Hardiman's History of Galway

Chapter 2: From the earliest accounts to the invasion of Henry II

Accounts of Ireland by Tacitus and Ptolemy

Chapter 2

From the earliest accounts to the invasion of Henry II

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Old map of Galway

Ptolemy, the Greek geographer, who flourished in the second century has handed down, through the medium of his own language, the names of several rivers, cities and tribes, then situate on the western coast of lreland. The accounts which he has given, though considered correct and highly curious and valuable, are still liable to many objections; and may, even without going so far as to coincide with the author of the Oxgygia, in his remarks on their authenticity, be pronounced in many particulars erroneous, and such as cannot be entirely depended upon, without cautious and careful examination. To the veracity of the geography nothing is imputable; he related what he heard from those who had visited the country; for it appears that this Island, though unfortunately never under the dominion of the Romans, yet carried on an extensive trade with the empire. Tacitus, in the tract before referred to, asserts that its ports and harbours were better known than those of Britain, from a greater commerce and resort of merchants; and from those visitors it was, that Ptolemy drew the accounts which he had of the coasts of Ireland; for he does not seem to have mentioned, or even known anything of the interior of the country, except a few places which lay immediately contiguous to the coasts.

But our native historians having passed over, in silence, the several places mentioned by Ptolemy, the truth of his relation came at length to be doubted, and the existence of the cities and people, described by him, was called in question: this caused many writers, amongst whom Camden, Ware, Baxter and Harris are the chief, to exert much ingenuity to reconcile his accounts respecting the country in general, and to settle the situation of the several places which he has mentioned; yet, after all their learned conjectures, the situations of many of these places still remain undetermined. The geographer having described the northern coast of Ireland, proceeds to the western, where he mentions a people called the Auterii, and a city as then existing, to which he gives the term "illustrious," and calls by the name of Nagnata, an illustrious city. That this was the ancient town of Galway, according to the judgment and decision of some of the learned writers just mentioned, there can be no doubt, although others, at the same time, hold a contrary opinion, and think that the Auterii were the people then inhabiting the district of Galway, which, according to them, was their principal city. In order, however, to afford the reader an opportunity of forming his own judgment between these conflicting opinions, it may not be unimportant or uninteresting to lay before him what has been said, by those different writers, on the subject.


Ware, whose opinion on Irish antiquities (though he was unacquainted with the lrish language, claims every deference, says, that the Auterii resided in the countries comprehending the present counties of Galway and Roscommon. Mr. Beauford, a writer much more fanciful than correct supposes them the inhabitants of the coasts of Galway and Mayo; and, as the name, according to him, signifies an habitation of the western water, he thinks there is the greatest probability that their city was situate some where on the bay of Galway, to which the natives, during their commerce with the Gallic, Iberian and Roman merchants, resorted for the benefit of trafic; if it were not, adds he, the ancient town of Galway itself. He again changed his mind, by placing these people in that extensive district, now comprehending the county of Mayo, and says, they were evidently the ancient inhabitants of the Irish Ibh-Errus, the present barony of Errus? in that country. By this he seems to have abandoned his former conjectures, leaving the opinion of Ware uncontroverted; who, with a great deal of probability, thinks that the town of Athenry?, commonly called in lrish Ath-an-righ, or Aitanri, was the city or capital of the Auterii: and, independently of any coincidence of name, which, however, is very remarkable, the situation and antiquity of Athenry very much favour the opinion. From hence, therefore, it may be safely concluded, that the city of the Auterii, mentioned by Ptolemy, was not the ancient town of Galway.

It now remains to ascertain the situation of Nagnata, then the principal city of the western coast of Ireland; and, although satisfactory proofs and convincing arguments shall be produced, which will fully demonstrate it to have been the original town of Galway, still, from the order and distances, as laid down by Ptolemy, it might, with every appearance of probability, be concluded, that Nagnata was situated more to the north, and somewhere in the direction of the present town or county of Sligo. But, as the writings of this author abound with errors and mistakes, many arising from incorrectness of information, and, perhaps, many more from carelessness of transcribers, no dependance, ought to be, or indeed is, placed on them by the learned; and particularly as to the situations of many of the places which he has mentioned. A writer, referred to in the last paragraph, who endeavoured a good deal, but often upon erroneous principles, to reconcile those differences, [j] places Nagnata in the present barony of Carbery? and county of Sligo?; and, to support this allocation, he alleges that the name is derived from Nagaetaegh, or the habitation on the sea; but he seems to have forgotten that this would equally well apply to any other situation on the coast, as to that which was selected by him for the purpose of establishing his hypothesis. He then adds, that it was called by the old lrish, Slioght gae, or the race on the sea, but for this he does not give, nor, in truth, could he give, any authority; and he finally supposes, that it might be Cnoc na teagh, or Druimcliffe?, in the county of Sligo, which, though at present only a desolated village, is said, in former ages, to have been a large town. Ware, however, declares, that he was not able to discover the smallest trace of a city, so called, in all that tract of country; and though he thinks, with every appearance of truth, that Ptolemy might have misplaced this city a little, he does not mention where he supposed it might have been situated. Eaxter, whose authority is most respectable, judges Galway to have been the place,[k] and says that the name means, in Irish, Cuan na guactie, or the port of the small Islands, alluding to the Isles of Arran. Iying at the entrance of the bay, and the other small Islands Iying nearer the town. He derives the name from Cuan,[l] a port or harbour, na, a preposition of the genitive case, and uact or guact, a little Island which. By transition into the Greek manner of pronunciation, would form Naguata, for Nagnata he takes to be an error of transcribers. Harris, the editor of Ware, agrees with Baxter, saying, that the situation of Galway, according to Ptolemy, is pretty near the truth of this notion. If, in corroboration of the foregoing reasonings, recurrence shall be had to the testimonies of lacitus, and also of our native historians, already mentioned, relative to the commerce of Galway, at the very time that Ptolemy describes Nagnata as the most considerable place on the western coast of Ireland, very little doubt can remain as to their identity. If it should still be necessary to call in the aid of probability or conjecture on the point, the reader might be reminded how indispensable the advantages of natural situation are always held, towards rendering any place eminent or considerable; and, seeing that the bay of Galway possesses, in a high degree, all these advantages, it might be no small reason to conclude, that Nagnata, then the most celebrated place in this part of the kingdom, must have been situated somewhere on the bay: and, if he should go farther, and inquire for the particular spot, he might be assisted by considering the general practice of mankind, at all times, in building their habitations or cities at or near the banks of rivers; and then, combining the numerous advantages, which, in the particular instance of the position of Galway, attend the contence of a considerable lake and the ocean, he will find that its situation was the best adapted, and most probable place of any other in that quarter, for that of the city in question. Considering therefore, all the foregoing testimonies and reasonings, and the conclusions drawn from them, our entire concurrence is given to the opinions of the learned and respectable writers above quoted, that the ancient town of Galway, though without any apparent nominal analogy, was the famous city mentioned under the name of Nagnata by Ptolemy.

Having thus far endeavoured to ascertain the existence of this ancient place, the next object should be, if possible, to discover its origin and illustrate its history; but these are tolally involved in darkness; and the only room that remains even for conjecture, is that of its having been so often made a point of division, in the various partitions of Ireland, as mentioned in the beginning of this chapter, whence it may reasonably be concluded to have been of very remote antiquity.

It would be foreign from the intention with which this work was originally undertaken, here to consume too much time in describing the tribes and people, who, according to Ptolemy or the native writers of Ireland, formerly inhabitedd the countries about Galway. As to the town itself, to which our attention is principally directed, no mention appears made of it for centuries after the period in which it is found to have been so considerable; but there are extant several accounts of sanguinary contests, between the rival princes of Munster and Connaught,[m] immediateiy in its neighbourhood; and also of changes of inhabitants, and new settlements in its vicinity: but a dead silence reigns as to the place itself, which can only be accounted for, from the destruction of the ancient records and annals of the kingdom already alluded to; and this want or omission is not at all singular in the history of our island, for it is now most clearly ascertained, that many considerable places formerly had existence, of which very little more than their names have been transmitted to posterity. To notice a single instance, out of many; who can peruse the few and trifling accounts now remaining of the early history of Dublin, the ancient metropolis of the kingdom, without a conviction of the loss of the annals and chronicles, which recorded the events of those distant times?

Next: Destruction of the Town by the Danes (9th century)

Chapter 2

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