This fascinating photograph of women washing clothes at the steps beside the Wolfe Tone Bridge dates from 1893. It was given to us by The National Library.
There were a number of places along the riverbank where clothes were washed. There were also a number of suitable locations along the canal, notably at the End of Pump Lane. Obviously, the fast flowing clean water provided a fine natural rinsing system for the clothes, but it cannot have been comfortable for the washerwomen. As there were no drying facilities, those wet clothes must have been very heavy to carry home. There was obviously only room for one washerwoman at a time at the bottom of these steps, but lots more space for gossip and chat which must have relieved the tedium of washing. As you can see, there were potential listeners on the bridge, so caution in the gossiping was required.
The first bridge over the Corrib was the "West Bridge", where O'Brien's Bridge is today. The town side of the bridge was heavily fortified, and it was here, on an arch that the legend "From the ferocious O'Flahertys O Lord deliver us" was reputedly carved. The Salmon Weir bridge was built in 1820, and the third bridge, named after Wolfe Tone, was built to connect The Claddagh with the Fishmarket. It was a temporary wooden affair, and one needed to be brave to cross it. It was eventually replaced in 1887 by an iron bridge, which is what we see in our photograph today. It was a major advance, in health and safety terms, on its predecessor. There was a lovely "Pisreog" concerning this bridge, that any Claddagh man coming home this way after midnight with drink on him was likely to be attacked by a "Gliomach" or sea monster.
The stone wall we see on the opposite side of the bridge was Burke's Distillery, later to be taken over by McDonoghs, and known as "The Chemicals".
The women in this photograph had to be tough, real survivors. It is a measure of how much we owe that generation that their great grandchildren are rollerblading around this area today.
This is another of the images that will feature in a forthcoming book entitled "Galway, A Town Tormented By The Sea" by John Cunningham. It is a wonderful history of nineteenth century Galway, and into the beginnings of the twentieth. The result of years of research, it is well illustrated, and will be in the bookshops in a few weeks.
Finally, a tip for those of you who would like a new view of Old Galway (or indeed, New Galway). We can highly recommend a walk on the causeway out to Mutton Island. You are allowed most of the way out, and will be rewarded with lots of fresh air, the smell of the sea, and wonderful bird life. Walking back to the shore is a bit like coming in on a ship, with terrific vistas of Salthill and the city.