, as one of the etymological reveries of the veteran antiquary, in his endeavours to give an oriental cast to the antiquities of Ireland; nor shall the reader be longer detained on the elucidation of a subject more difficult than important, at the present day, and which shall therefore be consigned to the conjectural inquiries of some abler etymologist.

Of the inhabitants of Galway, previous to the invasion of Henry II, there are no accounts remaining, except by tradition, but some time after that event took place, the town appears to have been inhabited by a number of families, who were principally occupied on the fishings of the lake and bay, and in making short voyages along the coast, their names are given as follow: [n] Athy, Branegan, [o] Blundell, Brunt, Burdon, Cale, Calf, [p] Coppiner or Coppinger, Develin, or Dillin [q] Ffarty, Ffrihin, le Fickhill, Kellerie, Kerwick, Lang, Lawless, [r] Moylin, Muneghan, Penrise, [s] Sage, Kancaorach, Valley or Wallin, [t] Verdon, Weider and White [u] there were many others, whose names are now buried in oblivion, but who are recorded as having been burgesses of the town. To these early inhabitants and their successors, Lynch in his MS. remarks, before referred to, alludes in the following words, "it was not they who gave any name of credit or fame to the town of Galway, but the colony next after mentioned, for until the latter came hither, this town was but an ordinary place, with only thatched houses and some castles, but it was by the new colonies and septs, made famous to the world, for their trading faithfully, discharging their credit, good education, charity and hospitality both at home and abroad." That this plain but honourable description, though given by a native of the town, was neither the result of partiality nor the effect of prejudice, the reader will find fully illustrated by various examples throughout the course of this work.

The new colonies, here alluded to, consisted of several families, whose descendants, are known to this day, under the general appellation of the "tribes of Galway," an expression, first invented by Cromwell's forces, as a term of reproach against the natives of the town, for their singular friendship and attachment to each other during the time of their unparalleled troubles and persecutions, but which, the latter afterwards adopted, as an honorable mark of distinction between themselves and those cruel oppressors. These families were thirteen, [v] in number, viz. Athy, Blake, Bodkin, Browne, D'Arcy, Ffont, Ffrench, Joyes, Kirwan, Lynch, Martin, Morris and Skerrett. They did not settle in the town at one time, or on the same occasion, as is generally supposed; but came hither, at different periods, and under various circumstances, as may appear from the following concise account of each of the families composing this peculiar community, which has been compiled from the most authentic documents.

Next: An alphabetical list and concise accound of the ancient families of Galway

Chapter 1

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