The little church of St James or ‘Teampaill’ as it more commonly known is located on Michael Collins Road in New Mervue. It is dedicated to Saint James of Santiago de Compostella in Galicia, Spain. While it dates from at least late medieval times, the first surviving written record of the church is from Ordnance Survey Letters for County Galway in 1838. The church was in a ruined state by this period, but it was still being used as a burial ground.
This document gives a good description of the building, which forms part of the excellent publication, ‘St James’ Church & Cemetery; Gleninagh Heights Galway’.There are a number of possibilities as to its origins and function. It may have been a small local parish church or had a dependency on another religious establishment, such as Roscam or St Nicholas’ Collegiate Church in Galway. It could have acted as a private chapel funded by some wealthy benefactor for his tenants or indeed his own convenience.
However, is seems more likely that it was constructed under the patronage of some local powerful landowner, perhaps the Lynch family, who have had connections with the area from earliest times. The church contains a number of building phases dating from the twelfth to the nineteenth century and now with the excellent restoration work which was completed some years ago, it also has late twentieth century features.
One may well ask why this church was dedicated to Saint James? Over the centuries, there were at least five churches within Galway city environs devoted to Saint James. This is an indication of a strong devotion resulting in people going in pilgrimage to the grave of the saint. The idea of people travelling on pilgrimage from Galway is not a new phenomenon. During the fifteenth century, the Mayor of Galway, James Lynch Fitz Stephen, requested special permission from the Town Council to go on pilgrimage to the grave of the saint while he was in office. It seems that he had particular devotion to Saint James, and wanted to visit the shrine at Santiago de Compostella. He was not alone in this holy quest, as thousands of people made this journey over the centuries.
Among other things, Saint James was also the patron saint of merchants and pilgrims and the port of Galway was a major gathering place for pilgrims beginning their journey to the shrine. The scallop shell is the symbol of Saint James and was often used as a pilgrim’s badge, with thousands of them being sold as souvenirs to people visiting the shrine each year. Many were perforated and threaded so that they could be hung about the neck. There was an old custom in the Claddagh associated with the saint also. People would gather sand from the seashore and form a little hill, which they would cover with cockle shells. Passers-by were then requested to donate a penny in honour of Saint James of Santiago.
The Cemetery of St James is officially closed for burials since the 1950s, but there have been exceptions for those who have relatives buried there. Up until that time, it was the main burial place for people from Mervue, Ballybaan, Ballyloughaun, Merlin Park, Doughiska and even as far away as Bohermore and College Road. The burials represent a good cross-section of the community, including both rich and poor alike. The wealthy landowners, such as the Wilson Lynch family from Renmore House and the Joyce family of Mervue House, have family interred in the cemetery. There is also a Great Famine Memorial within the cemetery commemorating the unfortunate victims of the disaster from the area who were buried there without a grave marker. There are a number of well-known people buried there, including Tom ‘The Moore’ Molineaux and Sean Mulvoy.
Mulvoy’s funeral was said to be one of the largest to take place in St James’ Cemetery. On the night of 8 September 1920, Sean Mulvoy a member of the IRA, was shot dead while trying to disarm Constable E. Crumm of the Royal Irish Constabulary. Crumm was shot dead and the Black and Tans immediately set out for revenge. In the early hours of the morning, Black and Tans took Seamus Quirke, a member of a local brigade of IRA, from his lodgings near Galway docks. They dragged him to the corner of the docks where they shot him a number of times. Fr Michael Griffin administered the last rites and was subsequently killed by British forces.
On 10 September 1920, High Mass was celebrated in the Pro-Cathedral for both IRA men and their remains were removed for burial. Dr Thomas O’Dea, Bishop of Galway, led 10,000 people and over 40 priests in the funeral procession to St James’ Cemetery, where Sean Mulvoy was interred. The funeral of Seamus Quirke continued on to his native Cork.
On 4 August 1818, the African-American champion boxer Tom ‘The Moor’ Molineaux died of influenza while visiting Galway. He was buried in St James’ Cemetery, but the exact location of the grave is unknown. Tom was born in 1784 on a slave plantation in Virginia, USA. He came from a family of fighters and became involved in the sport at a young age. Tom arrived in England about 1809. He eventually became the heavyweight champion of the day. Sometime between 1816 and 1817, Tom arrived in Dublin, where he joined a group of boxers who were travelling from town to town giving exhibition bouts. It was while engaged in this activity that he eventually arrived in Galway.
Over the years, the church and cemetery fell into a terrible state of neglect and by the 1990s people living in the area and those who had family buried there became anxious about the situation. Portions of the wall surrounding the site had fallen down and part of the unoccupied ground had become victim to modern development. A meeting was called and a group of concerned and determined people came together to decide on what action to take. Plans were put in place for the cleaning and restoration of the entire site. Over the following few years, many headstones were re-erected and repaired.
The church was cleared of all debris and restored in a very tasteful manner. The walls surrounding the site were rebuilt and footpaths set in place. A number of important and interesting stones were discovered during the restoration work and some were incorporated in the church. A small but interesting ‘single-light’ stone window was one of the items found and it now forms part of the church structure. This may have been removed from the Roscam Monastic site at some earlier date. The work was also supported by the local authorities and the Galway City Heritage Office.
Teampaill is a very fine example of what a community working together can achieve. It is a hugely important site that is visited by many groups of people, including children from the local school. The hard-working committee deserves great credit, as they continue to care for this ancient church and cemetery. The present committee includes Martin Crowley, Chairperson; Sean Keane, Secretary/Treasurer; Patsy Nolan; Martin Concannon; Terry O’Flaherty; Tom Costello; Don Walsh; Arthur Hynes; Declan McDonnell; Arthur Costello; Brian Walsh TD; John Joe Melody; and Canon Willie Cummins PP Patron.
Events of note: Galway’s Blast From The Past in aid of Console will take place in the Quays Bar on Monday 21 January. Some of the bands taking part include The Elastic Band; Mojo; The Amadans; In Heaven’s Quarter; Rock n’ Roll Circus and 5th Avenue. It will be a night of fantastic entertainment and music, so don’t miss it.