Travellers to Dublin Airport in recent years may have noticed the large display showing a stone lined medieval street, advertised as one of the tourist attractions to be visited in Ireland. The street on display is Kirwan’s Lane, in Galway City,
It is one of the oldest streets in Galway, possibly dating back to the 13th century shortly after the City of Galway was established by Richard DeBurgh in 1234 AD. The lane was built to connect Cross Street, situated on higher ground, with a mill at the west end of the lane, on the banks of the River Corrib. The mill was in existence by 1365 AD when it was bequeathed to Thomas Martin, and it remained associated with his family for many generations. Among his descendants was Richard Martin, better known as ‘Humanity Dick’, responsible for introducing some of the earliest legislation in the 19th century protecting animals from cruelty.
The lane owes its name to Sir John Kirwan, who amassed a large fortune trading in the the West Indies. It is believed that he owned the first house, now known as Busker Brownes Public House. At this high point in Galway’s fortunes, he may have been the wealthiest merchant in the city. The lane had earlier been known as Perrons Lane. This may have referred to the external staircases, known as ‘perron’, used in the timber houses built prior to the existing stone houses.
Merchants House, seen on the left of the display, was probably built between 1600 and 1620 AD. It was a purpose built grain store with a central passage way to the back. The remains of the passage-way can be seen on ether side of the main doorway into the present day design concourse. Two decorated stone fireplaces can be seen there today. It also includes some of the original oak timber baseplates in the interior.
The house was built as a pair with the adjacent (Block 3) Kirwans Lane. Both houses shared a central entrance way to the rear yard and gardens, as well as similar semi-pointed archways and decorated fireplaces. The ground floor of Merchants House, i.e. No 4, was probably used solely for trading, possibly of flour from the nearby mill. The first floor appears to have been the main living area, and the large two-light window provided ample breadth to illuminate the room. The second floor had less impressive window opes & fireplaces.
Cromwellian forces ransacked almost the entire city of Galway after the city capitulated to them in 1652. Many of the houses were destroyed and the old mercantile families lost their residences in the city to the incoming English adventurers. Kirwans Lane declined over the next three hundred years, and by the nineteenth century most of the great stone houses were in disrepair and replaced by factories and warehouses.
Merchants House survived the test of time, and until 1993 its previous owner, Mr O’Faharta, operated a corn and grain dealing business from the premises, continuing a centuries old tradition. The house was extensively refurbished,in 1993-95 and a new roof added to it. An older tower house type structure adjacent to it had much of its its facade rebuilt, and Busker Brownes retains much of the ambience of the original house of Sir John Kirwan.
There are numerous other stone houses and buildings in Galway dating to this period, and the various refurbishments that have taken place since the 1990’s have exposed and reused much of it for the modern era.
© Neil O’Flanagan 2021
Neil O’Flanagan was a consultant archaeologist for the excavation and refurbishment of Kirwan’s Lane 1993-96.