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.

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

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.

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.

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!

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

August 15th, last day of the salmon season

The salmon driftnet season traditionally closed on August 15th, and it was always brought mixed feelings.  Grateful to have a break after the rigor of 24hr a day fishing, but conscious that within a week you’d be longing to be back into the familiar rhythm of tides and currents, moon and sun, wind, rain and shine.

One of the closes I recall best was the year Michael “Spud” Murphy had come fishing with me in my own punt.  T’was a season that had blurred past.  Weekends couldn’t come fast enough, some indeed starting on a Thursday and finishing late on a Sunday night/Monday morning on the windy stool at Jack Meades.  During the week was almost as bad, there was always a chance of drink from many of the ships anchored at Cheekpoint, either in exchange for fish, or hard currency.

That particular year we stopped short as high water was at 9pm and many crews decided to call it a season at that point.  The close meant that the drift nets had to be removed from the punt, it was illegal to have them aboard thereafter.  Some would fish out the ebb tide later, only to finish at 6am next morning, but t’wud mean leaving the nets until high water and dragging yourself out of bed a few hours after getting home, which sounded like a lot of hard work.  Besides, getting home at 9.30 meant Jacks by 10, the place would be only getting lively!

Punts were lined up along the quay, the earlier boats in, taking plum spots beside the railings, which made it easier to get the nets out of the punt and over the jagged cement edges of the quay.  We were working on the shore, so made our way to Moran’s poles, hauled the nets out on the Strand above high water mark and “tripping off” the punt, turned heals for home!

Next morning, a little the worse for wear, we started the job of “ranging over” the nets and separating them out for bringing home.  Cheekpoint boats generally carried 6 nets.  Sometimes a net was “mounted” individually to a rope, measuring about 22 fathoms in length.  Sometimes two nets were “mounted” or “roped” together.  The individual nets were then tied together to form a train of nets and the ends of each net was “sconeded” (at least I think that was the term and possibly a derivative of Selvidge, the meshs that are roped onto the nets) into each other using a piece of roping twine.  To separate them out, the Head and Foot rope was untied, the “Sconding” was removed and the individual nets were then tied up.  Being separated meant that carrying them up off the strand was a less back breaking task.  On the quay this was also done, but fishermen there also had the choice to leave them together and hoist them into the back of a car or into a trailer.

“ranging” the nets

Once home, the nets were generally washed.  At home we filled a barrel with warm water and some washing powder, to try remove the dirt and grime of the river.  They were then rinsed in clean water and hung up to dry, perhaps out of a nearby tree or even across the washing line.  This practice was not as common once the monofilament netting came in the mid to late 1990’s.   Many fishermen believed that  monofilament was better once there was a new shine on them, and some took that to the extreme as they “stripped off” the old nets and remounted new nets.

When the nets were dry they were “lofted” or stored away in a shed, and would be taken down during the long winter months to be mended and repaired in preparation for the next season to come.  The task was as much a social affair as a task, and some of the sheds were as comfortable as a kitchen, with a fire, natural light and many’s the time a drink to be had too.

All now gone since the closure of the Salmon fishing.  Gone but not forgotten.

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.