On 6 December we mark the Feast Day of St. Nicholas (of Myra).
St. Nicholas of Myra was a 4th-century bishop of Greek descent from Myra, now in Turkey. Relatively little is known about the life of Nicholas. While on a visit to the Holy Land, a storm almost destroyed the ship he was sailing on. He commanded the waves to cease; thereafter becoming venerated as the patron saint of sailors and mariners. He was also known for his generosity and kindness, making him the patron saint of children. Today, he is much better known as ‘Santa Claus’.
While St. Patrick never deemed Galway city worthy of a visit, St. Nicholas has a strong association with Galway since it began as a fledgling port in 1235.
Being a seaport, perhaps it was only natural that Nicholas would be regarded as a patron.
In 1320 St. Nicholas’ parish church was built inside the fortified walls of the emerging town of Galway. This small cruciform shaped church was built on the site of an earlier church. Over time this church expanded to become one of the largest medieval churches in Ireland. This richly decorated church is testament to the prosperity of the merchant tribes of the time. Christopher Columbus prayed here in 1477.
While built originally as a Catholic church, in 1484 the merchants of the town petitioned Pope Innocent VIII to release the church from the diocese of Annaghdown. The church received Collegiate status; allowing it to be run by a warden and 8 vicars. In 1652, Cromwell and his soldiers took control of Galway, and used the church to stable their horses. His men also desecrated many of the wonderful stone carvings and tombstones which are such a feature of this church.
The Reformation meant that the church had to handed over to the Church of England. To this day, St. Nicholas’ has remained a Church of Ireland church.
The Catholic inhabitants of Galway lost their freedom to publicly practice their faith after the Reformation. Mass was often held in private homes until a parish church was built in Middle St in 1752. In 1816, construction began on a new parish church, built on the site of the old church.
Consecrated in 1821, the new parish church of St. Nicholas was situated on the corner of Middle St and Abbeygate St. In 1841, Daniel O’ Connell attended Mass here before addressing some 30,000 people in Eyre Square. On Christmas morning 1842, a terrible tragedy occurred while attending Mass here. 37 people lost their lives as a result of a tragic accident. When the diocese of Galway was established in 1831, it did not have a Cathedral. The parish church of St. Nicholas served as a temporary or Pro-Cathedral.
In 1937, when Dr. Michael Browne became Bishop of Galway, the ceremony was conducted in the parish church. However, this church could no longer accommodate the growing population, and he was soon planning for a new Cathedral.
In 1941, Galway Co. Co. handed over Galway Jail to the Bishop as a potential site for the new Cathedral. Building began in 1958 and the Cathedral was officially opened on 15 August, 1965. The new Cathedral was dedicated jointly to Our Lady Assumed into Heaven and St. Nicholas. It is regarded as the last great stone Cathedral built in Europe.
It has 4 chapels; one of which is the Blessed Sacrament Chapel, sometimes referred to as St. Nicholas’ Chapel. Here, over the altar, is situated a triptych – a 3-panelled limestone carving of the Coronation of Our Lady by the Blessed Trinity. This single work of art could tell the the history of St. Nicholas’ churches in Galway. This is the link between all of these churches.
This piece of art was originally located in the vestry of St. Nicholas’ Collegiate church. In the late 18th-century the warden ordered it’s removal and to be thrown into the sea. The person tasked with this job happened to cross paths with the local priest of St. Nicholas’ parish church, who convinced him to bring it to his church in Middle St. Here it hung on a wall, until it was once again moved, this time to it’s new home, in the Cathedral of Our Lady Assumed into Heaven and St. Nicholas. St. Nicholas has been associated with Galway since it’s beginnings.
The fact that St. Nicholas had a tomb that could be visited serves as the almost only definitive proof that Nicholas was a real historical figure.
And people were trying to tell me that Santa wasn’t real. Well, now you know. He is real, and he has a long association with Galway; and he is coming to visit me in a few weeks time.
St. Nick; just check there that my name is on the ‘good’ list.!
Merry Christmas,

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