Time and Tide waits for no man

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.

Local fishing placenames; Andrew Doherty

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.

Launching my fishing punt in the 1990’s

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.  

A local fishing weir

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. 

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

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

The day I almost killed the Skipper

Paddy Moran was an old school fisherman. He was a brother to my Grandmother, Maura Moran, and I knew from her, just how hard she, Paddy and her other brothers worked the river from their earliest years. With the arrival of better nets, outboard motors and relatively comfortable oilskins, life improved. But the old guys still yearned for the old methods, particularly when drifting nets for salmon. Those methods worked for them and they were very slow to change.
I’d been raised with the newer methods of salmon fishing, where although the oars were used, it was usually at a minimum, where you probably went home if you were dog tired, where everyone was your friend. So I came as a culture shock to find myself aboard the Judy, his fine old punt of battleship grey and back tar, relearning my trade with “Uncle Paddy”.
My Father Bob RIP, Chris, Paul Duffin, myself and Robert
displaying the catch late 1980’s

I’d started earlier in the Spring with Paddy’s son, Pat, and Gerry Boland, fishing eels. But in the summer the eels disappeared and Paddy had a berth for me. Life aboard the Judy was different from the outset. Slow and patient, always watching, never saying much and perpetually on the oars either setting, hauling or keeping up with the nets. He set the nets in a totally different way, hauled him with his own preference and kept me in line with curt commands, or a withering look, that told me who was exactly in charge. 

As the weeks passed I came to realise just how much I had to re-learn. I struggled to keep the boat on the nets, seemed to run the punt aground when it should have been afloat, set the nets to fast or too slow, couldn’t clear fouls fast enough and couldn’t be trusted with taking in a fish. In other boats I’d fished in the skipper would boast about his catch, Paddy kept it quiet. Most boats as they passed would hold up their fingers to show their catch, three fish meant three fingers. It gave a skipper with no fish aboard a bit of heart, but I learned fast to keep my hands down and simply nod. Information like that was kept for one or two crews; boats who didn’t realise there were fish swimming, were inclined to go home, hence more space for us. 
On the Flood (incoming) tide, punts would normally gather at the Coolya Weir and in turn drift them up the Shelbourne Bank on the flood tide eventually finishing at the Power station. It was a tortuous trip, with nets getting snagged, crabs fouling the nets and currents either pulling the nets off or dragging them ashore. Old schoolers didn’t like to go below the Campile Pill, or indeed the White Stone if they could find some space.

On one particular neap flood tide, we set the nets into the white stone just ahead of another boat that had fallen ashore, We were steaming down having hauled the nets at the Power Station when Paddy spotted a gap, and without warning he threw the buoy of the nets out and brought the punt about. I jumped to the cork rope and began to set, looking over my shoulder to see who had “lost the drift” to Paddy’s eagle eye. Once at the wall it was oars out and we drifted silently along with the incoming tide. At the “paling” the remaining nets were set out, parallel to the embankment and we grounded the punt on the shore and watched the nets. It was just covering which was a good time of tide to be in the “Bite”
As the tides were neap (which meant weak tides) the nets were very slow to move and Paddy was delighted because it meant we would probably see out the entire flood tide from that particular “set”. He would sit watching the nets, smoking away, and pass the odd comment as he watched the other punts coming or going. I often wondered did he know what the fish were thinking as he stared at his nets, scanning along the corks, watching for the slightest movement that might suggest a fish. 
People often assume in their ignorance, that Salmon swim blindly into nets. Whilst that may be true on the high seas, in the rivers they are much more cautious. When fish slam into a net, it’s normally because they have panicked. Generally they swim along the nets, poking them looking for gaps, seeking a way around. Paddy had long learned to create all manner of twist and turn in an attempt to trap a fish.
On this particular day, the time dragged.  Paddy sat in the stern of the punt, smoking his Players Navy cut and watching the nets like a hawk. Meanwhile I was out on the shore wandering along gathering driftwood.  The nets drifted sluggishly and long before high water the outside buoy started to hang back, and in time dozens of corks had floated together.  Paddy decided we should head out and drag the nets off a little, so that they could catch a bit more tide.
We rowed out an I bended down to catch the outside buoy. It was one of the old style metal buoys which if it struck your knee would shatter it.  Most boats at the time had shiny plastic buoys which were light and bright and could be seen from a distance. Old school frowned on such modernity.
Paddy started the outboard motor and instructed me to sit back and put a foot on the buoy, jamming it in the aft thwart, while the engine towed the nets off into the current. We had about half a net straightened off when it happened. I was facing astern keeping an eye on the nets, Paddy had just turned for’ad to check our position against a passing punt.  It was then that I saw it.  Out of the last of the fouled corks raised the tail of the biggest salmon I had ever seen, I screamed to Paddy who turned instinctively to see what I was shouting about. I knew we had to slacken off, so I jumped up releasing the pressure off the buoy, expecting Paddy to ease off on the throttle, but for once he was a bit slower than I. As I released the buoy it shot out from under my foot and catapulted off the aft thwart. It zoomed astern and as Paddy turned to face me to give instructions, the buoy brushed the ash on the fag hanging from his mouth.
He turned away again in the direction of the disappearing buoy and I just thought to myself should I just jump now or wait to be thrown. However, we he turned back he had a twinkle in his eye.  By slackening off when I did I’d kept the net around the salmon, and now we had a chance to land him. In old school terms, nothing was more important than landing the fish, and I’d instinctively acted to, at least try, to ensure it.

When a fish barrel, was much more

I’ve often mentioned that the Cheekpoint of my childhood was a very different place to what it is today.  One of those major differences was an active Herring fishery which was not just water based, but also provided land based employment.

Back then the herring trawlers often docked at Cheekpoint quay.  The trawlers usually pair trawled for the shoals of herring at the mouth of the harbour or further along the Wexford Shore. The fish when caught was emptied into the hold of the trawlers and then they steamed to Cheekpoint, Passage or Dunmore East to unload. A video here gives some sense of the scene.

Denis Doherty RIP, Seamus Barry & Keith Elliott, Cheekpoint mid 1970’s
photo via Tomás Sullivan from Cheekpoint & Faithlegg through the ages

Once in harbour the herring was “dug out” of the holds and removed by the “Cran” a measure of fish by basket.  It was lifted off by trawler winch.  Some of the crew did the dirty job, digging out, a luckier man, but a colder job, worked the winch.  I guess the skipper had it handier than most, he could relax in the wheelhouse and tick off the cran as they emerged out of the hold.

Onshore at Cheekpoint the place as all action.  The Herring were spilled into a stainless steel chute where salt was added and then they were stirred about to ensure an even coating.  Once completed they were pushed towards a circular hole at the far end, at the bottom of which was a plastic fish barrel.  The barrel had to be completely filled before it was rolled away and then a lid put on top. Once secured it would be turned on its edge and then kicked up the quay in a rolling action and stood once more to await collection.

Between all those actions, we as children, flitted about, watching the action, trying to be helpful, and cautious not to get in the way. We picked up the herring that fell out of the basket adding them to the chute, tried to see into the trawler hold to measure the progress of the offloading, helped to bring down empty barrels to be filled and ran any errand that was required.  Hanging round the quay was a great way of getting a few bob for sweets!

The Green Cheekpoint, barrels awaiting a catch
photo via Tomás Sullivan from Cheekpoint & Faithlegg through the ages

Those barrels were also of great use around our homes.  Many was the one that blew off the quay and was retrieved from the river or Ryan’s shore.  Then they would make a perfect water butt, as many still believed that washing your face in rainwater was much more natural, than washing from a tap.  They would be used to store nets, firewood, animal feed, basically anything you could think of.

On one particular occasion I recall a frenzy of activity on Ryan’s shore.  The previous night a storm had washed several hundred barrels off Passage East quay and into the river.  They had drifted with a flood tide to Cheekpoint and were placed all along the shore at the high water mark, like a blackened necklace of seaweed and tacky plastic beads.  Ned Heffernan (RIP) was going round the Mount Avenue promising all the young lads 50p per barrel delivered to his front garden.  There were fellas bursting themselves in trying to carry as many as possible up to Ned’s and it went on for a good part of the day.  I don’t recall how many I actually brought back, but I’m still awaiting payment.

But I think my lasting memory of the barrels was the fun they gave us.  In those days there were hundreds of empty barrels in Cheekpoint.  They were stored at the back of Jim or Denis Doherty’s (RIP) houses, or along the green. And we got hours of fun from playing on them.  They were our horses for cowboys and indians, a shaky obstacle course, goal posts, castles and forts and a great place for hide and seek, once you didn’t get stuck inside.  On one occasion I was in a barrel at the top of the Green and got rolled to the bottom. I wondered was it ever going to stop or would I end up in the river,  It eventually stopped an I emerged out triumphant, only to stagger all over the green with my head swimming.

when is a fish barrel, more than a fish barrel?
Photo by William Doherty

The sad part about such a recollection is the lack of commercial fishing activity now in our village. The herring, salmon and eel fisheries brought a dynamism and an economic spinoff.  The shop was busy, post office, pub, even Pat O’Leary the local farmer was busy, he used to come down in his tractor to lift the filled herring barrels onto a truck.  If you wanted to work in those days you could, and it meant an extra few bob in everyone’s pocket.  But perhaps even sadder still, because it speaks to childhood, something we all deserve to get the most from, is the loss of innocence.   I don’t remember anyone ever telling us to be careful.  I don’t remember any adults ever being cross. I don’t recall ever really thinking we were in any danger, whether on the head of the quay watching the work, or on the green rolling in barrels.  I doubt we would get away as lightly today!

I have to thank William Doherty for inspiring the blog post this week.  He sent me on a photo of an old fish barrel (above) with a memory of how we played with them as children, which prompted this piece.

my first season of Eel fishing at Cheekpoint

I first began fishing eels commercially in the spring of 1984.  Pat Moran asked me to join himself and Gerry Boland as the previous year had been so hectic.  I jumped at the chance and in the next few days there was a lot of hustle and bustle in preparing for the season.  But there was something in the way Gerry talked about the work that made me wary.  Not sure if it was the glint in his eye or the throwaway remark about the season ahead, but either way it began to dawn on me that maybe the job was not as simple as I imagined.

The initial trip was to secure a few places on the river that were considered prime fishing spots.  That first morning there was a wind from the north west that stung like a nettle, t’was so cold.  We battled up against the outgoing tide, while aboard the we had coils of rope, bricks in fishboxes which would act as sinkers, and 5ft stakes.  We were travelling in an open 18ft punt with a 8 hp kerosene outboard engine that made a fearsome racket, smelled horrible but had some power.

eel net of Ffyke net which we used

At various locations, starting at Little Island,  we slid up onto a mud bank or grassy patch, took turns to hop put with a stake and a sledgehammer and then drive the stake securely into the bank.  One end of the rope coil had been tied to the stake end and once secure we then played out the rope and drifted off the bank.  A separate piece of rope was tied on which was long enough to float at high water mark and which had a buoy attached.  This allowed us to retrieve the string of pots at any time of tide.  We then steamed across to the other bank, playing out the coil of rope as we went, and once we reached it another stake was driven to make the rope secure.  Where the banks were too wide, an anchor was deployed.

Next stage was to haul back on the coil, and tie on the bricks.  The bricks were tied on at probably ten fathom distances and allowed the rope to sink to the bottom of the river.  That particular day we played out about 8 different trains of rope,  Starting in the Kings Channel, on up as far as the Cove and on returning the last around the Ford.  
The weather would have to warm up before we would start to fish the eels as when the weather was cold they slept in the river mud or hid away in the fields and streams.  While we waited for the heat to come, we returned to Salmon fishing and in any spare time went off to gather hazel branches which we used to stretch the eel pots.  These would have to be straight and strong and they were sunk in the river so that they would be heavy enough to sink to the bottom once finally set in the river.
Pots were deployed when the heat came into the days, and to set them we loaded up the punt and headed back up the river.  Again we would haul up on the marker buoy covering the coil of rope.  Then the rope was placed over the bow of the boat and you would haul out towards the centre of the river.  As the bricks approached the gunwale they had to be lifted over.  If you were lucky the rope would not be fouled in the bottom.  Weed’s, litter and sometimes worse came up.  It was always in my mind that when the rope got stuck and finally came away that a body might float out of the water.  As we went out along the rope that eel pots were tied on in certain places, generally where Pat knew from experience where the deep water was, whether a channel or a hole.
Initially the pots were  left barren, it was a phase of just getting them ready for fishing.  Over time they would get heavy and would settle perfectly on the river bed.  Only then would it be time to bait the pots.  The bait was with sprat taken from the river weirs.  The weir was an ebb weir which would be hauled at low water.  Two of us went to haul the pots while the other hauled the weir.  Each pot was opened off the train, the neck opened, and the bait placed inside, spilled out of a measure, usually the boats bailer, an old plastic oil can or such reused for the purpose.

pot breaking the surface with Eels inside
photo via Sean Doherty

You never knew what to expect when hauling up on the pots.  River crabs were a given.  They would crawl all over the boat as the pots were taken aboard.  Some pots were barren, meaning it had to be inspected for a hole initially and repaired, if there wasn’t a hole in the pot then it meant it was probably best to be moved.  In some cases there might be a handful of eels, the next pot might be choc-a-bloc and difficult to get aboard.

Each pot was hauled aboard, opened, emptied re-baited re-tied and re-set.  Then you hauled onto the next pot.  One person hauled the rope and looked after the pot.  The other person looked after the bait, and also graded the catch.  Only eels of an acceptable size could be kept for sale.  You might be inclined to keep a few small eels as the sale of them went on the collective weight.  But t’wud be a fools errand,  Eels wouldn’t take that long to grow and de-stocking small eels would mean less in the future in any case.  Generally I would imagine 9/10ths of the catch would be thrown back in the water, only the best would be kept, kept alive in a holding bag, and eventually sold to an eel buyer who would export them directly to the continent.
I hated having to grade the eels.  Not because it was hard to get the size right.  After a few times it became second nature.  No it was trying to catch them, covered in slime, driving around the box like a demon, maybe a hundred of them coiling around each other.  That and my fear of snakes!
There again hauling the rope was no picnic either.  Effectively you were hauling up to a half mile of rope per fishing trip I would imagine, Coarse rope, all manner of dirt, sometimes up to several stone of eels coming up in pots, sometimes the rope caught under some foul under water such as a tree stump or perhaps buried in mud.  Your back was sore almost from the start, but it was your hands that really knew the pain.  Skinned almost to the bone from the constant hauling, burned from friction, you got no relief,   If you put them in water there was a moment of ease followed by stinging, when you took them out the sun and the wind scalded them with the salt and if you put them in your pockets they burned in the heat. Gloves were for wimps!
Initially we would fish them one tide in the twenty four hours, but as more and more eels emerged to feed in the summer heat, we would ramp it up to two tides and finally to all four.  So every six hours we would haul them.  High water and low water, and the travelling in between.  It wouldn’t have been so bad if the weekends were off like at Salmon.  But there was no close for the eels.  Once you started you kept at it, because the reality was that come July the eels would suddenly and mysteriously slacken off again and with weeks have completely disappeared.

In the weeks that followed I would look forward to the pillow like it was heavenly cloud.  I’d be asleep as soon as I hit it, and slapping the alarm off in what felt like minutes.  Dragging myself over to the Mount Quay we would either go out to empty the weir or depart to empty the pots.  And over the next few weeks I would begin to loose all track of what day I had and what time I had except to know the time of tide; High Water or Low Water.  It finally dawned on my why Gerry was so amused at my initial enthusiasm for the work.

Eel fishing was suspended in Europe in 2007 including Ireland.  Combined with the Salmon fishing ban in 2006, effectively fishermen in Cheekpoint have no summer work since then, apart from going downriver and operating in deeper water off Dunmore East.   No State supports were put in place and no alternative options were offered to fishermen.