Natural, Cultural and Structural: How Galway negotiates its past

By Katelynn Singleton

GALWAY, Ireland – By using three classifiers – natural, cultural and structural – the Galway Civic Trust hopes visitors to Galway can better understand the relationship the city has to its and Ireland’s past.

The Galway Civic Trust is an organization dedicated to preserving heritage sites throughout Galway, and it established these classifiers as a way of organizing and presenting its preservation and curation efforts, including the restoration of the Fisheries Watchtower Museum and the Hall of the Red Earl.

Though a small museum, the Fisheries Watchtower provides a rich history of Galway’s relationship to the Corrib River, which bisects the city.

The Fisheries Watchtower Museum was a lookout point used by fishermen to monitor the fish stock levels in the Corrib River and to prevent illegal fishing. The Galway Civic Trust began restoring the building in 1997, and it is now a museum that details the history of fishing in Galway.

The Hall of the Red Earl in the ruins of one of Galway’s first municipal buildings was built in the 13th century. Uncovered in 1997, the Hall has had more than 11,000 artifacts recovered from the site, according to the Discover Ireland website.

The Trust gets lots of visitors who are native to Galway but who have never been to the Watchtower or the Hall of the Red Earl, said Brendan McGlinchy, the head tour guide for Galway Civic Trust. When these Galwegians go on tours or come to the museum, they are often surprised by the history of their city and have to have things pointed out to them, he said, which is large part of the Trust’s mission.

Brendan McGlinchey, Galway tour guide.

“Without being able to see and access it, they wouldn’t be aware of it at all,” McGlinchy said.


Located alongside the Corrib River where the river’s fresh water meets the salt water of the bay, the Fisheries Watchtower dates back to the 1850s. The tower had multiple uses while active, according to McGlinchy, including serving as a lookout point to check the salmon stock and to catch poachers, who would come from the Claddagh to fish in the Corrib River.

This model in the Galway City Museum shows what the Claddagh would have looked like before its residents were displaced in the 1930s.

The Claddagh was one of the oldest fishing villages in Ireland until it was destroyed in the 1930s. Today, the area is known as Salthill, a resort town that abuts Galway.

Fishing was the main source of income, and often the entire family would be involved in the trade, McGlinchy said. The girls were taught in schools how to make lace to help them repair nets, and the women would sell fish at a market in front of the Spanish Arch.

McGlinchy said that although part of the reason the Watchtower was built was to watch the Claddagh men to make sure they didn’t fish off the river, which was privately owned at the time, the tower and the Claddagh are connected in other ways, as well.

“The Claddagh men worked here, and they even lived here,” he said. “It brought a lot of employment to them and their own community.”

McGlinchey said that there are more restrictions on fishing on the Corrib River that resulted from events that occurred in the past. The river experienced a dramatic drop in its fish stocks, particularly salmon and eel, because waste runoff from farms would run into the river and create algae. The algae decreased oxygen levels in the water, which resulted in fish dying off. Now, McGlinchey said, there are regulations in place to help the population increase and to maintain the health of the river.

“They wouldn’t be doing that if they didn’t know what went on in the past,” McGlinchey said.


Galway is a medieval city and, as a result, many of its buildings are not properly researched, excavated and celebrated.  

Galway’s Saint Nicholas’ Collegiate Church.

Saint Nicholas’ Collegiate Church is an exception. Located just off of the main shopping street in Galway, the church recently celebrated its 700th year. Its rich history is one reason the church employs a tourism manager and that it gives visitors tours for 5 euros.

One of the church tour highlights is explanation of how the church grew over time as seen in the stone features on the outside of the building, according to Rev. Alistair Doyle, a deacon at Saint Nicholas’. Another highlight is damage done to the site as a result of a lack of knowledge about how to properly preserve buildings.

Previous caretakers of the church buildings “didn’t really know (what they were doing,” Doyle said. “They thought they were making it nicer, but in fact they were causing more (damage), storing up more problems for us.”

When the church was built in 1320, Galway was a small town. As the city grew, the church grew. Doyle said that two of the more powerful families, the Frenches and the Lynches, contributed to building out the church, which created its public square-like interior space.

Rev. Alistair Doyle, Saint Nicholas’ Collegiate Church

“It grew to show the wealth and prosperity of the people who supported it,” Doyle said.

Doyle said that one can still see where the troops of Oliver Cromwell, an English military commander who was retaking Ireland from 1649 to 1653, damaged the statues within the church. The troops used the church as a stable and smashed the face and hands of some of the carved images within the church.

Because we know of this damage, “we can say we know that this part of the building was from the 1650s,” Doyle said. “It’s all about how you piece together bits of history by the evidence that you have.”


With the centennial anniversary of many events relating to the Irish Civil War, there has been much discussion over how to commemorate these events. Brendan McGowan, the education and outreach officer at Galway City Museum, said that how and even whether to commemorate the Black and Tans, for example, has caused much debate.

The Galway City Museum is a free museum that features over 1,000 objects that relate to the history of Galway.

The Irish government planned on commemorating the Royal Irish Constabulary in Dublin in 2020, but after public outrage the event was cancelled and relocated to London in April 2022.

The Black and Tans were British police officers who were stationed in Ireland and who quickly earned a reputation for brutality against the Irish.

Brendan McGowan, Galway City Museum

“People were unhappy to celebrate that organization, saying it shouldn’t be celebrated by the state,” McGowan said. “So, it can cause controversy, but for the most part, I think it’s been done tastefully. It’s been done respectfully. And there have been no other real huge controversies.”

Because it is the centenary, the Galway City Museum has an exhibit on the Irish revolutionary period presenting artifacts that have been donated by people whose family members were involved in that period. The exhibit also has an interactive section that invites visitors to read arguments for and against the Anglo-Irish Treaty, an agreement between Britain and Ireland that would establish Ireland as a self-governing dominion of the British Empire. After visitors read both sides, they place a sticker on the side that they support.

McGowan said that the museum tries to maintain neutrality, but that neutrality in Ireland is often a difficult position to maintain.

“We appreciate that a lot of our visitors are from overseas and have no background on this whatsoever,” he said. “So, you try to write simply and neutrally and just lay out what happened at the time. But you’ve got to be very conscious that it’s not about you. It’s just putting it out there that there’s two points of view in everything.”

Many residents may not even realize what is historical and what isn’t, often because they have grown up in the area and are so used to what is around them.

Declan Varley, group editor for the Galway Advertiser, said that there are many things in the city named after historical figures, yet there isn’t a lot of knowledge as to who these figures actually were.

“People have grown up with the names, but it’s only the people who actually went back to find out what happened to these people that the reality of it became more real to them,” Varley said.

Genealogy a cottage industry

If Galwegians are one audience for the city’s museums and history preservation, international visitors looking to find out more about their Irish roots are another distinct audience for Galway’s attempts at memory.

Many of the people who book tours with Galway Walking Tours are people whose families are from Ireland, who are looking to re-connect with their own genealogical past, according to Brian Nolan, a tour guide with the company.

“I always focus on [people] who come here trying to find their roots,” Nolan said. “What are they looking for? They’re not looking for a revolutionary, and they’re certainly not looking for a Norman. What they’re looking for is that connection to home and that connection to severances three generations ago.”

Nolan said he recently helped a man who was looking for his grandmother’s homeland. In just two hours, Nolan helped take the man and his wife to Rosstaf, where the man was able to meet his grand uncle and find his family’s graveyard. Nolan said that he thinks the future of tourism will be reconnecting people to their pasts. 

“Looking at carvings and wonderful cathedrals, that’s so removed,” Nolan said. “I’m bringing them to the graveyard, bringing them to the cottage. Touching the ground that your great grandfather tilled, touching the house that your great grandmother gave birth in, and touching the gravestone in the cemetery where all generations of your family are buried. That’s real tourism.” The classifications of natural, built and cultural all help to tell the story of Galway, and the city’s museums, tour guides, monuments and even churches all are efforts to make sure that at least their versions of the past is not forgotten.

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