By Cathal Coyle
When visiting Galway during July with my family, I happened upon this beautiful place of worship located between Market Street and Church Street – and it later prompted me to read up on its fascinating history. The Collegiate Church of St. Nicholas is the largest medieval parish church in Ireland in continuous use as a place of worship – and is very much at the heart of Galway’s life on the edge of the bustling ‘Latin Quarter’.
The church sits right in the middle of the medieval centre of Galway city, and is dedicated to St Nicholas of Myra, patron saint of children (he is sometimes referred to as Santa Claus) and also of mariners – appropriate given Galway’s proximity to the Atlantic Ocean.
Incidentally, St. Nicholas’ feast day falls on 6th December, and his greatest popularity is found neither in the eastern Mediterranean nor north-western Europe, but in Russia. He is an iconic Russian patron, and the Russian Orthodox Church even observes the feast of his translation. He is also a patron saint of Greece, Apulia, Sicily and Loraine; and of many cities and dioceses (including Galway) and churches.
There is some disagreement about when St. Nicholas’ Church in Galway was built, but it is estimated to have been completed by 1320. At that stage, Galway was a fairly small new town. The inhabitants had great ambition, and built a huge church, bigger than many Irish cathedrals.
The church was raised to the status of a collegiate church by letters under the seal of Donatus Ó Muireadhaigh, the Archbishop of Tuam, on 28th September, 1484, the same year in which Galway was granted a Royal Charter and given mayoral status.
The granting of collegiate status was confirmed on 8th September, 1485, by a Papal Bull, issued by Pope Innocent VIII, and both of these important events were commemorated in the Galway quincentennial year of 1984.
St. Nicholas’ Church has developed in various ways over the centuries: during the 16th century, when the famous 14 Tribes (merchant families who dominated the political, commercial and social life of the city between the 13th and 16th centuries) were at the height of their power, the church was extended by two of the most powerful families: the French family and the Lynch family. They each built a new side aisle to the nave, resulting in an almost square interior and the unusual three-roofed profile.
A tour through the Church reveals many interesting and entertaining monuments and memorials for the visitor to look at. One such memorial is a poignant plaque mounted on the Western transept wall of the church, dedicated to the memory of eleven year old James Johnston Kearney, son of the city Customs Comptroller.
On 22nd February, 1837, he dropped his toy spinning top while playing on Augustine Street and, when he ventured on to the street to recover it, was knocked over by a timber cart and killed.
The baptismal font in the church is estimated to be of late 16th century or early 17th century date, and is beautifully carved. Still used today, the dog carved into its side still keeps an eye on Galway’s newest citizens as they are baptised. The oldest tomb in the church is that of Adam Bures, whose grave marker dates from the 13th century and is fondly known as ‘the Crusader’.
Amongst the many visitors to St Nicholas’ Church over the centuries, perhaps the most famous was Christopher Columbus who prayed there during a visit to Galway in 1477. Legend has it that this was the last place that Columbus prayed with his men before setting off to discover America.
Less welcome at the church were the Cromwellian troops who used it as a stable for their horses after the siege of Galway in 1652. They are blamed for the headless and handless state of most of the carved figures inside the church, as well as defacing part of the Lynch family window tomb.
Over the centuries, St. Nicholas’ Church has played a central role in the life of Galway City, and for many years the triennial elections of the mayor and corporation (city council) were held within its walls; but only male members of the Tribes of Galway were eligible to vote.
To an outside visitor such as me, the church appears to be very much reflective of Galway’s ecumenical strength. It was used for Catholic Mass by the congregation of St Augustine’s Church during the refurbishment of their church between April and December 2005.
This generous act cemented good local relations between the Church of Ireland and the Roman Catholic Church; while St. Nicholas’ Church is also regularly used for worship by the Romanian and Russian Orthodox communities in Galway.