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Our Fishing Heritage
Chapter 6. An Irish Perspective

Over 60 years ago My uncle Willie was sailing south through the Irish Sea in his vessel the Moravia, He had been fishing off Portavogie and Howth in the days when those waters abounded with whiting following the period of limited fishing activity during World War 2. It was a calm summer’s day and the sea had scarcely a ripple on its surface. That was not always the case as the Irish Sea is prone to bad weather and nasty seas when Atlantic winds blow up from the south and south-west. But that day there was not a breath of wind and the sun shone benignly on the water. Willie saw a boat ahead that appeared to be hauling its gear and he steered the Moravia alongside to observe its catch. The boat had a net full of fish. Already it had lifted several cod-end loads of whiting on board, and the fish were spilling over both side decks of the 50 footer. There were still a lot more whiting in the net, but as each successive bag was hoisted up, more fish were falling over the rail and back into the sea. The vessel’s name then caught my uncle’s eye. It was called, the ‘Peace and Plenty’.

Well, Ireland has known too little peace and plenty over the centuries, but if there was one part of its economy that could have delivered a measure of both, it was the fishing. Herring, mackerel, pilchard, whiting, hake, coley, cod, haddock, prawns, salmon, gurnard, plaice, and sole, abounded around the emerald isle, and though life was hard on land for the livestock farmers, peat diggers and potato farmers, the coastal folk could always depend on the sea to provide food and some income. However, like their Celtic brothers in the highlands and islands of Scotland, Irish fishermen laboured for centuries with small open sailboats and simple lines and nets. The technology and capital that built the English distant water cod smacks, the Dutch drifter herring fleet, or the American whaling industry, from the 16th to the 19th centuries, appeared to by-pass Ireland altogether. At times in the 18th century, Ireland was importing more fish than it caught, and during the 19th century, and the first half of the 20th century, efforts to revive the industry were weak and largely ineffective. The country suffered much from emigration during the difficult periods of its history. This was ultimately to be to the benefit of the lands they went to, chiefly the USA. Some emigrant fishers settled in Newfoundland where there is an abundance of families with Irish names, and the ‘Bonavista Bay’ accent is as close to Irish as you will find abroad.

The boats in use during the 1930’s and 1940’s were mostly half-decked herring and mackerel drifters, with a few small trawlers, salmon gill-netters, and lobster creel vessels. Hand-rowed open curragh boats braved the Atlantic off the west coast in the summertime to capture huge basking sharks for their oil. The Danish Seine, or Scottish seine was already in use in the Irish Sea, and was slowly being adopted on the south and west coasts.

One consequence of the lack of government support was that many Irish fishermen bought second hand boats from Scotland for many years after the war. Eventually a series of grant and loan schemes were organized by An Bord Aiscaigh Mhara, the Irish Sea Fisheries Board which was first formed in 1952, and more modern local fleets were built up, particularly in the main ports of Killybegs, Galway, Castletown Berehaven, Dunmore East, and Howth.

My first visit to Ireland had been as a schoolboy in 1951, and I was there again in 1953 and 1954 during summer holidays from school when I was given a much prized opportunity to serve as a cabin boy on the family boat. I remember fishing in Galway Bay when sailing hookers carried peat around the Arran Islands and Connemara, and when curraghs were rowed out into the Atlantic to fish for basking sharks. The curragh was a light canvas covered boat with a high stem and flat stern, and fine seaworthy lines for coping with the Atlantic swells. A master boat builder with whom I was later to work on Lake Kariba, in the Zambesi valley, Dick Heath, chose the lines of the curragh as a basis for the planked canoe he designed for Zambia’s fisheries. It proved to be an excellent boat for the sometimes short sharp waves on the large lake, and is still in use in that country today.

But back to west Ireland, - we spent the odd night in Kilronan in the main Arran island of Inishmore, which guards the outer end of Galway Bay from the mighty Atlantic ocean. At the home of Mrs Joyce, a prominent lady of the island, we sat around a peat fire on a stone floor under an oil lamp, and were served tea and home bakes. As a special treat I was given a glass of milk. It tasted odd to me, till I realized it was goat’s milk. Connemara was another fascinating area where houses and dress had changed little in centuries. When I go to Ireland now, it amazes me that there seems to be not a single old thatched cottage left there, - just one large modern bungalow after another. Galway in the early 1950’s still retained much of its ‘Spanish’ character, and was a quaint old Irish town with more modern parts on the outskirts, like Salthill which would develop into a seaside tourist resort. Like parts of Dublin, it then had a large number of gambling shops full of ‘one-armed bandit’ slot machines.

Ireland in the immediate post-war period retained much of its old character, particularly in the rural areas and off its south and west coasts. There are a number of lonely islands off the SW coast , - huge pinnacles, and barren rocks which have been battered for millenniums by the Atlantic seas. Somehow, Irish monks constructed monasteries on these lonely outposts where they led an austere existence and sought to keep learning and faith alive through the dark Middle Ages. Yet, as inaccessible as these rocky island fortresses appeared to be, they were raided from time to time by Viking invaders who wrought havoc, pillage, and bloodshed, destroying in their ruthlessness, priceless works of art and literature.

We used to fish around some of them, - the Skelligs for example. My father named one area off the south-west coast the ‘farmyard’ as three of the rocks were called the bull, the cow, and the calf. The SW grounds were well known to Spanish fishers who operated there for much of the last century, mainly using ‘pareja’ two-boat trawls for hake which is every bit as popular in Spain as cod. Until the sixties, their trawl nets were made of hemp and fitted with large glass floats. Some pareja boats operated in groups of seven. They would alternate the pairs engaged in trawling while two or three of their number were hauling their gear and taking fish on board. Once a full boat-load of fish was caught, the catches would be transferred to a single vessel which would take the fish back to Spain while it was still fresh. The Spanish seamen were familiar visitors to ports like Castletown Berehaven and Galway when the weather was bad. Today most of the Spanish fleet off Ireland are fishing for nephrops prawns rather than hake which are now scarce. But some of the vessels have been using bottom set gill nets for ground fish, - cod, saithe, skate, ray, flatfish and black sole. Often in bad weather these nets break away from their buoy lines. Then they remain for decades as ‘ghost’ nets drifting over the seabed, continuing to catch and kill fish, and causing much environmental damage. Irish fishers from Cork and Kerry have protested long against the use of the bottom gill nets in their waters.

English steam trawlers, - mainly from Milford-Haven and Fleetwood, fished the hake grounds between the wars, and for a period in the fifties and sixties. Unlike the Spanish, they operated as single boat otter trawlers, but had their nets lightly rigged and well floated to take hake. According to the old Close’s Fishing Charts directions, they would steam off to the hundred fathom line from the Old Head of Kinsale, and look out for the oil ships (tankers) coming across from America to England, as their course was reckoned to pass over the best of the hake grounds!

Herring and mackerel have long featured in Ireland’s fish production. In the 19th and early 20th centuries they were taken by drift nets and seines operated by sailboats and half-decked motor vessels. But soon modern boats and gear were to impact heavily on the pelagic stocks. The most famous herring fishery in Ireland was that off Dunmore East at the mouth of the Waterford river near the Hook lighthouse. Each December and January huge schools came to that part of the coast to spawn. On my first winter at sea my father joined the Dunmore fleet, and it gave me a memorable exposure to that major fishery. The fishing grounds were in shallow water close to land inside the Saltee Islands. Our boat was not equipped for herring fishing, but we managed nonetheless, using bottom seines fitted with small meshed bags known as brailers. Along with other vessels in the fleet, we would scour the area till a school was detected on the echo-sounder. The mate would throw a float or small dhan over the side and the skipper would wheel the boat around, setting the gear in a circle, with the net just to the far side of the marker. The first warp was picked up and the gear towed for a mere 5 minutes, then if successful, the net surfaced with up to 20 tons of herring (100 crans or 400 baskets). Sometimes more than 20 tons were taken, and the brailer bag split like a kipper, from end to end. That was when the nets were made of cotton. Once nylon and terylene twines became available, larger catches could be contained. We landed some catches in Dunmore East, and took some across the southern Irish Sea to Milford Haven in Wales where we hoped for slightly better prices from buyers like Bird’s Eye. The herring were boxed for that trip, and the boat assumed a ‘down-by-the-head’ trim as it was narrow forward and not built for carrying large amounts forward in the fishroom.

The weather on that stretch of water from Fastnet light to the south point of Wales, was rough in winter to say the least. We headed out into SW wind and heavy seas for the overnight voyage with some trepidation. Two trawler crews in Dunmore East had bets with each other on whether we would survive the journey. Several boats had been lost and some badly damaged by heavy seas during the winters of 1955 and 1956. I recall our boat dipping under the green swells till the deck was awash, then coming up like a whale till the next sea hit us. The approach to Milford was dangerous at the best of times. In darkness and bad weather, and without the benefit of radar or electronic positioning system, it was a salutary experience for a 15 year old boy, steering the vessel around the exposed ‘Smalls’ rocks before the entrance to the bay and to Milford Sound. But thankfully, we made it, and did so several times when catches and markets justified the trip.

The Dunmore East fishery continued through the winter with a motley fleet of boats using a variety of gear types to catch the fish. By day there were bottom seiners like us, and some small otter trawlers working inshore. Offshore a fleet of English and German trawlers plied their gear up and down the coast. At night a fleet of Scottish and Irish ring net boats fished successfully inshore, while Dutch and Scottish drifters set their fleets of nets outside of the national waters limit. Inside the harbor of Dunmore, herrings were landed to trucks from local fish curers as well as from Dublin merchants. Dutch luggers also bought herring and salted them in barrels, there and then in the port. Some of these luggers were crewed largely by boys from orphanages in the Netherlands, a relic them of the effects of World War 2 on the population. The boys were treated in a fatherly way by the lugger captains. Grace was said reverently in the mess deck before each meal, and no alcohol was permitted on board. The Dutch system of fast salting the ungutted herring, sometimes with ice added to keep them cool, was what the Scots fishers knew as “Klondyking”, (don’t ask me why). The herring would be further processed once they were landed on the continent.

My father’s family loved the Irish and enjoyed their friendship and hospitality at every port they frequented. Life-long friendships were formed and have continued through succeeding generations to this day. Although the Scots boats were modern and caught more fish, they were not resented, but rather admired, by the local fishermen who would come on board and share their news in the cabin or galley of any visiting Scottish vessel. I recall only one negative incident and it illustrates the relationships. Fish baskets had gone missing from the deck of the Kincora when it was berthed in a particular harbor. My father mentioned this to the local Gardai policeman, but only to ask him to keep an eye on the boat and its gear. He was annoyed later to be called to court as the culprit had been found and was to be charged. The man was a poor crofter with a large family, but the sheriff gave him a severe lecture and fined him. Not wishing to add to the poor man’s misery, my father went to the court clerk after the case was heard, and paid the man’s fine for him. Needless to say no more baskets went missing and the offender regarded the boat and its crew with great respect thereafter.

The family fished four boats round the Irish coast several years after the end of WW2, for the Dublin firm of H J Nolan, managed then by Paddy Brady and Vincent Nolan. Vincent and his son, and Paddy’s son, still carry on the business. Our family boats were the Moravia, the Kittiwake, the Casamara, and the Kincora. The first two were Scots built and the other two constructed at the fine Arklow yard of Tyrrell’s. They were all fitted out to operate Scottish bottom seines which had become the main method of catching white fish with vessels of that size. They operated on ‘clean’ or sandy grounds from around 20 to 90 fathoms depth, working mostly day trips to land their catches in as fresh a condition as possible as Nolan’s prided themselves on having the best quality fish in Dublin market. Fish stocks were in plentiful condition then, including whiting, pollock, hake, cod, gurnard, skate, dover sole, and lemon sole, with haddock prevalent off Donegal, whiting in the Irish Sea, and herring and mackerel abundant in season along the south and west coasts. Like Scotland, Ireland possessed many good small harbours with stone piers, - probably a relic from the centuries when Engish fleets required access to Ireland for both trade and military control. A less controversial benefit from Britain was that the Republic retained its membership in the Royal National Lifeboat Institution, and provided the volunteer crews for these fine little boats which were based at strategic harbours around the coast.

Before the war, my Dad and uncles had fished occasionally out of Portavogie and Ardglass, in Northern Ireland, but not from the Republic. It was there the family had a memorable encounter with a national character known as ‘Paddy the Cope’.

During a good fishing of whitings in the Irish Sea in the 1930’s some of our boats were working out of the port of Ardglass in County Down. My uncle Alec was approached by a Donegal man who was to become a legend in his time. The man was Patrick Gallagher, or “Paddy the Cope”, as he came to be called. Paddy had gone to work as a labourer in Scotland before the turn of the century, and after a brief period of carelessness with his money and lifestyle, he settled down to serious work and saving. He was impressed by the operations of the Scottish cooperatives of the time, and resolved to establish a similar organization back home in rural Donegal where poor farmers and farm labourers had little opportunity to improve their lot. Despite much skepticism, Paddy persevered and the Templecrone Co-operative Agricultural Society was formed in 1906, and went on to become an example to the whole cooperative movement in Ireland. It began with modest products like eggs and vegetables, and went on to handle every kind of house-hold and farm product. The ‘Cope’ was later to branch out into weaving, milling, credit provision, and fishing, over the next 20 to 30 years, and it was Paddy’s interest in fishing that took him to Ardglass and to approach my uncle on the pier there.

The Cope had financed a fishing boat which operated most of the time off west Donegal, but with limited success. When Paddy heard of the big whiting fishery off Ardglass, he sent the boat there to fish, but the boat’s catches remained poor. So Paddy travelled to the East coast to investigate. While there he observed the Scots boats landing good catches and asked his skipper how it was he could not also get some fish. “Why don’t you ask the Scots fishers for advice?”, Paddy wanted to know. But his skipper was just too shy and embarrassed to do so.

So Patrick Gallagher took it upon himself to approach my uncle Alec. He was warmly welcomed, and after hearing his story and request, Alec was happy to lend assistance to a fellow fisher. He had his brother Johnny check the Cope boat’s nets, and readjust them since their rigging and setting was well out, then he took Paddy’s skipper to sea with him to show precisely how and where they set the net, and how they hauled it relative to wind and tide, and repeated the instruction on a trip aboard the co-op boat.. In a very short time the Cope boat was fishing successfully and able to contribute to the growth of Paddy’s fishing venture.

The whole story is well related in Paddy’s inimitable way in the book, “My Story, by Paddy the Cope”. It is a remarkable book, written in Paddy’s own broad Irish speech, copied down by his daughter, for Paddy remained largely illiterate to the end of his days. I have used the book often as a reference text and inspirational example when encouraging fishing communities and extension personnel on the virtues and advantages of acting in unity and organizing themselves and their fishing activities in a corporate way. It has been amusing to see fishers in Africa and Asia readily identify with Paddy’s struggle against the “gombeen man” who they then compared with some merchant or middle-man who exploited and intimidated them in their communities.

Following the success of the Templecrone Cooperative, other associations were established on similar lines in Ireland, and several purely fishery cooperatives were established. One of the best known and well managed was the Kilmore Quay Fishermen’s cooperative on the south coast between Dunmore and Wexford. Other fine fishing coops were set up in Killybegs, Greencastle, Burtonport, Galway-Rossaveal, and in Castletownbere in County Cork. In fisheries as in agriculture cooperatives have a checkered history. They are not easily managed, and can often be handicapped by internal discord or external competition. Nevertheless they can in certain situations perform a useful role and protect small scale operators who can be vulnerable to exploitation by unscrupulous merchants or more powerful competitors.

Every port the Scottish boats went into in the Republic, they were met with kindness and friendship. I have mentioned Galway and the Arran Isles above, but there was also Kenmare, Castletown Bere-haven, and Dungarven along the south coast. The port for Dungarven was the little harbour of Helvick. In Dungarven my father and uncles were friendly with the Morrissey family and with Tom McHugh a local school teacher who loved the sea. At Helvick the only telephone in the village (or the nearest one to the harbour), was in the house of Miss Redmond, a retired music teacher whose uncle John Redmond had been a well known Irish Member of Parliament in Westminster. As a 14 year-old boy I had a most memorable holiday when I stayed at Miss Redmond’s house one summer. Her cottage was crammed full of fascinating antiques and memorabilia as she had taught music to the Austrian royal family in the Hoffburg palace in Vienna before the First World War. Sadly I paid little attention to her tales of life in pre-WW1 Vienna, yet in the late 1980’s and 1990’s I was to visit that city several times in the course of assignments with a UN Agency, and meet in the Hoffburg Palace with a friend who served there. I also encountered a bust of John Redmond in the House of Commons on a visit there in the 1980’s.

The fishing fleet in Helvick then consisted of some old half-decked mackerel and herring drifters and line boats skippered by Johnny Bateman and others. Johnny’s grandsons through his daughter Mary carry on the fishing tradition. A lone English gentleman who had settled there, went by the name of John Dwann (I am not sure of the spelling). He had a lovely little boat called the Vera Cruz, and the calmest most reasonable temperament of any one I knew. There was one fine modern seiner, a lovely Tyrrell boat named the Vega. She was skippered by Tom Kelly. As I watched Vega enter the harbour and discharge her catches, I had no idea that I would come to know and admire his daughter Caitlin and her work, some 54 years later.

Caitlin Kelly was the first woman in Ireland to obtain a fishing skippers certificate, and was to skipper boats herself, and with her brother, and later with her husband. She became a powerful spokesperson for the industry. She fought strongly against the European Union Common Fisheries policy which was hurting Irish fishermen almost as much as it their colleagues in Scotland and England. Caitlin lobbied Irish Government Ministers and also visiting dignitaries from Brussels and Luxembourg, to make them aware of the strength of feeling amongst fishing communities, about the many negative fishery measures. As in Scotland, they affected the white fish and prawn boats much more than the large pelagic trawlers that operated far offshore for mackerel and herring. The large pelagic ships operated chiefly from Killybegs, and the small and medium boats from the other Irish ports.

From the 1930’s to the 1950’s, the contrast between Irish and Scottish fishing boats was marked as Irish fishermen were having to make do with old poor quality boats. By 1955, old Scots boats formed the backbone of the fleet, and the BIM were just establishing their scheme to assist fishermen to purchase new boats which were built mainly in Arklow, Dingle, Baltimore, Meevagh, Killybegs, and Crosshaven. One of the go-ahead companies that assisted fishers to obtain new vessels were H J Nolan, formerly of Belfast, but which had moved to Dublin after the war. Over the subsequent years I was to see the Irish fleet develop into one of the most modern and successful in Europe. Some of the skippers who were to become highly successful started as apprentices on Scots boats. They included brothers from the families of Mcallig’s of Killybegs, and the O’Driscoll’s of Castletown.

Nolan’s were a major fish company in Ireland for several decades after the war. It prided itself in having the freshest and best packed fish on Dublin market, and was an early investor in quick freezing to process fillets while fresh. Paddy Brady, the astute fish merchant who worked most of his life for the company, told me how he instigated a fish consumption programme that was later copied by the UK White Fish Authority, and other fish departments abroad. He was on a committee that had an extremely modest budget to promote fish in the country. The budget would scarcely have financed a few advertisements in a major daily newspaper, or a short single television promotion. At the time Paddy’s daughter was bringing home meals she had cooked at school, and would ask her father to try them. The ingredients were mostly beef, lamb, pork, or chicken. “Do you never cook fish in school?” Paddy asked his daughter. “No father, was the reply, we never get to cook fish”. At the next committee meeting Paddy suggested they use the modest fund in an imaginative way. “Let’s sponsor fish cooking in every school in Ireland”, he said. “Let’s give a prize like a book token, for the winner in each county, and then have a national winner selected. The national prize could be a week-end in Dublin for the pupil and her teacher, including their hotel and meals, and tickets to the theatre”. The whole program cost very very little, yet it led to fish meals being cooked in every school in the country, and being eaten by the parents and siblings of the pupils. It was so successful, the UK White Fish Authority later copied it and incorporated it into their marketing programmes.

We knew a Galway family that was to set new standards in fish retailing and fast food. Among the men and women who thronged the pier when our boats were discharging their catches on to Nolan’s lorries bound for Dublin, was a Mrs McDonagh whose husband ran the local coal depot. A few of the women who would get a box of whitings to sell would have an old pram to carry them in up to the corner where they would be sold to housewives. Mrs McDonagh had a more business type operation. Some years later, when landing fish from a modern trawler, I met her son “P.J” who would purchase 50 to 90 boxes of fish at a time for a shop he had established. It was one of the finest and busiest of fish shops, and attracted clientele from all over Galway county. At the week-end I would call at the shop for payment and would be ushered into the house across the road where the table was constantly supplied with fresh tea, toast and hard boiled eggs. I would be invited to feast on these till one of the young wives came in and cleaned her hands before opening the ledger. A money box was opened with a large key, and the requisite amount counted out and paid without question. P.J. was later to turn the fish shop into a fish restaurant which he found was more profitable.

Thirty-eight years later when assisting scores of fishing communities in Cambodia, I was to encounter a fine young lady who had actually worked in the McDonagh fish shop in Galway. Sheila Connolly was operating an eco-tourism agency in that part of the world and wanted to locate interesting fishing villages where she could send her more adventurous tourists. We shared our common memories of Ireland and she got PJ McDonagh to call me when I returned to Scotland. By that time he had turned his premises into a fish restaurant which was even more successful than the fish shop.

My home port also had long connections with the fishing communities of County Down, including Ardglass, Portavogie, and Kilkeel, and the tiny but influential harbour of Annalong. The Chambers family hailed from Annalong. Their father had been a coaster skipper, and the mother, one of those remarkable old Irish ladies of character and perception, - a bit like Anna the mother of Alexander Irvine, immortalised in the moving book, ‘My Lady of the Chimney Corner’. The Chambers brothers included Jack, Victor, Hayden, Vincent, and Harry. Their first fishing boat, named after their mother, was the Charlotte Chambers, and the next boat was the John Chambers in honour of their father. (The Northern Irish government which had provided some financial assistance had asked the family to name the first boat after Lady Basil Brookes. Victor had responded politely but firmly, - “With all due respects to the honourable lady, there is another lady, down in Annalong, who has done far more for us than the Honourable Lady has or could ever hope to do. – Her name is going on the boat!”.

These vessels were followed by a series of fine seiners and trawlers from the Herd and MacKenzie yard, Buckie. They were the Green Pastures, the Green Hill, the Green Valley, and the Green Pastures II. The last two boats operated by the family were steel stern trawlers, the Green Field and the Green Isle.

Jack and Victor were marvellous story tellers, and could hold any audience spellbound. We had Victor speak at a fisheries forum in America, back in 1968, and I believe the New England skippers still around, recall that talk to this day. Along with James McLeod of Killybegs, Victor led the way in use of the Scandinavian vinge trawls to catch herring on the sea bed, and the later adoption of 2-boat midwater trawling, also copied from the Swedes and Danes. These innovations restored the importance of herring and mackerel in Irish fisheries, a change that also took place in Scotland.

Another Irish friend Bobby McCullough from Kilkeel, was to become a leading offshore fisher. He had purchased the small seiner, Achieve, from ‘Boysie’ More of Hopeman when he built a larger boat, the Alert. Following his success with the Achieve, Bobby acquired the Spes Melior, then the Spes Nova, and the Spes Magna, and culminated with the large steel midwater trawler, the Voyager K. I was introduced to Bobby by Victor Chambers, in Kilkeel harbour, and was later to meet up with him in Walvis Bay where he was exploring more distant fishing possibilities with Paddy Smyth, a fine fish merchant from the Republic, just south of the border. Arnold McCullough now carries on his father’s tradition.

The transformation of Ireland’s fishing fleet from a modest assortment of coastal vessels to its current modern armada of powerful pelagic and white fish boats, has had its beneficial and negative aspects. Ireland always had large stocks of mackerel and herring that were barely exploited by the small drift net and ring net boats of 50 years ago. It took a couple of pioneer fishermen to see the potential of introducing Scandinavian gear and techniques to prosecute the pelagic stocks effectively. The two pioneers were James McLeod of Killybegs, and Victor Chambers of Annalong. Both of them began by using ‘vinge’ or wing trawls which could take herring on the sea-bed, and which could take large quantities of herring while the older white fish trawls operated on the same grounds, could capture only whiting, haddock and hake. Other skippers followed suit, among them Albert Swan and Tommy Watson. Tommy died young, but Albert went on to develop and manufacture colossal midwater trawls for herring and mackerel, which earned a global reputation and were sold to super-trawlers in a number of countries around the North Atlantic.

The introduction of the Swedish and Danish gear gave the small Irish boats an enhanced ability to fish for herring and mackerel during the pelagic season. Soon, all of the Irish ports had some vessels able to use the trawls. Then the pioneers turned to midwater trawling to harvest schools of herring and mackerel swimming nearer the surface. They selected the Scandinavian two-boat midwater trawl (or pair trawl) for that purpose, since that technique required much less power than a single boat midwater trawler did. Nearly half of the power of the single boat was needed to spread the midwater otter boards, but using two boats, no trawl boards were required.

Using midwater trawls or purse seines, herring and mackerel can be caught in very large quantities. This made large capacity vessels more appropriate for pelagic fishing, and so the size and power of these ships increased dramatically. Some are now over 200 feet in length and can carry over 1,000 tons of fish in refrigerated seawater tanks. They have engines of over 2,000 horse-power, and a range of modern hydraulic and electronic equipment. Their owners and skippers are now millionaires, and a far cry from their very modest predecessors. That may seem to be splendid progress, but it is a progress that is fragile and subject to risks. These powerful fleets need to catch enormous amounts of fish to survive economically. So they can appear quite ruthless in their pursuit of fish stocks. Together, the large scale pelagic fleets have the power to decimate fish stocks, and there are growing doubts about the sustainability of such voracious monsters.

The base for Ireland’s large scale, deep sea fishing fleet is Killybegs in Donegal which ranks with Peterhead and Esbjerg, as one of Europe’s largest fishing ports. The Killybegs men have pioneered modern mackerel and herring fishing to a remarkable degree so that similar large pelagic trawlers in other countries, purchase their enormous nets from the factories in that remote NW Ireland port. But elsewhere in Ireland, coastal fishers have pursued demersal fishing for cod, whiting, saithe, hake, haddock, sole, monkfish, and prawns. That style of operation has been more conducive to local fishing, and has proved to be sustainable over the long term, if not as spectacular as deep water mackerel trawling. The lead port in this type of operation has been Castletown Berehaven in County Cork, followed by Galway (Rosaveal), Kilmore Quay, Howth, and other harbours in the southern part of the Republic.

European Union management of Ireland’s fishery, along with that of other EU member states, favours the large corporately owned pelagic fleets, and discriminates against the small scale coastal fleets which have suffered accordingly, much like their cousins in Scotland and England. In the 1980’s and 1990’s, skippers wife Joan McGinlay of Teelin, was a powerful voice against those destructive policies. Today Caitlin Kelly of Helvick, and the Irish (South and West) Fishermen’s Organisation have taken up the cause of defending the coastal fishers and their communities. The experience of a Donegal island fisherman, John O’Brien of Inishbofin well illustrates the vulnerability of small scale fishermen working within the EU Common Fisheries Policy. Despite its many protestations to the contrary, the policies and management measures of the EU CFP are grinding thousands of small fishers into a marginal existence, and forcing many of them out of the fishing sector altogether.

Most small scale fishers engage in multi-purpose fishing. John O’Brien was typical, working for lobster in the autumn and winter, salmon in the summer, and mixed white fish the rest of the year, with some mackerel and herring when the schools appeared. This type of mixed fishery is low-impact, never over-fishes a single stock, and provides its fishers with stable year round incomes, due to their ability to switch gear and methods as occasion demands.

But this is anathema to the European Union which gives priority to big business corporations in every part of industry including farming and fishing. When they try to treat fishing that way, the bureaucrats in Brussels legislate chiefly for the huge single purpose trawlers that focus on single species and harvest them with all the power that modern technology can devise. That of course is not sustainable, as subsequent events have proved. But the CFP has a ‘one size fits all approach’ which will not adjust to the small boat fleets which are forced to act as if they were like the huge trawlers. So the EU does cannot abide fishers like John O’Brien who can fish for five or six different species over a year. They so over-controlled the mackerel fishery, it became inaccessible to John. Then they closed the salmon fishery to his boat. Then they extended the lobster season to 12 months, and the result, as O’Brien expected, was a collapse of the lobster stock.

The EU and the Irish Fishery Department then suggested to John he could now fish for crab. Since the market was in France, he had to purchase a vivier boat to keep the crab alive and chilled. But then John found that EC bureaucrats had invented a hundred and one rules and regulations, including costly equipment and crippling prohibitions on vivier boat operation. The whole tale is one of constant interference by an ignorant yet arrogant bloated bureaucracy in Brussels that makes life impossible for the small fishers in a multitude of frustrating ways. But that is how the EU works. For the huge pelagic ships and company fleets, there are few problems, as they target only one species, and they can afford full time managers and legal officers to handle the amounts of paperwork, and bureaucratic procedures they have to follow. Small fishers have to cope with the deluge of log books, catch reports, fish inspections, and controls on days at sea, permissible species, and quotas that are applied with all the zeal of a mad scientist.

The sad aspect of it all is that the CFP was totally unnecessary and has become, not just unhelpful, but quite harmful both to the fish stocks and to the fishermen. John O’Brien finds himself caught in a vicious circle of ever-decreasing options. Implementation of EU policies at national level has ruined multi-species fishing based on seasonal conditions. In its place has come single species, single gear, year-round fishing, with consequent over-supply of markets at times, and reduced catch per unit effort. This has shrunk earnings from fishing, and rendered largely non-feasible, fishing as a way of life and source of livelihood.

An old Irish joke tells of an American tourist who stopped on a remote country road to ask a farmer cutting peats, the best way to get on the road to Dublin. The old farmer scratched his head and thought for a minute, then said, “well, if I was going to Dublin, I wouldn’t be starting from here” ! The European Union with its hugely expensive and complex cfp, has started from the wrong point to begin with and has doggedly continued to head in the wrong direction. Brave souls like Caitlin Kelly and John O’Brien have a long hard battle ahead of them.

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