The Tribes of Galway.

Have you ever heard of "The Tribes of Galway"? Maybe your family came from one of these tribes? When people talk about Irish names, they often use words like ‘clan’ or ‘sept’ or sometimes even ‘tribe’ to describe particular groups of families? In this letter, we look at one particular group of ‘Tribes’ in Ireland.

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The Tribes of Galway.

A few weeks back, we headed north from Cork to the city of Galway and nearby Connemara. What a beautiful part of the world—maybe you have been there? One of the first things you notice on approaching Galway city is the series of traffic roundabouts that dot its’ periphery.

These fourteen roundabouts have a family name planted in the middle of each—names such as Kirwan, Blake, D’Arcy and so on. These are the surnames that belong to the ‘Tribes of Galway’.

Helen Blake from Australia was on to me recently with the following introduction:

‘Hi Mike, thank you for the newsletter. I am a descendant of the Blake family of Menlo in Galway and Towerhill, Co. Mayo. My Menlo connection goes back to the 3rd Baronet. Then the family branched off to Towerhill, my GGGG Grandfather being Isidore Maurice Blake of Towerhill and Oldhead. The Blakes of Menlo Castle, Co. Galway, held the lands of Clonyne and Clooneen or Towerhill, parish of Touaghty, barony of Carra, Co. Mayo. My GG Grandfather Dr Isidore Maurice Blake came to Australia in 1842.’

Isn’t it a privilege (and so rare)—as I remarked to Helen—to have so much Irish lineage recorded for future generations? Now, while Helen mentions Menlo Castle above, if you head into the centre of Galway city, you will also find a medieval townhouse known as ‘Blake’s Castle’. You see, the Blake family were one of the fourteen ‘Tribes of Galway’.

The Tribes of Galway.

A fort was built where Galway city now stands in 1124 AD. It was erected by Turlough O’Connor—King of Connaught at the time—on land controlled by the local O’Halloran family. However, it soon came under successful attack by the local (and fierce) O’Flahertys who assumed control of the area.

O'Flaherty Castle at Aughnanure outside Galway City.

O’Flaherty Castle at Aughnanure outside Galway City.

About one hundred years after the building of this fort, the Normans arrived in Connaught in the shape of the de Burgo family (the modern surname Burke). Richard Mór de Burgh captured Galway fort in 1232 and established a small walled town which he proceeded to ‘plant’ with merchant and craft families. Over the next hundred years, Galway grew and thrived under the Burkes, establishing a reputation as an important trading port. However, in 1333, the town of Galway broke away from the in-fighting Burkes, and received the first stage of a royal charter in 1396.

The town eventually became ruled by a group of fourteen merchant families—each taking it in turn to assume Mayoral duties. One of Helen’s ancestors—John Blake fitz William became the third mayor of Galway in 1487.

The merchant family names were: Athy, Blake, Bodkin, Browne, D’Arcy, Deane, Font, French, Joyce, Kirwan, Lynch, Martin, Morris and Skerrett. Thirteen of these families were of Anglo-Norman origin while one was Irish Gaelic in origin (Kirwan).

Looking from Spiddal to the Galway Quays.

Looking from Spiddal to the Galway Quays.

Galway became a prosperous and strategically important town—at one time it was the main port for trade with France and Spain on the Island. Relationships between the residents of Galway and their Gaelic and Norman (but Gaelicised) neighbours were rarely ‘quiet’. Indeed, the following prayer was hung over the west gate of the city—facing the territory of that same clan:

 ‘From the Ferocious O’Flahertys may God protect us’

Galway took the side of royalist Catholic forces in the Confederate wars from 1641—and when Cromwell arrived in Ireland to punish the losing Catholic side, he granted the merchant families in Galway the derogatory nickname of the ‘Tribes of Galway’. The families decided to hang onto this nickname in that typical Irish mixture of defiance and contradictory respect.

Lynch's Castle, Galway City.

Lynch’s Castle, Galway City.

The town of Galway was besieged by Cromwell’s forces and the residents surrendered in April of 1652. Following this, the ruling ‘Tribes’ lost much of their power and were replaced by local protestant families.

However, some of the families held onto land across the Counties of Galway and Mayo, and by the time the monarchy was restored in the 1690s they were rewarded for their loyalty with a partial restoration of their power, titles and lands. It is these families, like the Blakes, that have maintained lineages and genealogies to the present day.

Kirwan Court, Galway City.

Kirwan Court, Galway City.

These family names—Martin, Lynch, Blake, French and Joyce—are found in quantity across the counties of Galway and Mayo today, mixed in with the O’Flaherty, O’Halloran and Burke surnames.  You will also find many descendants of these families living in Australia as we write—neighbours of Helen Blake and her own ‘Tribe of Galway’.

Do any of your Irish family names descend from the Tribes of Galway? Do let me know in the Comment Section below.

Slán for now, Mike.