Feb 1st – traditional start date of the salmon season

The traditional start of the Salmon drift net season in Ireland was, for many generations February 1st , Imboloc or St Brigid’s Day. Once opened it stretched to August 15th.  It closed each week between 6 am on a Saturday morning to 6 am on the Monday.  Once the week opened it operated for 24 hrs a day.  Michie Fortune posted a reminisce on the Cheekpoint Facebook page this week, remembering drifting in the river with Tommy Doherty and having to use the oars.  Some of the members on the page queried how he could remember 50 years back so vividly, but I have to admit, the first winter I spent was just as memorable.

Paddy Moran RIP and Michael Ferguson RIP
Ranging nets on Ryans Shore 1950’s
When I started fishing of course outboard engines, more manageable nets and relatively comfortable oilskins were a predominant feature.  My grandmother often told me of the conditions her father and brothers faced while drifting for fish.    In the first instance, she remembered the smell of drying clothes at the open fire day and night.  All the outer garments and even the socks steaming away on the fire, and her mother, often up through the night, keeping the fire in and turning the clothing, so that the men would be some way comfortable going out.  That might be the following morning, or in a short few hours depending on the tides.

Walter Whitty told me that as a child he remembered seeing “oilskins” hanging to dry in the high street.  These were not the comfortable oilskins of today.  These were homemade, by the women generally and cut from calico purchased in town.  The calico would be measured, sown and then soaked in linseed oil to keep the water out (or at least some of the water).  They would then be dried in the sun until fit to wear.  My grandmother said that as often as not an oilskin might return from sea journeys and were much sought after, but in general the men wore thick overcoats to keep the weather out and always two pairs of socks.

Blessing the boats, Nets and men prior to the opening 1930’s

Terry Murphy once told me a yarn.  He was only a boy and was fishing with Billy the Green, grandfather of Elsie Murphy.  He called down this cold frosty morning and Billy came out with his socks in his hands.  He plunged the socks into the water barrel and squeezed them out.  He then put them on his feet and put his boots on. Terry paused for dramatic effect and looked at my puzzled expression.  “Well,” he said, “when you are on the oars all day the water in your socks heats you up better than any hot water bottle”.  I saw the proof of those words many the times I have to admit.

The oars were the only way to get around and it meant that fishing was a slower, more rhythmical affair in the past.  I’ve written before about how hard it was for us as children even with outboard motors to use the oars.

The men in the past had to use the tides and had to make the best out of each drift.  Once set the aim was to get the maximum out of each drift, prior to hauling and setting again.  It meant that on ebb tide when they set from “Binglidies” or “the rock” that they drifted as far as they could, then reset the nets from where they stopped, rather than returning (as we did with the aid of an outboard).

They would drift to the end of the ebb tide, take the low water where they found it and return village-wards with the incoming tides.  My grandmother said the men were starving on their return.  They might put in to warm some tea in a billy can but often wouldn’t eat from when they left the house to when they returned. (Low water to high water is a total of 6 hours)

Returning home was also work of course.  The hemp nets that my grandmothers father and brothers used had to be ranged out of the boat and “spreeted” – hauled up and dried in the wind.  Not doing so would shorten the life of the nets which was a cost they could not afford.  So on returning to go fish, the nets had to be lowered and then ranged back into the boat.

Any wonder the majority of my gran-uncles took the boat to America or England as soon as they could.  Any wonder also that it was the older men and young boys that did the fishing in all the other families around, those old enough to choose the sea, at least until the summer peal run.

Poles along the quay for “spreeting” or drying the nets  circa 1950’s

In my own time, the start of the season had been shifted to St Patrick’s Day and in the 1990s (1996 I think) the season was destroyed from the perspective of commercial fishing in Cheekpoint in that it was reduced to a June 1st – Aug 15th season and operated from 6am – 9 pm.  It was a slow strangulation of the fishery which eventually closed in 2006.  Funnily enough in those times there was hardly a week went by without some media outlet decrying the state of the Salmon fishery and trying to close down the drift netting.  Now those media outlets have moved to other fish species, although the problems of salmon stocks still persist.

A time of reflection

For the winter solstice this year we decided to do something we had never done before; walk to the Minaun and welcome the rising sun as I imagine our forbearers in the distant past had.  I have to say I was nervous that anyone would be interested to come along, and the feedback beforehand wasn’t very positive, even with an offer of hot fruit punch or damson vodka! Nevertheless once we arrived at the departure point, it was heartening to see a few brave souls and by the time we left there were 15 in total and everyone seemed in good spirits.

The walk up was filled with early morning chat, and although it wasn’t very taxing, I think everyone was glad to pause at the Parcin before broaching the summit.  It’s a reasonable climb, but when you’re talking as well, it can take it’s toll.  We arrived at Cromwell’s rock just after 8 and had plenty of time to the see the rising sun brighten the Wexford horizon, although the low lying cloud and drizzle conditions didn’t bode well.  I was conscious of not wanting to say too much, there’s something about silence that is fitting at dawn.  8.35 was sunrise but alas, the sun couldn’t peep through those gloomy clouds.  A disappointment no doubt, made worse by the spectacular showing in the days before and for a few days following.

Tómas Sullivan captures the sunrise over the harbour a few days after our walk

Walking back the feedback was positive, and I think our neighbour Jacqui summed it up very well with her perspective, it’s not about actually seeing the sun, but the social aspect of getting out of the house and going for a walk with neighbours and friends. 

Our good pal Bob the scientist celebrated the solstice with his family as well and blogged on the merits of walking in company or indeed alone.  In it he refers to Gods light and captures some sense of why we love to be out.  The piece reminded me of the joy of being immersed in nature, but also that it’s a resource freely available and much in demand.  The irony isn’t lost on me in trying to drum up business for guided tours.  From a purely economic perspective I must say I’ve made some questionable choices in life – a fisherman, men’s outreach worker, a community worker, childcare sector and now a walking tour guide, a pastime freely available to anyone with a decent pair of boots!

In the attempt to raise our profile/drum up business I’m conscious of the time given each week to social media, either the posts to facebook (on average one a day since we started the business) and a weekly blog post.  The time taken to put these together and further monitor and respond is time-consuming and at times you wonder what’s the merit.  The flip side is that the photos required, encourage us to get outside all the more and seek regular and topical content.  Another positive I suppose is that social media is a form of modern communication which brings people with a connection to the area a slice of the village on a regular basis.

Ultimately the reality of what we are trying to develop and I guess why we do it is underlined in this nugget of wisdom from American naturalist John Muir “In every walk with nature one receives far more than he seeks.”  Another I like is from Marc Anthony; “Do what you love, and you will never work a day in your life”

Thinking back on what Jacqui said, could there be any more fitting welcome to a new year ahead, than a gathering within your community to celebrate the coming of brighter days, and get fresh air and exercise while you do it.  So happy new year and I hope it’s a healthy and prosperous one too.

“Old Folks” party

This weekend marks an renewal of an old tradition, the Senior Citizens party. 

I recall many years back the parties going on in the Reading Room and as youngsters we passed by and could hear the voices and the music and do our best to avoid the cars abandoned on the roadside in the dark.  Cars drew up all the time, disembarking patrons to the event and when in full swing more cars drew up, this time filled with steaming pots, boiled potatoes & veg, roast turkey, hams and side dishes.  All the food was prepared in local homes and was delivered piping hot and ready to serve.  The beer and spirits had been stacked up earlier in the day, and I believe little of it had to be bought as the two pubs in the village went out of their way to provide the liquid refreshments.

Pattie Ferguson reprises here role at the party, with the Thursday Club
in Reading Room in the early 2000’s – following much improvements.
Photo via Bridget Power

The hustle and bustle and organisation must have been tremendous as, in those days, the Reading Room was a much more basic building.  A small porch at the upperside was the access point. The double doors that are there at present marked the entry to the main hall which as now could be divided into two, and a curtain at the rear screened off the stage.  No space then for a kitchen, which would come in time, much less for a toilet, which from a present perspective, must be a bit shocking to realise.

According to details in the 2009 book, Cheekpoint & Faithlegg Through the Ages, the origins of the party were thus “The present Cheekpoint and
Faithlegg Community Association evolved from a small group of people who got
together in 1977 in order, we understand, to organise an annual
dinner-dance.   At that time the local
population was much smaller than at present, the postman (Martin Nugent) delivered
mail by push bike from Half-way-house Post Office to less than two hundred
homes.  The initial ad hoc committee
comprised of amongst others Gerry Boland, Kay Boland (Doherty at the time),
Patty Ferguson, Tommy and Theresa Wheeler, Helen Barry and Kathleen
MacCarthy.  The “Residents Association”
were formally established in 1978 with the assistance of Tommy Sullivan and Fr
Michael Dee and adopted the aim of promoting and fostering a community spirit
among the people of the area

The plan was to cater
for all ages, from infant’s class at school to those collecting the old age
pension at Wheeler’s Shop at the Crossroads. Someone came up with the idea of
organising get-togethers in the form of an annual party at Christmas for the
children and one for elders during that bleak period between January and March.” 

It was a few years later that I got my first “taste” of the party, which at that point had moved to the school.  Then I was a volunteer member of the local Civil Defence and it was part of our duty to be mobilised into action on the night.  Either Gerry Boland or Neil Elliott would drive the ancient ambulance on the night and we would wind our way around the village and off the roads in Faithlegg to collect anyone without a lift.  The collection was usually a sober affair, serious chat about the weather, the menu, little snippets of news, the drop home was an all together more fun affair and as a teen I got great mileage out of it.

Diners sitting to their dinner
Photo via Bridget Power

The school provided great comfort in the extra space and convenience of a toilet for patrons.  The dance space was probably half as much again.  Music was provided from amongst the locality also, Jim Duffin would be eager to perform, but it was Peter Hanlon and band who provided the main act.  Singers were much in demand, and it must have been a minefield to Peter to keep the show on the road, and ensure the regular tenors or sopranos got their five minutes of fame.  A few years back we pulled together a short video of the events with photographs supplied by Damien McLellan, Tommy Sullivan and Bridget Power.

Peter and band entertaining the crowd
Photo via Bridget Power

Although we were there to work, and did so including serving, clearing and directing people around the building, we were also there to have a bit of craic.  The big draw of the night was a chance to maybe sip a beer.  The older men were always encouraging. Tom Ferguson, Ned Hefferenan and Jimmy O Dea amongst others.  As a teen, prior to going out to a pub, it was often the first time I heard great yarns, similar to the one I retold about my father at this years heritage week event.

There was also dancing to be done, and the women on the night danced with the men, with each other and if need be with us, the helpers.  This of course was a cause of mortification, but you were told to grin and bear it, and indeed you did.

Although very simple affairs, ran for very little cost and with a maximum of community goodwill the old time Christmas parties were a great affair.  Hopefully this years event will match those of the past, either way, we wish all those who are organising and all those who go along, a great night.

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:  
F https://www.facebook.com/whtidesntales  T https://twitter.com/tidesntales

Working Ryan’s Shore

As a child there was a popular song by Glenn Campbell called Rhinestone Cowboy.  Somehow, it wound its way into the local parlance, often sang about the exploits of a certain fisherman who worked Ryan’s shore (or the shore) for a living.  It could have been about many at the time, because thirty years ago, Ryan’s shore or, probably more likely known as the Strand now, was a busy place.

Ryan’s shore looking down from Hurthill
All the place names on the shore are associated with fishing.  The quays, strands, paths, mud banks and even the rocks…the half tide rock jumps to my mind – a way of knowing when the tide on either ebb or flood was at its mid mark.  Ebb was most important, as Ryan’s shore was an ebb tide salmon driftnet fishery, the Wexford shore was for the flood.  On the days when the wind blew north-westerly the village boats would come down to “trip off” on the shore.  It was also a good spot for ground nets in winter and you’d get a good feed of mussels off the rocks.

Paddy Moran and Michael Ferguson working the shore (1950’s)

You would be forgiven for thinking that it was all fishermen on the shore.  Far from it.  In those days it was a mecca for young and old, men and women, fisherfolk and non! For some it was a walk, particularly when the wind blew from the North West, but for many it was for beachcombing.
My grandmother (Nanny) spent a lot of time down there and principally this was because it was a good source of timber.  Everyone gathered timber in those days and people had their own piles, where they gathered timber to a particular spot, standing it to dry, and easier to come back and collect.  As you walked the strand you would stand each piece you wanted.  Standing it did two things, drying it obviously but it also denoted that it wasn’t just a piece of driftwood anymore – no, it was now claimed.  Driftwood washes up all the time, but it never stands itself up!  A stood up piece was claimed and woe betide any one to touch anothers.  I remember some fairly fierce rows in the Mount Avenue in days gone by as someone with a pile on their back tried to get past with someone elses timber.  If the timber was too big to stand it could be tied.  But it had to be tied to a fixed object like a rock or a tree etc. 
Drying driftwood
As Nanny grew more frail she gathered “kippings” as she called them; small pieces of driftwood that would kindle the fire for her.  These she drew together with a piece of rope and she stood her “bresnees” (phonetically Bres knees) on rocks etc.  As a teen I recall spotting the bresnee’s on the strand and realising she was gone over along and raced off to find her.  Coming back I gathered the bresnees onto one shoulder and carried them home, all the time she was giving out to me about the weight I was carrying.  It was only later I realised how frail she had become, how reliant she was starting to become on others.  To her dying days, one of her only regrets was no longer being able to get down to the strand, and even two days before she died, then wheelchair bound, she mentioned it again.
But it wasn’t only timber for burning that was important.  Many’s the trip I had with a hammer or a screwdriver to collect boat nails or other fittings that washed up attached to floatsam.  And there was always tennis balls, sliotars and footballs.  Nanny was always lamenting the fact that people trew away such good stuff, all of which she could see a use for. 
I remember one evening I arrived home from fishing to spot a mug sitting in the kitchen sink.  Puzzled I asked Nanny where it had come from, hoping it wasn’t what I had seen for weeks filled with stagnant water and dead sand hoppers embedded amongst seaweed, rushes, sticks and other rubbish.  But no, I wasn’t mistaken…”shure wasn’t it a perfectly fine mug?”…” who would cast such a thing?”
Next day she was having a hot cup soup out of “Lenny” having steeped it over night and scouring it that morning and for years after she was gone from us, I used it myself.  It was a sad day when it broke, but at that stage it had given at least twelve years of service.  I’ll never know who did cast it, but it was a good lesson to me, part of my grandmothers philosophy on life I guess and learned in a different era.  But an era that we can learn a lot from I think.
Glued together now, it’s a memento, too fragile to store anything in…but a useful reminder that there’s always something of use to be found on Ryan’s Shore.
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:  
F https://www.facebook.com/whtidesntales  T https://twitter.com/tidesntales

Oiche Samhain

As a child, Halloween was a lot simpler and cheaper.  There again in the mid 1970’s with one TV channel and limited radio, the ability of advertisers or foreign TV shows to influence our daily lives was much less than today.  Although they are very different countries between then and now, perhaps the most striking change is in how we celebrate Oiche Samhain.

Oiche Samhain comes apparently from the old Irish word for end of summer, marking the move from light into the darkness of winter.  It also marked the end of the harvest.  Halloween apparently is of Scottish origin, a shortening of the term All Hallows Evening – Hallows relating to saints – the evening before all saints day on Nov 1st.  At home we were told that on Oiche Samhain the souls of the dead came out to visit. We should dress up and cover our faces when going out so as to confuse them and not risk being taken away with them.

For me the first sign of Halloween was not an add on TV but would have been making our mask in the week before it in Faithlegg NS, as part of our arts and crafts activities.  Corn flakes boxes would have been the primary source of cardboard (we always thought anyone with Rice Krispies were posh because our mother refused to buy them!).  The process was simple.  The scholar made out their design on the inside of the cereal box, cut out the eyes and coloured the mask to their own preferences.  The more artistic might add horns or pointy ears, and a piece of elastic or string finished the piece so that it would hang in front of you face.  If memory serves it would take the whole week and as we went home for the midterm break, the mask would be worn home.

On Halloween night the mask along with an old coat or a big sack would be thrown over us and we went out to the bonfire.  I don’t recall going Trick or Treating as it would be known now, though I do remember going to a few houses on occasion. You would knock on the door and would be expected to entertain with a song generally.  In those times you got an apple and some nuts…No sweets, no money, no crisps, no drinks!  Given that we had loads of apples at home and bags of nuts, getting more hadn’t a great appeal. 

Home was always busy on Halloween.  Mind you houses weren’t decked out in the way we decorate for the event now.  The day passed slowly as a child, as you had to wait for dark for the festivities to begin.  Barmbrack would be eaten, my mother hadn’t always the time to be baking and she sometimes got a brack from Portlaw bakeries who delivered to Ellen’s shop in the village. The brack would have a coin, a stick and a ring.  I always wanted the coin needless to say.  My father would make up a snap apple with two pieces of timber crossed over with pointed ends with apples pushed on.  It was suspended by string and it was a difficult balancing act to get right.  We then stood with hands behind our backs and tried to catch an apple in our mouth, always mindful of not biting on others spit-filled fruit.

The other activity was the money coin in a water filled basin.  Again hands behind your back you had to submerge your head into the water and try get the coin off the bottom of the basin.  Generally impossible, but given how scarce money was, worth almost drowning yourself .

The fruit and nuts would have secured from Gerry Welsh the Saturday prior to Halloween.  Gerry the veg as he was universally known came out from town to Cheekpoint every Saturday into the late 1980’s and he stopped at various points around the village.  His stop in the Mount was at Mrs Barry’s and all the neighbours would gather round to take turns and have the chat.  Gerry would have all the news from the previous day in Passage and he always had sports news for us boys.

The big thrill at Halloween was the Coconut.  My father made a big thing out of it.  He would use the reddened poker to burn a hole in the top and out of which the milk was poured.  He told us it was healthier for us, and how he had climbed palm trees in the south seas as a sailor to pick his own.  A great man for a story! I can’t remember that milk ever being drank.  The nut was then cracked open with a hammer and we got to eat some of the flesh.  Again, it was mostly hung up for the birds to feed on in the days following.

I don’t remember any pumpkins but I can remember trying to carve out a turnip on occasion and the pain in our hands from the time it took.  Apparently when the Irish emigrated to America the tradition of carving a turnip went with them.  However, it was replaced when the local pumpkin proved to be much easier to hollow out and carve.  The turnip below certainly looks more malevolent.

Carved Pumpkin
accessed from: http://www.patheos.com/blogs/asenseofplace/2013/10/oiche-na-sprideanna-approaches/

The big part of the night of course was the fire.  In those days the bonfire happened in the Knock behind the Mount and so we could wait until we saw the night sky light up before we went over, particularly if it was raining.  The fire was magical and we danced round it as children, not realising we were celebrating and re-enacting an ancient tradition.  Although there was always complaints about the smell of smoke, that was as much part of it as the games.

The following morning was All Souls, a holy day of obligation, and an important festival to mark also.  That was probably why my mother complained about the smoke and the smell.  She would have to ensure we were scrubbed before we headed to mass. 

All told it was a much more simpler time.  Very different from the commercial affair that marks the night now.  But it’s interesting to note, than although commercialised and Americanised to an extent, it’s still a ancient celtic festival to which we have a deep connection