ST. AUGUSTINE’S FORT/FORTHILL
by Tom Kenny
The site of the Augustinian House when the order first came to Galway in 1508 was on the hill we know as Forthill today. Margaret Athy, the wife of the Mayor Stephen Lynch invited them and she built a church and steeple there too. Her husband was away in Spain and got a shock when he returned to see the finished new building on the hill. The friars moved into a house within the walled city but their church was still between the city and the bay.
In 1588, over 300 members of the Spanish Armada were washed ashore, taken to Galway and slaughtered. The local people took pity and buried them at the adjoining Forthill Cemetery. In 1596, Red Hugh O’Donnell attacked the city from St. Augustine’s Hill and caused a great deal of damage.
The townspeople were fearful of a Spanish invasion and realised that they needed to fortify the hill so walls were built around the church and a deep ditch was dug outside them. The outer stone wall was sixteen and a half feet high and the inner wall, also of stone, was even higher. The fort was star-shaped and had a drawbridge entrance to a strong gatehouse as you can see from our drawing which was originally done for the 1651 map of the city.
By 1602, the Spanish had been defeated at Kinsale but there was still a threat of them landing in Galway, and the fort dominated the town and would control it. The Augustinians were still there but a new threat of invasion, potentially by Cromwell, caused them to draw up an agreement with the Corporation allowing all buildings to be demolished if necessary, with the stipulation that the Corporation would build a church elsewhere if and when peace returned. So the Corporation had St. Augustine’s Fort demolished in Cromwellian times in case it would be used against the town.
The graveyard was unaffected by this and in August 1811, Robert Hedges Eyre had it enclosed as a mark of respect and esteem for all those interred there. It is the oldest cemetery in the city and the oldest grave inscriptions found by James Hardiman almost two hundred years ago date back to the middle of the eighteenth century.
Since then the site has become one of the traditional burial places for Galway Citizens and their families. It fell into neglect in the nineteenth century as you can see from our photograph which is dated c.1865, and which we reproduce courtesy of the Chetham Library in Manchester. The buildings you can see in the background were part of the Gasworks complex.
In recent years, a group of local parishioners got together to do a major clean-up of the graveyard and then the Galway family History Society got together with FÁS to produce a booklet identifying and recording the graves. A number of the tombstones and inscriptions are illustrated making the publication a valuable tool in our understanding of the history and heritage of this important site. You are touching history when you walk there.
They say you cannot claim to be an old Galwegian unless you have family buried at Forthill. There cannot be many genuine old Galwegians left, as there is almost no space left there.