1-Paddle Curragh and paddle, Bunbeg,
Co. Donegal 2 Rowing Curragh and oar
Fig 78,p239
Irish Folk Ways, E.Estyn Evans,
Routledge and Kegan Paul, London

Woodham-Smith on the Fishing Industry  

From: The Great Hunger, Ireland 1845-1849,Cecil Woodham-Smith, Harper and Row, New York, 1962.pp. 289-93 

A populist account which makes many signficant points in regard to the Irish Fishing Industry. 
I have inserted my comments. 

"It is difficult at first to understand why the Irish people, thousands of whom lived near the coast, did not eat fish.  They were starving eating old cabbage leaves, roadside weeds, rotten turnips, while on the coast itself the population lived on dilisk (edible seaweed) and raw limpets.  Yet fine fish abounded, especially along the west coast, where distress was most severe.  James Hack Tuke, standing on the cliffs of Achill, looked down through the clear Atlantic water and saw "shoals of herring and mackerel in immense quantities", 

This observation raises the question : Was deep sea fishing actually necessary? If you can observe the fish from shore in such quantities could they not be also fished from shore or from quay?  Was sufficient effort put into fishing or trapping from shore? E. Estyn Evans (Irish Folk Ways, Routledge&Kegan Paul, London) Mentions in addition to curragh fishing the use of open clinker-built boats, inshore fishing by farmers using seine boats and the netting of shoals of fish spotted from watching points on the cliffs overlooking small bays.  Yalls and skiffs then were found along side of the curraghs noted here. The means for the participation of a wide range of individuals was present along with the technology required for the expansion of the fishing industry in many dimensions. Evans also mentions long line fishing which was used for cod, skate, ling and other big fish. If there was a sufficient market many individuals from all walks of life could be employed to expand the fisheries.  Seasonal fluctuations in availability could be easily overcome by employing salting and other preservation technologies such as smoking. 

while further out, in the deeper waters, were cod, ling,sole, turbot and haddock.  Nevertheless, round him stood starving creatures who made no use of this inexhaustible supply of food.  Fishing was a backward and neglected industry in Ireland.  A large part of the Irish coast, in the south-west, west and north- west, is perilous; there are cliffs, rocks, treacherous currents, sudden squalls, and, above all, the Atlantic swell, surging from America across thousands of miles of ocean.  By the nineteenth century timber was short in Ireland; in the west, practically speaking, there was none, and fishing -boats were small, the largest being 12-15 tons. 

While it is true that there was insufficient timber for large ships it is equally true that curraghs did not require wood other than wickerwork.  If one curragh was insufficient for fishing in quantity surely others could be built. Here one would have to inquire- Were more curraghs constructed during famine years to extend the harvest?  As a folk design materials should have been available. (see instructions for building a curragh click here) 

 The national boat of Ireland is the "curragh", a frail craft, often of considerable length, made of wickerwork covered originally with stretched hides nd latterly with tarred canvas.  The curragh rides easily over the great Atlantic swells, is fast, and with four oarsmen can cover suprising distances.  Legend says that Irish adventurers reached Iceland and even America, and today curraghs are commonly used on the west coast, with the addition of an outboard motor. 

Here there is conflicting information- if the curragh rides easily over the swells what then was the problem in dealing with the ocean?

 The curragh was not suitable for the use of nets in deep-sea fishing, and according ot an expert writing at the time the fish off the west coast of Ireland lay many miles out at sea in forty fathoms of water.  A vessel of at least fifty tons was needed capable of going out for several days, laden with nets, to face the "frightful swell of the Atlantic". If a gale blew from the east the nearest port of refuge was Halifax, in Nova Scotia.  The curraghs and small fishing-boats of the Irish were "powerless in these circumstances"; and an inspector reporting from Skibbereen,  wrote that the failure of Irish fisheries was due to the want of boats suitable for deep-sea fishing, "though this coast and the coast of Kerry abound with the finest fish in the world".

Here one wonders why the need for the quantum leap from "folk" fishery in many small boats to "deep sea fishing" -an industry of efficiency and industrial volume requiring vessels of fifty tons. Surely by increasing the number of smaller vessels the harvest could have been increased without resorting to modernization. Aditionally E. Estyn Evans (Irish Folk Ways., Routledge & Kegan Paul, London p.240) Describes significant catches made using these smaller boats. "Sea-going curraghs are put to many uses, for inshore net fishing, for setting lobster pots or long lines, for gathering kelp and for carrying freight, livestock and passengers.  But the most spectacular purpose to which they have been put is for hunting the basking shark or sunfish from whose liver, before the advent of paraffin, oil for lighting was obtained.  A single fish will yield from seven to ten barrels of liver.  Measuring up to forty feet in length, the basking shark is one of the world's largest fish and though harmless--its diet is minute copepods- its bulk makes it a formidable adversary.  These fish move down the west coast in summer, and in early May they haunt the Sunfish Bank thirty miles of Achill Island, where they come to the surface in the morning and evening.  The bank is remarkable for the break of the tide on it, although it lies between seventy and ninety fathoms near the edge of  "soundings"--the continental shelf--and a heavy swell makes conditions difficult for small boats.  Here and elsewhere the sunfish used to be harpooned from curraghs...In the early nineteenth century as many as thirty or forty fish were sometimes killed on the Sunfish Bank in a single day of fine weather." Perhaps  we should think of the Ocean going curragh as a practical tool for obtaining large catches- a technology which in the presence of demand could be expanded in times of Famine.

Another report commented that the courage and skill of Irish fishermen were remarkable; "the native fishermen" were "out in their frail curraghs whenever an opportunity offers, and in weather when nobody else could think of venturing themselves in such a craft".  But the heavy swell off the west and south-west mad deep-sea fishing in currachs impossible.  "The poor cottier had a miserable curragh, fished for his family or neighbors and got paid in potatoes."  On Achill, for instance, the fishing "fleet" consisted of four curraghs and one fishing-boat.  While James Hack Tuke was in the district a fishing-smack f rom Scotland fished twenty-five miles off Achill and sold the fish in Westport.  In 1847 there were no railways in the west of Ireland and no means of refrigeration; even if great quantities of fish had been caught they could not have been sold.  In Galway, when the catch was plentiful, the market was piled with unwanted fish, tons lay everywhere, producing "the most disgusting effluvia".

This is interesting because the technology of curing and smoking of meat was not unknown to the Irish. It is interesting that it is later noted that fish curers and salters had to be imported from Scotland as the craft was not known in the seaports.  Given the existence of the technology for fish preservation the issue of transportation problems becomes less important.
Demand for fish which would have encouraged the salters and preservers in their work is more important than the transportation issues raised.

The finest fishing- ground in Mayo was off Porturlin, a small fishing village in Erris...."to which," wrote Richard Webb, a representative of the Central Relief Committee of the Society of Friends, "the only access by land is over a high and boggy mountain, so wet and swampy that it is difficult to reach it even in summer.  It is probable that there is not in Ireland a cluster of human habitations so completely secluded from easy access."

If this is the case does one see as a result of the many  successive famines experienced by the Irish a gradual movement of people from these isolated areas to the seaports to be closer to alternative food resources?

Fine cod and ling abounded off Porturlin, but at the time of the year when the fish were most abundant the weather was uncertain and dangerous.  Mornings were fine, but the sky then overclouded, a wind sprang up and blew with violence, and certain destruction awaited the curraghs.  this "tremendous coast", as Richard Webb called it, is lined with cliffs up to five hundred feet in height; for ten miles the small coves of Porturlin and Portacloy are the only shelter, and it is difficult to enter them in an Atlantic swell.
The most famous fishing -ground in Ireland was Galway Bay, but the fishing of Galway Bay was considered to be their exclusive property by a curious community of fishermen who lived in a settlement called the Claddagh.  The settlement of the Claddagh (the beach) dates from an early period, when the   "tribes" of Galway still proud of their descent today, refused to mix with the neighbouring population; the houses were low and thatched with walls of great thickness, and many of the Claddagh people lived in black beehive huts  which only recently disappeared.  The had their own dialect and their own mayor, a "king" whose laws were implicitly obeyed.   Strangers, "transplanters", were not allowed to live in the settlement and a ring of thick gold, the "Claddagh" ring was handed down from mother to daughter.  These people, fascinating to the archaeologist and anthropologist, were from a practical point of view difficult to deal with.  The Society of Friends was asked by the Government to help the Claddagh fishermen, but their representative, William Todhunter, found them exasperating.  They are, he wrote, "next to incorrigible", and some of their laws should be broken through.  They will only go out at certain days and times, and if other boats go out the crews would be beaten and the nets destroyed".  Some days before he arrived the Claddagh men went out and caught a large catch of fine herrings; they then refused to go out again for several nights, no would they allow anyone else to go out.  Todhunter considered that a  naval sloop should be stationed in Galway Bay to protect other fishermen from the Claddagh men.  Their carelessness was maddening.  It was "really awful", he wrote, "to observe the waste of their property from want of attention and care...one sixth the number of boats properly equipped and manned would take a much greater amount of fish...Nothing could be more vexatious than to see many boats ruined merely from the circumstances of allowing the large stones to drop from the quays and the boats to rest on them as the tide ebbed."

One wonders if the "Claddagh men" were the exception or the rule? If the latter then there were severe cultural barriers to the exploitation of the resource which existed independently of the  major concerns raised.

When the potato failed, fishermen  all over Ireland pawned or sold their gear to buy meal.  At the Claddagh on January 9., 1847, "all the boats were drawn up to the quay wall, stripped to the bare poles, not a sign of tackle or sail remaining...not a fish was to be had in the town, not a boat was at sea."  On Achill James Hack Tuke wrote that  the waters could not be fished because nets and tackle had been pawned or sold , "to  buy a little meal"; the Vicar of Ring, in County Waterford, appealed for help because the Ring fishermen had sold or pledged their fishing-gear to  obtain food; and similar reports came in from  Belmullet, Killibegs, Kilmoe, the harbors of Clare, and indeed every fishing port along the coast.

Alternatively, if one views fishermen as the custodians of a plentiful food resource which only they could harvest one would expect that they would not be wanting for food and would be dominant in the local economy, however this would assume that there was a strong demand for their product. Could the failure of the fishermen be linked to the reluctance of the population at large (either due to cultural taboo or force of habit ) to eat fish? One would expect in contrast to the pawning of nets and tackle - boat building and significant expansion of the fleet all be it limited to the production of small boats. Who
was obtaining the pawned tackle and nets and why did they not utilize these resources to fish?

Short-sighted and rash as this proceeding appears, there was a rational explanation. the primitive boats and curraghs in which the Irish fished, combined with the hazards of the  "tremendous coast" mad regular fishing difficult; the Irish Fisherman could never go out in bad weather, and was often kept on shore for weeks at a time.  He then depended for food on his potatoes--though the seas might be teeming with fish, they  were inaccessible to him.  Irish fishermen were reproached for going on the public works instead of going out to fish, but as Mr. Hennell, Fishery Inspector for Donegal, explained, the exceptionally severe winter of 1946-47 made fishing impossible; the Killibegs men (Killibegs was the principal fishing port of Donegal) had not been out for weeks--how were they to live? "Fishermen are on the Public Works and fear to leave them until they can be sure that the weather will allow them to fish continuously.

Some efforts were made by the British Government to assist Irish fisheries, and when the potato failed, Mr. Mulvany, a Board of Work's Commissioner and an irishman was appointed  Commissioner for the Fishery department; he urged that 100,000 pounds should be spent at once on the construction and improvement of harbors, quays and boatslips, and an additional 10,000 pounds a year set aside for repairs. "to make up for past neglect".  He was not successful; under Lord John Russel's relief scheme of January 1847 only 5,000 pounds a year was to be spent.  Mulvany also suggested, without success, that Irish fishermen should be allowed small loans, direct from Government ,  to finance the improvement of their boats and tackle.  Trevelyan characteristically feared that this would be damaging to the fishermen's morale;...."experience has proved," he wrote, "that the fishermen are induced by it to rely upon others, instead of themselves, and that they acquire habits of chicanery and bad faith in their prolonged struggle to avoid payment of the loan." 

If the Claddagh Fishermen were anything to go by perhaps the assessment of the government might have been accurate. What was the past history of Irish fishing communities? Was their undoing their competitive, uncooperative and, monopolistic nature?

The British Association then offered 500 pounds to fishermen, but this, too, was refused.  Next, the Society of Friends proposed to make small loans to poor fishermen for repairs and replacements of boats and tackle at the recommendation and under supervision of the coast guard.  The scheme was rejected by the Treasury, but he Society of Friends, through local committees, gave substantial help to a n umber of fishing communities.  In Arklow, for instance, the Vicar estimated  that 161 families were kept alive through the winter of 1847 because the Friends had lent them money to redeem their boats and nets; the Ring fishermen were restored to a condition of being able to support themselves without seeking Poor Law relief, and the Claddagh men, in addition to be ing lent money, were provisioned so that they could remain at sea for several days and given warm clothing.
Fishing stations were established by the Society of Friends at Ballinakill Bay, near Clifden in Galway, Achi ll Sound in Mayo, and Belmullet in Erris, where a fleet made up of ten curraghs and other boats fully equipped with nets, lines and all gear was provided at a cost of 300 pounds.  At Castletown Berehaven, in west Cork, a fish curing establishment was set up, as well as a fishing station, and a trawler, E rne, hired for six months at 45 pounds a month, to accompany rowing-boats and curraghs to the fishing -grounds.  In addition, six fish -curing stations were established by the British Government, at which was purchased at a fair price, and experience fish curers were brought from Scotland to teach their trade.

Is the absence of fish curers not primarily related to absence of demand even in times of famine? Again in light of successive Irish Famines one would expect the number of fish curers to have grown dramatically as fish preservation was essential for the transport of the product to market via Ireland's primitive transport system and with reoccurring Famine the demand for fish would have risen.

Unhappily, these measures did not succeed .  The difficulties which had prevented a fishing industry from developing in Ireland remained: the poverty of the country, the want of proper boats, the remoteness from a market, the dangers of the "tremendous coast" in the west.  In many places trawling was declared to be impossible, owing to the rocky and foul nature of the sea bottom; in others Castle town Berehaven was one- for part of the season the fishermen had to row twenty-five miles to the fishing grounds; the weather was unreliable, and small boats, curraghs especially, laden with their catch were difficult to bring in when a squall blew up,  Fish-curing stations could not operate economically when the supply of fish was not regular, or did it prove easy to dispose off the finished product; a number of stations had cured fish left on their hands.
After about two years' operation   the fishing stations in Mayo and Galway were closed, and in April 1852, Castletown Berehave as well.

I am left with the feeling that despite Famine over the centuries there was still an insufficient demand for fish and a cultural reluctance to modernize and expand the fishing industry was
caused by a cultural inability to accept a new food supply
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