The traditional start of the Salmon drift net season in Ireland was, for many generations February 1st , Imboloc or St Brigid’s Day. Once opened it stretched to August 15th. It closed each week between 6 am on a Saturday morning to 6 am on the Monday. Once the week opened it operated for 24 hrs a day. Michie Fortune posted a reminisce on 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
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 homemade, 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 until fit to wear. My grandmother said that as 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 out 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 the times 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 wouldn’t eat from when 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 grandmothers 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 boys that did the fishing in all the other families around, those old enough to choose 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 – 9 pm. 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 have moved to other fish species, although the problems of salmon stocks still persist.