With plans being promoted for a new harbour at the moment, it is appropriate to look back at the history of Galway Port.
It is not the first time that such ideas have been put forward, as there have been a number of plans drawn up over the past two centuries.
The history of Galway as a port is indeed a long and interesting story. One could envisage some type of landing harbour as early the second century AD, when Ptolemy, the Greek geographer, is believed to have mapped areas along the west coast. During this exploration, towns and harbours are mentioned and some believe that the place we now call Galway was recorded.
By the twelfth century, the medieval records mention ships in the bay, so there must have been a port established by that period. The arrival of the Normans in the thirteenth century and the merchants that followed in their wake brought international trade and ensured a strong and busy port.
The old medieval dock brought seafarers from across Europe; men such as Christopher Columbus and possibly another great explorer, Ferdinand Magellan. The remains of the medieval port is located beneath Portmore at Spanish Parade.
In time, this dock gave way to the old Mud Dock (Eyre’s Dock), which was built some time during the eighteenth century. By the early nineteenth century, the Mud Docks was no longer considered a proper harbour. In fact, by 1825, Lloyds of London were becoming more concerned about insuring ships that were using Galway Docks.
Galway had lost the maritime prominence it enjoyed during the medieval period when it was considered the third most important port after London and Bristol. The Harbour Commissioners were established in 1830, bringing a new drive to the idea of a new port. There were 63 appointed initially, but this was reduced to 21 in 1853. In 1833, the building of the Commercial Docks commenced. By June 1840, some issues had arisen, which were impeding the work. Henry Buck, the project engineer, had to become involved and put the matter to rest. It is evident that the old Mud Dock continued in use, but was obviously in a dangerous condition. Captain Christopher Yorke who was a pilot attached to GalwayDocks reported at a meeting on 13 January 1839 that part of the old dock had collapsed and destroyed two of his boats, The Mayflower and The Blackbird. This destruction possibly occurred on the night of the big wind which occurred earlier that month.
Work progressed steadily and the new dock wascompleted in 1842 at a total cost of £40,000. A few years later,it witnessed many sad sights with the onslaught of the Great Famine, 1845-50, when thousands of destitute people boarded ships bound for America.
Despite Galway having new docks, it was obviously insufficient after a short time, as ten years later proposals were being presented to build another harbour. In 1852, the Royal Navy proposed building a pier out from an area of the Claddagh and Grattan Road to connect with Mutton Island. Deepening of the sea bed would also be required. One can almost envisage how this would have looked when viewing the causeway now connecting Mutton Island and the mainland in that same area today. However, the idea did not become a reality.
There were other plans put forward from time to time to develop the existing docks. In October 1863, the first meeting of the Galway Graving Dock Company Limited took place. The chairman was the Earl of Clanricarde and the Vice-Chairman was Dennis Kirwan of Castlehackett. They requested funds from the Government for improvements to the docks. In order to try to gain support for the idea, they issued a statement saying that ‘Numerous trades not now in operation in Galway will spring into operation the moment this accommodation in provided, so the public of Galway and all interested in the success of our city and the progress of the west of Ireland must take a deep interest in the success of the new company.’
There were more delays, but in March 1882, work was progressing well on a new section of Galwaydocks. Dams of up to 80 to 90 feet had been erected to stop the sea water interfering with the work. All obstacles that might hinder shipping were removed and work on deepening the channel running into the new dock began. However, the workmen ran into another problem. The underlying indurated clay was so solid that it proved impossible for the equipment to remove. A local engineer named Somerville came up with an entirely new solution, which involved the invention of a tube discharger for dynamite. These tubes were then driven down to a depth of between five and eight feet into the solid sea bed. The dynamite was then dropped into the tubes. Once exploded, it shattered the hardened earth making it easy to remove the debris. Somerville’s invention proved such a success that it was felt it would be universally adopted by other such engineering groups.
The work was successful and the Dun Angus dock opened in 1883. It was later joined to the Commercial Docks. However, the old dock gates were in dire need of repairs. By 1887, the condition of the gates was deplorable, which is evident from a letter written in March of that year to the harbour authorities by Richardson Brothers & Company, corn and maize merchants in Galway. They were highlighting the fact that the owners of some ships would not allow their vessels sail into Galway as they felt that the port was unsafe because of the poor condition of the gates. The letter also mentioned that the gates were disabled and Galway was losing business because of the situation.The Harbour Commissioner had already highlighted this problem in January 1887. He proposed a permanent closure to the old dock gates and the construction of a roadway over the entrance. He also said that new dock gates could be maintained more efficiently. The Dun Aengus dock was completed at a cost of £40,000. Because sufficient money was not available to provide a deepened and adequate entrance channel from the bay, transatlantic passenger liners using the port were frequently forced to suffer irritating delays.
However, this did not deter some visitors. There was great excitement on Sunday 25 July 1858, when the Prince Albert arrived in Galway Harbour on her maiden voyage to Halifax and New York. It was one of the finest steamers afloat and hundreds turned out to view the ship. The following morning, many more turned up to watch as it was being loaded with supplies before finally making its journey out of the harbour towards the open ocean.
One of the boats that served Galway Dock during the 1880s was The Citie of the Tribes. It was a paddle steamer and was the official tender for the Aran Islands. It also took excursions to places in County Clare, such as Ballyvaughan and Cliffs of Moher, and was completing over 20 sailings a month. The daily sailings from the docks meant a constant stream of people coming and going through the port.
Over time, there were even more ambitious proposals put forward about increasing the size of the harbour. In 1913, another impressive plan was proposed by Robert Worthington. The location chosen this time was an area between Rusheen Bay and Barna. It seems that this area was ideally suited and, although the plans were impressive, involving two piers, it did not materialise.
In 1917, the British Admiralty proposed building a huge naval port near Furbo at a cost of some £7,000,000. This was during the Great War and Galway was seeing a lot of maritime activity off the coast. However, the end of the war also saw an end to the plans.