If you look carefully, you’ll spy a skull and crossbones carved under the window in the photo below. This stone structure was built in the mid 19th century–although the window is said to have been part of Galway Mayor James Lynch’s home dating from the 15th century–as a memorial to the tale of Lynch and his ill-fated son. We heard the chilling story from a passerby who, like so many of the Irish we met, was eager to share part of their history.
The story goes, Mayor Lynch made his son captain of a ship headed for Spain. A portion of the large sum of money entrusted to the young man to purchase wine was gone, however, by the time he arrived. The merchant permitted Lynch to take the cargo partly on credit, but sent his nephew back to Portugal to ensure full payment.
On the return voyage, fearing his father’s reprisal over his embezzlement, Lynch arranged to murder the Spaniard and throw him overboard, promising to reward his crew in return for silence.
As we know, however, “truth will out.” When one of the sailors made a deathbed confession to Mayor Lynch, his father demanded justice–as in hanging–for his son. Locals opposed the punishment and formed a mob, preventing access to the execution site. Mayor Lynch then proceeded to hang his son from his own window. Many believe the incident gave rise to the term “lynching.”
Further along the block we found St. Nicholas’ Collegiate Church, the largest medieval parish church in Ireland still in constant use. Built circa 1320, the church is dedicated to St. Nicholas of Myra (now in Turkey), who of course is known to children as “Santa Claus” but also historically is viewed as the patron saint of sailors. Christopher Columbus is said to have worshiped at the church in 1477. An organist rehearsing for an upcoming concert provided welcome relief from Lynch’s harrowing tale of deception and murder.
Turning onto streets in the center of town, we passed cafés and shops as musicians played Beatles tunes and traditional Irish music. One young lady sang “Purple Rain” in a voice reminiscent of Janis Joplin’s.
Eventually we arrived at Thomas Dillon & Sons, est. 1750, at 1 Quay Street. They are the original makers of the Claddagh Ring, and therefore the only company that bears the right to have the word “original” stamped on each ring. They are also the oldest jewelers in Ireland. We chatted with Jackie, whose family now owns the store. She was charming, informative, and rightfully proud of the tradition of excellence her family upholds.
While there is more than one story behind the origin of the ring, one is most consistent. One of the residents of Claddagh (a fishing village in Galway Bay) was named Richard Joyce. While on route to the West Indies, he was captured by Algerian corsairs and sold into slavery to a Moorish goldsmith who taught him his trade.
When Joyce was released in 1689, he returned to Galway and set himself up in business as a goldsmith, creating, among other works, a beautiful ring to give to his long-waiting love as a marriage token.
The ring’s motif shows two hands holding a heart wearing a crown. The meaning is explained in the phrase, “Let Love and Friendship Reign,” a perfect sentiment for a wedding ring. In the Claddagh Museum at Thomas Dillon’s, we viewed an extensive collection of Claddagh Ring memorabilia including this piece from 1757 made by another Galway native, Nicholas Burdge.
We purchased a ring for me and cuff links for my husband, and then headed, at Jackie’s direction, to the bridge over the River Corrib in the bay to take a look at the only remaining Claddagh house. It was closed at the time, its interior being restored for the coming tourist season (note wheelbarrow front left), but the friendly contractor invited us to peek inside anyway.
Moving on to Galway City Museum, we viewed an exhibition on hair hurling balls; the earliest dates from 1192. We also learned about Pádraic Ó Conaire (February 28, 1882 –October 6, 1928). An Irish writer and journalist, during his lifetime he produced 26 books, 473 stories, 237 essays and 6 plays. His statue in the museum (temporarily removed from display) is a site often used by couples to become engaged. It was the perfect place for my husband to place my Claddagh Ring on my hand. Of course we got the direction right: heart facing toward me, indicating mine has been taken. And so it has.
Next time: Seamus Conroy and “From Galway to Graceland”