Monday, November 23, 2015


This is a picture I took last weekend of a fast-flowing stream while out walking near Avoca in the glens of Wicklow. Nearby streams were once panned for the famous Wicklow gold.

It was only on later perusing the picture that I noticed the quite distinct shape of a red flower submerged below the flowing waters. Immediately I thought of Ophelia and her death, and the depiction of that death by John Edward Millais (1829-1896) in what I consider to be one of the most evocative paintings of all time.

In Shakespeare’s Hamlet Queen Gertrude dismissively announces the drowning of Ophelia, the troubled girl blighted by grief induced by the death of her father and the cruel rejection by Hamlet, as occurring while gathering flowers. In an earlier scene Ophelia hands out to members of the Royal Court, along with other herbs and flowers, rosemary as a flower of remembrance of love. In Millais’ painting he choses to represent this notion of remembrance by depicting a brilliant red poppy close to her hand, a flower also associated with hallucination and sleep.

The scene and the notion of gold in Wicklow’s streams also reminded me of the lines from George Mac Donald’s 1865 novel Alec Forbes of Howglen, which I’ve always felt to be as good a description of Hamlet’s rejection of Ophelia’s love as any:

“It is one thing to have a mine of gold in one’s ground, know it, and work it; and another to have the mine still but regard the story as fable, throw the aureal hints that find their way to the surface as playthings to the woman who herself is but a plaything in the owner’s eyes, and mock her when she takes them as precious.”

MacDonald (1824-1905) was a great friend and mentor of Lewis Carroll, and as a pioneer in the genre of fantasy literature became an inspiration and friend to such diverse writers as Dickens, C.S. Lewis, and Tolkien, a legacy that still influences the enormous amount of children’s and adult fantasy literature today.

I like to imagine that my picture is down stream of the site of Ophelia’s death, and that Millais’ poppy of remembrance (predating John McCrae’s World War I poem In Flanders Fields that gave birth to the military poppy of remembrance by 40 years) is caught in time and eternal, just below the surface of the flowing waters of life.


Tuesday, November 03, 2015

Rihla 54 (Journey 54): Deir Sem’an, Afrin Canton, Rojava, Syria: The Rise of Dead Cities – New Beginnings and Noise

Rihla (The Journey) – was the short title of a 14th Century (1355 CE) book written in Fez by the Islamic legal scholar Ibn Jazayy al-Kalbi of Granada who recorded and then transcribed the dictated travelogue of the Tangerian, Ibn Battuta. The book’s full title was A Gift to Those who Contemplate the Wonders of Cities and the Marvels of Travelling and somehow the title of Ibn Jazayy's book captures the ethos of many of the city and country journeys I have been lucky to take in past years.

This is a Rihla about the small breakaway Canton of Afrin, one of the three cantons of Rojava (Rojavaye or Western Kurdistan) in the north of Syria, home to many of the deserted Ancient Villages (a.k.a. Dead Cities) of Northern Syria.

On the 11th October 2010 I travelled northwards from Aleppo to visit the monastery complex of St Simeon at Deir Sam’an in Afrin district. It was a time of rising tensions in Syria but travelling then was both safe and possible.

By January 2014 however Afrin (‘Ifrin) District, one of the 11 districts that previously constituted the Aleppo Governorate in northern Syria, declared itself part of a Democratic Confederalism and one of the three Cantons that would constitute the autonomous territory of Rojavayê Kurdistanê (Western Kurdistan) or Rojava. The other two cantons from west to east are Kobani and Jazira and in the past two years Rojava has spent much of its energy and focus on confronting ISIS (Islamic State in Iraq and Syria), Rebel and Government forces to establish the territorial remit of the Confederation.

Within its borders the new Afrin Canton contains, scattered on the hills and mountains (Kurd Dag, Jebel Sem’an, Hariqa & Barisha) of the exposed Limestone Massif (Massif Calcaire) that stretches 30-40 km east-to-west and 120 km north-to-south (with Jebel Al Al’a, Jebel Doueili, Jebel Wastani & Jebel Zawiye to south west of Afrin territory) in northern Syria, some of the most important of the 700 plus UNESCO inscribed Roman-Byzantine sites (towns, villages & monastic settlements) known as the Ancient Villages of Syria. Collectively these sites, concentrated in eight demarcated zones, were inscribed a year after my visit, as a Cultural Landscape on the World Heritage List of Outstanding Universal Value.

One of the most important of these sites is the monastery and church of St Simeon the Stylite at Deir Sem’an, about 20 km south of Afrin on the north-western edge of the Jebel Sem’an outcrop of the Massif.

The Afrin Valley and Kurd Dagh Mountains to the North East

St Simeon was born in Sis, the capital of the Armenian Kingdom of Cicilia, north of present-day Adana around 390 CE. At a very early stage, and as an extension to hermetic example of the early Christian Desert Fathers such as St Anthony, he adopted very extreme and fanatical hermetic practices, which even alienated the monastic community at Eusebona that he had joined at the age of 16.

Expelled from the monastery he made his way to an almost deserted hermitage run by Bassus at Telneshae (Telanissos). Here he shut himself away and fasted for a year-and-a-half in a hut before finding a narrow rocky ledge to perch on. He remained in this small open cell for about 10 years until about 422 when a vision induced him to thereafter conduct his devotions and fasting atop a stone pillar. His style of asceticism irritated the authorities because they thought it was similar to the pre-Christian local Ashera Pole form of pagan worship to the Canaanite mother-goddess of fertility Asherah (Astarte or Attart).

Soon the pilgrims and ‘sightseers’ that sought him out forced him to put an increasing vertical distance between his piety and their pursuit. Gradually a taller and taller pillar was erected for him to live on, the last being over 50 feet in height. A small balcony balustrade was erected around the pillar platform to prevent him falling to the ground if he collapsed during his fasting and devotions. In total he lived 37 years on top of the pillar, dying in September 459 CE. It is recorded that in all his years on top of the pillar Simeon Stylites never spoke to a woman, paradoxically in a village called Telneshae, the mountain of the women. This may have been a consequence of the earlier accusation of him venerating Asherah.

Remains of St Simeon's Pillar 

Following St Simeon’s death his body was taken down and paraded throughout the area of the Massif before being taken to the cathedral of Constantine in Antioch. Shortly afterwards, and particularly during the reign of the Byzantine Emperor Zeno, a vast devotional monastery complex developed consisting of a central octagon–shaped building surrounding St Simeon’s pillar and attached to four basilicas at the cardinal points, including one modelled on the cathedral of Constantine. This basilica was specifically built to house Simeon’s remains following their transfer from Antioch.

Simeon’s name derives from the Hebrew shama, meaning to hear and interestingly the sama (in Turkish and Arabic) in Mevlevi Sufi ceremonies also means listening.  It was also a feature of his very specific devotional practice.

The site of the monastery complex surrounding Simeon’s pillar is now known as Qalat Sem’an or the Fortress of Sem’an. The complex was complete by 525 CE and thrived from 500 – c700 CE after which it and many of the other Christian settlements on the Massif came under pressure following the capture of Antioch in October 637 by the Rashudin Muslim army under Khalid ibn Walid and Abu Ubaidah. Although the early Muslim armies were not that interested in the barren highlands apart from ensuring that there were no risks of being attacked from the flanks their dominance of the valleys signalled the start of an evacuation from the hills, at least from the smaller settlements.  The Emperor Heraclius (575-641) probably accelerated this migration from the region when he said, ‘Farewell Syria, my fair province. Thou art an infidel’s now. Peace be with you, O Syria – what a beautiful land you will be for the enemy hands.’

The St Simeon complex was damaged by earthquakes in 526 and 528 CE, yet survived and indeed was further fortified following the Byzantine re-capture of Antioch from the Muslim Arabs in 969. The stability was not to last however and the arrival of the Seljuk Turks in 1128 was to precipitate a final abandonment of the monastery. By the early years of the 12th century most of the Ancient Villages of the Massif were abandoned and most remained ignored as possible agricultural re-settlement areas for 800 years. The reasonable state of preservation of the various sites lies not only in that  avoidance but also by virtue of the fact that most of the buildings, secular and religious, given the lack of forestry in the area, were constructed of the Massif limestone rather than wood.

The monastery complex of St Simeon is one of the best preserved of them all. In 2013 there were reports of looting at the complex but on the 28th May 2015 the pre-dominantly Kurdish YPG/YPJ (The People’s Protection and Women’s Protection Units) of Afrin Canton, Rojava captured the site of St Simeon’s monastery from ISIS and have established a permanent security presence there. Unlike Palmyra little or no damage had been caused to the site.

Even amongst the Cantons of the evolving “grand experiment in statehood” of autonomous Rojava Afrin Canton appears to be adopting a very different “road-map” to the future. Similar in size (approx. 1,800 km2) and population (1.2 million including refugees) to the Swiss Canton of Zurich from an ethnic perspective its make-up includes a majority of Kurds (74%) but also Arabs (24%), Turkmen, Armenians and Syriac Christians.

The religious affiliation of the Kurdish population in Afrin Canton also differs significantly from the other cantons. 89% of the Kurds in Afrin are Sunni Islam but in contrast to the vast majority of Sunni Kurds in the other cantons of Rojava, who are mainly of Shafi’I school of Islamic jurisprudence, they are of the Hanafi tradition, reflecting a long association with Ottoman Turkey. The history of Kurds rather than Arabs or Turks inhabiting this part of Syria is reflected in the name of the mountain range, Kurd Dagh to the north of the Afrin Valley. It is possible that this mountain range, an extension of the Massif, was colonised around 1150 by Kurdish soldiers and their families who had once been in the service of the Zenegid rulers of Aleppo and who later underwent induced conversion to the Sunni Hanafi version of Islam of Ottoman Turkey. 

Under the early Ottoman Land Codes the soil-poor highlands could either have been granted to the Kurd settlers under Mulk conditions which is tithe-paying land distributed at time of conquest amongst the victors or more likely the Kurds, under Mevat conditions appropriated the land. The Ottoman Land Code of 7th Ramadan 1274 AH (21st April 1858) defined Mevat or "Dead" Land as land occupied by no one and which lies at such a distance from a village or town ‘that a human voice cannot make itself heard at the nearest point where there are inhabited places.’

Alevi-Kurds represent about 4% of the Afrin population. Alevis are a sect, whose origins are quite similar to the hated and ruling Alawites of Syria, both of which evolved as a consequence of Qizilbash missionary activity by the Safaviyya Shia of Shah Ismail I around about 1500 CE (See Rihla 31 On Chaldiran, Iran), who are descendants of the small numbers of Alevi who survived the Shakulu genocide of 1511 orchestrated by the Ottoman Sultan Selim I.

Hevi Ibrahim -Prime Minister of Afrin Canton

The Prime Minister of Afrin Canton is Hevi Ibrahim, a Kurdish-Alevi. She is at pains at present to play down the Canton’s desire for Statehood fearing that the establishment of any kind of a perceived Kurdish State will alienate Turkey in particular, who will then strive to strangulate the process before it gets a chance to establish. She has said somewhat disingenuously, “We don’t want enemies and we are doing our best to prevent Syria falling apart.” Her cabinet contains Arab and Yezidi ministers .  

Yezidis are of Kurdish extraction but they and the United Nations consider themselves as a distinct ethnic group. They constitute about 1% of the Afrin Canton population. The Rojava constitution specifically singles out Yezidis for protection but already the Yezidis of Afrin Canton appear to be in conflict with Yezidis in the other cantons because of their particular over-reliance on Zoroastrian elements in the practice over their faith. There are about 13 Yezidi villages in the Jebel Sam’an and two more on the southern edge of the Kurd Dagh (Ciyaye Kurmenc) mountains and they have been living in the Jebel Sam’an area for hundreds of years. At one point (and may still do for all that is known of the very secret sect) the Afrin valley comprised the second most important “See” of the Yezidis faith. Suleiman Jafer is a Yezidi and the Minister for International Relations in Afrin Canton.

In 1671 the French Consul in Aleppo Joseph Dupont reported that the spiritual leaders of the Yezidis had assembled at the ruined monastery of St Simeon to meet with Capuchin and Jesuit missionaries. Sir Paul Rycaut in his memories of the Ottoman Empire published in 1686 reports a Yezidis monastery in the Jeumee (the Kurdish name for the Afrin valley) area and also seems to imply that the Yesidis at that stage had two superior religious leaders (rather than the one at present who is Khurto Hajji Ismail in Iraq) and who would meet at fixed times to ‘consult for the good’ of all of the Yezedis. One of these leaders was based in Afrin and the other in Lalish north of Mosul.

Afrin Canton is determined to go its own way even if Rojava fails. It has decided, like Ataturk’s prescription for Turkish statehood in the past, to replace the Arabic script and introduce the Latin script in schools, street signs and in official usage. Unlike the other Cantons of Rojava and the rest of Syria it has adopted European daylight-saving time-setting and for the present many of the textile businesses of Aleppo have relocated to Afrin and the economy is booming. Afrin Canton however despite its protestations about separate Statehood away from Syria and even Rojava is entrenching itself.

The Jebel Sam’an of St Simeon is now guarded by new ‘pillars’ with armed ‘stylites’ on the platforms. The guard-towers are linked by reinforced tunnels and elsewhere a 50 km ‘border’ trench is also being dug and fortified. In a time when Europe is seeing hundreds-of-thousands of Syrians fleeing the country, those in Afrin are determined to stay, to evolve, to exist.

Afrin Canton, whose Kurdish identity was forged by appropriating Mevat land on the Kurd Dagh mountains beyond the limits of human hearing, is an ‘Listening’ or ‘Sema’ State in waiting. Quietist almost! Those Mevat or Dead Lands, like the abandoned Ancient Villages, are about to rise again. And then we can only listen to the noise.


ICOMOS Report on Evaluations of Nominations of Cultural and Mixed Properties to the World Heritage List. June 2011 Pages 111-125. Document WHC-11/35.COM/INF.8B1

Tuesday, September 22, 2015


Galway Tholsel c.1800

This is a story of an evolution and a revolution told in pictures and maps and ‘bricks and mortar’; an evolution in a very intimate urban landscape of a civic institution from early medieval times until today and a brief overview, to accompany the images, of the revolution of the political landscape during that timeline.

Galway is a small city and in an hour or so you can walk through 800 years of history touching the past and the future in the same instant, coursing your fingers along the mortared joints of granite and stone….and profit.

This is the particular story of the Tholsel, the Town Hall of Galway city, and the history of its meandering existence in both form and function as a nexus of the relationship between those within its walls to those without.

Galway Tholsel Perambulation
1. Hall of Red Earl (Private Tholsel) 1300  Corporation Tholsel 1402 
2. Customs House c.1300  3. Tholsel 1563  4. Tholsel 1700
5. Mainguard Gaol 1609  6. Blakes Castle Gaol 1674  7. County Courthouse 1815
8. Town Hall and Courthouse 1825 9.  Site of County and City Gaols 1810
10. Galway Corporation 47 Dominick St 1940  11. County Hall 1933 12. City Hall 1988 
13. Galway Town Commissioners Mayoralty House 1885


For five thousand years tolls have been a feature of mercantile adventure and profit. From the baggage trains bringing Lapis Lazuli from one small valley in present-day north-eastern Afghanistan across the toll-controlled rivers and canals of Mesopotamia (paying a specific toll tax called the “burden”) and the Frankincense trade from south-eastern Arabia (paying tolls at every camel-halt from Ubar to Gaza) to faience and fumigate the deaths of Pharaohs to the Value Added Tax of most of today’s economies merchants have paid those tolls, calculating the cost into their profit margins.


The Greek word for a toll, telos means both an “end” and “tax”.

A telonion was a Greek toll-house and there was a well-established legal principal of exemption from custom duties known as ateleia, an exemption that was later to feature strongly in the medieval control of toll collection. 

The later Roman teloneum derives directly from the Greek and as soon as the opportunity for trade offered by the expansion of the Roman empire under Caesar Augustus arose, many teloneum or toll stations were established in designated customs jurisdictional areas, particularly during the time of the Pax Romano between 70 and 190 ce. The main toloneum in the larger provincial towns and cities (caput) and ports came under the control of the procurator in the West or the comes commerciorum in the East and would be housed in the preatorium building, which would also then house the combined administrative and judicial functions with the collection of mercantile tolls. The high Alpine passes had their own poll-stations called clusae.

The close proximity of the Roman empire to both Celtic tribes such as the Belgae and the North Germanic tribes of Jutes, Angles and Saxons in what is now Denmark and Schleswig-Holstein meant the adoption of many Roman institutions of governance. In Saxon lands the teloneum evolved into the Tol-sael, from Tol for toll and saele for hall.

Around 449ce the Jutes, Angles and Saxons migrated into the vacuum created by the Romans retreating from Britain and Tolsaels were established in the Saxon coastal and esturine wics or emporia ( Lundonwic, Gippeswic-Ipswich, Eorforwic-York etc) to service and tax the merchants and also to serve as judicial and administrative centres for the developing towns by incorporating initially the folk-mootes but later the more formalised Hundred and Shire courts.

In later Anglo-Norman England, especially after the separation of Church and State functions of the courts with the 1073 Writ of William I Concerning Spiritual and Temporal Courts the Tolsaels became the Tolbuthes or later Tolbooths of Scotland and the Tolseys of England. The most famous and long-lived of the Tolsey courts were those at Bristol (confirmed by a Charter of Edward III in 1373) and Gloucester.

In 1325 Glastonbury had a hall for holding tourns and courts, under which was a gaol for holding prisoners and five shops paying an annual rent of 30 shillings and a little shop or stall (tolsey) paying 6 pennies for receiving tolls at the time of fairs, a true reflection of the evolved combined mercantile, judicial and gaol function of the Tolsey.


Before Romanised Saxon law ( St Augustine of Rome as a missionary had influenced the codification of King Aethelbert of Kent’s Saxon laws about 600 ce by incorporating Justinian’s 530ce Corpus Juris Civilis, the compilation of 1000 years of Roman Law) amalgamated into Anglo-Norman customary and mercantile law reached and influenced Ireland in 1171 the law of the land was known as Brehon or Judge-made law. The incorporation by the Normans of this Brehonic customary law would have been made easier by a codification that had occurred 600 years earlier.

The Annals of Ulster record that Irish Brehonic Law was codified in 438ce when nine prominent men: the three brehons (Chief-Druid Dubhtach Maccu Lugir, Rossa and Fergus); the three kings (High-King Laoghaire, Dara of Ulster and Corc of Munster) and the three most prominent Christians (Patrick, Benignus and Cairnech) studied the oral and written traditions for three years to finally codify it as the Senchus Mor. This codification did not include local or urradhus law or the criminal law.

Brehon law had a public hall in which the bruigh-fir or Biadhtach lived. He was in addition to being a public officer also a magistrate. It was he who would call the assembly of the clan called a Tocomra for the election of a King or the cuirmtig for the purposes of administering urradhus law. The incorporation of the urradhus law and the notion of a law court into a specific hall such as the Tolsael would not therefore have been alien to the Saxon-Norman administration that was coming.

With the arrival of the Vikings and later Normans the Tolsael hall that combined mercantile, administrative, judicial and gaoler functions became known in Ireland as the Tholsel

The Tholsel on the corner of Nicholas St. (now Christchurch place) in Dublin was called the ‘new’ one in 1311 the original having been probably erected shortly after 1171 (Henry II had granted Dublin to the ‘men’ of Bristol in 1164) when the Welsh Norman invasion under Strongbow, The Earl of Pembroke took the city. Later in 1343 there was a specific charter of Edward III granting exemption from the portion of tolls due to the King so that the burghers could repair the Tholsel and in 1395 a Geradus Van Raes was appointed keeper of the Dublin Tholsel for life. He was granted the keep of both the upper and lower gaol in that tholsel indicating an expansion in the imprisonment requirements. Similar to later developments in Galway the 'upper keep' was reserved for debtors whereas the 'lower keep' was for felons and all other undesirables!

Speed Map of Connaught 1610


Galway has always been a merchant city.  Gaillimh the Irish for Galway is comprised of Gaill the Irish for merchant and (a)imh the old-usage plural noun suffix. Although there is a great deal of dispute between etymologists about the origin of Galway’s name, but according to Hardiman’s seminal History of the Town and County of the Town of Galway the territory on which Galway developed on the east–side of the river draining Lough Corrib (formerly Lough Orbsen) was the territory of the Clan Fir Gail, or the Land of the Merchants and it was a name that dated from the very earliest times.

It would perhaps be fanciful to speculate and think that back in the mists of time (c 1000bce) Galway had been a satellite trading-hub of the Phoenicians of Gadir (Cadiz) and that the territory surrounding it had gained its name from these merchant-seafarers such as Orbsen (known name of 'Sea-God' Manannan Mac Lir; suggested as being a Phoenician trader based on the Isle of Man!) after whom Lough Corrib was previously known. However it is likely that the name derives more from the dominant clan of the territory the O’Halloran’s.

The O’Halloran surname originates about 450 ce from Ferghallach O’h-Allmhurain, son of Allmhuran, whose name meant “the importer or merchant”. Ferghallach was the grand-son of Aongus and grand-nephew of Duach Galach of the Hy-Neil dynasty and first Christian King of Connaught. The O’Halloran’s were related to the O’Flahertys, O’Rourkes and O’Connors of Connaught and their territory consisted of 24 townlands mainly on the east of the Corrib River but extending along the shoreline towards Barna on the west side of the river. The three main villages of the territory were Gaill(a)imh, Clare and Roscam. Their main fortification was on the lands of present-day Barna House overlooking the tidal sands of Rusheen Bay, lands that had been transferred to the Lynch family in 1638 in lieu of a debt of £410 19s 8d owed by Edmond O’Halloran of Barna castle. 

A merchant of one of the 14 so-called city “Tribes” supplanting another of an ancient Tribe whose name meant “merchant”!!


In tracing the evolution of the form and function of the Galway Tholsel one has to go back to the beginning of organised administration in the city. For most of its history Galway was a fishing village on the delta of a river that flowed from Lough Corrib to the sea. In 1124 Turlough O’Connor, King of Connaught from 1106-1156 and High-King of Ireland from 1120 erected a castle called Dún Bhun na Gaillimhe (Fort at Mouth of Galway River). This castle was destroyed by raids from Munster and rebuilt in 1132 and again in 1149. In 1171 at the time of the Norman invasion of Ireland the castle and keep of Gaillimh was under the protection of the O’Flahertys to which the O’Hallorans were a subject clan.


In 1195 William de Burgo was granted lands, by King John, in Limerick and Tipperary. He promptly married the daughter of the O’Brien King of Munster and used the bitter enmity of the O’Brien’s and O’Connor dynasty of Connaught to pursue speculative forays into the province.

Richard Óg de Burgo

In 1225 King Henry III granted Richard Mór de Burgo, William’s son, the whole of Connaught and in 1232 he took the town of Galway, after a siege, and extended the existing O’Flaherty castle. That the castle was to house both the judicial Court as well as the toll collection is evident from the documented possessions of Avelina, the widow of Walter de Burgo, son of Richard Mór and mother of Richard Óg de Burgo, in 1283. She derived £11 per annum from the tolls of the town and a further £11 from the ‘prerequisites’ of the Hundreds Court held in the castle which meant these functions, as well as the administration were already well established by 1283. In essence this was a privately run Tholsel.


Around 1300 a hall separate to the former O’Flaherty castle was constructed by Richard Óg de Burgo, William’s grand-son, known as the Red Earl. In 1303 the tolls or ‘new customs’ due from ‘merchant strangers’ for all commodities imported or exported was 3 pence in the pound, a tax of 1.25% and this was collected at the hall. There is very information on how prisoners were accommodated but given that most justice was summary there may not have been a huge need apart from a hole in the ground.

Hardiman's 1820 History Redrawing of 1651 Pictorial Map

Shortly after coming to the throne in 1361 Edward IV granted a murage charter to the town for five years to fund the building of the town walls and detailed the customs and tolls to be collected. For example a horse-load of fish for sale was subject to a penny tax and a man-load to one farthing. In 1373 Galway became a Staple City, under the 1353 Statute of the Staple, which designated Galway as a port where goods could be exported or imported and custom duties collected that would be binding on all other Staple Ports in England and Ireland so that merchants could not be doubly taxed at every point of entry for the same goods. This involved the attachment of a Cocket or Customs House seal in the Tholsel by appointed customs agent. This very convenient merchant privilege to Galway was withdrawn in 1377 for unknown reasons after its initial three year grant; perhaps because the Galway revenues were too small at that stage but more likely the city’s antagonism to the merchants of another Staple Port, Limerick; an antagonism that was a violation of the 1366 Statutes of Kilkenny aimed at “fair trade”.

Hall of the Red earl

The function of the hall, its customs revenues and the feudal legal oversight by the de Burgos of the commercial life of the town began to change in 1402 when Henry IV confirmed a general charter and established the Corporation of Galway to run the city. It is at this point that the hall of the Red Earl officially became the first Galway Corporation Tholsel or town-hall, where the corporate control of administrative, mercantile, judicial and imprisonment was conducted but particularly the collection of tolls or custom duties.

The County of the Town of Galway at this stage meant the Liberties extending to about four miles outside of the city walls.

A view of Galway by Thomas Phillips

At this time the Lynch family, who had arrived in Ireland in 1185, and who were one of the 14 leading merchant families of the city, began to dominate the political and commercial life of Galway and it was almost as if they occupied the mayoralty by birth-right. In 1445 Alexander Lynch a merchant was appointed collector of customs duties and in December 1484 when Richard III granted a new charter to the town, which specifically disinherited the de Burgo family from any revenue or power in the town, the first mayor, another member of the Lynch family Pierce Lynch was elected.

In 1461 Edward IV had granted Galway the power to mint its own coin but there is no evidence that this was ever done under the Richard III’s charter. As Amanda Hartnett (see references at end) has pointed out that from 1485 

“the prime directive of the mayor and council of Galway was to protect the exclusivity of their status group.” 

This hierarchial challenge even extended to the founding political family the de Burgo’s and in 1543 when Sir William de Burgh was created the Earl of Clanrickard by Henry VIII, the city council petitioned hard and ensured that the patent stated specifically that the Earl would henceforth not ‘claim any thing whatsoever’ in the town ‘forever’.

The de Burgo castle had been damaged in a fire around 1500 and appears to have been pulled down but the Hall of the Red Earl still functioned as the Tholsel courthouse and customs house and in 1524 a peace treaty between Galway and Limerick over a commercial dispute was signed there.


Around about the time of Henry VIII’s charter to the city in 1545 the mercantile revenues and tolls collected were at their peak. A decision was made by the Corporation to erect a new Tholsel and in 1561 it is recorded that a James Óg Lynch, a mayor of the town in 1557 commissioned at his expense, close to the Shambles, the east side of the new Tholsel and two years later the building was completed by his relative Dominick Lynch. The Tholsel was located at the intersection of what are now called Mainguard and Lombard Streets and contained prison cells below, shops and a toll-booth on the ground floor and the courthouse and corporation administration rooms on the first floor.

1. Hall of Red Earl  2. Customs House  3. Tholsel 1563  4. Tholsel 1700
5. Mainguard Gaol  6. Blakes Castle Gaol  7. County Courthouse 1815
8. Town Hall and Courthouse 1825 9.  Site of County and City Gaols 1810
10. 47 Dominick St 1940  11. County Hall 1933 12. City Hall 1988 

Reflecting the intention of the city to protect the commercial interests of its elite mercantile families the city went to great pains to exclude the Gaelic exterior. This involved both a physical and propaganda war putting a huge distance between the townsfolk and those outside its walls. On the Western Gate, just down the street from where the Tholsel was situated, a Blake mayor had in the 1550’s inscribed on a plaque, “From the Ferocious O’Flaherty’s O Lord deliver us” to engender in the citizens a sense of fear, to ensure their acquiescence in the increasing isolation from the territory beyond. In addition to this “war on terror” the city authorities also specifically marginalised the intellectual and legal Gaelic tradition promulgating a 1561 by-law which stated that 

no Irish Judge or lawyer [of the Brehon tradition] shall plead in any man’s cause or matter within our court, for it [ the Brehon Law] agreeth not with the King’s laws nor yet with the Emperor’s [Roman Law] in many places”.

The new Tholsel town courthouse appears to have functioned primarily for the town ‘Hundreds court’ and in the documentation of the period Tholsel is used both for the building and for a description of the assemblies that were held there. Tolls were being collected at each of the town gates and also in the custom house extension to the Hall of the Red Earl, which was close to the port.


In 1585 the province of Connaught was formally divided into counties and by 1600 the County Assizes or what would have once been called Shire Courts were being held alternatively between Loughrea and Galway. In 1610, after 50 years occupying the Hall of the Red Earl the court of the County of Galway transferred to the deserted Friary of St Francis (the monks had been expelled in 1583 following Henry VIII’s dissolution of the monasteries) on St Stephen’s Island at the northern edge (and outside of the city boundaries) of the city’s walls. Following this departure by the County to beyond the city walls the 1651 Pictorial Map of Galway the Hall of the Red Earl is shown to be roofless and deserted.

The monks were to return to the nearby Abbey church in 1660 (and have remained there since) but the County retained the Friary for its Grand Jury sessions and administration. In 1686 the Grand Jury of the County decided on Blake’s Castle as its prison. On the 5th April 1687 a Grand Jury of the County convened by the Lord Deputy Stafford in the St Francis friary found that the King had title to the County of Galway (this was heavily influenced by the imprisonment and maltreatment of a previous Grand Jury of the County who had found against the King’s rights in 1635) and the following day the Corporation of the City of Galway met in the Tholsel and confirmed the King’s rights to the town. The customs-house continued to occupy most of the previous Hall of the Red Earl site.


In May 1637 a decision was made by the Corporation to erect a new Tholsel with court chambers and a ‘towne clarke’ office further up the main street close to the boundary of St Nicholas Church. This involved buying and pulling down of the shops that occupied the site which were owned by an Andrew Lynch. Lynch was granted the ‘petty duties’ or tolls on certain merchandise coming into the city by way of compensation.

From the mid-1650s onwards there was significant confrontation between the Protestant and Catholic merchant-burgers of the city and the Catholics were prevented, by the “New Rules” of 1672 from becoming freemen. One of the difficulties however faced by the Protestant Mayor and Common Council with this disenfranchisement were the tolls or ‘petty duties’ granted to the Catholic Andrew Lynch by a previous Corporation. In 1703 an Act of Queen Anne ordered all Catholics to quit the town by the 25th March 1705. In January 2015 (old style) the Mayor Robert Blakney reported clearing the town of all Catholics apart from 20 merchants.

Back Wall of 1709 Tholsel viewed from St Nicholas Church Graveyard

The Common Council of the Corporation met mostly at this point in the homes of the current Mayor or one of the Alderman and the Tholsel was reserved for general assembly meetings or for court sessions. Although a lot of building was done on the ‘new’ Tholsel in 1645 the surrender of the town to the Cromwellian forces in 1652 effectively put a block on its completion. That would take another 50 years and it was until 1709 that a cupola holding the Tholsel bell topped out the building.

Clonmel Tholsel 
(built 1674 and still in existence).

There is a line drawing of the Tholsel in Hardiman’s history of the City and it is quite similar to the still surviving 1674 Tholsel in Clonmel, Co. Tipperary, to a design supposed to have been drawn by Christopher Wren.

The 1709-completed Tholsel in both name and function was to have a sad but inevitable end however. The cupola was removed in 1800 and the dilapidated building itself was pulled down in 1822. The architectural remnants of the building were sold for £90 and carted away. The removed archways still exist however as they were used to form the façade of what is now the Bank of Ireland building on Eyre Square. The back wall of the Tholsel is still extant however and can be seen from the graveyard of St Nicholas Collegiate Church.

BOI Building Eyre Square

The Tholsel site remained vacant for many years and came to be known as the ‘standings’ from the temporary vegetable stalls erected there.


In 1793 an Act of George III, no doubt influenced by the events of the French Revolution, recinded the ban on Catholics being elected to office as Freemen of Galway. Shortly after this there appeared to be three councils operating in Galway!! Common Council 1 of the Corporation which was a mixture of the "old" Protestants and the newly franchised Catholic freemen. Common Council 2 which consisted of the Catholic "Tribal" families and Common Council 3 which comprised the opposition Protestant "non-Tribal" families. Each council elected its own Mayor and town-clerk.

Between about 1800 and 1825 due to perilous state of the “old” Tholsel the Mayor and Town Commissioners met in a house on High Street, a short distance away. 

High Street Galway

I have not quite located which house on High Street exactly, but suspect it was in The Kings Head pub had previously been the town-house of the last Catholic mayor, Thomas Lynch fitzAmbrose before it was seized and used as the Administrative Headquarters by Col Wm Stubbers of the Cromwellian forces in 1654 when he dissolved the Corporation and declared himself Mayor. Stubbers was thought to have been the man responsible for beheading Charles I and the house was his reward.


In 1815 a new County Courthouse was erected at the site of the Franciscan Friary, which had hosted the County assizes since 1610. Following the destruction of the 1709 Tholsel, the City authorities held their city assizes there but in April 1823 however further use of the County courthouse by the City was refused, because the County felt that the city authorities had not thought it prudent to erect a new building before pulling the old Tholsel down and had assumed access to the County building.

1651 Pictorial Map of Galway

The city Corporation moved fast however and by 1825 a new building called the Town Hall and Court House was erected, directly opposite the County Courthouse and ironically on land that once had been part of the County and not the City.

The refusal in April 1823 for the City to use the County courthouse was to be the first shot in a radical change in relationship between the previous dominant city and the county authorities.
1818 Logan Map of Galway

The City and its power were in decline. The Galway Corporation, which had been granted its Charter in 1402 was abolished in 1840 by the Municipal Corporations (Ireland) Act, its functions being taken over by the Board of the Galway Town Commissioners established by the Galway Improvements Bill in 1836. This relegated its status to that of a borough town.

In 1885 following the Supreme Court of Judicature Act (Ireland) of 1877, which reorganised the administration of justice in Ireland and made all inferior courts (city and county assizes, hundreds-court etc) subject to the re-organisation the Town Commissioners, after 500 years of responsibility, divested the Tholsel ‘Town-Hall’ functions from its judicial functions. All further court proceedings would take place in the County Courthouse.

1840 OS Map of Galway

The courthouse provided some light relief at times for the citizens. At the Petty Sessions held in July 1915 a Bridget Hession of Cross Street was charged with “riotous and indecent behaviour” that involved throwing a stone “weighing three or four pounds” at her husband, who was a sailor home from naval duty in the Dardanelles. The Chairman of the Sessions remarked that the sailor “was nearly as well off at the Dardanelles. It is a poor thing escaping from a German submarine to be killed by his wife.” Bridget was fined 5 shillings with costs.

In 1920 the British Army used the Town Hall as a detention centre for IRA prisoners.

On the 18 October 1930 the County Council, which had been ‘trustees’ of the Town Hall since 1898 and had allowed its use for non-council meetings and boxing matches voted to accept the tender of a P. Dooley to erect a “cinematograph box” in the Town Hall, a function which was to last for 37 years. The Hardiman family ran until 1967 after which it fell into disrepair.

In 1995 following a major refurbishment by Galway Corporation (re-established 1937) the 1825 Town Hall & Courthouse re-opened as a state-of the art medium-sized theatre.


Around 1885 the Town Commissioners moved their administrative functions to Mayoralty House at the intersection of Cross Street and Flood Street.

Mayoralty House Flood Street
(used circa 1890 for the Town Commissioners)


Further insult to the City of the Merchant Princes was to follow however in 1898 when the Local Government (Ireland) Act of that year disbanded the Board of Town Commissioners and created the Galway Urban District Council, which was merged with and became subordinate to Galway County Council:

The ferocious O’Flaherty’s from the county had finally come through the West Gate and taken back the city from the merchant families who had ousted them from the fort of Dún Bhun na Gaillimhe 700 years before!

County Hall

On the 26th April 1930 the County Council proposed moving its headquarters from the County Courthouse to the site of the old County Infirmary on Prospect Hill by leasing the property from the Minister for Local Government and Public Health and modifying it for their needs. It obtained a loan to undertake the building works of £8,000 from the National Bank ltd, Galway in August 1932 at a minimum interest of 4% for 15 years.

Atrium of County Hall incorporating old Infirmary Building

In  1999 the architects A&D Wejchert designed an upgrading and extension of the County Hall building.

Persse House, 47 Dominick St.

The Galway Corporation regained its former status as a borough with the privately sponsored Local Government (Galway) Act of 1937 when meetings were still being held in the 1825 Town Hall. It took over the former Dudley Persse townhouse (father of Lady Isabella Augusta Persse Gregory of Coole fame) building at 47 Dominick St. in the early 1940s and retained its civic offices there (some of the planning offices were on the Fishmarket) until the Corporation commissioned and built a new City Hall on College Rd. in 1988. The City Hall was further modified by Simon J. Kelly architects in 2000-2002. The Persse house on Dominick St. became the home of the Galway Arts Centre.

City Hall, College Rd.

In 1985 the Local Government (Reorganisation) Act had separated the City and County again (S.I. No. 426/1985) and in 2002 Galway city Corporation formally became Galway City Council with county borough status.


The City gaol originally existed as a small room under the 1557 Tholsel but in 1578 Elizabeth I granted the Corporation the power to establish a separate Gaol in the town. A site was chosen up the street from the City Tholsel and completed about 1600. In 1603 Cormack and Henry McDermott were appointed keepers of the gaol for life.
The County of Galway originally had its gaol in Loughrea but it fell into a severe sate of disrepair and the prisoners were transferred to the City gaol on Mainguard street in 1674. In 1686 the County assizes began to use Blake’s Castle close to their original courthouse at the site of the Hall of the Red Earl.

In the 18th century imprisonment for a myriad of crimes became the norm and the condition in most gaols was appalling. The jails such as the City’s gaol on Mainguard street and the County gaol in Blake’s Castle were used mainly for debtors but often these were incarcerated with male convicts awaiting deportation or execution as well as women jailed for prostitution and petty crimes. In addition sometimes families lived with the prisoners in the unsegregated below-ground holes.

In 1764 Cesare di Beccaria wrote his Essay on Crimes and Punishments, which stimulated the call for prison reform. In 1786 the Irish Parliament (abolished in 1800 by the British Act of Union) published a Prison Reform Bill and an Inspector-General of Prisons was appointed. In addition John Howard a wealthy prison system reformist took it upon himself to visit and report on as many places of incarceration in Britain, Ireland and the Continent as he could.

Howard’s 1788 report on the Galway Gaols, made for damning reading. He described the County gaol in Blakes Castle as having two long rooms for convicts with no water or heat. The debtors cells were on the first floor. He described the City gaol on Mainguard, which had at the time 7 debtors and 12 felons incarcerated, as being “inadequate”, “ill-constructed” and “wretched”.

Griffiths Valuation Map 1850s

In 1802 an Act of Parliament approved the building of a new gaol for the County and this was built on Nun’s Island, to a design by a Thomas Hardwicke based on the gaol in Gloucester, being completed in December 1810. The prisoners in Blake’s Castle were transferred to the new gaol and the manor-house returned to private ownership. It was restored as a restaurant in the early 1990s.

In 1807 the City corporation followed the County’s suit and in 1810 a new City Gaol was completed situated in close proximity to the County Gaol on Nun’s Island. The cost of a bridge to the island (built 1818) was shared between the City and the County with the City paying 5/6ths. The old gaol on Mainguard Street was pulled down at that stage to allow for road widening.

On the 17 March 1823 the Connaught Journal reported that the County of Galway was ‘perfectly free from every thing like disturbance’. The Journal stated that awaiting trial, on the County and Town Calendars, in the County Goal were 14 cases of murder, 1 of rape, 1 of abduction, 1 of sheep-stealing, 8 of horse-stealing, 2 cow-stealing, 9 of house-robbery, 6 of highway-robbery, 1 forgery and 2 minor-offences. Awaiting trial in City Gaol were 3 for coining, 1 for administering poison, 1 for swindling, and 1 for stealing children – as distinct from stealing sheep, horses and cows in the county!!

In 1939 the Galway Gaols were closed down and ownership of approximately 4 acres of land and buildings transferred first to the County Council and then on the 15 March 1941 to the Galway Diocesan Trustees for a nominal sum of £10 on condition that the construction of a proposed Cathedral would reach 12 feet in height by a certain date. By the end of 1941 the buildings, apart from the gate-house and external wall, were demolished and on the 27 March 1957 the foundation-stone of Galway Cathedral was laid. The cathedral was dedicated in 1965.


Returning to where I started this perambulation and how the the Greek word for a toll, telos means both an “end” and “tax”. Benjamin Franklin, quoting a line from Daniel Defoe’s 1726 Political History of the Devil, made famous the idiom that there is nothing more certain as death and taxes, the telos. In meandering through the city, tracing the corporate and judicial locations of the last 800 years, one feature, one location has remained constant, remained certain. The Customs House on Flood Street remains where Richard Mór de Burgo established his toll collecting office or telonion in 1232.

The Custom House telonion 1232 -2015 

But surprise, surprise the story of toll-collection in Galway is not yet finished! It is interesting to note that the current city boundary, the Town and the County of the Town of Galway, almost exactly occupies the territory of the O’Halloran’s, the descendants of Allmhuran, the merchant importer of the 5th century, and founder of Gaillimh, the town of the merchants and there is a petition in at present to extend those boundaries to almost exactly imitate the original O'Halloran territory.

In January 2015 Alan Kelly the Minister responsible for Local Government announced an independent statutory committee to review the feasibility of merging, like Cork, Waterford and Limerick, the City and County Councils in one corporate body. This is being done under the Putting the People First mandate, which will be an exotic if marginally deceptive return to the very origins of Galway’s history. I suspect the “merchants” are already counting the Tolls in the Tholsel.

Further Reading.
Middleton N. Early Medieval port customs, tolls and controls on foreign trade. Early Medieval Europe 2005 13, (4) 313-358
Tucker C. Anglo-Saxon Law: Its Development and Impact on the English Legal System. USAFA Journal of Legal Studies. 1991 2. 127-202
Hartnett AM. Legitimation and Dissent: Colonialism, Consumption, and the search for distinction in Galway, Ireland, 1250-1691. PhD Thesis, University Of Chicago. 2010
Hardiman J. History of the Town and County of the Town of Galway from the Earliest Period to the Present Time, 1820