Sturgeon – the Cot men’s nemesis

Living beside the meeting of the three sister rivers, and having fished it for over 15 years, I’ve been lucky to see quite a variety of fish over that time.  By far the largest and most incredible was a Minke whale, which beached but which my brother Robert, Pat Moran, and I managed to refloat in 1993.  But one fish has eluded my sight, another large fish, and a contemporary of the dinosaur; the Royal Sturgeon.
Royal is an appendage associated with the Sturgeon which dates to the reign of Edward II.  An act decreed that “…the King shall have the wreck of the sea throughout the realm, whales and great sturgeon.”[1]  As Ireland was part of the realm, the rules applied here too.  Essentially if you caught a fish you were expected to hand it over to the crown.  In fact one of Waterford’s Royal charters granted by Charles I “…granted to the mayor, sheriffs, and citizens of Waterford…the fishing of Salmon and other fish of every kind, (Whales and
Sturgeons excepted) [2]
The fish itself is an amazing creature.  It can live to a great age, a huge size, and is so old; it swam in the seas in the times of the dinosaurs.  It’s a bottom feeder and tends to swim in the seas.  But like salmon, these anadromous fish, migrate to freshwater to spawn and this has brought them into contact with fishermen.
But not by me, and I can never recall hearing of one being caught in the Cheekpoint area.  However, on a recent trip to the local dispensary, I fell to mention this to Dick Mason.  Dick who has lived here almost 30 years and fished all his life remembered his father catching one in a driftnet in the 1950s in Passage East.  The fish was taken away by the fishmonger Michael O’Neill, but Dick recalled that for all the hype about royal fish, the payment later received was poor enough.
A Royal Sturgeon was landed at Dunmore East 13 May 1952 by MFV Tulip
l-r Frank McDonald (skipper), Tommy McGrath (owner) Johnny Rooney, John Dando Whitty & Davy Muck Murphy
The fish was displayed for two days in the Dunmore East fisheries shop High St Waterford
before being sent as a gift to Eamon de Valera, then president of Ireland.
Photo via Michael Farrell, Barony of Gaultier Historical Society.  Supplied by John Burke
A trawl of the newspaper archives was most revealing about the fish, and in brief, there are accounts of them being caught from Baginbun to St Mullins, Dunmore East to Carrick On Suir. The largest I have found thus far was caught by snap net fishermen near Mount Congreve and was recorded as 9ft 3” and weighing 2¼ cwt. This fish was sold to Mr Crawford, fishmonger of Lombard St Waterford and it was said that the roe(fish eggs, or caviar as Sturgeon roe is more popularly known) in the fish was such that it would have filled the Suir with Sturgeon [3] Crawford comes up frequently as a purchaser.
A frequent sentiment expressed in the papers is that the cot men (on both the Suir and Barrow)who fish the snap net are often “terrorised” by the creature, apparently damage to their nets was common and there were fears expressed of their boats being upturned.  It appears it’s the power of the fish, rather than any malcontent that is the issue. Given the cot size of 14ft with little by way of freeboard[4], such concern is perhaps unsurprising.
The appendage of Royal fish seems to be oft repeated in the newspapers, and many but not all, seem to find their way to London.  Some appear to be sold locally and others end
up in Dublin.  “A very fine Sturgeon was taken in the river on Wednesday and was on view at Mr. Crawford’s next day.  The greater part of it has, according to ancient usage and custom, been sent to the Lord Lieutenant”[5]
Some purchasers were more entrepreneurial than others of course.   Three fishermen near Fiddown Bridge spent two hours wrestling with a sturgeon on a fine May morning in their cots.  The specimen was eventually tired out and dragged ashore where it was killed.  A “speculator” snapped it up for a pound, but headed straight for the Tipperary racecourse and “…exhibited the curiosity at 2d per head…”   The report states the fish was nine feet long and weighed 100 pounds. We don’t get any information on how much the speculator realised, however.[6]
Carrick on Suir is the scene of the most drawn-out encounter in the summer of 1848 which involved 12-14 cots, the majority of the town as onlookers, and “…an immense sturgeon…” which was later said to be 7½ feet long and weighing 169lbs.  From the article, it would appear the cot men went out with the specific intention of catching the fish, as they were “…armed with spears and boat hooks…” The onlookers on shore assisted by watching the Sturgeons progress and when it traveled under the arch of the old bridge they quickly alerted the cot men who formed a line to prevent it from moving back down.  A man named Healy managed to pierce the side of the fish with a spear, but it recoiled so heavily that the spear shattered off the side of the cot, and Healy was thrown from the boat.  The river became crimson with blood as the fish swam away, but was prevented from escaping downriver by the line of cots. 
Meanwhile, on shore, the spectators were shouting encouragement, directions, and advice.  The fish turned away again and was driven towards shallow water by “…Mr. Freemans Brewery…” where another cot man George Coghlan managed to harpoon the fish with a boat hook. The Carrick fishermen later exhibited the fish to the public in the town and afterward in Clonmel from which they realised £4 and later sold it to Mr. Pim of Clonmel for £2 10s.[7] Although a horrible end for the sturgeon, for the local fishermen in famine era Carrick it must have been a windfall.
There does not appear to be any regularity of capture, from the papers at least.  The fish appear to be occasional visitors or perhaps occasional catches.  A report from 1852 on the harbour is interesting in relation to this.  “On Thursday last a splendid Sturgeon, measuring eight feet in length, and other proportions corresponding…is the first of the kind which has been taken in this district for the past 14 years…”[8]  The capture was in a weir in the lower harbour.
Despite all my searching I cannot find any reference to a fish being caught at Cheekpoint.  But then again I should not be surprised.  My father never told me of any!  In recent
years attempts have been made to preserve and encourage Sturgeon back into European waters.  I’m not sure that even if successful we would ever see Sturgeon of such a scale as reported in those papers of the nineteenth century, but I for one would dearly love to see them make a return.
Post-publication I received this fascinating piece from Tom Baldwin, a snippet from his family collection of catch from 1962 off Dunmore East.
I’d like to thank Dick Mason, Denis O’Meara, Michael Farrell and Maurice Power for assistance with this piece.
[1]  Went.A.E.J. The Status of the Sturgeon, Acipenser Sturio L. in Irish Waters now and
in Former Days
.  The Irish
Naturalists Journal. Vol 9. No. 7 July 1948.
Pp 172-174
Waterford Mail. 14th June 1865. p.2
[4] Patrick
C Power. The Lower Suir – Boats and Boatmen long ago.  Tipperary Historical Journal. 1991.
Waterford Mail.  4th July 1857 p.4
[6] Waterford
Standard. 27th May 1876. p.2
[7] Wexford
independent. 17th June 1848. p.1.
Waterford mail. 19th June 1852. p.2

Salmon Ponds of New Ross

Heritage Week continues with Myles Courtney, and the Salmon Ponds of New Ross

The ebb and flow of a river, its rising and falling tides can instill a sense of ease and relaxation in an observer. Since my retirement, I have had time to be more observant and appreciative of the majestic Barrow as it passes through the town of New Ross. It brought back happy memories of my youth in Enniscorthy and fishing at my father’s side on the Slaney and Boro rivers. He passed on to me an appreciation of the lore and traditions of the angler and the “net men”.

New Ross 1832

Research for my local history hobby lead me, as it often does, off on various tangents. One tangent that immediately grabbed my attention was the salmon fishing on the Barrow . I discovered numerous sources online and reference sources in New Ross Library which painted a picture of what at one stage was a significant local industry but is alas no more.
The great 16th century poet Edmund Spenser mentioned the Barrow salmon in his epic The Faerie Queen when referring to The Three Sister Rivers.

The first, the gentle Shure that making way
By sweet Clonmell, adorns rich Waterford;
The next, the stubborne Newre, whose waters gray,
By faire Kilkenny and Rosseponte boord,
The third, the goodly Barow, which doth hoorde
Great heaps of Salmons in his deepe bosome:
All which long sundred, doe at last accord
To ioyne in one, ere to the sea they come,
So flowing all from one, all one at last become.

I went from keyboard to book to the horse’s mouth and was regaled with stories of fishing families of the fifties in New Ross. I met two local gents with first-hand experience and a treasure trove of knowledge of the skills and lore of the cot men.

Four men in 2 cots formed a crew. They fished every falling tide with snap nets, day and night, except for Saturdays & Sundays during the season. For reference and location purposes the river was divided into sections referred to as “ponds” by the cot men between the Pink Rock and Poulmounty.

My two friends recited the names of the ponds like memorised poetry to me and I was immediately struck by those whose origin went back to our Gaelic past. Names such as Conway’s Wood, Woodville Drift, and The Quay Pond offered no mystery but then I heard Tubbernacally, Cool na Stor, Leanacurragh, Lean Bheag, Touskeen, Cruptaun, and off I went on another tangent.

A lighter in operation in New Ross
A lighter in operation in New Ross with various small boats including cots

I wondered if these two repositories of local lore realised the value of their hereditary knowledge. It spurred me to convince them that it was indeed worthy of preservation. Much to my delight their experiences and knowledge can now be found in the County Wexford Oral History Project recordings of Wexford County Library.

This story is contributed as part of Heritage Week 2020