Growing up in a fishing village like Cheekpoint in the early 1970s, nets were part of the everyday scene in the community. They lay around in the same way tractors and machinery hang round a farmyard. Nets for fishing the weirs, trawl nets including beam and otter, drift nets for Herring and Salmon and Eel pots. Old fishermen like Andy Joe Doherty come to mind, sitting amongst the maze of meshes of a weir net, a section slung across his knees as he worked to repair some hole by the ‘Red Shed’ on the village ‘Green’.
I suppose because it was summer, and we had more time being on holidays, I remember the salmon nets most of all. The salmon season stretched in those days from Feb 1st to August 15th. It opened each Monday morning at 6am and concluded the following Saturday at 6am. Sundays were a day of rest, mass, the Reading Room for cards, a match or the pub. But Saturday was for boat and net repair, and the quay was generally buzzing with activity.
|Buddy McDermott and Tom Sullivan hauling out the nets
Photo courtesy of Tomás Sullivan
The nets in those days were nylon. They comprised of a head rope which had corks each about a fathom apart keeping the net afloat, and a lead rope which kept the net down in the water. Between both ropes was suspended a curtain of netting which once set in the river drifted on the tides. Because of the position of Cheekpoint and the strong currents in the area, drifts would normally last from between fifteen minutes to an hour.
Another feature of the drifts was the countless fouls and obstacles to be negotiated. The meshes got ripped due to snagging rocks, weir poles, old fouls, the bottom, getting caught in the jetty, wrapping them up in the outboard engine propeller. As we were below the ports of New Ross and Waterford we also had the risk of being cut by one of the many ships in and out of the ports.
|A mending needle
Although the general perception of drifting was that salmon swam blindly into nets, the local reality was that we predominantly ‘jammed’ fish. Jamming fish was an expression used in trying to outfox the salmon, catching them in ‘the bag of the nets’ or trapping them as nets ‘fell ashore’ when drifts ended with the nets gathering in clumps close to the shoreline. The local practice had actually more in common with draft netting and snap netting, both techniques happened above us in narrower waters, than the common perception of drift netting on the high seas.
As a consequence the repair of nets was a constant necessity. Saturdays then, would see fishermen at work, hauling out the nets from the boat and ‘ranging them over’ again on the shore, quayside, or the green. Some fishermen preferred to stay in the boat, a more boring job again as at least if you were on the quay there was more banter. Some skippers could overlook only the largest gap, but for many as much as a damaged “half mesh” was a no no. These were the skippers you didn’t want to get stuck with, as you could spend the day standing in the one spot without a break.
|a typical break
The process was always the same. One person on the cork rope the other on the lead. As you ranged them along you looked carefully for a gap or a tear. Once found the skipper would use a penknife to trim off and tidy the hole and with a mending needle, set about re-meshing the hole. In some cases it could take a minute, in others a heck of a lot longer. In all cases our job was to hold the net in a particular way. As a consequence we were often referred to as ‘human nails’ as if we were not around the fisherman would hang the net on a nail or other fixing. As he worked we got no more than a grunt, when it was time for us to shift, or pull tighter, or move a fraction to enable the skipper to see what he was doing. Once done, he would snip the end of the mending twine, returning the knife and mending needle to his pocket. Then we would stretch out of the repair job and you would hear either a grunt of satisfaction or disgust, depending on how the job was perceived. Then it was back to the careful ranging and on to the next hole.
|repaired and time to range on
Some Saturdays could be spent entirely in this way, and after a while you learned to avoid the quays when such activities were taking place. It would be a few years yet before I had to learn the craft, and many more (if ever) before I could say I could repair a net in any kind of satisfactory way. Of course in the 1990’s the nylon nets started to change and before it was out, mono-filament netting was legalised. Because these were practically invisible to the fish anyway, repairing holes became virtually a thing of the past. It was easier to pull sections of a hole together with string, or cut out a section and replace it. Net repair started to become a thing of the past, and with it, what might have seemed like a chore to a child, but a very difficult skill nonetheless.
For this years Heritage week I am leading a walk highlighting Cheekpoint’s Maritime past including the nets of the village. It takes place this Saturday evening 19th August at 5.30 pm. It commences from McAlpins Suir Inn and is free of charge.
I will also co-host a walk on Sunday 20th August on the Geohistory of the area with local geologist Bill Sheppard. It commences at 2.30pm and departs from Faithlegg National School. Also free of Charge.
This excerpt this morning is from a forthcoming book I have written on the Cheekpoint fishery which will be published in the autumn entitled “Before the Tide Went Out”
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