The statue of Our Lady of Galway is in the Dominican Church in the Claddagh know as St Mary’s on the Hill. The Dominicans came to Galway city from Athenry in 1492 and restored an old ruined building once owned by Premonstratensian Canons dating from 1235. With similar religious houses, Cromwellian forces destroyed St. Mary’s in 1651. In thanksgiving for the first catholic mayor of Galway City in thirty years a silver crown was made for the statue of the Virgin and Child much loved by the local people in the Claddagh and was presented to the Dominicans of Galway to celebrate the opening of their new thatched church in 1669. The crown was engraved, ‘Pray for the souls of John Kirwan and his wife Mary, 1683.’ Oliver Plunkett, the Archbishop of Armagh described the new Dominican church in 1674 as “the best and most ornamented church in the Kingdom.”
After many years of poverty and hardship, the old thatched chapel was in need of serious attention and Fr. James Thomas French, O.P. built a new priory in 1792 and a new church in 1800 to replace the thatched chapel. The Fr. French’s church survived until 1891 when the new St. Mary’s was built, and Our Lady of Galway was enthroned on her own altar to the left of the high altar.
Each year in August around the Feast of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin, crowds come to the Claddagh Pier opposite the Church for the annual Blessing of the Bay ceremony. The blessing has been an expression of the faith of the people of what was once a fishing village just outside the walls of Galway city but during the past few decades the ‘villagers’ have been joined by the crews of fishing trawlers based nearby in Galway docks.
The fishermen come seeking God’s blessing on their work as generations of fishermen have came to the Dominicans for over 500 years seeking a blessing in bringing their light hookers and currachs safely home after each voyage. Today, only a few boats remain of the once famous Claddagh fishing fleet. These boats are now joined in mid-August by the trawlers that have replaced them, and with an escort of yachts and smaller craft they sail out into Galway Bay after the blessing of nets on the quayside. In the bay, the ringing of a bell is the signal for the boats to form a wide circle around the brown-sailed hooker, or in more recent years, the fishing trawler, that carries the Dominican Priest, the altar boys and choir from the Church of St Mary on the Hill.
The Dominican friar stands at the mast of the hooker in the centre of that circle of ships, and prays: ‘Magnify, we beseech you, O Lord God, your mercy towards us and even as you multiplied five loaves and two fish to satisfy the hunger of five thousand, so now please multiply for the use of men the fish that are generated in these waters, that we, experiencing your goodness, may give you thanks and praise your holy name’. At the end of the blessing he calls on Mary, Star of the Sea, to plead for her children, and those familiar with the writings of St Bernard recall his words: ‘When you are tossed about among the storms and tempests of life, look to the star, call upon Mary’. The Magnificat is sung and the sea is sprinkled with holy water. The last action of the dramatic ceremony is a Sign of the Cross over the fishing fields, an appeal to God to bless them and the men who fish in them, their boats, their tackle and all their labours. The Rosary is recited as the boats return to the harbour. Up to the mid eighteenth century the sails for the boats were made on the floor of the Claddagh church, the only large space available to the fishermen. In the house of God these sails were sown together under the watchful eyes of Our Lady of Galway. For centuries, this annual blessing has been an expression of faith and of the need to pray, by a sea-going community. It has also been a symbol of the close friendship built up, in rough as well as in happier times, between their local Church and the people of the Claddagh and Galway.
The Blessing of the Bay has been for centuries an expression of local faith. This faith is colourfully symbolised today at the altar of Our Lady of Galway in the Claddagh church. In the centre is the ancient statue of Our Lady of Galway. The background is a sparkling mosaic showing a Claddagh hooker in full sail and with fishermen visible on board, tossed in very turbulent waters. On a cliff in the distance, as if on guard over them, is the Church of St Mary on the Hill. On their knees in prayer at the bottom corners of the mosaic are two Claddagh youths, a girl and a boy, apparently asking Mary to look after the boats at sea and bring them safely home. The mosaic and the statue of Our Lady of Galway symbolise a faith in prayer, and in Our Lady, evident for centuries, a faith that comes to special life each year in mid-August at the Blessing of the Bay.
Prayer to Our Lady of Galway.
Star of the Sea, Light Our Way, Star of the Sea so radiant in the glory of God’s Love, your crown outshining all the stars of heaven up above, O, lovely Queen of Peace, gowned in azure’s of the sea, help us find the way to Jesus, in your wise serenity. We ask you Pearl of Grace to grant us vision, courage, will, so ‘peace on earth,’ that miracle, at last might be fulfilled! Dear Mother of the Church, blessed beacon of God’s Light, may you always guide your children on the stormy seas of life. Make our hearts into safe harbours, where dear Jesus is received, Hear our prayer, O, Spiritual Vessel, Mother of God, Star of the Sea.