Hardiman’s History of Galway 200 years on

Published in Issue 6 (November/December 2020), News, Volume 28

By John Cunningham

Above: New Galway county courthouse, with New Bridge (Salmon Weir Bridge) and the county gaol in the background—one of Patrick Duggan’s illustrations in Hardiman’s The history of the town and county of the town of Galway (1820).

This year is the bicentenary of James Hardiman’s The history of the town and county of the town of Galway, ‘one of the most reflective of … a remarkable cluster’ of Irish urban histories published in the early nineteenth century, according to David Dickson. For Hardiman, his endeavour was a patriotic duty in a context where the origins of Irish towns ‘remained almost unnoticed and unknown’ by comparison with Britain, where ‘every village and hamlet … can boast of its history’.

Born in Westport, Co. Mayo, James Hardiman (1782–1855) moved to Galway in childhood, and trained as a lawyer at King’s Inns in Dublin while employed as a sub-commissioner in the Public Records Office. By the time his History was published he was integrated into intellectual networks through his membership of the Royal Irish Academy and the Iberno-Celtic Society. Following his return to Galway, Hardiman published two further major works, and on the opening of Queen’s College, Galway, he was appointed its librarian.

Writing about Galway was a delicate undertaking in 1820, given the intensity of political conflict between the merchant-controlled ‘Independent’ interest and the dominant Daly connection. Hardiman’s analysis of the reasons for Galway’s economic decline—‘numberless’ restrictions imposed by British governments—would have given more comfort to family standard-bearer James Daly MP than to the Independents. In relation to Catholic Emancipation, there was also criticism of James Daly, a nominal but prevaricating supporter of that cause. Hardiman nonetheless dedicated his History to Daly, though he took the opportunity to remind the dedicatee of his ancestors’ commitment to Catholic rights.

Printed in Dublin by W. Folds, the handsomely illustrated History was divided into four sections, some of which stand up better than others. Of continuing value is the access the book gives to documents destroyed in the Four Courts in 1922. For most readers today, however, the most useful element of Hardiman’s History is Part IV, ‘The Modern State and Description of the Town’. Running to more than 25,000 words, it provides an insider’s perspective on commerce, administration and local institutions. With its town walls recently demolished, Galway was breaking free of its former bounds in 1820, as indicated by the newly erected ‘handsome buildings’ in Dominick Street and Newtownsmith mentioned in the History. While civic pride inclined Hardiman to emphasise Galway’s finer features, he paid some attention to plebeian life, particularly to the Claddagh fishing community.

The Claddagh was treated in a 3,000-word footnote that discussed the internal regulation of the community and the economic role of the womenfolk, as well as fishing practices and ‘manners and customs’. While generally balanced, Hardiman arguably exaggerated Claddagh distinctiveness when he stated that its people were ‘as different in habits, manners and character, from the natives of the town as if they were of another country’. Noting that the Claddagh fishermen claimed authority over Galway Bay, he was critical of their ecologically based violent opposition to commercial trawlers. For Hardiman, as for other ‘improvers’ of his era, such interference in economic life was rooted in indolence and superstition.

Out of print for many decades, Hardiman’s History acquired a mystique. Historian G.A. Hayes-McCoy recalled that in his youth ‘for the ordinary citizen … it was a lost book, or one that was at best glimpsed once in a lifetime’. Galwegians nonetheless held it in awe: ‘All kinds of things were, according to them “in Hardiman” … all kinds of things peculiar to Galway that could be found nowhere else’.

In 1926 Tom ‘Cork’ Kenny of the Connacht Tribune serialised Hardiman’s History over 83 weeks in his company’s new Connacht Sentinel. The Tribune reissued the book itself for the 1927 Christmas market, publishing it again in 1958 and in 1985 on a wave of enthusiasm for civic history stirred by the Galway quincentennial celebrations. The ‘lost book’ of the early twentieth century gradually found its way into most Galway homes. For its part, Kenny’s Bookshop and Art Galleries issued a luxury facsimile of the first edition in 1975.

Two hundred years on, it seemed appropriate to commemorate a work that for so long held iconic status. Since, however, it is readily accessible on askaboutireland.com, and with much of its content superseded, simple re-publication did not seem to fill the bill. Instead, it was decided to produce a book that would critically engage with Hardiman’s work, explore his life, and examine artistic and cultural endeavour in Galway city over the past 200 years. The result is Hardiman and beyond: Galway arts and culture, 1820–2020, co-edited by this writer and Ciaran McDonough, with contributions from 33 scholars. It was published by Arden in October 2020.

John Cunningham lectures in History at NUI Galway and is author of ‘A town tormented by the sea’: Galway, 1790–1914 (2004).


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