Stratford Eyre was appointed Governor of Galway in 1747. There is some confusion as to who his father was, with some sources saying he was the son of Samuel Eyre, who was mayor of Galway in 1712 and 1713 and other sources saying he was the son of James Eyre, who had been governor of Galway in 1715. Either way, Stratford Eyre became one of the most notable figures of the Eyre family during the eighteenth century. He also served as vice-admiral of the province.
Eyre fought with the English army against the Scots at the battle of Culloden in 1746. It was a battle that proved disastrous for the Scots. Following the war in Scotland, he returned to Galway. From his reports to the government, we can draw a clear picture of Galway city as it decayed during the course of the eighteenth century.
‘He found himself set to defend a town of which the walls had not been repaired for a quarter of a century; the castle in ruins; the very name of military authority forgotten. By law no Catholics ought to have been in Galway at all. There were thirty Catholics there to one Protestant, and the Protestant was becoming Protestant but in name. There were 180 ecclesiastics, Jesuits friars, and seculars. Robert Martin, owner of half Connemara, resided within the liberties, and was making a fortune by smuggling there.
He was described by Eyre as ‘able to bring to the town of Galway in twenty four hours 800 villains as desperate and as absolutely at his devotion as Cameron of Lochiel’. The Mayor and Corporation, the fee-simple of whose property did not amount to 1,000 received the tolls and customs duties. By their charter they were bound in return to maintain the fortifications. Being what they were, they preferred to divide the town revenue amongst themselves. The mayor, an O’Hara, was the son of Lord Tyrawley’s footman; the sheriff was a beggar; of the aldermen one was a poor shoemaker, the other a broken dragoon.’
Upon appointment as governor, Eyre set about re-establishing discipline in the garrison, using strong-handed methods where necessary. He personally had breaches in the town walls sealed and he ordered that the gates of the town be closed at sunset. The corporation protested and sent a letter of complaint to Government. All the members and the majority of the citizens signed it. They insisted that the streets of Galway should remain free at all hours of the day and night, ‘…without sentinels, or inconvenient persons, to restrain the citizens in their goings and comings’.
This was the period of the Penal Laws. Among the many laws restricting the Irish, was one which outlawed Catholic clergy. Eyre was noted for his religious intolerance towards Catholics and certainly tried to ensure that these laws were implemented. He was well aware that members of the local authorities were not enforcing the laws against Catholics and, because of this, Governor Eyre requested a meeting with the corporation members. In his address to them, he said:
‘…gentlemen since you are here in your corporate capacity, I must recommend you to disperse these restless Popish ecclesiastics. Let me not meet them in every corner of the streets when I walk as I have done. No sham searches, Mr. Sheriff, as to my knowledge you lately made. Your birds were flown, but they left you cakes and wine to entertain yourselves withal. I shall send you, Mr. Mayor a list of some insolent unregistered priests, who absolutely refused me to quarter my soldiers, and to my surprise you have billeted none on them. These and James Fitzgerald, who is also an unregistered priest, and had the insolence to solicit votes for his brother upon a prospect of a vacancy in Parliament, I expect you’ll please to tender the oaths to, and proceed against on the Galway and Limerick Act. Let us unite together in keeping those turbulent disqualified townsmen in a due subjection. Lastly, gentlemen, I put you in mind of the condition on which tolls and customs are granted to you. Repair the breaches in these walls and repair your streets.’
Obviously, the governor had heard rumours that the sheriff was warning the Catholic clergy of impending raids. In return, the clergy were rewarding the sheriff and his men by leaving out wine and goods for them to indulge themselves as a sort of payment.
However, the Government refused to support Eyre. Regarding his appointment as governor, it was said that ‘Eyre was a man full of violent personal and religious animosities, intolerant of opposition, and much more fit of the command of a regiment than for the difficult task of governing a Catholic town’.
He was also threatened with assassination as indicated in the following anonymous letter, which he enclosed with his correspondence to Secretary Wayte, 11 December, 1747:
‘Sir, as I had not the pleasure of seeing you since you came to your government of Galway, I hope soon to see you in the Elysian fields, as I am just going off the stage. And I am sure, if you don’t leave that town, you’ll lose your life before the 10th of next month. Tis all your own fault, for you could not bear the employment which you got, not for your bravery, but for the slaughter you committed on poor people after Culloden fight. You’ll be served as Lord Lovat’s agent was. God be merciful to your soul.’
Eyre does not seem to have been intimidated by this letter and continued to govern the town in the same manner. By 1748, there were serious differences between Eyre and Robert Martin of Dangan on a number of issues. But one could say there was a history of resentment between these families going back to the time that Edward Eyre disposed Robert Martin Fitz-Jasper of his house near Eyre Square almost a hundred years earlier. One of the disputes that arose was in connection with a Connemara boy named Brennan who worked for Robert Martin.
It seems that the ‘boy’ armed with a ‘pistol and gun’ was stopped while crossing the west bridge by a sentry. The boy was disarmed and Eyre confiscated the weapons. Eyre attempted to have the weapons returned to Martin, but his gesture was ignored. Martin instead took Eyre to court to receive compensation. Even then, Martin was not completely satisfied that he had been justified and followed Stratford Eyre to London, where he stabbed him. Eyre survived.
The differences between the two men ran deep, as Martin was also a committed Jacobite, which was totally against Eyre’s politics. On 19 August 1755, Eyre wrote to Secretary Wayte complaining that ‘A party of Frenchmen came to Galway on an unknown errand, and lay for some time concealed in a convent. They had landed without passports or credentials. I sent for them to come to me. They refused, and I arrested them. The mayor immediately took them out of my hands, and in the presence of the prisoners threatened to commit me if I interfered further.’
It is obvious that Stratford Eyre received little support from the authorities, but it does not seem to have much affect on him.