Posted in Posts and podcasts

The City of the Tribes – Medieval Galway

New Zealand Tablet, Vol XXIX Issue 38, 19th September, 1901 p3 (abridged)

Walled city of Galway, 1651. Wikimedia Commons
Walled city of Galway, 1651.
Wikimedia Commons

Among the publications devoted to the history of families and places in Ireland there are few can compare with the Journal of the Cork Archaeological Society, which is a mine of information regarding medieval Ireland. Among the many interesting articles in the last number is one dealing with town life in Ireland during the fifteenth, sixteenth, and seventeeth centuries. The article which is the result of considerable research among State papers and other sources of information, contains many curious items of information regarding the government of the town, the ruling families, local taxes, and the arbitrary grades into which society was divided. The writer, Professor Butler says ‘The mention of mounted men or knights among the population of New Ross brings us to one of the most curious features of municipal life in Ireland— the growth of a city aristocracy, who, while still remaining merchants, were counted as of noble blood, having a right to a coat of armor, then the distinctive mark of a gentleman and marrying on equal terms with the neighboring country gentlemen.

The Irish merchant families who emigrated to France and Spain during the penal days were able to prove to the satisfaction of the governments of these countries that they ranked as noble in their own land. Accordingly in their new homes they were granted all the rights enjoyed by the native nobles— most valuable rights these were too— which in Spain at all events were not, as a rule, enjoyed by the mercantile class.

We find if we look up the list of mayors and sheriffs of Irish towns that at first, these posts were held in turn by a wide circle of families. As time goes on, however, the circle grows smaller and the same names occur again and again, until finally the whole direction of city affairs falls into the hands of a small group of city nobles as we may call them.


The most famous group of these burgher oligarchs were the ‘tribes’ of Galway, the 14 families named in the couplet—

Athy, Blake, Bodkin, Browne, Dean, D’Arcy, Lynch, Joyce, Kirwan, Martin, Morris, Skerrett, Ffon’t, Ffrench

who for 260 years so monopolised the government of the city that in that time only two outsiders appear in the list of mayors. These 14 families, as well some lesser ones, attained great wealth by their trade with Spain. Galway is still full of their houses, built square, round a courtyard in Spanish fashion and of solid stone or native marble.

It is to the Cromwellians that the name tribes is due. They found the city families so clannish, that they gave them this nickname, afterwards adopted as a title of honor by the families themselves.



B.A., M.A.(Archaeology); Regional Tour Guide; Dip. Radio Media Tech; H.Dip. Computer Science.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s