Galway is known as the City of Tribes, but who were those tribes? Are you descended from one of them? Today we use the phrase ‘city of tribes’ in many ways to include all of the people of Galway and to celebrate the city’s history. But long ago, it referred specifically to 14 families who played a specific role in the city.
Before Galway City, the center here was the Claddagh, a fishing village that developed where the River Corrib flows into Galway Bay. This is where the iconic ring design got its name, but that is another story. The settlement grew, and in the 1200s, Richard de Burgo led an army of Anglo-Normans to capture it. In the same century, the city’s wall was built. You can still see sections of it near the Spanish Arch and in the shopping center.
The 14 Tribes of Galway
In 1396, Richard II granted a charter to the city of Galway to 14 prominent merchant families. Twelve of these families were Norman, but all of them were the elite, and they controlled the town’s economic life. These families steered Galway to become a major trading port with direct links to Europe, and the city thrived.
While the 14 families were very separate from the rural Gaelic people around them, they did share a common religious faith. When push came to shove, the 14 families allied themselves with the Gaelics to defend their right to practice their Catholic faith. For this, Cromwell’s army was vengeful and merciless. In 1652, Galway was under siege and the 14 families were stripped of their positions. Crowell’s forces coined the term ‘the 14 tribes of Galway’ to mock them. But they defiantly turned it around by embracing the term. In 1654, Galway lost its charter and while the fortunes of the 14 families ebbed and flowed, their glory days as a united, ruling force were over.
Were your ancestors among these 14 families? The 12 Norman families were named Athy, Blake, Bodkin, Browne, Deane, Font, French, Joyce, Lynch, Martin, Morris, Skerrett. The two Gaelic families were D’Arcy and Kirwan. Remember, with Irish names, the spelling can vary a lot. When people moved to new lands, some immigration officials didn’t care if they spelled the name correctly. French, for example, is also written as French. And the Irish have always been flexible about spelling names. That makes sense when you consider Irish history. We often had to use English versions of our names when dealing with officials, but still clung to our original names. If you have an Irish ancestor with one of those surnames, it would be fun to see if they came from Galway.
Today in Galway City you might see flags fluttering showing off the family crests of these 14 tribes. Galway is a vibrant city with great nightlife, street markets, and a fantastic bohemian buzz. It’s a city that values creativity and celebrates its artists. Its cafes and pubs are ideal places to relax and watch the world go by. And you can stroll past the remaining bits of the city wall at the Spanish Arch, down to the beach where the Corrib flows into the Atlantic, and watch the swans in the bay where it all began.