A Lifetime Fishing, Billy Power Recalls

This months guest blog is brought to us by Pat Nolan. Pat recently republished a piece in the monthly Marine Times magazine with the headline “A Lifetime Fishing, Billy Power Recalls. It was to coincide with Billy’s recent retirement. Needless to say I’ve met Billy countless times in the last few years, and he is never without a fascinating snippet of information about our maritime past. I was so taken with Pat’s piece I asked him via Marine Times Editor Mark McCarthy to consider allowing me to republish. Pat graciously agreed.
Dunmore East man, Billy Power, has experienced the roller-coaster fishing scenario over several decades at the Co Waterford port.  He has witnessed the transition from the slack times of the 1930s and ‘40s gradually rise to the heady days of 1970s and ‘80s. Sadly, he has also subsequently witnessed the downward trend that is so evident today. It was not on the deck or in the wheelhouse of a fishing boat that this insight was accrued, but behind the counter of a business that during the 20th century became synonymous with Dunmore East fishing.   Yes, it was a business that supplied food, drink and a variety of provisions to crews of fishing vessels from far and wide. The regular contact with boat owners, skippers, fishermen, fish merchants, agents, etc. provided Billy with a noteworthy overview of fishing activity at the port. In the early days Power’s business was centred on one location. Today Power’s Bar and Power’s Centra Convenience Store & Bureau de Change are separately located on the Dock Road. Many years ago the combined business was widely referred to as, ‘The Butchers’, or ‘Bill’s’. That was a throw back from the days when Bill Power senior, the butcher, also sold groceries and alcohol to locals and fishermen. Today Billy’s interests are centred on the convenience store.

Dunmore circa 1950’s with a busy quay.  Photo sourced from William Power

As he recalls it, the upturn in Dunmore East herring fishing in the early 1950s was given great impetus by the arrival of Nolan’s driftnet boats from Union Hall, Co Cork, in the winter of 1950’/51. They came at the prompting of local fish merchant, Paddy O’Toole, who believed that herring shoals were plentiful in the nearby bay and river estuary. With my family being involved I can recall the circumstances very well. Following Paddy O’Toole’s phone calls there was deliberation as to whether the boats should go or not. In a matter of days it was decided that one would go. Around the end of October 1950 the 35ft fishing vessel, Florence, set out on the then formidable 100-mile trip to Dunmore East. She was skippered by Willie O’Neill and crewed by Thomas O’Sullivan, Pat O’Donovan, Paddy Minihane and Johnny Leahy, all local men who  have long since passed on to their maker. Perhaps though, Nolan owned boats and Union Hall crews were no strangers to Dunmore East. An extract from the Southern Star Newspaper of the early 1900s leads us to believe as much; the extract, which refers to my grandfather, reads as follows, “Mr Joe Nolan’s motor boat, Ocean Star, had a large take of herrings last week at Dunmore. They fetched a record sum of £300.”

Did the deliberation, planning and preparation of the 1950s venture prove worthwhile? As it turned out, yes! Paddy O’Toole’s hunch had been correct; herring shoals were indeed plentiful, with good landings and reasonable prices. To celebrate Christmas, Willie and his crew made the long trip back to Union Hall in the Florence.  They returned to Dunmore East a week or so later. It was their first trip home since departing in late October. A long time for five men to live on a small boat with none of today’s luxuries!  The vulnerability of those same small boats fishing at night in adverse weather conditions was also brought home when some time later the Florence made news headlines.  It arose when she lost her rudder while herring drifting. Fortunately the Schull boat, Ros Guill, was fishing nearby. Her skipper, Dan Griffin, realising that the Florence was in difficulty came to her assistance and towed her to the safety of Ballycotton harbour.

Dunmore fishermen via Barony of Gaultier Historical Society

The months that followed the initial departure of the Florence to Dunmore East saw three further Nolan owned boats do likewise; the Happy Home skippered by Jack Burns, the Dun Aine skippered by John Burns, and the Hopeful, skippered by Mickey Deasy. Each of those boats was a mere 38ft in length. Winter fishing in the vicinity of Hook Head and even up the Waterford estuary was a tough business in small boats. It was not for novices or the faint hearted. Strong winds occasionally accompanied by hail, sleet and even snow, blew towards the nearby rocky shores. Foul weather clothing used at the time was fearfully inadequate. Life was not easy for men working with nets and ropes coming out of icy-cold water. I have no memory of gloves being worn at that time!  Men were pushed to the limit, often working in pitch dark nights at a time when lighting in and around boats was insufficient by any standards. That’s the way it was in those days.

Within two years or perhaps far less, of the Florence’s arrival at Dunmore East, the number of boats fishing from the port greatly increased. The pier that had been virtually deserted a short time previously suddenly became a hive of activity. Herrings were being landed by the boatload! Yet, the activity of those early years was minuscule in relation to what was to follow. Soon the Florence and her likes were replaced by much larger boats.  As more sophisticated fishing techniques replaced drift netting, the volume of herring caught was so great that queuing of boats waiting to berth or to deposit their catches at offshore factory ships was a common sight.
Ballyteige Bay to the east of Baginbun Head, Co Wexford was the location where most herring were caught. Baginbun became a bye-word for that particular sea area.
As the 1950s progressed there was a fairly swift move away from drift netting when purse seining and other different versions of seining, including the famous coil-a-side or indeed half-coil-aside, began to establish themselves as more efficient ways of catching herring. To coin a phrase, the show was on the road, and Power’s business along with most aspects of life in Dunmore East was on the way up.
As we sat in his home in August 2010, Billy pointed towards what can only be described as stacks of ledgers, all of which he said, “Held records of fishing boat provision-accounts from the distant past.” When I asked him if I could see the records from the late 1950s for the Larus, a boat owned by my own family, he extracted the appropriate ledger from the pile in a matter of minutes.  He went on to say, “By the end of the 1950s we had on our books, boats not only from all round the Irish coast but also English, Scottish, German and Dutch vessels.  Throughout the 1960’s and ’70 we also supplied provisions to a large Belgian fleet, as well as some French and a few Norwegian vessels. While the Norwegians engaged in whaling and shark fishing, the Belgians mainly caught white fish. We had one hundred and thirty Dutch boats alone on our books. Drift netters from the Cornish ports of Penzance and Mousehole arrived on the scene early on. Within a season or two the St Ives purse seiners, Girl Renee and Sweet Promise also arrived. Word had spread around the Cornish coast that money was to be made at Dunmore East. The message was, there are loads of herring there, get in touch with Paddy O’Toole regarding fish sales, and call on Mrs Power for virtually all other needs – she’ll look after you’.”
Billy added, “The Dunmore herring fishing of the early to mid-1950s was a tremendous boost for those Cornish fishermen. Many of them were post-war British Navy retirees trying their hand at long-lining. Previous to their coming to Dunmore, meagre earnings of around £2 per week were par for the course. I remember that a crew on one of those St Ives boats made £5 a-man the first week here and £10 the next week. That was followed by a run of £30 for five weeks in succession; more money than they would otherwise have made annually. Thanks to the Dunmore ‘silver darlings’, Christmas at St Ives was made all the more enjoyable that year. It was the cue for many more Cornish boats to head in this direction.”
What did Billy remember of the Irish and Scotch boats that fished out of Dunmore East?  On the whole they seemed to do well, and as years went on into the 1970s some of them made absolute fortunes. The North of Ireland and Scotchmen initially had boats and gear that were superior to their South of Ireland counterparts. Out of that grew a situation that at one point caused great unpleasantness between Irish skippers, or at least some Irish skippers, and their Northern counterparts. By the late 1960s boats and gear of both factions were on a par. Throughout what I will call, ‘the Dunmore East herring campaign’, the McGrath brothers, Jack and Tommy, are reputed to have been great stalwarts of Irish fishermen. In the difficult times, when other agents and buyers choose to deal with ‘outsiders’ the McGrath brothers were instrumental in keeping the Irish fleet at sea.
It would appear, according to Billy, that those who came worst out of the Dunmore East herring fishing of the 1950s and ‘60s were owners who acquired boats though the BIM hire purchase scheme. They were obliged to sell their fish via BIM, a body that failed to find market outlets matching the large Dutch, German or French merchants, many of whom who had luggers on standby to ship fish to the continent as and when required. Accordingly, the owners of BIM boats were consistently paid considerably lower prices than those boat owners who sold on the open market. The BIM restriction Billy says “Was like something out of communism.”

Barreling “Silver Darlings” in Dunmore
Photo sourced from William Power

In the course of general chat Billy recalled periods during the 1970s when problems in other countries proved advantageous for the herring fishing industry at Dunmore.  Inflated prices became the order of the day. He recalled that respectively, a desert war and a fishermen’s strike were responsible for two such periods. In the first instance a Dutch company operating in Dunmore was contracted to supply herring to the Israeli Army. That he recalls, “Put a lot of money into fishing here in the early 1970s.” The fishermen’s strike referred to took place in France. All the big pelagic boats there became involved and did not go to sea. With a keen eye for business, some of the continental merchants operating at Dunmore channelled vast quantities of herring into France via back door routes. It was an extremely lucrative venture for all concerned!

Going back to the unprecedented volume of business that came the way of the Power family, I asked Billy how they coped with it. In reply he made light of it, simply remarking on what a great woman his mother, affectionately known as Katie to all and sundry, had been. He commented on how admirably she managed following the death of his father in 1960. He also spoke of the part played by family members including his brother Peter and sister Helen. Bookkeeping and accounting in general were carried out in the form of traditional ledger recording etc. Importantly the accounts of most boats were paid through agents or fish buyers representing fleets and individual boats.
Sadly, it has to be said that in the midst of the good times at Dunmore East there were boats that for one reason or another didn’t do so well. Billy points to the absurd sales restriction placed on BIM boats as part of that problem. Yes, there was the occasional boat that didn’t manage to pay its way, but Mrs Power knew the score and gave leeway in the matter of overdue accounts to those she knew to be genuine people down on their luck. Years later many of those fishermen returned to repay and thank her! Indeed money resulting from unpaid bills was forwarded to her to from distant parts of the world. It came from those genuine men who many years previously failed to make their fortunes at Dunmore East!
As a footnote to our chat Billy smiled as he recalled that in the days of the Dunmore East boom-times, more than fish left on continental bound ships and luggers. It was not unknown for consignments of beef and lamb to make their way into holds. The question is who supplied the expertly butchered sides and cuts of meat? All those years later, I feel that we will not be in breach of any official secrets act, or the likes, to disclose that the prepared consignments referred to travelled but a short distance from shop to ship. Sufficient to say, a young chap named Billy Power was known to be very handy with cleavers, bone saws, trimming knives and other implements likely to be found in a butcher’s shop!
I’d like to thank Pat for agreeing to allow me post this excerpt from his article.  I gives a tremendous overview of the fishing at Dunmore, particularly in the 20thC. Pat’s description of the life and conditions endured aboard vessels such as the  Florence was part and parcel of my childhood hearing of fishing, indeed it was not far from my own experience when I first started out, particularly in the wintertime. The piece was republished recently as a tribute to Billy on his retirement. I certainly wish him well, and look forward to many more years of stories and yarns from the man.

Finally from me just to say that I’m delighted to get contributions for the guest blog.  If any others out there would like to contribute, I would love to hear from you.  The brief is 1200 word count, on a theme of  the three sister rivers and harbour maritime history.  If interested to know more or discuss an idea please drop me an email. 
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