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.

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. Once opened it stretched to August 15th.  It closed each week between 6am on a Saturday morning to 6am on the Monday.  Once the week opened it operated for 24 hrs a day.  Michie Fortune posted a reminisce in 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, easier nets and 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 home made, 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 and be fit to wear.  My grandmother said that 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 our 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’s the time 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 as not, wouldn’t eat from the time 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 randmothers 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 boy that did the fishing in all the other families around, those old enough choosing 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 – 9pm.  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 are much quieter, although the problems of salmon stocks still persist.

Christmas crib

For me, if Christmas is about anything, it’s about family and about family traditions.  I think it’s how a family keeps Christmas that effectively gives it meaning, creates memories and makes it a special time of year.

Christmas was a much simpler affair around the Cheekpoint area 40 years ago.  In the first instance limited TV access meant advertisers couldn’t bombard you with the latest action man model with dizzying attachments. Expectations were also tempered because my parents childhood recollections where oranges were considered an exotic present and much sought after.  Having experienced the rationing and shortages of the “Emergency” either directly or indirectly had a significant impact on them both.

Decorations  were generally made from crepe paper and hung from the ceiling in the living room and although the tree had lights, that’s where they were confined to…no flashing snowmen, waving Santa’s, flying reindeer or multi-coloured multifunctioning light displays from off the eves of half the homes in the area.

Holly was placed behind all the pictures in the living room, and from an early age it was my brother Robert and I who were expected to gather it.  Another job was to make and decorate a candle holder for the living room window into which the largest red candle our mother could find was placed in preparation for Christmas Eve.

Central to the festival, was the crib, which was given pride of place top the sideboard in the living room.  Although it was a simple enough affair it always drew our attention, but we were warned not to touch it.  There seemed to me to be a blatant torture in that, particularly as a child.  Of course it was touched, but as the pieces were glued in place, there was little play value in it.  My grandmother’s crib in the Russianside was a painting of the crib scene which she stuck to the wallpaper, so no risk of moving any parts there.

The one in Faithlegg church was a fine affair, with plaster statuettes of the main characters, some standing almost 3 feet high.  In those days it was placed in a manger constructed of timber and evergreen palm leaves with a holly bough atop.  Straw lined the base and I think everyone looked forward to the coming of the infant to the empty manger on Christmas morning.  As a child I thought making the crib must be a wonderful job, especially as you would get to move the pieces.  Matt “Mucha” Doherty was responsible for many of those constructions.  In later years there have been several modifications, but I always look back on Matt’s as a classic…but maybe it was just my age.

Faithlegg Crib Christmas 2014

Historically we have St Francis of Assisi to thank for the Christmas Crib apparently.  Having travelled to the Holy Land he returned to his Italian homeland and in the village of Grecicco in 1223 re-enacted the story of the “coming of the son” (or should that be Sun) with a life sized model with live creatures and actual people.  So taken were those who came to mass at the site that it was continued and within 100 years had spread throughout Italy.  I could find no written record of the first Irish crib but did read of its occurrence in England in the mid 17th C.  Hard to imagine that the crib was not a feature in Ireland at this point or before.  I wonder was it ever a feature within the old Faithlegg Church?

The Magi en route to the Crib

The Crib of course, like so much in the church events throughout the year drips with symbolism. I’m not sure at what stage I started to realise not everyone shared the same beliefs, practices or traditions, some major but some just more subtle.  The Crib is a good example of this.  There was a lovely piece on last Monday’s nationwide of a Capuchin Monk in Dundalk who displays several hundred cribs from around the world over Christmas, all proceeds to charity.

Although Christmas has become an over commercialised spending spree at this stage, the Crib still features significantly in our home.  My wife Deena won it in the early 1990’s in a Faithlegg National School Christmas draw, made and donated by Jimmy Flynn.  The wooden stable was handmade and is a solid 3 sided build with floor and roof.  All the pieces within can be moved.  Needless to say it was a big draw to our children and Deena not alone allowed them touch it, but encouraged it.  Many was the Christmas we hunted for pieces under the tree, down a settee or on one occasion out of the video recorder (Joel’s favourite) .  It’s still a major feature of our Christmas traditions, as will be a visit to the Faithlegg Church Crib.

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 tidesntales@gmail.com to receive the blog every week.
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“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