Tribes of Galway

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.