“Fire in the water”

Because I was raised in a traditional fishing community and went to fish as a child, I often took for granted what others consider magical.  But there was one such phenomenon is what we call locally “Fire in the water”, that never lost its appeal. And although it was something which was beautiful, fishermen tended not to be happy about it.  As I heard one man describe it “It might be good for the soul, but it’s bad for the pocket”
I always associated Fire in the water with dirt in the water and generally settled and warm weather. When it occured in the night time, its basically as if any agitation in the river creates a natural light source.  Nets stood out, a fish in a net coming towards the boat could be seen from several yards away and as a boat traveled through the water, the waves tumbling off the bow, or the propeller wash, glow with this mysterious light.
I have to admit that I he first time I saw it I thought it was magic, and I can clearly remember hanging over the bow of the punt, allowing the bow wave with this watery starlight wash through my hands. The most amazing example I can think of was seeing a strong ebb tide wash over a fishing weir and between the poles and the submerged net, the whole scene was over 100 yards in length. But as I depended more and more on fishing it became a bit of a drag. Fire in the water meant the fish could clearly see the nets from a long way off floating through the running tide. The only opportunity however was when the river slowed and then finally stopped on the low or high waters. If there was fire in the water the punts tended to haul up their nets and go home after the tide began to run again.
via: http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2012/03/pictures/120319-
Fire in the water is actually a natural phenomenon caused by phytoplankton which floated in the river at times and which emit a bright blue light after they become agitated. This agitation could be caused by waves, walking along the shoreline, punts travelling through the water, or worse when it came to fishing by drifting nets.
Now the actual process which light up these phytoplankton is that they have channels to allow protons to pass through their bodies. Any movement cause protons to stir, creating electrical pulses, which trigger chemical reactions. These reactions, in turn, activate a protein called luciferase, which creates the blue light. Another name for it is Bioluminescence.
The process can be seen from the shore line too, waves passing over rocks or seaweed is a likely spot, even the tide running over a rope or a buoy. And apparently it is now becoming a tourist draw. People who have never seen the phenomenon are travelling the world in an effort to witness it.  There are top destinations, people who are marketing this in Ireland, and websites dedicated to its research.  U tube has a few vids too such as this: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qlTCB_p3slY

Although in the past, that comment we started with about this being bad for your pocket may have been true, perhaps in the current climate it might actually be the reverse? If anyone knows of any local person using this as a tourism stream you might let me know.  Id like to link it in to the story.

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Echoes of medieval fishing in Waterford harbour

As a child growing up in Cheekpoint, there
were a number of curious features off the main quay known as Eel boxes.
 The Eels which were fished from the village were placed into the boxes to
be kept alive, and when the buyers came the eels were removed, weighed and
placed aboard a truck with aeriated tanks. When I started fishing eels commercially
in the early 80’s, the boxes had gone.  Only recently I realised that they
probably represented a medieval method of keeping fish, and possibly quite
common in the harbour.

The eel boxes at
Cheekpoint were a basic construct.  A rectangular box made of sturdy
timbers, with holes bored into the sides, to allow river water to circulate.
 The boxes were placed into the river in the late spring and the tops
floated just above the water line.  They were fixed in place and eels were
deposited after fishing through a top side hatch.  Once the summer ended,
the boxes were placed on Cheekpoint quay, the green and the Rookery where they dried out
for the following season.  It never occurred to me to ask, but I’d imagine
no one could have told me just how old they were. As for a photo, alas, I have
never seen one.
Recently I came
across an old book on seafaring on the English east coast[i], and was surprised, if not
shocked to find mention of just such boxes, and employed from medieval times in
the keeping of fish for markets.
The boxes in
question had many local names including chests, boxes, Corf, Corves, Korb and Koff.
Surprisingly to me I managed to find an online link to one such phrase.
 The Corf or Koff words derive from Germany or Holland and are taken from the Latin Corbis for a basket.
The boxes were
used to keep fish fresh for market, and not just hardy creatures such as eel.
 Flats, sole and turbot are mentioned, as were haddock and cod.  In
some cases the boxes were housed locally for storage, but they were also towed
astern of sailing craft, to bring fish to market. 
I’m speculating
that it was a progression on the practice when boats developed to incorporate
the boxes.  Over time it seems that boats of various local names but
commonly referred to as well boats, i.e. a well was created inboard for the
storage of live fish, developed. At their more sophisticated these well boats were used to
bring live Cod from Iceland to England and in particular the London market, and led to the curious practice known, and sometimes assigned to the boats as Cod Bangers!
A common
destination it seems was the fish chests of Gravesend on the Thames in London.
Apparently at Gravesend a vast quantity of fish chests were kept to supply
fresh fish to the city of London, and this included (at least) shellfish from the Irish
coast including oysters, whelks, cockles and periwinkles.  The Thames
became too polluted by the mid 1800’s and the practice was moved onto the
coast, but by then trains and steam boats led to faster delivery times in any case.
Accessed from Wikipedia
I can’t say I ever
heard, or read about craft such as well boats operating from the harbour, but
isn’t it conceivable that they did. And perhaps the eel boxes at
Cheekpoint suggest that the practices on the English coast did operate on the Irish
coast and harbours too? The eel boxes at Cheekpoint died out in the late
seventies because locally it was found that hand stitched bags were much easier
when it came to storing and handling eel. But the practice still exists
in the keeping of lobster and crab, albeit in much smaller boxes. And if you think the well boats are extinct, google Livewell. You can even buy the technology on ebay!

[i] Benham.
H.  Once upon a tide. 1955. Harrap.

Many thanks to Peter O’Connor for a link to the Zuider Zee Botter, a Dutch well boat

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“Running” the Salmon

I recently recalled the selling of Salmon in Cheekpoint.  In conclusion of that piece, I mentioned the practice of running fish, a means of earning a bit of extra cash for some of life’s pleasures, which invariably meant drink and cigarettes.

Because the existence of fishermen, then as now, is so precarious, it was common practice at the start of each Salmon fishing season for the fish buyers to provide credit towards the cost of fishing.  This would go towards nets, corks, lead and roping twine etc, or in some cases these were actually supplied. Over the course of the season to August 15th, a percentage from each fish sold went back to the buyer, until the debt was repaid. In years when fishing was good, this could be paid off quickly. But a bad year meant a boat could be hard pressed to make the repayment.

My Uncle John (RIP), Uncle Sonny and Grandfather Andy (RIP)
Thanks to Sean Doherty for the photo

As each fish lost a percentage to the buyer, it wasn’t uncommon to hold a fish back and “run it” as we called it locally.  Selling it to another buyer of course was out of the question, at least directly.  But there was always a willing buyer locally for a fine fish, including the pubs.  Of course it wasn’t just the buyers that were sometimes hoodwinked.

A common enough practice was that a boat and gear might be worked on behalf of an owner.  In this case, the shares (which were always divided by 3) were 1/3 for the owner and the 1/3 each to the two men fishing the boat.

Tom & Michael Ferguson (RIP) drifting for Salmon
Thanks to Tomás Sullivan for the photo.

I recall myself and my brother Robert being challenged one morning on our return from fishing the flood tide by the owner of the boat.  Aboard we had three peal (small salmon).
“Is that all ye have?”
“Shure isn’t it well to have it”
“The Garriger said he saw ye taking in a pig of a salmon”
“Shure there wasn’t a salmon caught by anyone over there this morning, we bagged the biggest one of them, twas a right struggle to get him aboard”
“Garriger said he was 20lb at least, are ye sure ye don’t have him hidden under those nets!”
“Well if you can’t see him from there, he mustn’t have been much of a fish”

The owner was well in his rights to ask, and it was always the large fish that were run.  In this case, it was our Uncle Sonny and he was blackguarding us, but we’d heard many similar challenges.  The big fish were run because they raised more money and as the saying goes, you may as well be hung for a sheep as a lamb.  But if you were going to run one, you would be sure to avoid being seen bringing the fish in over the side.  It was also as well not to return to the village with it.

Many was the fish that was landed at Watty Byrnes in Ballyhack as boats drifted downriver on the ebb tide.  You would wait until nearing low water and then steam across to the quay and in to the pub to sell your fish. Watty always did well from it.  A good price for the fish, and you invariably dropped plenty of it behind the bar as you left with a few bottles of beer, or other items from his shop.

On one particular occasion, I was boy in the boat with another young man from the village.  His skipper was attending a funeral, and I’d been asked to fish with him for that day.  Anyway, a fine fish was caught on the ebb tide, and we proceeded down river by setting them at Seedes bank and letting them drift down to Ballyhack.  When the tide slowed we steamed to Watty’s.  Although, there would invariably be someone from Cheekpoint in the pub, you never had to worry. As Martin Mahon (RIP) said to us that day as he tapped the side of his nose with a nicotine stained finger, “What happens in the pub, stays in the pub!”

Paul Duffin and myself early 90’s

Of course even when men were fishing their own boat fish were sometimes run.  I recall a friend sharing the story from home one evening after his mother challenged his dad when he returned from fishing with no fish and barely able to put his legs under him.
“Have ye no fish?”
“A watery haul”
“Watery was it, pity you didn’t put more water in the whisky”
“Where’s me dinner, woman”
“Arrah, it’s where you should be, on the back of the fire!”

In the nineties, when I was finally fishing my own boat, I’d occasionally be asked to take a fish from younger lads,  They were fishing on behalf of others and in time honored fashion, were keen to make a few extra bob.  It was a bit more awkward passing a fish off as your own, and in some cases selling it on their behalf.  Either way, when it came to handing over the money, you were looked after.  It was the early days of Jack Meades, and many was the great night was had on the “windy stools” on the back of “running the Salmon”

If you’d like to know more about village life and the history and heritage of Cheekpoint, join us for a free guided walk this coming Bank Holiday Monday.  Walk departs from Cheekpoint Quay at 5pm and is an easy going stroll.

I publish a blog each Friday.  If you like this piece or have an interest in the local history or maritime heritage of Waterford harbour and environs you can email me at russianside@gmail.com to receive the blog every week.
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The travelling fish buyer

As a salmon fishing village, Cheekpoint, like all the others in the harbour, had to have a means of selling their fish.  In our case we either had to travel to sell them.  Or, when we were children in the 1970’s, the buyers traveled around to collect the fish.  They were a familiar and welcome addition to our growing up, and the smell of the salmon that they brought, was one that I welcomed as a sign of local prosperity.  

I’ve mentioned before about the significant export trade in Salmon in the past.  In my Grandmothers early days they brought the fish by foot or by donkey
to town (7 miles distance), and occasionally by boat.  She
told me once of an incident that had a deep impact on her.  Nanny and her mother were walking to town with a fine fish.  They were stopped by a
gentleman at Ballinakill (now a suburb of Waterford City) who asked if they would sell him the salmon, which her
mother agreed to.  My grandmother remembered her mother being pleased, money in her pocket and only half a journey.  However, when they returned home she recalled her father being angry, claiming that the buyers knew everything that happened in the harbour. The next time her mother went to the
buyer, he cautioned her, and warned that if she ever sold a fish behind his
back again he would blacken her from selling to any of the buyers in town.

The excitement of a fine catch

“Big Patsy” Doherty (RIP) told me that his brother Jimmy “Tailstones” (RIP) met his
wife Nellie O’Brien as she used to travel around with her mother buying fish in
a pony and trap in the 1940’s.  Jimmy and Nellie went
on to have a fish shop in Patrick St in Waterford that is trading to this day
under Jim Jnr.

As children
I recall the trucks of Michael O Neill(RIP) and Flanagan’s calling out to the village to buy salmon.  They called to the quay or to homes.  Each house had their own preferred
buyer.  Michael O’Neill always called to
our Uncle Paddy in the Mount, whereas my father, when fishing, sold to Flanagan’s.  When he wanted the buyer to stop, his signal
was a conch shell at the gate of the house, each fisherman had their own

When the
buyer pulled up you’d gather the fish and carry them out.  Depending on size, the peal (smaller salmon
up to 5lb and pronounced pale locally) might be weighed together and the larger salmon weighed individually.  The process was the same.  The tarpaulin pulled back, releasing a mass of fly’s and blue bottles, exposing boxes segregating fish by size, which had been bought previously.  (We were expected to take it all in and feed
back to our father, but if he was present he would chat away trying to find out
exactly who had caught what and where)

An “ouncel” as we called it, handy gauge of the weight

If I recall rightly Flanagan’s had a metal arm which would be fitted, or swung out from the van, and the scales attached.  (Michael O’Neill had a weighing scales of an old type which used the old weights to measure it up) Then the fish were hoisted onto it, or an
individual salmon would be threaded via the gills onto the weighing hook and
then left to hang while the scales balanced. 
We paid close attention to the weight, particularly of big fish, as it
was always a topic of debate and excitement, particularly with a very big
fish.  News of which would travel around
the harbour. We had our own “ouncel” as we called it to weigh the fish, but it was what was on the buyers scales that mattered. There was often tales of putting pebbles, or lead, down the salmons mouth to increase the weight.  I can only say that we never tried it.

everything was weighed the fish were sorted into the boxes on the back of the
van and then covered.  Then the docket
book came out, and the weight and price were noted and the total value made
up.  It was calculated on price per pound, Salmon being more expensive than Peal.  A copy of this, along with the money
was then handed over (at times you might have to wait for the weekend for this
to be settled up) Of course the benefit of being from a fishing family is that you had access to fish at any time for the table.  One of my most lasting memories of my childhood was the taste of the freshly cooked salmon at home, boiled on the hob, with a pot of my fathers freshly dug potatoes.  Heaven on earth.

As the summer progressed the prices tended to drop, and I recall many disgruntled fishermen by the time August came round.  Increased fishing along the coast depressed the price and in years to come, would actually belittle the price paid to fishermen.  And that was before the menace of farmed salmon. The only antidote to the lower prices was to try sell locally to homes or the pubs. In that regard McAlpins Suir Inn were to the fore.  “Mr Mac” as everyone called him, paid premium prices for large Salmon all through the season and was highly regarded for his fairness.  That said my father refused to either drink in the pub or sell to it.  The Tynan’s had the West end pub, known as the Jolly Sailor at the time.  They too were providing food, but their prices for fish were not considered as good,

Two dockets showing the drop in prices between two years

Each year
that the season started in February, a bit of new fishing gear would need to be
purchased.  Nets, ropes, corks or lead
would then be roped up for the new year. 
In many cases fishing families could not afford this, and as a
consequence, fishmongers would either give you the money towards it, or
provide the gear.  In these cases, the
money was paid back as a percentage of the fish you sold.  It made good business sense, and guaranteed to
a fishmonger a supply of fish.  But it
also led to, or rather added to, a practice of running the fish, something I’ll return to.

I publish a blog each Friday.  If you like this piece or have an interest in the local history or maritime heritage of Waterford harbour and environs you can email me at russianside@gmail.com to receive the blog every week.
My Facebook and Twitter pages are more contemporary and reflect not just heritage 
and history but the daily happenings in our beautiful harbour:  
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An Sí Gaoithe, the Fairy wind

I’m occasionally asked what I miss most about drift-netting for Salmon. When it stopped in 2006 I was fishing on a part time basis, but I refused to participate in the buy out of licences, preferring instead to hope for a return. So when I answer, I’m usually a bit off hand and probably say something straightforward and easy to understand, such as the thrill of landing a large fish. But if I was honest what I miss about fishing is complex. A way of life is hard to quantify and communicate in a few sentences.  It has elements of relationships, boat handling, fishing nous, traditions, and experiencing nature and weather on a ongoing basis that you just don’t appreciate to the same extent on land.  A great example of this is the Si Gaoithe, or the Fairy wind.
I think I was sixteen when I first encountered the Si Gaoithe.  I was the boy that season with Michael Barry of the High Street, which would have made this event occurring in the summer of 1982.  It was one of those beautiful sunny and still summer days, which are so rare when fishing.  So dry and calm, that you can forgo the oilskins and woolly jumpers, and controlling the punt was a lot less of a challenge, having only tidal conditions to contend with.
An Sidhe Gaoith Daniel McDonald 1841 NFC
It was nearing high water, and we had the nets out on “the mud”, the Shelburne Bank, on the Wexford side of the rivers.  We had opted to leave the nets where they were lying, virtually static at this point given the time of tide, and joined several other punts on the “bank wall” – the embankment constructed around the Marsh on Great Island.  There we lay out on the warm summer grass keeping a constant watch on the nets for signs of a fish and swapped stories.  Below us other punts were with their nets, whilst at Nook the Whitty’s were in their usual perch on the grassy bank overlooking their bay, monitoring the nets at the Big rock or the Knock.
Suddenly all hell broke loose.  One of the punts was rocking and a voice could be heard in high animation.  Despite the distance, it was clearly the punt of Christy Doherty (RIP) and there was some talk that Christy must have “lost it” or perhaps had landed a “pig of a salmon” our parlance for a very large fish.
Hauling the nets Photo via Tomás Sullivan
Anyway, I was old enough to realise whatever was going on Christy Doherty was not a man to either “loose it” or get over excited.  Christy and his brothers were highly regarded in our house.  One of the stories I heard of him fishing was one night in winter, he went to the Sheag Weir, an old ebb weir just below the quay of Cheekpoint.  The wind was northerly, and it was freshening all the time. Christy was emptying the net when a squall came on and the punt sunk beneath him.  If I recall right he couldn’t swim, and of course would not have had a lifejacket, so he pulled himself up the weir net and eventually managed to climb the weir poles to the head of the weir where he settled down to await daylight.  When several hours later he was found, despite the wet and stinging cold, his only complaint was that he hadn’t had a cigarette in hours!
It later emerged that what Christy was so excited about was the Si Gaoithe, which was falling all around his punt and he was letting other punts nearby know, so that they might see it.  I was never clear if he was upset or happy to see it.  For many you see the Si Gaoithe is a omen they prefer to avoid.  When I told my grandmother later, she blessed herself and said, “God protected ye from all harm”

The Si Gaoithe itself however is a natural phenomenon and is something that traditional people have their own names for worldwide. We also have our own local traditions about it here in Ireland, which vary from county to county.  I decided to borrow a definition rather than pretend I know the science. “A dustdevil is a whirlwind of air into which dust and debris gets caught up, making it visible. Dust devils form through a different mechanism than tornadoes, and are much smaller, usually only 10 to 50 feet in diameter, and usually not extending more than 100 feet into the air. They usually are seen during relatively dry conditions, when sunlight is providing strong heating of the surface, and when winds are generally light. The heated land surface produces convective rolls of air (as in the diagram above) since the wind is a little stronger at (say) 100 feet in altitude than near the ground. If these rolls get tilted upright, then a dust devil can form.
Joel and myself many years back out on the river
I experienced the magic that Christy described several times later.  My lasting memory was one I shared with our son, Joel.  He was only a boy of about eight and we were drifting on the ebb tide one beautiful calm summer evening.  Again not a liu of wind, and the river surface was like glass.  Joel was chatting away and searching the bottom of the boat for a crab whilst I kept a close eye on the nets. Suddenly around us little whisps of straw started to fall.  I jumped with joy to see it, and explained what we were experiencing to Joel.  Looking up into the sky, we could see hundreds of little pieces of straw cascading down upon our general direction, and as they fell Joel tried to capture some of them. The straws were falling from out of a clear blue evening sky, from about 100 feet up, although very hard to judge.  We followed the line of straw with our eyes, as it went horizontally from above our position in towards the Wexford shore.  We were passing Nook at the time, and we could clearly see the line of straw heading in over the land and then trace it back down to a field recently harvested with straw lined up waiting to be bailed.  Amongst this a mysterious wind was whipping up loose pieces of straw into mini whirlwinds, carrying it into the sky.
Witnessing such events is a privilege, one that I haven’t seen since we stopped fishing.  It may seem like I’m fooling myself, but I still believe today as I did in 2006, that I would one day be back on the river and I am not going to loose sight of that anytime soon.