I was delighted to recently present to the Éigse Sliabh Rua on the topic of 19th Century lives along the local South Kilkenny riverbank. One of the themes I touched on was women’s work. Women played a vital role in the local fishery and seafaring communities traditionally, and it was a theme that my grandmother regularly mentioned as I grew up in Cheekpoint.
The reference to women’s work at the Éigse talk was prompted by a piece of folklore captured by the late Sean Malone in his article on local fishing in Jim Walsh’s fine book Sliabh Rua – A history of its people and places. In his section Fishing and Fisheries of Slieverue (pp253-256) he mentions that although they could sell their catch in Waterford or New Ross “Local tradition tells that Mrs Mary Ann Shalloe (nee Lannon) was known to have walked with a fish catch on her back from Great Island, took the ferry to Ballinlaw and then off to Carrick and returned by foot having sold her produce”
Traditional role of women in fishing homes
I made the point on the night that my grandmother told of similar stories, accompanying her mother to Waterford with a salmon in a bag on her back. Although the buyers did come to the village by horse and cart in the era, there were times that this was missed and because money was tight they would take to the road, hoping for a better price with a fresh fish. I never heard of a journey to Carrick, but if fish were scarce upriver, it could make financial sense to walk, what I would estimate was a 60 mile round trip and according to Google maps would take 14 hrs to walk.
My grandmother (nanny) was Maura Moran, born in 1919, the youngest of 7 and the only girl. She often told the story of how her mother, Catherine, had once sold a fish on the Dunmore Road, around the present Powerscourt housing estate. Herself and nanny had walked almost 5 miles at that stage, and Catherine was delighted as she got a good price and saved her the walk to the city. However when she got home her husband Michael was furious, fearful that the regular buyer would find out. The next time Catherine went to town with a fish the buyer cautioned her, and told her if she ever sold one of his fish on the road, he would blacken the Moran family name to all the buyers in Waterford.
I later realised that it was sometimes the case that fishermen would get a loan at the start of a fishing season to buy the salmon license or occasionally to replace nets, ropes, corks etc. Families were obligated to sell to the specific merchant until the debt was repaid. A percentage of each sale was recouped to repay the advance. This may have been the case in this situation, but Nanny wasn’t sure. Either way, I know from our own time, that no family ever stuck to selling 100% of their catch to the one buyer.
Nanny said that Catherine was a net maker and net mender at home, and she was regularly at the fire at night working. They also had a twine-making machine that hung over the fireplace. She called it a “nooseline maker” (I have no idea how it was spelled but it made string, some of which was used to make longlines). Catherine’s mother was Mary Lynch and I recently discovered that her own parents may have come to Cheekpoint to work the rope walk in the village from the Carrick on Suir area. If so Catherine didn’t lick it off the stones so to speak.
Catherine and nanny also kept the home fires burning, the lads fed and she often recalled Catherine at the fireside all through the night turning the lads clothes so that they would have something dry to wear for the next tides.
Many years back the late Water Whitty told me he remembered his mother and other women in the High Street, Cheekpoint with lines of calico clothing hanging out to dry. The calico had been cut and stitched and then tarred with a linseed oil mix so as to water proof it, as a form of oilskin for the fishermen.
Elsewhere, the women of Passage and beyond picked the cockles. Collectively known today as the Cockle Women, in an effort to support their families, these women picked cockles from the west banks of Passage to Tramore from Monday to Thursday, working to the times of the tides, then boiled them, shelled them and bagged them on a Thursday before transporting them by ass and cart or on foot to Waterford city for selling on a Friday. Many of the women were widowed and this was their only source of income, many others were supporting their families as their husbands were at sea and would not get paid off until their trips were over.
Another group were known as the Herring Lassies (elsewhere Lasses). Women (initially Scottish) who followed the herring boats to cut and preserve the fish for transport and sale. A hard job in all weathers, these women followed the fleet and set to work onshore in areas like Passage East and Dunmore East where their skill and dexterity was prized. Many local women participated too. I remember the fishing sheds at Dunmore in my youth filled with women, working to process the fish.
It wasn’t all work thankfully. There are records of women participating in the regattas locally. In some cases these were female only in other cases it was a pairing, male and female. One such account which I published was the Cheekpoint regatta of 1909 which describes a third option.
Ladies’ Pair Oared Punt Race (one gentleman allowed to either row or steer) Prize value £3.
1st, Invicta – The Misses Fleming, Great Island and Heffernan (Cox)
2nd, Lily – Mrs Hennebry, Ballinlaw (Stroke) Miss Hennebry, do, (Bow) P. Hennebry (Cox)
3rd, Eily – Mr T.W.Brewer, Waterford (Stroke) Miss McCarthy, do (Bow) AN Other (Cox)
In relatively more recent times, in yachting circles, Daphne French, a famous yachtswoman, lived at Dunmore East in the 1950s and 60s. A topic that David Carroll may guest blog on in the future.
Although women did go to sea, think for example of the pirate queen Grace O’Malley, according to legend she went to sea at eleven years old, forging a career in seafaring and piracy where she was considered a fierce leader.
As times moved on, women’s role on the high seas may have diminished but it was common enough for sea captains’ wives to accompany them on their travels, and on more than one occasion a sinking ship in the harbour here witnessed the captain’s family being rescued.
Somewhere in my files, I have the details of at least one captain’s wife who helped to avert disaster. From memory, they had endured a rough Atlantic crossing, the Captain had been on deck for many days, and entering Waterford harbour for refuge he passed the bar above Creaden and made his way for Duncannon. There he seems to have misjudged the lights, but his wife who was at his side, correctly identified the course and countermanded his orders. The crew obviously paused, looking to their Captain for guidance, who wisely yielded to his wife’s advice. They later safely anchored at Passage and awaited more favourable conditions. (I will add the specific details when I retrieve the newspaper clipping)
Then there was the legendary Kate Tyrrell of Arklow who went to sea as a child with her father and took on many of the admin tasks associated with the running of a vessel. But Kate wasn’t only a bookkeeper, she also had the sea in her blood and she rose through the ranks to become a ship’s captain in 1886.
Of course, I can’t not mention Rosa Udvardy, who nursed her ailing husband aboard the Honved off Cheekpoint in the 1930s. After he died, he was laid to rest in Faithlegg and now a palm tree marks his grave.
Women and families also travelled aboard ships in my younger days. Well I remember the beautiful young Dutch girl aboard her father’s coaster at anchor at Cheekpoint in the 1980s and how I stared at her mesmerised as we sold a small salmon to the cook after he called us alongside.
Lighthouse Female Assistant
Oh and although the wives and daughters of lighthouse keepers often did the work to maintain the burning lights that kept the sea lanes safe in the past, I wasn’t aware until Pete Gouldings latest blog that on the 15th April 1866, twenty-one woman took their rightful place in the pantheon of lightkeepers, all in the new role of Female Assistant with the Ballast Board.
Much has changed in the attitude towards women, and opportunities that were in my childhood seen as the preserve of men, are now as likely to be carried out by women. Of course even then things were changing. My late sister Eileen was as happy drifting for salmon as any of us. Julie Ann Doherty and Marcella Duffin fished with their dads as hard as any of us. Josie Whitty of Nuke fished for years as did many of her daughters.
My generation had women like Grace O’Sullivan who went to sea with Greenpeace. Grace was aboard the Rainbow Warrior when the French sunk the vessel in an effort to stop the awareness raising of the country’s nuclear testing in the Pacifics. Frances Glody of Dunmore also broke new ground, working with the Harbour Board to assist with piloting communication at Dunmore East. In 1981, Frances became the first female all-weather lifeboat crew member at Dunmore East Lifeboat Station, taking over from her retiring father. Numerous women now volunteer with the RNLI in Ireland including at Dunmore.
Now women can assume any position they aspire to at sea and in our Navy too. Even our local Harbour Master at Dunmore East, is now a lady, the very capable and no-nonsense Deirdre Lane. There’s even a list of the top 100 women in shipping. Although it’s a very unequal world, in an Irish context, it’s a far cry from the era of my grandmother, and the struggle to survive.