For hundreds if not thousands of years, Ireland was a country ruled by tribes. Historical records mention ancient tribes that stretch so far back it’s uncertain whether they were mythological or real (or a combination of both). When the Celts reigned they had the country unofficially divided into various kingdoms that were ruled by various alliances of tribes. These changed regularly with the many wars and battles that the Celts undertook, until the introduction of Christianity dispersed this somewhat. Things were further disrupted when Norse, Scottish and English settlers arrived to claim Irish territory as their own, until eventually the country morphed into the four provinces of Ulster, Munster, Leinster and Connacht that we still have today, ruled by the British monarchy until the struggle for independence in the early 20th century.
From the 13th to the 19th centuries however a new band of tribes came to fore, although not like before. They were the 14 tribes (or powerful merchant families, to be more specific) of Galway, who dominated political, social and commercial affairs in the city and much of the surrounding region during that time.
A Brief History the Galway Tribes
The 14 families of the Galway tribes came from varying backgrounds including Irish, Norse, French, English, Welsh, and various combinations of some or all of the above. After the English conquest of Ireland, the families gained power and influence through extensive trading with continental Europe (particularly Spain), essentially becoming de facto rulers of the city. During medieval times Galway was a thriving trading port, almost as important as Dublin and equally as significant as the other cities in the country at the time. Although they distanced themselves from the natives living in the land surrounding the city like the Claddagh fishermen, both groups banded together during one of the first of many rebellions against British rule in the Irish Confederate Wars from 1641 – 1653. It wasn’t to last however, as in 1649 the notorious British military leader Oliver )Cromwell arrived in Dublin. He made his way across the country suppressing all hints of rebellion (and a lot more besides) as he went. His forces laid seige to Galway for almost a year, starting in 1651. When the city surrendered in 1652, Cromwell confiscated all property belonging to the Tribes. In 1654 their influence further waned when English parliamentarians took over the Galway Corporation. Cromwell was the man who first called the families the ‘Tribes of Galway’ as a derogatory name, however the families countered this by proudly adopting it for themselves instead.
After the Cromwell era the Tribes briefly enjoyed a return to power of sorts under the reign of King Charles II and his successor, James II. However, the city suffered another defeat in the War of the Two Kings in 1691, and this time they never truly bounced back. Their power was gradually transferred to the Protestant population of the city, and by the 19th century the once great Tribes were all but gone from the city.
The 14 families
The 14 families, or ‘Tribes’, were diverse in many ways, not just their backgrounds. Here is a brief summary of each, how they achieved their success and what they did with it.
Athy: The Athy family was of Anglo-Norman descent, rising to prominence under Gerard de Athee, a Norman knight who fought for Richard the Lionhearted, King of England. His descendants migrated to Ireland in the early 1300s, already very wealthy. The name changed from Athee to Athy, and the family were credited with erecting Galway’s first stone building. They went on to build several castles and great houses, and survived in Galway until the mid-20th century. The surname is no longer very common in Ireland, and ‘Athy’ is better known as a town in county Kildare (which funnily enough has no connection to the family!).
Blake: The Blake family of Galway descended from Richard Caddell, who was of British extraction and involved in the Norman invasion of Ireland. He gave his successors the title of Blake, meaning ‘dark haired’, and made a name for himself as sheriff of Connaught. His successors went on to hold many important seats in the region, building their primary seat at Menlo near Galway. They were considered to be one of the most powerful of the Galway Tribes, and the Blake name is still very common in the city and surrounding areas.
Bodkin: Not immediately a name considered to be ‘Irish’, the Bodkins’ ancestor was in fact Maurice Fitzgerald, Lord of Windsor and one of the first invaders of Ireland under Strongbow. His son and subsequent generations rose to power in Munster through land ownership, and eventually spread their influence to Connaught. The fourth generation of this line earned the name Bodkin due to his prowess in battle with a short spear called a Baudekin. The Bodkins then allied with the Athys through marriage, further cementing their status as one of the 14 Tribes.
Browne: The original Browne of Galway was yet another member of Strongbow’s invasion in the 1100s. He was appointed Governor of Wexford and laid seige to Limerick with an army of 60 men. He had three sons, one of whom settled in Galway and started off the Browne line there. Another version of the ancestry states that a branch of the family settled in Brownstown, near Loughrea, and subsequently expanded to Athenry and Galway. The Brownes were influential across Mayo and Galway, and the name is still prominent today.
D’Arcy: The D’Arcy family is was thought to have descended from a powerful French family in Charlemagne, who named themselves after their seat 30 miles from Paris, Castle D’Arcie. A member of this family, Richard, travelled to England with William the Conqueror, and was appointed to powerful positions in Ireland in the 14th century. However, recent DNA evidence has shown that the D’Arcys are in fact ancient Irish.
Deane: The origins of the Deane Tribe is somewhat ambiguous. Some sources say they are descendants from William Allen, who came to Ireland from Bristol during the reign of Henry VI. Allen was later elected Provost. There are also records of the Deanes having Gaelic origins, specifically the Mac an Deaganaigh or O Deaghain names, both of which mean ‘son of the deacon’. Either way, the Deanes gained high status by their involvement in politics, and had a long history of holding official positions such as mayors and chief magistrates of Galway city.
Ffont: The Ffont family is one of the lesser known of the Galway Tribes, and since the last surviving Ffont died in 1814 (at the ripe old age of 105), their history seems to have been blurred or lost. It is known that they settled in Galway at the beginning of the 15th century, and that they originated from an ancient English family in Leicestershire. The first significant branch of the family settled in Athenry, and eventually made their way to Galway. They most likely became powerful largely through their connections to the other Tribes.
Ffrench: The Ffrench family is another tribe with Norman origins. The first known Ffrench was Maximilian, whose descendants went to England to serve William the Conqueror. When they arrived in Ireland they initially settled in county Wexford, and gradually spread out across the country. Walter Ffrench was the first of the family to settle in Galway around the year 1425. Although somewhat of a rarity nowadays, there are still small clusters of Ffrench families in the area, including the some of the original line who still hold their seat at Castle Ffrench near Ballinasloe.
Joyce: Joyce is still one of the most common names in the west of Ireland, and the original Joyce tribe once owned so much land in the region that it was known as ‘Joyce country’. The origins of the family are Welsh and British, starting with Thomas Joyes who sailed to Ireland under the reign of King Edward I. Arriving in Munster, he affirmed his power to the natives by marrying Onorah O’Brien, daughter of the King of Munster. Next he sailed to Connaught, claiming territory as he went. The family later became known in the church, with some of them becoming archbishops and cardinals.
Kirwan: The Kirwan tribe is the oldest of all the 14, and the only proven 100% Irish Gaelic tribe too. They have successfully traced their ancestors all the way back to one of the original Gaels to inhabit Ireland, Milesius. They appear to have first settled in Galway during Henry VI’s time, although it’s very possible that they were already there long before just under a different variation of the name. They were one of the most respected of the Tribes given their long lineage and consistent success in all areas.
Lynch: The Lynch family was by far the most powerful of the Galway Tribes. Over the course of 169 years, a staggering 84 Lynches held the office of Mayor of Galway. They effectively had a monopoly on the politics of the city and were highly regarded amongst everyone, including the rest of the tribes. The original Lynch ancestor was John de Lynch, whose grandfather William le Petit was an associate of the well known and powerful Sir Hugh de Lacy. There are still a small number of Lynch noblemen today, including a branch who have settled and become involved in the politics of Bordeaux.
Martin: The Martin family is another whose origins are somewhat vague. Oliver Martin is said to have been the first of the name to settle in Ireland, arriving with Strongbow. The name was derived from ‘Martius’, meaning ‘warlike’. Other theories claim that Martins were descendants of the ancient Firbolg tribe, one of the very first human arrivals on the island. Either way, the Martins proved to be very lucrative traders and were soon one of the most prosperous of the Tribes.
Morris: The Morris family were not particularly noteworthy when compared with the other Tribes of Galway, but were nonetheless extremely successful and prosperous. They first settled in Galway in 1485 with the name Mares, which later transformed into Morech and finally Morris. They were heavily involved in running the city’s affairs, regularly winning the titles of mayor and sheriff of the city. They held influence both in Galway city and in the nearby settlement of Spiddal, where their rural seat was located.
Skerritt: The Skerritt name has been closely associated with Galway more or less since historical records began. First their name was Huscared, a name with English origins who were granted lands in Connaught by Richard de Burgo in the 13th century. By the time their name had morphed into Skerritt, they had built up a reputation for themselves as distinguished provosts. The Skerritt name is still common around Galway, particularly in the rural areas.
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