The Woodstown “Scotch” fishing weir

In the early decades of the 19th century traditional fishing
methods were turned on its head with the introduction of the Scotch Weir to
Ireland.  The origins are confirmed by the name, and the method of fishing
is typified by what remains of the Woodstown weir near the mouth of the
Waterford harbour.
 

Woodstown weir, circa 1960.  Sense of the size of it.
with thanks to Brendan Grogan
We’ve looked at the use of head weirs in
the harbour before
.  But weirs were not a distinct and uniform fishing
engine.  Weirs have been in use in various forms in Ireland since the 5th century.  The foremost expert
was Arthur Went who catalogued not just the methods
but the dispersal of them.  Many names
are associated with weirs including head weirs, fly weirs, bag weirs and
scotch/stake weirs.  And there is undoubtedly
many local variations and common names.  Waterford harbour was the foremost location,
and the head weirs, for which we should be very proud, were considered to date
from at least the arrival of the Normans.  The
remaining weirs form a unique, but unappreciated, fishery heritage treasure.[i]
But weirs such as
those at Woodstown were anything but “traditional” in an overall sense. Although the technology was centuries old, the traditional methods were a
more sustainable and controlled fishing practice, with some rules such as the
Queens (or Kings) pass (a gap allowing passage of fish up or down river) dating
in origins to the Magna
Carta
. The Scotch Weirs originated in a different time, and responded to an
improved method of using Ice to keep fish fresh.  The process was introduced from China by a man
called Dalrymple. [ii]
The new ice
preserving method resulted in the ability to transport fish over longer
distances.  As a result, the time honoured control
over the numbers of salmon caught were no longer necessary.  The Scotch
weir allowed for hundreds of fish to be taken at a time, and the nets could fish all
tides and all weathers (the weekend closure was still enforced however). The basic design was as depicted at Woodstown.
A sketch of a scotch weir.  note that local varations in design were common

A line of poles
ran perpendicular to the shoreline, as far and just beyond the
“spring” low water mark. To these poles was attached netting, which
guided or lead fish out to deep water.  At the end they entered a netting
box, with nooks into which the fish butted their heads.  Once trapped like
this, the fish rarely tried to extricate themselves, but remained to be
captured either via a dip net or by hand once the tide had dropped away at low
water.

The scotch weirs
were generally instigated by the landed gentry, who realised the vast financial
killing to be made.  Although traditional
nets-men may have complained, initially the weirs were erected unopposed.
 However, the plight of the traditional nets-men, anglers and some
shipping and boating interests led to parliamentary committee hearings, and
court cases.
Some fishermen at work at Woodstown with the weir in the backgrond
with netting attached ot the leader.
Photo via Bill Irish collection in A Century of Trade & Enterprise in Ireland

Generally to no
avail however. for then (as now) the powers that be were either ambivalent or
wholly ignorant to the realities of the practice.  At hearings the landlords could call witness after
witness to say that weirs had been in use for millennia.  Laws, when they
came, were considered by many to be too little too late.  Some of the
weirs were removed whilst others were permitted to continue to fish, the
Woodstown weir operated into the 1960’s I’m told.  Two other weirs based
on a similar design, but much smaller in size, operated in the Kings Channel
into the 1990’s.
Today only a few
poles remain of the Woodstown Weir and beyond low water, some paraphernalia
remains of the netting box.  The site is now two centuries old and worthy
of interpretation at least.  
If you want some sense of the
weir fishing method practiced at Woodstown, heres a link of how it operates from present day Nova Scotia
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.
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[i] Went.
AWJ. Notes upon the fixed engines for the capture of salmon used in Ireland since
1800.  The Journal of the Royal Society
of Antiquaries of Ireland.  Vol XCIII
1963
[ii] Robertson.
I.A.  The Tay Salmon Fisheries since the 18th C. 1998. Cruithne Press.
 Glasgow

Threatened monuments of Waterford harbour

Some might consider this title a mite provocative.  Indeed others might think on the date of publication and ponder a connection. However, although it is intended to be provocative, it is in no way a joke. The monuments I refer to are at least a millennium old and are quietly slipping into oblivion.  They are the Head Weirs of Waterford harbour and, at this point, are very possibly unique in the world.

Firstly, let me define a monument.  The concise Oxford dictionary states that “3. an ancient building or site etc that has survived or been preserved”  The head weirs certainly fit this definition having been worked over the centuries and regularly maintained by their owners/leasers.

via AJ WENT 1

What is a Head Weir some might ask.  A Head Weir is a method of catching fish which uses the tides to bring the fish to the net. As such in legal terms it is defined as a “Fixed Engine”. The weirs themselves were a V shaped structure. The mouth of the weir is the widest part of the structure. The wings that made the v shape were constructed from straight poles driven by manpower into the riverbed, and held together with horizontal beams. Both wings came together at the “head” from where a net was hung, and it trailed away from the weir. This conical net worked similar to a modern day trawl net.

Depending on the direction they faced, weirs were known as Ebb or Flood weirs. An Ebb weir had its mouth facing upriver, and when the tide was leaving the harbour, it flowed through the mouth, towards the head and concentrated the flow of water into the fishing net, in much the same way a funnel would direct fluid into a bottle.

an indication of the weirs 1950s
via AJ WENT 1

Taking the ebb weir as our example, the net was hauled at low water by bring a punt alongside the weir and hauling down to the cod end. The cod end was taken aboard and the fish emptied into the punt. (In summer time the weirs tended to be used for bait for eel fishing, and in winter they caught bottom fish like cod, flats etc. Herring shoals would be a problem at times, with millions swimming in the habour in just one shoal, weir nets would have to be hauled up, or risk being carried away.) The net was then reset, but would only start fishing again, when the ebb tide started to run. (The tides in Waterford have a 6hr 20min cycle approx)

Duncannon weir. 3

As to the age of the weirs, well even locally there is confusion about this.  Growing up in the harbour, there was uncertainty about the weirs, because a lot of newer weirs were constructed by the landlords in the early 19th C, a method known as the scotch weir, typified by the construction at Woodstown. Many of the older weirs were amended at this time.
However, the Head weirs were recorded in the monastic possessions of the Cistercians during their dissolution. The Cistercians started construction at Dunbrody in the harbour circa 1200.  But it is interesting to note that when the Knights Templars were granted land and ferry rights at Passage and Templetown (1170’s) and “they operated a salmon weir, or fish trap, a large edifice of strong wooden poles, built in the river, which channeled salmon through an ever narrowing chute towards an exit, where they swam into a net“2 What I can’t answer, but suspect, is that they Templars took over an existing structure, rather than building their own,  
Buttermilk castle and weir 3

Interestingly some more recent research has indicated an earlier development of weir in Ireland, but not directly a connection to Waterford. It claims that certain structures in the Shannon and in Co Down, were V shaped structures of stone or wood.  The dates on these structures are Early Christian and records the earliest to between 447-630AD. It also notes that laws, dating 6-7thC, were written to oversee the use of weirs. 

Although I have no proof that the Waterford Harbour weirs are a continuation of use back to Early Christian times, I think they are nevertheless a spectacular connection to Ireland’s ancient east. To allow such structures to simply disappear due to neglect and disinterest (principally due to official disinterest) is to my mind a disgrace, Hopefully, the heritage value of the weirs are realised soon. Otherwise we may have just memories, photographs and written words as a basis to our interpretation of them.
Weirs in the harbour, view from the Hurthill
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.
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1. via Arthur EJ Went.  JRSAI LXXXVII Piece titled Sprat or white fish weirs in Waterford Harbour
2. Niall Byrne, The Irish Crusade.  p107
3. Billy Colfer. The Hook peninsula

Cheekpoints most notable landmark

Growing up in the Mount Avenue in the 1970’s the most notable and invasive feature on our young lives was neither the magnificent Barrow Railway viaduct, or the colliding waters of the three rivers as they met below our home.  That honour, if that phrase is appropriate at all, was given to the blue and grey superstructure of Great Island Power Station, which lay directly across from our bedroom windows on the Wexford shore, and the twin chimneys that raised to 450 feet.

Great Island was an oil fuelled power generation station, owned and operated by the ESB, construction of which commenced in the spring of 1965.   It was the first such station to be built outside or Dublin or Cork and at its peak would employ up to 200 people.  The station opened in 1967 with one generator and work commenced soon after on a second generator, which necessitated a second chimney.  This extension was completed and working by 1972. At its commercial height it would supply 20% of the nations power needs.  To the right of the site, are five 17,000 ton capacity tanks for the storage of oil.  To fill these tanks, a very fine jetty was installed to which tankers tied up and were unloaded by suction pumps and via pipework to the tanks.

The proposal when first mooted (around 1963) met with considerable disquiet in the community of Cheekpoint.  And a deputation of fishermen travelled to Dublin to discuss and negotiate the fishermen’s concerns.  The deep water jetty which would be planted smack bang in the centre of some of the best salmon driftnetting waters was the principal concern and fishermen were anxious to communicate the loss that this would bring.

A good sense here of the scale of the jetty, and how it blocked the fishery
accessed from:http://homepage.eircom.net/~horeswoodns/power_station.htm

Fishermen got little footing in Dublin however.  The project was a major capital investment for the country and was seen as crucial for the developing industrial base which was a major plank of government policy.  The promise of jobs however, was considered to be very real, and assurances were given that Cheekpoint men would be in a favourable position to benefit.

In the end those jobs did materialise and it was one of the reasons for example that my father returned home from sea, and it was also a factor in the return of my mother from London.  They were married in the Christmas of 1964 and my father started on the building work on the station in 1965. 

The jobs, however, were fleeting.  Once the major construction work had ceased so did the work.  A bone of contention in the community, probably still felt to this day.

Photo circa 1969 with thanks to Brenda Grogan

In the 1970’s the station was a real invasion into our lives.  The lights at night shore through all but the thickest of curtains, and was one of the reasons my father planted a line of trees between the house and the river.  There was an ever present humming noise, which we managed to get used to.  But there was an extremely loud release of steam occasionally and also ear splitting bangs from time to time.  These were bad enough during the day, but they also occurred at night/early morning and were the cause of many a night of lost sleep.  (My Uncle John, a river pilot, managed to get the number of the manager of the station at one point.  Any night the station started and woke his home, he’d ring up the manager.  “what can I do” asked the manager, to which John replied “well if you can’t stop it, you may as well be awoken like everyone else in Cheekpoint” I thought being woken at night was bad enough, but it was only when I started drifting for salmon later in the 70’s and we were right under the station that the noise was really brought home to me.

An advert from the time with an artists sketch of the work in progress

There were several local campaigns to highlight the noise, but in those days we had limited means of recording the racket.  Occasionally, a monitoring station was set up outside our home as a result of my father (amongst others) campaigning through Brian O’Shea TD.  Coincidentally however, the station lay dormant until the monitoring station had been moved.  It didn’t seem to be as big an issue on the Wexford side.  However, noise travels more easily across water than land.

grass fire in front of the oil tanks late 1970’s
Photo credit Aidan McAlpin

The chimneys could be seen from almost any part of the area, including town and did become an identifying landmark.  The red lights that shone constantly at night became a familiar feature from the river and shore, and were always intrigued to watch the work of steeplejacks scaling up the sides to replace bulbs or do other essential maintenance.   However imposing they looked from a distance to be standing under them was awe inspiring, and you felt like the whole structure was tumbling down upon you, when you looked up. I’d never make a steeplejack.

As early as 2000 there was speculation that the station would have to close as a result of deregulation in the power industry and concerns about the commercial viability, pollution and cost of oil, used in stations such as Great Island.

Appropriately named Grizzly at Great Island from News & Star dated Fri 11aug 1995.
In the news following the death of two tug boat men who were helping in berthing the tanker.
Mickey Aspel and Johnny Lacey were their names. RIP

I had a mixed reaction to news that it might close.  Along the way there were some concerns that an Incinerator could be located on the site.  The fact that it was such a fine site with deep water access made it a very important, strategic location.  The announcement of the sale of the station to a Spanish power generation company Endessa sent shivers through the village I think.  For the state to sell off such a site made little sense in the long term.  Construction of a new gas fired station, which commenced in 2012 and officially opened in June this year brought the possibility that the old station would finally be knocked along with the chimneys.  It’s currently owned by Scottish company SSE Airtricity.  I wonder how many others will feature in the stations story in the coming years.

Several years back Julian Walton, at the launch of the Development Groups booklet on local history, stated that the chimneys were a local landmark, and would in time become as important as the church to the local built heritage.  Many scoffed at the notion.  However, after living under their shadow, smoke and warning beacons for most of my life, I think I would miss them not lighting the night sky. In the end, like so much in the Ireland of present, I guess it will all be reduced down to pounds, shilling and pence matters, rather than any thought for built heritage.  Mind you, a similar landmark in Dublin, the Poolbeg chimneys, have been retained because of their iconic status.

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

On Cran, Joulters and Luggers

Over the last few weeks I’ve looked back on the Herring Driftnet Fishery of Waterford Harbour and this week I wanted to bring the practical side of it to a close with a look at the selling of fish.
That first year of fishing herring, we had a market in Dunmore East.  A family (I think named Kervick) bought the herring from out of the boats on our return, and although I was not aware of it until later, they basically governed if we went to fish or not.  Essentially unless they had a market, it was pointless going to fish.  Each evening, depending on the weather of course, they would let us know what we could catch, and if I remember it right, we divided the catch amongst the boats.
Basically, they set a quota by which the boats could fish.  It they required 200 cran, this was divided between the boats going out to fish.  If some boats had a little over their own share, they might take home some, or pass it on to people on the quay.  At times a “joulter” might arrive, someone who wanted to buy fish and sell it on themselves.  These men tended to be from inland, and next day they would be selling door to door in Tipperarry or Kilkenn
Selling to a joulter was considered to be good business, you might make a few more pound per box, but was totally bad form if you had an unfilled quota, and skippers would be expected to turn them down, in order to fulfil the order from the usual buyer.  I remember one skipper from Cheekpoint, who didn’t seem to mind who he put out, once he got to sell his fish, for a few pound more.  I remember one altercation, where Robert Ferguson and Dick Mason scandalised him to his face, out of concern that the regular buyer would hear of his dealing with the joulter and pull the market from all the boats.  The gentleman wasn’t to be deterred however.
Removing the fish in Dunmore was done by filling fish boxes and then hauling them up out of the boat and stacking them onto the quayside.  once stacked up they were removed by forklift.  The hauling out was all by hand, and depending on the size of catch, and the state of tide, could be a back breaking activity,
I think it was the next season and we had a market from the luggers of Eastern Europe.  Some were Russian, but the more common were boats from Poland, who anchored off Passage East and who bought the herrings from directly out of boats, which tied up alongside.  The luggers were nothing more than fishing boats themselves, and because they were from the “eastern bloc” they carried a large crew.  It was a time when communism was still the political and economic system of the Europe from East Germany to Alaska and herring played a large role in sustaining the proletariat. Unemployment was supposed to be unknown, hence the large crew.

Typical type of Polish lugger accessed from
http://photos.shetland-museum.org.uk/index.php?a=Collections&WINID=1447749686403
Depending on timing or our catch, we would sometimes tie up
at the lugger to continue shaking the nets, or in other cases head back to
Cheekpoint and once the nets were cleared, come back down to offload.  It usually had a lot to do with what boats got
there first, and how long you were likely to wait before you could off load.
Off loading at the luggers was a relatively easy job.  Overhead the derrick would swing out from the lugger and a
basket would be lowered into the boat. 
Once in, we used shovels to fill the basket, as quick as we could.  Once filled it was hoisted onto the deck of
the lugger and then the deckhands worked to salt and barrel the fish.  Each basket was the measure of a cran, and the skipper
usually busied himself by counting the baskets, which on deck, or from the wheelhouse,
an opposite, kept a tally for the lugger. 
For each basket, a herring was put to one side, to be tallied at the
end.  Pen and paper was considered a less
accurate, if not totally impractical measure!
The filling was a hard, hot and relentless job, but at least
once you started to see the deck, you could see yourself making progress.  Coming near the end, you had to get into the
nooks and crannies of the boat, ensuring that you made every last one of the
herrings count.  Each basket had to be
filled right to the top.  When you
thought you could get no more, you generally topped it up with another scoop,
careful, mind you, to smoothen it off.  On
deck you were being carefully watched, and at times there was a cat and mouse
game played.  Shouts down, urging more
fish per basket, reprimands from the wheelhouse, strange words being bandided
about.  You had to be mindful, each basket was more money, but a dissatisfied Pole, might mean hard bargaining at the end.
Hauling a cran of herring ashore.  Accessed from
http://fishingnews.co.uk/2015/09/fishmarkets-of-yesteryear-herring/
As each basket was hoisted, it was carefully guided out of the
boat by us crew.  Ever mindful that if it
struck the ship it might topple, and with it some of our profit.  Up it went over the gunwale of the ship, and
it was only then that we could relax, knowing it was their problem from
then. 
It wasn’t often I got to go aboard and take the docket.  It tended to be the skippers job.  My first occasion was when fishing with
Robert Ferguson and he asked me to hop aboard to lugger as he had to move the
“Boy Alan” away and allow another boat alongside. I’ll return to the event closer to Christmas.
Once emptied the return journey was one of cleaning down the decks, washing scales off every conceivable part of the boat and ourselves and more tall tales and banter.  It was never more satisfying than when you had landed a large catch and all the work had been worthwhile,  Of course there were many trips when I’m not sure if we even covered the cost of the diesel oil,  But even then, for me there was always the river to enjoy, the every changing, always alluring river.  The fishing you see, may have been an economic necessity, the work may have been tough, but it was all nothing compared to the sights, sounds, smells and ever changing character of the river and the people who worked it. 

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:  
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words and phrases my Grandmother used

I’ve mentioned before that I first came to live in the Russianside with my grandmother, Maura Moran, in my late teens.  “Nanny” as she was called was in the family had her own way of expressing herself. But of course, she was just a different generation, and from an old fishing family who had words and expressions that had not changed for many generations I presume.

To be honest I was oblivious to the way we spoke until Deena came into our home.  Deena and Nanny took an instant liking to each other and they would talk for hours at the fire, or in the kitchen. Afterwards Deena would often ask me for a translation, and as she herself became part of the home, would ask Nanny directly what she meant.

Nanny with the “Thursday Club” gang in the Reading Room several
years back now.  The club finished this past September. Another important
meeting point and sharing or stories and maintaing local connection.
Photo courtesy of Bridgid Power.

So between us, we have put the following little dictionary together.  Most words are spelled phonetically as we are unsure of the spelling.  Of course you can also check out the Dictionary of Waterford Slang, and you don’t even need the book, as they have an online version.

Streel.  A person would “streel in” to the house, meaning they looked the worse for wear, but probably more like they had done something wrong.  For some reason the phrase tended to be used to describe a female.  She might also remark – “did you see the streel of that wan”, “she streeled in” or “thats some streel of a wan”.  I particularly remember a chap visiting us one time with his wife and he was wearing a pair of jeans with rips in the knees – all the fashion at the time.  Nanny was apoplectic when they left “Did you see the streel of him, and his wife sitting there looking at em”

Scrawb.  Any cut or scrape of little or no consequence was considered a “Scrawb”  “How did you get that scrawb on your arm”  Always to be treated with warm water and dettol

pish óg. Any oul tall tale or incorrect story was considered “pish óg” this also went for sayings which she considered untrue or questionable.  I remember Deena asking once about fishermen meeting red haired women on the way to fish and turning back as it meant they would catch no fish.  “arrah that’s only oul pish óg” she would say

As you would expect from a commercial fishing home, there were many phrases to describe the weather.  A sample:

Maugey.  Generally a dreary, grey overcast day, most likely with a chance of rain,  In discussing this with Vic Bible he wondered would it have meant muggy.  But generally a muggy day includes heat, and it was an expression I can remember being used winter or summer, but maybe that was the origin.

Ang-ish.  Another expression to go with the weather.  An angish day.  An angish day was a day that looked like it was going to rain at any minute.  I now realise this is an Irish/Gaelic phrase – a work colleague one day who is a native Irish speaker asked me how the weather was in work.  I said it was Ang-ish.  And asked after her own situation.  “Go Aingish ar fad” and when I expressed surprise that she knew the term she told me it meant miserable altogether.

Black wind – any wind from the east was described as the black wind.  No idea why, but she was convinced it brought illness

Well if that “don’t bate the band” to express surprise

Time to pick the Bookalawns – ragworth which had to be picked by law

That’s some fancy “clobber” ye have on – clothes, or more likely an outfit

He “died in harness” or “died with his boots on” meaning a person who died while at work, or still going strong

Lot of “dunnage” on the strand – usually after a storm – lots of driftwood etc

He was only “gaa-ching around” – a layabout or time wasting

“Put the spud in the gree-shig” (a favourite of hers) a spud in its jacket put into the hot ash below the firegrate to heat it

Have you “no gumption” – no cop on/ common sense

“That’s some hate” – an expression used for a really hot day – heat/hate

He was a “homeward bounder” a returned sailor

ye “Lood ra mawn” ya – ye ejitt

Moolick – When something was dirty.  When it was worse than that twas “Pure Moolick”  when used it was often combined with a facial expression of disapproval or even disgust.

“Mol foostering” – messing about with something, making a mess of it maybe

He was “on the tear” – a drinking session

He’s “over be-ant” – an exprssion about the location of someone –  maybe over in the village or in a field not far away I guess

A Quare Hawk – someone acting odd, or maybe someone acting out of character

He’s some scut – a right bollix of a fella

No “spake” – didn’t say a word

There were also phrases she used that we always enjoyed.

When someone disagreed with you – “well, tis not the one way takes everybody”

When something inevitable happened, like someone fell off a bike, who was always careless – “long threatening comes at last”

Or when you had to do something even when it was against you will, but necessary none the less – “groan she may, but go she must”

The current generation probably get less opportunity to hear such words or phrases, with heads stuck in computers, on phones or other screens accessing information, entertainment or connecting with people across the globe.

When John Barry returned from Canada in the 1960’s he was nicknamed “the Guy” because he used the Americanism so freely, and because it stood out as being so odd in the community.  No such oddity would exist now I’d imagine.  Different times indeed.  And yet when relations visited us from Prince George, BC in Canada recently they struggled with our accents and our words.  So perhaps much of the words and expressions of Nannys generation remain.  We just dont pause to consider them in our daily use.

Others, such as fishing expressions and local placenames however are much under threat,  The fishing ones because as the fishing activities the community grew up around have been removed, so those activities are no longer practised or discussed.  The placenames, because many of them related to the fishing also, or because as the older people die out, so do their use.

That’s why activities such as the placenames project currently under way with the Cheekpoint Fishing Heritage Project is so relevant.  There will be several events over winter 2015/16 in the Reading Room Cheekpoint.  Please come along to share your local knowledge, or improve it!

My Facebook and Twitter pages are more contemporary and reflect not just heritage
and history but the daily happenings in our beautiful harbour:
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