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The blessing of Galway Bay

30 November, 1999

Eustás Ó Héidáin OP describes the Blessing of the Bay ceremony held each year in the Claddagh, Galway. He sees it as a colourful expression of ancient, local faith. Each year, on a Sunday in mid-August near the feast of the Assumption of Our Lady, crowds come to the Claddagh pier in Galway for the […]

Eustás Ó Héidáin OP describes the Blessing of the Bay ceremony held each year in the Claddagh, Galway. He sees it as a colourful expression of ancient, local faith.

Each year, on a Sunday in mid-August near the feast of the Assumption of Our Lady, crowds come to the Claddagh pier in Galway for the age-old ceremonial blessing of Galway Bay and its fishermen.

The blessing has been an expression of the fai th 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 reason for the choice of a mid-August blessing is clear. About this date the herring season opens, and most probably the blessing of the bay originated in the anxiety of the Claddagh fishing folk to get God’s blessing on their work, and his help in bringing their light hookers and currachs safely home after each voyage to sea.

Our Lady of Galway
Claddagh fishermen would have been happy also for the blessing to be as close as tides permitted to the feast of the Assumption. In the Claddagh, and in Galway city, there has been a long tradition of affection for Our Lady. The official name of the local Dominican church is the Church of St Mary on the Hill and one of its treasures is a much loved statue of Our Lady of Galway. Most probably the first home of the statue was the church built in 1669 to replace the original demolished in 165I during a threatened Cromwellian invasion of the city. St Oliver Plunkett described it as ‘the best and most ornamented church in the Kingdom’. The statue is made of wood, in the baroque style, and is said to be of Italian origin. In 1683 John Kirwan, the first Catholic mayor of Galway in about thirty years, and his wife Mary, presented a silver crown for the statue.

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 altar boys and choir from the Church of St Mary on the Hill, with a Dominican priest whose Order has been associated with the Claddagh fishing village for over 500 years.

The beauty of the ceremony that follows lies in its stark simplicity. A passage from the Gospel of St John recalls that lovely scene on the Sea of Galilee when Jesus went fishing with the apostles and told them to ‘cast the net on the right side of the ship and you shall find’ (Jn 21:6). They did as they were told and Peter drew in the net ‘full of great fishes, one hundred and fifty three. And although there were so many, the nets were not broken’ (21:11).

Benedicite canticle
Then the Benedicite canticle calls on all creation, from the angels in the height of heaven down to the fish in the depths of the sea, to give glory to God. And another Gospel extract, this time from St Luke, recalls the weariness and frustration that gripped St Peter as it occasionally grips every fisherman: ‘Master, we have laboured all night and have caught nothing.’ (Lk 5:5). But at the Master’s request, he let down the nets once more, and this time they were so filled with fish that he had to call another boat to help him and ‘the two boats were filled with fish.’ (Lk 5:7)

For a moment, those who follow the ceremony may feel that they are no longer in Galway Bay but out on the Sea of Galilee with Jesus and the fishermen he loved.

Meanwhile as he stands at the mast of the hooker in the centre of that circle of ships, the white-robed priest 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, almost unexpectedly, 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
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 blessing over, the boats usually make a short trip around the bay before turning for home. The bright streamers and bunting that hang from the rigging catch the light of the August sun, and standing out on masthead or prow are the green, white and orange of the national flag and the papal yellow and white.

On the outward journey, the sound of the Rosary in Irish and the singing of hymns can be heard over the water. Now group songs, always including Here’s a Toast to You, Claddagh and Galway Bay, sound a lighter note. Up to very recently, the much loved Claddagh lady, Molly Browne, contributed the song which everybody waited for, The Laughing Policeman. Meanwhile, the motor-driven boats murmur their way back to the docks with the white-sailed yachts following gently in their wake. But the few remaining black hookers, with brown wind-filled sails, move home to the Claddagh, gracefully and proudly like dark swans on the water. The trawlers have replaced them on the fishing fields but these hookers are still an integral part in the pageantry of the blessing of the bay.

In its own way the changed pattern of the ships that take part in the blessing of the bay reflects the change that has taken place in Galway’s fishing industry. Once there were 200 boats in Galway’s fishing fleet, and when the Claddagh boats were home in harbour they were so tightly packed that one could walk from one arm of the harbour to another by stepping from deck to deck. In those days, it must have been an impressive sight to watch the whole fleet leave for the blessing of the bay.

In August 1941, an entry in the house chronicle of the community of St Mary on the Hill in the Claddagh recalls that only eighteen hookers sailed out that year. Yet a new era in fishing had already begun, for the chronicle adds, ‘for the second time in history motor-driven trawlers participated in the ceremony’.

After the war, Scottish trawlers that came into harbour in Galway joined enthusiastically in the blessing of the bay. Today our own bright-green trawlers based in Galway are the symbol of a new vitality in an age-old fishing tradition.

Expression of faith
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.

Up to the mid eighteen hundreds, sails for the boats were made on the floor of the Claddagh church, the only large space available. In 1846 Fr Rush, the Prior, opened a navigation and fishing school, the first of its kind in Ireland, ‘for,’ to quote his own words, ‘the benefit of the fishermen’s children of the ancient Village of Claddagh, under the superintendence of the Clergymen of the Convent’. Much earlier, in 1730, an entry in the bursar’s Account Book in the Dominican Priory is a whimsical expression of the friendship that existed between the priests and the local fishermen. Apparently a Galway lady had given the Prior a present of some money, a mill-crown, but he was not clear about the purpose for which she intended the money to be spent. He found a simple solution, as seen in the entry he made in his Account Book under the date 26 April 1730: ‘Memorandum: that not knowing whether the mill-crown I received from Madam ffrench of Duras was intuitu communitatis (for the community) or not, I have disbursed it in 10 quarts of strong water for the fishermen.’

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, of which we have evidence for centuries, a faith that comes to special life each year in mid-August at the Blessing of the Bay.


This article first appeared in Spirituality (January-February 1996), a publication of the Irish Dominicans.

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