I started what has emerged into the tides and tales blog four years ago this month. It began with stories that concentrated on my youth in Cheekpoint, themes of life, occupation and structures or local features such as the quay, church and limekilns. My favourite theme of course was the fishing and the first story I published was almost by way of an introduction to what was to come, as it featured the role of the tides in our lives, a role that although diminished, still has a place to this day. It is no coincidence then that this would become the theme of my first book published in 2017; Before the Tide Went Out.
We all have particular clocks that we need to respond to. For new parents time is defined by the cries of a baby that needs tending too. For farmers it’s generally the dawn, when it’s light enough to see what you are doing, stretching to the dusk. All in all a long day in the height of the summer, but is balanced by the dark of winter.
For factory workers it’s the clocking in machine, that no nonsense system that demands you be on time, or you won’t be paid. What I hated about this system when I worked on the weekend shift in Bausch & Lomb was that it never took account of day or night, snow or sunshine, just a continuous pattern or rhythm like Fords assembly line.
When it came to the fishermen in the harbour and its rivers the rhythm was the tides. As a child growing up in the harbour village of Cheekpoint the tides tripped off our tongues, even as children, and before we really knew what they meant. Tides change approximately every 6 hours and we get two high waters and two low waters in an average day. As a fisherman you followed these with a tenacity of any good hunter following his prey.
Eel fishing tended to happen when the tides are slowest, hence High and Low Tides, day or night. All the eel fisherman required was the eel to emerge from its winter slumber in the river mud. It was similar for setting and hauling the weirs. But the salmon fishing was a bit more complex. The salmon had a season and a weekly close. So we started originally on February 1st and fished to August 15th and weekly we fished from 6am on Monday morning to 6am on the Saturday. The rest of Saturday was giving over to repairing nets and Sunday to rest. The drift net was used in Cheekpoint, employing two men to an open 18ft punt. . We used a set of 6 nets marked by buoys on either end. Originally punts were oar powered but outboards made things a lot easier in getting about to the drifts.
For simplicity let’s say that tides started with
High Water. Thus the tide was at its highest on the banks of the river and
along the shore. On neap tides high waters were something you could relax
around, but on spring tides you needed to be cautious, the higher tides tended
to bring weeds off the shore and you were at risk of filling your nets. Once
the nets stood still in
the river it was High Water, and once they started to slip back down the river it was known as “First of Ebb”.
Following High water boats went ashore, and nets would not be set again in the area until the “Stripping of the Mud” about two hours after high water. The Strippin was a word we heard daily during the salmon season, and even as a child there was a recognition of its importance. The Strippin was a drift that was waited for in the Bathing Box below the Mount Quay. Boats would often go in to the bailing box to wait for two to three hours for the chance to be first boat to set on the Strippin. The wait was straightforward. First boat in, was first to set, as long as one of the two crew men stayed with the boat. If they left, their place was forfeit.
Once the stripping boat set others could set at the same time from the Binglidies or Snow Hill or at the Point. The Stipping occurred when the mud on the Wexford shore (Shelburne Bank) was exposed by the outgoing tide. It also marked the tides being at their strongest.
The ebb tide continued with punts drifting down as far as “The Castle” or “Buttermilk Point” on the eastern side of the estuary or to the Barn quay or Ryans Quay on the Western shore (Waterford side). When the drift ended the nets were hauled and the punt returned to the Bathing Box to await their turn to set once more, or set them in on the Point if there was a space. The drifting continued to “Low Water” although many punts went home depending on how catches were going, whilst others when they reached “The Castle” would haul and reset the nets on Seedes Bank and drift them down towards Passage East and Ballyhack.
Low Water could be drifted from a number of points, but the favourite was “Low water on the mud”. This drift was waited for at “the Rock” and was started depending on the strength of tides or wind direction and indeed time of day and whether the sun was out. Again, the boat had to be manned and generally it allowed that one person could go home for a feed, while the other waited. They could use the time to repair nets and generally it was a great way to hear news as other boats passed by. Coming close to low water, a stick could be placed in the mud beside the dropping tide to gauge the time it was taking to drop. The stick would be moved to beside the river until the river stopped dropping, and actually started to “rise” on the stick. The rising tide meant that it would soon be low water ie the tide would stop running out of the river and start to run in again.
Another great measure of the tide was the stroke that would drift in onto the rock marking a change in the tide. When the punt and crew decided it was time to set for Low water, they set off for the Wexford side of the estuary and set the nets off from the mud at “Campile Pill” and then came back in and held the nets close to the mud as they drifted down, in order to “jam” a fish in the shallows, or prevent them getting round the inside end of the nets. Low water was determined when the nets stopped drifting down. This would be seen first with the outside buoy on the net “hanging back” or the corks going “slack” as the current slowed. “First of Flood” was marked by the nets starting to drift upriver again. As the tide strengthened this was called “Flood Tide”.
The “Covering of the Mud” was another milestone in the day, as the mud on the Shelburne Bank (Wexford side) was covered once more by the inflowing river, and most boats were keen to have their nets in the water for this time of tide. The flood tide then continued to High Water and the whole process was repeated.
To mark the fifth year of the blog I’ve organised an evening in the Reading Room Cheekpoint on Saturday 8th June form 7.30-9.30. I’ve invited a few friends, neighbours and colleagues to share a specific blog, a memory prompted by a blog or something that has emerged from a blog. I’m calling it Tide Line as it marks some changes to the future direction of the blog. Its open to all, free of charge and it promises to be a lively night, hopefully with plenty of laughter.