Today I had the great pleasure of finally venturing inside the above-named edifice due to the fact that the Galway Civic Trust is holding the Festival of Heritage this week. Today’s tour was dubbed as a “secret history” and was conducted by a young man named Conor Riordan, who billed himself as an “astroarchaeologist and historian.” Wikipedia has a listing for archeoastronomy, which seems like the same thing as Mr. Riordan described. Anyway, he’s a guy who studies how ancient people viewed the skies and how that affected their lives and beliefs.
A collegiate church is one that is run by a group of ‘secular’ clergy approved by the Pope. This church is dedicated to St. Nicholas of Myra, the patron saint of children (Santa Claus) and of seafarers – apropos considering that Galway is a port city. It has been dated back to its dedication in the year 1320 but there is a portion of the church (the apse) that is thought to have been built and used as a small parish church as far back as the 12th century. Conor showed us some features on the exterior of the building that lead historians to believe this origin. The church holds and is surrounded by 450 graves and tombs, all of which are situated with the deceased’s feet pointed toward the west and head toward the east. That’s a lot of dead folk for such a small property! No one has been buried there since the early 20th century. St. Nicholas is the largest medieval parish church in Ireland in continuous use as a place of worship. It started as a Catholic church but now belongs to the Church of Ireland. The baptismal font is over 400 years old.
The first stop was at the celtic cross that was erected as a memorial for the members of the Connaught Rangers, nicknamed “The Devil’s Own,” who had lost their lives in World War I. The carvings on the cross originate from the Book of Kells (which is on display at the Trinity College Library in Dublin). The regiment was populated by men from the west of Ireland, particularly Galway. One tragic story sees a brother from one family die at the outset of the war and his elder brother die at the end. The church displays banners from the regiment as well as flags that were carried into battle and are much worse for the wear in their present state.
Conor pointed out to us a walkway that was once dubbed the “Leper’s Gallery” because some said that’s where lepers had to stand to worship. However, there were only two leper colonies in Galway at the time the church was built and those who suffered would never have been let inside the city walls. It’s really just a walkway to get to the belfry.
He led us to the center of the nave, where he showed us the pillars that hold up the church. It was pointed out that all of the pillars are round with the exception of the one on the southeast. This one bears the shape of a cross, which some say is associated with the Masons and the Knights Templar. There is a great deal of Mason history associated with the church; whether it is true or not is information lost to history. However there are a number of Masonic tombs and one which is said to be that of a knight. Conor took us outside to show us a tomb that is one of the best known examples of a Masonic burial dating back about 5 centuries. The most famous visitor was Christopher Columbus, who stayed in Galway for a week and likely worshipped in the church in 1477.
While we were outdoors, he also took time to point out that there are only 3 clocks on the 4 sides of the belfry. They say that the Protestants took the clock off the south facing side of the tower because most of the people living on that side of town were Catholics – the Catholics then coined the saying that they “couldn’t even give them the time of day.”
We went back indoors and looked at the Lynch transept, dedicated to the Lynch family, one of the Tribes of Galway and a very old and revered family line. Folks believe that it was the Galway Lynches after whom the term lynching was named. Stephen Lynch’s memorial is in the transept, but it was defiled by the Cromwellians when they took Galway and attempted to wipe out all traces of Catholicism, most tragically for the church by knocking all the heads and hands off the angels carved on the pillars and walls. One angel managed to escape their wrath and survives to this day.
The family for whom the main town square of Galway is named, Eyre, are also memorialized and buried in the church. It is said that Charlotte Bronte came and spent some time in Galway and had occasion to see the large memorial plaque to Jane Eyre on the wall, and thus used this name in her famed novel. Alas, this is not likely to be true – but it sure makes for a good story!
At the end of the tour Conor took us out to the Lynch Memorial Window and imparted the story of Mayor Lynch taking justice into his hands and hanging his own son, Walter, from the window. Once again, this story is not likely to be true, but it makes for some great storytelling – and there’s the wall to commemorate it!
St. Nicholas’ is a lovely, well-maintained old church in the heart of Galway; it is open every day of the week and people are welcome to visit. You can purchase a trinket or hand-made piece of food inside. Instead I left a small donation as a thanks for allowing me to spend time there. If you ever find yourself strolling Shop Street and you find you cannot face one more moment of shopping, stop in at St. Nicholas’ Collegiate Church and indulge yourself in some fine history.
Here’s the link to the photos on Flickr!