Situated on the west bank of the River Corrib, where the river meets the sea, the Claddagh derives it name from from the Irish word Cladach, meaning a foreshore, or a stoney beach. This ancient fishing village developed outside the walls of medieval Galway; James Hardiman, the Galway historian, wrote “it is supposed, with every probability, to have been occupied as a fishing station, since the first peopling of this island.”
By 1836, there were 820 Claddagh fishermen operating 105 sailing crafts – hookers of various sizes – and a further 80 rowing boats. The fishermen dealt in herring, mackerel, skad, turbot, haddock, sole, hake, cod, ling, bream, gurnet and pilchards. Once the catch was landed the women of the Claddagh took over and sold the fish at the Fishmarket, adjacent to the Spanish Arch, and on the streets of Galway.
The village itself comprised hundreds of small thatched cottages surrounding St. Mary’s Church and Dominican Priory. Throughout the nineteenth century, artists, travel writer and newspaper reporters came to Galway to observe life in the Claddagh as it was seen as a unique settlement.
Whereas English was the first language of the town of Galway, Irish was the first language of the Claddagh, and the people remained distinct in terms of dress and customs, even electing their own own ‘king’.