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Aerial photo of Galway
Galway from the air, 2009 OSI © Government of Ireland 2016 Plate 7, IHTA, no. 28, Galway/Gaillimh

Galway Exhibition

An exhibition on the evolution of Galway has been curated by authors Jacinta Prunty and Paul Walsh to compliment the publication of Irish Historic Towns Atlas no. 28 Galway/Gaillimh.


The atlas of Galway is no. 28 in the Irish Historic Towns Atlas (IHTA) series. The IHTA is a research project of the Royal Irish Academy. Its aim is to record the topographical development of a selection of Irish towns both large and small. Each town is published separately as a fascicle or folder and includes a series of maps complemented by an essay and a detailed text section (the Topographical Information). The IHTA is part of a wider European scheme and Galway is now one of c. 520 towns and cities published internationally.

Site of Galway Fig. 1, IHTA, no. 28, Galway/Gaillimh

The topographical map (above) is showing the town of Galway located at the junction where the primary thoroughfare (An Bóthar Mór) branches towards the ford (site of the first bridge) and the strand (location of the quays). Galway, taking its name from the River Gaillimh (meaning a rocky place), now the River Corrib, was an Anglo-Norman foundation of the early 13th century. Its strategic maritime location at a principal crossing point on the river was a determining factor in its growth over the centuries.

A seal that features a central design of a ship with a sail and a flag. The ship's sail displays a shield containing several heraldic symbols, including three lions and three fleurs-de-lis, arranged in four quadrants. Surrounding the ship, there is a Latin inscription.
Seal used by the corporation of Galway in the late 18th and early 19th centuries.

Early Manuscript Maps of Galway

The crown’s preoccupation with the town’s defences in the later 16th century produced the first town plans of Galway. The earliest map was drawn in 1583 by the Elizabethan poet and administrator, Barnaby Googe. Although intended to show a suitable location (A) for a new citadel, the pen-and-ink sketch plan provides a wealth of information on other features including the town walls, street pattern, houses and religious buildings.

Galway was badly sited from a military point of view, and was dominated by rising ground to the east (Bohermore), west (Fair Hill) and south (Fort Hill). With the widespread use of cannon in the 16th century, it is no wonder that military surveyors were worried about its vulnerability. The coloured plan of Galway drawn in 1589 by Brian Fitzwilliam, brother of the Lord Deputy, shows this dominance by hills.

Historical map depicting the town of Galway enclosed by defensive walls, with several towers and gates. Outside the town walls, on the left side, there is an illustration of Saint Augustine's church, labeled
The Elizabethan official Barnaby Googe appears to have had a real interest in fishing; he was evidently taken with the manner in which salmon were speared from the West Bridge. ‘A plot of the towne of Galway’, 1583, by Barnaby Googe TNA: PRO, SP 63/103/18 III Map 6, IHTA, no. 28, Galway/Gaillimh
The inclusion of river craft provides a vivid reminder of the importance of the River Corrib as a busy thoroughfare in the medieval and early modern periods. ‘The sircute of the towne of Gallaway’, 1589, by Brian Fitzwilliam BL, Cotton MS Augustus I, ii, 55 Map 8, IHTA, no. 28, Galway/Gaillimh

The First Printed Map of Galway

The process of bringing a map from survey to publication in the early 17th century is illustrated by these two examples. The gridded paper with its pencil outline drawn by Humphrey Fenn in c. 1608 shows how the basic measurements and sketched detail were brought in final form to the printed page in John Speed’s celebrated atlas, The theatre of the empire of Great Britaine, published in 1611–12. The representation of the town’s architecture on these maps is complemented by Sir Oliver St John’s description (1613): ‘The town is small, but has fair and stately buildings. The fronts of the houses (towards the streets) are all of hewed stone up to the top, garnished with fair battlements in a uniform course, as if the whole town had been built upon one model

‘Galwaye’, 1610 From John Speed, The theatre of the empire of Great Britaine (London, [1612]); RIA Map 10, IHTA, no. 28, Galway/Gaillimh

A Town Under Threat

Galway’s topographical siting was a feature of almost every consideration of its defences in the later 16th and earlier 17th centuries. Eventually, a fort was built in 1602 on the ‘hill’ to the south of the town incorporating St Augustine’s Friary at its centre. The church was partitioned, the chancel was used for divine service and the nave was used as a store house. The fort, which has given its name to the hill, was erected not only to protect the town and its harbour but also to overawe its citizens, some of whose sympathies were seen to lie abroad, especially with Catholic Spain. Having aligned itself with the parliamentary cause, the fort was demolished in 1643 after a short siege. Further additional defences were considered in 1625 and two locations were suggested: one outside the West Bridge and the other around the Dominican priory. The former was begun but never finished.

‘The fort neere Galway’, 1608–11, by Josias Bodley TCD, Hardiman MS 1209/71
  • A. St Augustines Churche
  • B. Lodgings for souldiers on the side of the churche
  • C. Lodging for Yr Commander and Officers
  • D. Gatehouse
  • E. Drawbridge
  • F. Bulwarkcks
  • G. The Lower wall 16 1⁄2 foot hy of stone
  • H. The passadge between the two walles
  • I. The upper or inner wall of stone 18 foote hy besides the parapet
  • K. Vaulted sallies through the rampier into the lower worcke
  • L. The ditch
‘The plott of Gallway with the layinge out of the new fort’, 1625 TCD, Hardiman MS 1209/72 Map 11, IHTA, no. 28, Galway/Gaillimh

The pictorial map: a celebration of Galway

A detailed, historical pictorial map of Galway, showcasing the city and its surroundings. The map is richly illustrated, with intricate details depicting buildings, streets, and landmarks. The city is shown from an elevated perspective, highlighting the layout and structure of Galway.

Printed during the early years of Charles II’s reign (1660–85), this pictorial map is one of Galway’s most important historical documents. Indeed, it is one of the treasures of urban cartography internationally. Lavishly decorated in the style of the period and dedicated in the most flattering terms to the king, the map presents a fascinating visual impression of the town at a critical juncture in its history — about to be surrounded by Cromwellian forces — in c. 1651–2. As the title indicates, it is not just a map but an ‘historical delineation’, a celebration of Galway as seen through the eyes of Catholic and royalist sympathisers. That said, the detailed indices provide holdfasts for many otherwise unidentifiable placenames and urban features.

The principal entrance to the town, the Great Gate, was among the first fortified works built at Galway in the late 13th century. The gate housed the town bell and clock (added in 1636–7). Below is a plaque with the arms of Galway. The pennant bears the letters ‘SPQG’ — a play on the ancient acronym of Rome, signifying the ‘Senate and People of Galway’.

The former quay area of the town was in front of the fortification known as ‘Ceann an Bhalla’ (the head of the wall), a section of the town wall now known by its more romantic, modern name, Spanish Arch. Originally there were four arched storage areas (two of which survive) with a platform above for cannon: the opening to the Long Walk was made in the late 17th century. Merchants gathered on the raised tiled area to conduct business

A detailed, historical pictorial map of Galway, showcasing the city and its surroundings. The map is richly illustrated, with intricate details depicting buildings, streets, and landmarks. The city is shown from an elevated perspective, highlighting the layout and structure of Galway.
Pictorial map of Galway Urbis Galvia totius conatiae in regno Hiberniae clarissimae metropolis ..., mid-17th century. TCD, Hardiman MS 1209/73 Map 12, IHTA, no. 28, Galway/Gaillimh

The medieval town: a final view

Ground plan of Galway, 1685, by Thomas Phillips NLI, MS 3137/28 Map 13, IHTA, no. 28, Galway/Gaillimh

A final glimpse of the medieval town is provided by the prospect of Galway drawn by Captain Thomas Phillips in 1685 (below). Viewed from the Claddagh shoreline on the western side of the river, the prospect looks across at the walled town and affords a wide-angle panorama that stretches from a group of thatched cabins outside the West Bridge to the earthwork remnants of the former St Augustine’s Fort (demolished in 1643) to the south.

The map accompanying the prospect (above) is important in recording the nature of the town’s setting. The bogs of Suckeen to the north, the mud-flats to the south, together with those on the western side of the river, are realistically illustrated with meandering streams and watercourses. The houses lining the streets and thoroughfares in the suburbs are depicted with stylised plot divisions, though the ruin of the Franciscan friary, the newly-rebuilt Dominican friary (1669) and the Poor Clare convent on Nun’s Island are singled out for special representation. St Augustine’s Fort is shown as a very substantial earthwork.

Prospect of Galway, 1685, by Thomas Phillips NLI, MS 3137/29 Plate 1, IHTA, no. 28, Galway/Gaillimh

The environs of Galway

Jacques Bellin’s map shows the town at the centre of an extensive road network – a rarity on maps of this period (17th century) – and it is the only map to highlight the routeways and ford at the Newcastle–Terryland river crossing. The line of earthworks and forts erected in 1651 as part of the Cromwellian blockade are clearly visible. By cleverly mapping the environs at a smaller scale than the town, Bellin shows exactly how the walled seaport of the 17th century and its suburbs relates to the local geography with its meandering waterways, islands and marshes, sandbars, crossing points and hills. On a hard ridge of rock running north-east/south-west is the great eastern approach to the town, Bóthar Mór. A second ridge, roughly parallel, culminates in Fort Hill, the site of the former Augustinian friary. Between the town and the tip of this second ridge lies an area of salt marsh, which later engineers excavated for new docks. South of this ridge lies Lough Atalia (Loch an tSáile), an inlet of the sea. Fair Hill merited particular notice as this suburb, the Claddagh, was otherwise lowlying.

Plan of Galway and its environs, c. 1691 From J.N. Bellin, Le petit atlas maritime (Paris, 1764); loose map NLI, MS 21/F/76 (31) Map 18, IHTA, no. 28, Galway/Gaillimh

A Fortified Town

A plan of the town and fortifications of Galway’, 1747, with transcript of references. BL, Maps K Top 53 39 (a) Map 19, IHTA, no. 28, Galway/Gaillimh

  • A Lions Tower and Bastion
  • B North Bastion
  • C Williams Gate
  • D East Bastion
  • E Cittadel
  • F Cittadel Magazeen
  • G Store Houses
  • H Cittadel Barracks
  • I Black hole Tower
  • K Castle Barracks
  • L South Bastion
  • M Royal Battery
  • N A Square Tower Casmated, but stoped up by Mr Bodkin’s House
  • O Devils Tower Casmated, but stoped up by Mr Shan’s House
  • P Key Bastion
  • Q Key Cantoon
  • R Custom House Watch House
  • S Key Gate
  • T Goal Gate
  • U West Gate with a Guard House over it
  • V Outer west Gate
  • W Abbey Gate with a Guard House over it
  • a Williams Gate Guard House
  • b Upper four Corners
  • c Town House and Exchange
  • d St Nicholas’s Church
  • e Lombard Street Barrack
  • f Rutledges Tower now a Powder Magazeen
  • g Governours Garden
  • h The Old Barracks
  • i Citty Goal
  • k Main Guard
  • l Lower four Corners
  • m County Goal
  • n Key Parade
  • o Custom House
  • p County Court house
  • q Dock
  • r Salmon Wear
  • s An Abbey
  • t Wood Key