Galway Society in the Nineteenth Century

This article was written by Samuel J. Macguire and originally published in the 'Galway Reader' in the 1950s. The 'Galway Reader' is available from Galway Public Library.

The beginning of the nineteenth century and on to the Great Famine saw great changes on every hand for nations and peoples. Forces other than arms effected revolutions, destroying the old and setting up the new. Ancient landmarks were being overthrown, long-treasured customs, habits and traditions were being swept away, and the face of society was undergoing a change - new manners, habits and social usages. Gaelic salutations were fewer and English was coming into general use. County Galway and its people unquestionably had long played a typical part in the vicissitudes of the national life. It had had for long a peculiar interest for the student of Irish history, social and political and for the etymologist. Froude, Lecky, and other historians and many travellers have given unusual prominence as the scene of what are considered characteristic incidents in the seventeenth, eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. In the smuggling or exportation of contraband wool and importation of silk, brandy, and tobacco, the population of County Galway pushed a lucrative and exciting trade until preventive and other measures caused its disappearance, and the people then engaged solely in a combination of fishing and petty agriculture, their characters, manners, habits and traditions being more or less impressed by the antecedent history.

The Galway peasant of the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries - his home, habits, manners, dress; his wit and humour, his passions, prejudices - all these have been portrayed with more or less exaggeration over and over again - being pictured generally as a compound of idiot and buffoon. Writers like Arthur Young, Mrs. Hall, Dutton, and others, have left pictures of Galway life and character, which on the whole are sympathetic for fidelity and effectiveness. The only class which none of them have photographed are the cottier-fishermen communities that once crowded the coast. These had almost vanished, and year by year the Irish Fishery Commissioners record their disappearance. The royal and mercantile navies missed these hardy and fearless seamen, trained from childhood to fight wind and wave. The workhouse or the grave held all who did not become dockers on the Thames or Mersey, on the Hudson or the Mississippi. This class and the men of the islands were almost swept away by the famine of 1847- a type in many respects different from the peasantry of the inland districts of the county. Their hard lot offered little temptation to envy or cupidity except by the Martins of Ballinahinch. With this exception the conflict of class and race and creed, that occurred in other parts of the county, seldom touched these communities.

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