amongst the Herring shoals in Waterford harbour

As the Reaper and the other Cheekpoint boats proceeded
downriver, we were joined by the Passage and Ballyhack men, forming a convoy of
decked and half decked motor boats of varying size and power and a multitude of
colours.  Depending on the tides, the
Passage men might head down inside the Spit light along the west banks, with
Creaden off their starboard bow.  The “Pointers”
along with the “Hackers” favoured the channel waters around the spit,
onto Duncannon and beyond to the lower harbour.
the Cheekpoint fleet from around this time
Photo courtesy of Anthony Rogers

It was only after Duncannon that you felt the change in the
river and the deepening and less familiar seas of the lower harbour.  The sea around Broom Hill told you all you
needed to know of what to expect below. 
If the rocks were calm and free of waves, you could expect a reasonable
sea, but if the seas were surging up and around, it was to be heavy going.  If seas were breaking, and the mists were
rising up from it onto the grass banks above, then you knew the seas were
turbulent, and most likely we would never have even “set sail”.  (Many was the afternoon the skippers would be up on the high road, looking down the harbour and discussing the weather) 

When we arrived in the lower harbour, boats began to disperse,
hungrily searching the deeper waters for signs of herring shoals.  Some were close in to the shore, beneath
Loftus Hall and further down towards the Hook. Others maybe stretched as far as
Creaden Head.  Boats took various courses,
and many zig zaged amongst each other, keen to “mark” a herring shoal on the
fish finder and establish a pattern of where to “shoot” the nets.  Dunmore boats skippered by Paul Power, Napper Kelly and Mick Sheen would be sounding as they came across to met us, effectively covering the entire harbour.
As the gloom of the evening gathered and the sun set over
the Commeraghs away to the west, the frenzy grew.  Some evenings the sunset was hidden but the evenings the sky was clear were a feast for the eye, the colours magical, the sky almost afire, a contradiction to the cold night to come.  Boats were eager to set in daylight, to
better see where others were setting nets, and also because the herring tended
to rise with the dusk and skippers felt they would miss their chance of a
decent haul if they left it too late.
Some nights the shoals could not be found.  It was generally obvious from a lack of bird
activity, the tell tale signs of gulls wheeling overhead, or divers such as the
majestic and gigantic gannets plunging from a hundred feet or more into the
freezing seas and emerging with a beak full of silver meat.  On these nights the boats tended to be well
spread out and the VHF radio was quiet. 
Occasionally a haunting voice would float across the radio.  Kenny Bolger (RIP) singing an Irish ballad,
when that happened, it tended to confirm that there would be no fish on that
particular night. The Bolgers were fishy folk, as good at catching fish as anyone, and if my school mate from De La Salle was left near the radio it meant there was damn all else to do.
Other nights however were different.  The seas were alive with birds and
seals.  A slick of oil, released from the
herring on the sea bed, which Denis said you could smell and taste in your
mouth, but something, I never manged to do. 
The radio was buzzing with sightings and at times Jim would call us in
to look at the fish finder, the tell tale blackness of a herring shoal, and the
extent of it mapped out on the grey blue paper as a stylus flicked over the
paper marking the fish below.
Once satisfied that the herring were abundant enough the
winkie was turned on and cast over, followed by the nets.  I looked after the lead rope initially, not
trusted as yet with the head rope and ensuring that the cans were paid out clear
of the nets and set to the correct depth. 
Generally all the nets were set, but occasionally, Jim might heave too,
concerned by the markings on the fish finder and the extent of the shoal.  When you hit the herring in large quantities
a couple of nets could fill the boat, and the last thing you needed was extra
work.  Once set, the nets were tied via a
hauling rope to the bow of the boat we hung from them. 
This was a signal to get the tea on, and the grub bag
out.  Tea in the Reaper was always good.  As much as Jim loved his cigarettes, he
equally loved his tea.  The kettle was
boiled on a gas stove and the tea bags were added as the kettle started to
sing.  Hot and sweet, tea and sandwiches
never tasted any better.  
On another
occasion I was asked to go with another Cheekpoint boat for a couple of evenings.  Having set the nets, The skipper tasked his brother “wet the
tea”  What he produced was so vile, even
the copious amounts of sugar I added couldn’t disguise the awful
taste.  I honestly thought he had pee’d
in the kettle and on the first opportunity tossed the lot over the side.  When he spotted my cup empty he was immediately
on me, “will ye have more tea Andy” “I won’t J… J.. thanks” says I…and like a
not yet created Mrs Doyle, he harangued me about it saying ”a ya will, ye
fecking will”  until I dolefully relented.  The next night I was more wary,
and as “cook” went forward to boil the kettle I kept a close eye.   Under constant pressure from the skipper who would
shout in occasionally, reminding him to hurry, that they needed to haul the
nets, he flung in the tea bags before the kettle was anywhere near boiling
and emerged with only a faint hint of steam from the kettle moments later.  At least I could drink it knowing the problem
was half-boiled water.
The nets would be checked on occasionally, to be sure that
they were fishing, and to get a sense of how heavy the catch might be.  Too early and you could haul the nets off the
rising fish, too late however and you risked overloading the boat. 
Hauling was a tough affair when the nets were full.  Here’s an interesting example from Northern Ireland.  But at least a net hauler made the work
easier.  Once ready to commence, the rope
was hauled in to the gunwale and opened from the net.  Then the head and lead ropes were gathered up
and placed over the hauler drum.  The
hydraulics were engaged and the nets were then pulled on and helped in over the
side. 

While Jim kept the boat up to the
nets, Denis hauled the ropes and I gathered up the nets as they fell to the
deck and dragged them to the stowing area. 
When the catch was light this was easy enough, but on nights with a big
catch, this was hard arduous work.  The
netting coming in over the drum could be three feet wide and it was all I could
do to help Denis and Jim at the hauler and then stagger away under the weight
of the nets to stow them on the boats deck. 

You had to be careful where you dropped the nets, and on more than one
occasion Denis had given me a tongue lashing. 
Stowing the nets meant making it easy to clear them afterwards and safe
to steam back to port.  On a decked boat,
it was important that the nets and fish were properly dispersed, and it was
something he wanted me to get right from the start.
Having hauled a big catch, there was always a sense of
ephuroia aboard.  A big catch, once you
had a market, meant a decent wage that week, and in the weeks coming up to
Christmas, or indeed after it, such a catch was always welcome.  Big catches were not the norm, and you would
have plenty of”watery hauls”.  You tended to relax after that exertions and
in the tired but happy glow, surrounded by flipping fish in their death throes
and wheeling gulls, calling to you, as if for a feed, Denis would often set to
telling yarns.  Jim tended to wink at me,
or throw his eyes up to heaven and I never knew if there was any truth in what
Denis would tell me, but I would always be doubled up with laughter.
One of the nights a seal had bobbed up aft of us as we
headed across the harbour towards Dunmore.  “Did I ever tell ye the one about Tailstones (Jimmy Doherty) and the seal in
Youghal”.  Even if he had I would have
said no.  I never got tired of listning
to his stories.  “Himself, Lannen (Jimmy’s brother Andy) and
myself were fishing salmon in the Dominic this summer down in Youghal.  Well all was going grand till this day we were
hauling back on the nets and half the fish that came in over the side had a
piece missing.  ‘Mother of God’ said
Lannen…’if them seals don’t clear off, we wont have the price of a pint this
week’  Tailstones said he’d put them
seals right, once and for all.  Next day
they arrived in Youghal to go fish and he retrieved a shot gun from out of the
back of his van.  When they were out
fishing, I spotted a seal a long way off, head bobbing out of the
water.  Tailstones fired up the engine
and went in pursuit and moments later brought her about and stepped up to the
Gunwhale, loading the gun.  He raised it
and was about to discharge it when the seal turned and lo and behold the seal
had the full face mask of a diver and a mouthpiece to boot.  I threw my hand up and diverted the gun
barrel to the heavens and the same moment the gun was discharged and the only
casualty was a gull that happened to be flying past.  ‘Mother of God’ said Lannen, ‘we’d have never got
absolution’ 
As I laughed at his yarns the next phase of the job was coming into my head; shaking the nets, and it would take time and energy.  But that respite leading up to it, as the boats bobbed and swayed across the harbour towards Dunmore was most welcome.  More work might be ahead but we were a satisfied crew bringing home the catch, and with the promise of a few bob in your pocket at the weekend
Next instalment – clearing the nets and selling the fish

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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and history but the daily happenings in our beautiful harbour:  
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Drifting for Herring, Winter 1983

It was about this time of year in 1983 that I got my first taste of fishing in the deeper waters of the harbour around Dunmore East and the Hook.  It was a strange and confusing place that was more dangerous and unpredictable than the fishing I had known heretofore.  Some nights were threatening, with dangerous seas and unpredictable conditions, others were magical, still, calm, star reflected seas and a gentle breeze.  Deep water also meant the dreaded seasickness, something I’d never known up to that point, and something I would never want to meet again.  But it was the fishing itself that was so different, boats, nets, fish, conditions and practices.

I’ve mentioned before how part of our entertainment in Cheekpoint was hanging around the quays helping out the fishermen.  In the autumn of 1983, the first since leaving secondary school, Jim (Dypse) Doherty approached me on the quay and asked would I like to come with him and Denis (Harvey) Doherty to drift for Herring.  I jumped at the chance.

That afternoon I was aboard the Reaper, a fully decked motor boat with an enclosed cabin.  She was the only one of her type in Cheekpoint at the time.  (Most of the boats were half deckers, with open decks and if you were lucky a small weather deck and cuddy)  When waves broke across the Reaper they swished round the deck, prior to escaping via the scuppers.  She still required bailing, but not at regularly.

The Reaper off Cheekpoint
Photo taken by Anthony Rogers

Jim and Denis were as different as chalk and cheese, but the one thing they shared was that you would never see either of them without a fag in their mouths,  Jim smoked away, lighting one after the other.  But occasionally he would remove the fag as he paused to consider a response to a question.  Denis on the other hand, never seemed to be without the fag in his mouth.  It hung from his lip, whatever the job, and I often marveled at his ability to chat away, with the fag hanging off his bottom lip, until it burned right down till there was almost nothing left, and yet he never seemed to notice.

All was different on the Herring boat.  Growing up with Salmon, I knew my way round nets and the boats.  But the Herring nets were deeper and the meshes smaller.  They still had a lead rope and a head rope, but the head rope had much smaller corks.  This was to allow the nets to sink down to the level the Herring were swimming at, and this depth could be moderated via gallon can’s on a few fathom of rope which could be lengthened or shortened as required, stationed at regular intervals along the head rope..

Instead of a bouy, a dan was used on either end of the nets.  A dan was a homemade marker.  It was usually a straight stick of hazel (although broom handles were coming into fashion then).  In the middle of the stick was either a buoy or a slab of builders aeroboard for flotation.  The dan was weighed down with bricks or lead.  At the other end, each boat had a set of colour flags atop made out of fertiliser bags or fabric, each boat had their own colour to distinguish each other.  At the top t
was a flashing winkie (light), so that you could see your nets in the dark.  One of my jobs was to go up to my Aunt Ellen’s shop in the village and get some batteries. The winkie only came on in the dark, to save batteries, so to see if it was working I had to cup my hands over it at see if the light came on.

The nets were ranged over and another difference was that each net was tied at the head and the lead rope, but the actual net meshes were not joined.  The herring drifted in shoals you see, and nets may need to be separated and left to other boats to haul if the catch was too big.

Instead of hauling the nets by hand, the Spenser Carter net and rope hauler was operated via hydraulic pipes and once the net was heaved over it and the motor engaged, you put your energy into hauling the ropes and dragging the catch to the deck to be stowed.  Another difference was that as you hauled the boat was kept on the nets via the engine and the mizen mast astern.  The last most significant difference was that you used a fish finder to identify the swimming shoals.  Of all the equipment aboard the Reaper, this was the one I found the most amazing.  I guess that up to then all the knowledge I had acquired about salmon was handed down and learned the hard way.  It was about the natural elements and a sense of how the salmon thought and swam.  It had been thus with Herring before, watching the surface for oil, looking at the actions of the diving birds, spotting foraging seals and what they emerged on the surface with. 

I felt like a real man, that first evening going down onto the quay with my grub bag, and stowing it on the Reaper.  Jim started the engine and I let go the ropes forward and aft and Denis took them aboard. Jim took her away from the quay while we bustled around with the last minute jobs. It was 3 O’clock in the afternoon and we needed to be on the herring grounds to set as dusk fell.

All around us the other Cheekpoint boats were leaving too.  My father was in the Boy Alan with Robert Ferguson (skipper) and Eamon Power.  The St Agnes was skipperd by Dick Mason and had Edward Ferguson aboard and I think Brendan Foley.  The Collen II was also there, Ned Power, John Joe and Matt (spogey) Doherty and the Maid of the West was also there, a much older and smaller boat, with the brothers; Mickey, Paddy and Jack Duffin.  I think it was the next year that Sean (hops) Doherty joined with a new boat with his father John and Jimmy O’Dea. John Ferguson would join later, I remember Tom Sullivan and Seamus Barry also crewing, when on their month off on the Bell boats.  At some point Michael Elliott joined in with a fine boat, the Glendine.

I was following in the footsteps of generations of Cheekpoint fishermen, who had departed to fish in the lower harbour.  I’d heard many stories, and knew that boats like the Maid of the West had been rowed down, nets set by oar, hauled by sheer strength and then rowed home again.  I knew that men had lost their lives at it, and that even with the modern conveniences it was no cake walk.  I would know the fear of watching a following sea breaking over the stern and washing over the decks, be totally lost in a clinging fog only to narrowly avoid the cliffs at Dunmore, and know how humbling and humiliating seasickness could be.  All that was to come, but that evening, standing on the forward deck of the Reaper I only knew excitement, and that I was starting a new journey on my relentless road towards adulthood.

In the coming weeks, I will try  to give a sense of the actual fishing methods, the clearing and selling of the fish and some of the historical evidence highlighting how ancient a practice it was.  

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

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.