Tuam (Co. Galway / North)
Tuam (Tuaim, originally Tuaim Dá Ghualann) (pop. 3400), long a busy provincial hub, but nowadays increasingly a dormitory satellite for Galway City commuters, can still offer visitors a range of amenities.
Best known as an ecclesiastical centre, Tuam is officially a town. As one definition of a city involved the presence of a cathedral, and Tuam has two, locals like to claim it is one of the world’s smallest cities (the tiniest of all on this basis being St David’s in Wales), but such pretensions are given short shrift even by Galwegians.
Tuam’s Town Hall, designed by local architect Andrew Egan and constructed in 1857,
The town’s name is usually explained as a cognate of the Latin word tumulus – “burial mound” – and a Bronze Age burial urn dating from c.1500 BC was indeed unearthed in Tuam in 1875 (the momentous discovery was captured by an early glass photograph that still exists). But tuam can also mean a kind of rustic chair, which may or may not be relevant to an episcopal seat. The “Dá Ghualann” – “two shoulders” – of the old toponym are thought to refer to the high ground on either side of an ancient fording point on the River Nanny / Corchra.
According to legend, Tuam owes its location to the itchy feet of a monk called Saint Iarlaith / Jarlath (d. 540 AD), a founder member of religious communities at nearby Cloonfush and Kilbannon. Jarlath was anxious to travel abroad, and his abbot, Saint Benan, told him to “Go, and where ever your chariot wheel breaks, there shall be the site of your new monastery and the place of your resurrection“. Poor Jarlath didn’t get very far, as his wheel broke within four miles, and he dutifully established a monastery that came to be known as the School of Tuam.
Although Saint Jarlath is regarded as the founder of Tuam as an Episcopal see, only two other bishops of Tuam are recorded before the C11th, Ferdomnach (d. 781 AD) and Eugene mac Clerig (d. 969 AD).
In 1049 Amalgaid Ua Flaithbertaigh / O’Flaherty, king of Iar Connacht, was defeated in battle by Aedh Ua Conchobair / O’Connor, who became king of all Connacht; previously based at Cruachain, County Roscommon, he built a fort locally as his principal stronghold, thus initiating Tuam’s brief period of medieval glory. In 1111 his descendant Toirdelbach Ua Conchobair / Tirdelvac O’Connor became Ard Rí / High King of Ireland by force of arms, making Tuam the seat of Gaelic power in Ireland for much of the C12th. Turlough Mór Ua Conchobair / O’Connor, Ard Rí from 1128–1156, founded a priory for Augustinian canons dedicated to St John the Baptist, and several masterpieces of ecclesiastical art during his reign found a home when the 1152 Synod of Kells raised Tuam to an ArchDiocese, with Áed Ua hOissín / Hugh O’Hession as the first Archbishop, and Tuam’s first Cathedral was built.
In 1161 Turlough’s son Ruaidrí Ua Conchobair / Roderic / Rory O’Connor, the last Ard Rí, had a “wonderful castle” erected, with a large courtyard defended by massive walls and a deep moat through which the adjacent river was diverted. An accidental fire destroyed Tuam shortly afterwards, but three new churches were ready for consecration by Archbishop O’Duffy and the assembled prelates at the Great Synod of Tuam in 1172.
In 1184, according to the Annals of Lough Cé, Tuam’s first Cathedral was destroyed by fire: “the great church of Tuam-da-Ghualann fell in one day, both roof and stone“. Ruaidri, defeated in battle by the Norman leader Strongbow and forced to acknowledge the English King Henry II as Lord of Ireland, then betrayed by his own son Murtagh, who had brought a party of Norman knights and archers from Dublin to attack Tuam in 1177 (for which he was punished by blinding), retired to Cong Abbey, where he entrusted the Church valuables from the Cathedral into the care of the abbot.
Tuam suffered further destruction when the Normans arrived in the area in greater numbers, although the De Burgo family founded a monastery for Premonstratensian canons dedicated to the Holy Trinity, and had a small parish church erected on the site of an old monastery. In 1244 another fire razed the town, which remained a relatively unimportant backwater, an ecclesiastical hub mainly populated by folk of Gaelic origin, lacking defensive walls or any medieval military significance.
In 1252 King Henry III granted Archbishop Florence MacFlynn Letters Patent to hold an annual seven-day fair and weekly markets, initiating the town’s importance as a commercial centre. In 1356 Tuam was pillaged by a branch of the De Burgo / Burca / Burke family led by William’s son Cathal Óg, who had “gone native”.
The Annals of the Four Masters record that in 1488 a whirlwind attacked a number of persons as they were “cutting turf on the bog of Tuaim-Mona, which killed one of them, and swelled the faces of the rest; and four others were killed by the same wind in Machaire-Chonnacht”.
The town was granted two Royal Charters, the first by King James I in 1613, when the street plan was laid out, and the second by King George III, when prosperity was at its mid-C18th zenith, with a brewery, two tanneries, factories producing various textiles, nails, matches and household goods, plus various other riverside industries. As a Borough ruled by a Sovereign amd Burgesses, Tuam returned two MPs to the Irish Parliament until its abolition by the Act of Union 1800.
In 1837 the district had over 14,000 inhabitants, mostly living in mud cabins. The Great Famine and its aftermath had a devastating effect on the town, but recovery was assisted by the arival of the railway in 1860.
The 1918 – 1923 Troubles saw several tragic events in Tuam, most notably, during the War of Independence, the extensive property damage caused by armed and uniformed RIC men on the rampage after two of their colleagues were killed in an IRA ambush north of the town in July 192o, and during the subsequent Civil War, the summary execution of the “Tuam Martyrs“, six “Irregulars” (and two robbers) shot by Free State troops in April 1923.
Temple Jarlath, on High Street, marks the site of the earliest monastic settlement in Tuam, established by Saint Jarlath c. 527 AD. The surviving ruins include a late C13th parish church containing an east window in Transitional style.
A ruined tower of Rory O’Connor‘s “wonderful castle” is the site of the Chair of Tuam, a 1980 monument recalling the seat upon which Tuam’s Sovereign was sworn in.
St. Mary’s Cathedral
St. Mary’s Cathedral (CoI), the cathedral church of the Diocese of Tuam, Killala and Achonry, in the Unite Province of Armagh and Tuam, was long the seat of the former Archdiocese of Tuam. The current edifice, designed by Sir Thomas Newenham Deane, built between 1861 and 1878 and renovated between 1985 and 1993, incorporates parts of two medieval predecessors and houses several treasures.
The Chancel Arch is the only part of the nave of Turlough Mór‘s Cathedral that survived the 1184 fire. In the C14th the De Burgo family built a new Cathedral to the east of the old building, and the Arch served to frame a new stone and wooden entrance structure for five centuries as a sort of Triumphal Porch. Remarkably well-preserved, the elaborately ornamented red sandstone Arch has been called “the finest example of Hiberno-Romanesque architecture now extant“, indicating that, in the words of the great antiquary Dr George Petrie, “The Ancient Church of Tuam was not only larger but more splendid …. than Cormac’s church at Cashel, and not unworthy of the powerful Monarch to whom it chiefly owes its erection.” (Photo by James Shiell)
The C14th De Burgo Cathedral was adapted for Anglican worship by Archbishop William Mullaly, appointed by Queen Elizabeth I to head the Archdiocese of Tuam and dispossessing the Roman Catholic claimant. On the death of the last Church of Ireland Archbishop, Dr Poer Trench, in 1839, the Church Temporalities Act abolished Tuam’s metropolitan status.
The current third Cathedral, commissioned when an enlargement of the local garrison added significantly to Tuam’s Anglican population, was built on the site of the first Cathedral, while the second C14th De Burgo Cathedral became the Diocesan Synod Hall, Library and Registry.
The High Cross of Tuam, aka St Jarlath’s Cross, erected in 1152 by Turlough Mór O’Connor outside the first Cathedral, was divided among four owners after the disastrous fire of 1184. In 1820 Dr George Petrie unearthed the base and two other pieces. Reputed to have been the tallest of the High Crosses of Ireland, the sandstone structure is missing the top portion of the main shaft, replaced with the disproportionately small ringed cross-section of the Market Cross which stood in the Shambles market area until c.1643.
(The Tuam High Cross was brought to Dublin for the Great Exhibition of 1852, but prior to its return to Tuam, a disagreement as to ownership arose between the two Churches, with Archbishop Dr John MacHale claiming it for Roman Catholics, and Dean Charles Seymour asserting the Church of Ireland’s claim. As a compromise the Cross was finally erected half way between both Cathedrals in 1874, positioned so that it was visible from all main streets of the town. However, by the late 1980s it was evident that the decorative stone carving was deteriorating due to weathering and pollution, and in 1992 the OPW re-erected it where it is now situated, in the south transept of St. Mary’s Cathedral, close to its original location).
The ornamented shaft of another late C12th High Cross fashioned from limestone an be seen the south aisle, There were probably at least four other carved stone crosses from the O’Connor’s reign in the town; It is thought that all of the High Crosses would have marked the boundaries of the monastic section of Tuam.
The Cathedral’s oak reredos was taken from St Columb’s Cathedral church in Derry. The original organ, which has been rebuilt, was the gift of Archbishop Josiah Hort in 1742. The Bishop’s Throne, the Pulpit, the Font and the Chapter Stalls were made of Caen stone and Irish marble.
The Synod Hall houses a cross head from the medieval Priory of St John the Baptist and C19th stained glass windows by McAlister, depicting real parishioners. The stalls are reputed to have been brought to Ireland from a Piedmontese monastery by Edward Joshua Cooper MP of Markree Castle, County Sligo.
The Archbishops’ Palace, constructed in the late C18th and beautifully restored by a wealthy private owner, has 21 acres of landscaped and wooded grounds.
A new Market House was built in the late C18th.
St Jarlath’s College, founded in 1801 to prepare boys for entry to Maynooth Seminary, ceased taking boarders in 2005; amalgamated with two other local schools for boys, it maintains a strong tradition of annual opera productions. The most famous pupil was John Birmingham (1816 – 1884) from nearby Milltown, a largely self-taught mathematician, physicist and atronomer who had a star and a lunar crater named after him.
The Presentation Convent was established in 1835, opened a school for girls in 1852 (with boarders from 1890 to 1991) and changed premises in 1972.
The Cathedral church of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary (RC), commonly called Tuam Cathedral, was begun in 1827 and completed ten years later. The original architect was Dominic Madden, who also designed Ballina Cathedral and Ennis Cathedral, but he left the project abruptly in 1829 after being told that his planned chancel would have to be reduced in size because of a lack of funds, and the project was finished by Marcus Murray and his son William.
The edifice is notable for its distinctly bizarre pinnacles and tall tower, which dominates Tuam’s skyline from miles around. Another unusual feature is the series of carved faces, classical around the windows and humourous at the rear of the building. Although severely altered over the years, including the replacement of the roof timbers in 1929, the interior retains a replica of the original plasterwork ceiling, vaguely reminiscent of Antoni Gaudí. The statue of Archbishop McHale outside the cathedral is by Sir Thomas Farrell.
The Mill Museum, housed in the only preserved water-powered Corn Mill in the West of Ireland, complete with machinery and water wheel intact, has been run as a voluntary community project since 1974; it contains working models of various kinds of mill, and also has a Tourist Information office where visitors can view an audio-visual presentation about Tuam and book walking tours of the town.
The Garden of Remembrance commemorates local girl Ann MacHugh, killed in New York’s Twin Towers atrocity of 11th September 2001.
The Earwig! Tuam Arts Festival, held annually, includes visual arts, theatre, drama, spectacle, children’s arts workshops, street performance and music. The Tuam market, revived in 2006, currently takes place on the last Saturday of every month, at the plaza in front of Tuam Shopping Centre.
St Jarlath’s Park, opened in 1950, is Tuam’s main GAA grounds (the parish has had two Gaelic football clubs since 1888); having hosted many important matches, it is known as “the home of Galway football”.
The Old Tuam Society, founded in 1942, publishes an annual called JOTS (Journal of the Old Tuam Society).
The Tuam Herald, a weekly local newspaper founded in 1837 by Richard Kelly, is the oldest newspaper in County Galway and the fifth oldest in the Republic of Ireland.
Waterslade House, an elegant Georgian edifice, until recently run as a highly regarded Guesthouse & Restaurant, was the birthplace in 1829 of Thomas Henry Burke, the Permanent Secretary of the Irish Office killed in the 1882 Phoenix Park Murders; and of his five brothers, including the artist Augustus Nicholas Burke (1838 – 1891), famous for his paintings of rural Connemara and Brittany, and Sir Theobald Burke (1833 – 1909), a British army officer who fought in the Crimean War and the so-called Indian Mutiny, and was the last of the Burke Baronets of Glinsk.
Tuam was the birthplace of Sir Gerard Lally, a Jacobite officer who became Lieut. Colonel of Dillon’s Brigade and a Brigadier General of the French army (d.1737), playwright Tom Murphy (b. 1936) and (according to some) the Sex Pistols’ Johnny Lydon / Rotten (b. 1956), and is home to the excellent Saw Doctors.
Tuamstraße in Straubing, Germany, is named in honour of the twinning of the two towns in 1991.
Tuam Street in Christchurch, New Zealand was named after the Church of Ireland Diocese by the Canterbury Association Surveyor’s assistant Edward Jollie. There are also Tuam Streets in Australia, located in Concord, a suburb of Sydney, and Victoria Park, a suburb of Perth.
Tuam Street in Houston, Texas, USA, was named in honour of Richard W “Dick” Dowling (1838 – 1867), born in nearby Milltown but raised in New Orleans and Houston, where he established a successful chain of saloons; as the victorious Confederate commander at the Second Battle of Sabine Pass in the American Civil War, he is considered the city’s first prominent citizen and hero.
Bermingham House was erected c. 1760 by Thomas IV de Bermingham (1719 – 1799), 17th Baron Athenry and 1st Earl of Louth, who died without male heir; the mathematician John Birmingham was one of several unsuccessful claimants to the extinct title.
Set in 120 acres of parkland, Bermingham House was long the home of Lady Mollie Cusack-Smith (née Mary Adele O’Rorke) (1906 – 1998), the famously eccentric horsewoman, fashion designer, cordon bleu chef, high society hostess, master of the Galway Blazers in the 1940s and later flamboyant founder of the (Bermingham &) North Galway Hunt, for whose annual Hunt Ball it serves as venue, and was until recently run by her daughter Oonagh Mary Hyland as an upmarket B&B / Guesthouse specialising in equestrian holidays. (Photo – www.buildingsofireland.com)