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.

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 , 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
When I started fishing of course outboard engines, more manageable nets and relatively 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 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.

If the wind will not serve, take to the oars

As a young boy fishing in the river, the one thing I hated more than anything, was keeping up to the nets with an oar.  Pity the boy that let his mind wander and the boat blow off the nets, or worse, onto the mud on the flood tide on the coolagh (cool ya) mud.

I first began regular fishing in 1979, finishing first year in secondary school.  The holidays coincided with the Peal run, when the salmon men reduced the driftnet net mesh size to catch the smaller, younger salmon entering the rivers.  I’d fished before this, but only occasionally.  Maybe a drift of a summer evening, or a few tides, doing little more than watching from the bow twart. 

To be asked to fish was a big thrill.  It meant long hours, hard work, plenty of wettings and plenty of excitement.  It also meant some cash in your pocket, and my father always said unless you could jingle a few coins in your pocket that you had earned for yourself, we weren’t yet a man.  But it was also an education…a real education after the excuse of a one I had suffered over the winter.  We learned the nets, tides, weather, river, fish and hard work.  But of all of it, it was the oars that caused me the most hardship.  It wasn’t so bad if you were part of a younger man’s boat like Pat Moran or Anthony Fortune.  He wasn’t wedded to the oul ways…but if you happened to be fishing with his fathers generation, or my fathers, the best ways were the old ways which included many hours at the oars. The week started at 6am on the Monday morning and ran for the week, 24hrs up to the 6am on the Saturday.

In the past the oars had been the only method of propulsion for the punts in the area, apart from the use of sail, which was not a common method and something I never saw used.  It would remain so until the introduction of outboard motors after the second world war. 

A modern styled rowlock

The oars used were of red deal and generally fitted into the punt to allow for secure stowage.  The oar was made from 6″x’6″ red deal timber plank.  It was made from one piece for strength.  It had a carved handle, which allowed for the palm of the hand to cover it, a counterbalance, which meant that the oar was easier to manage when being used singlehanded.  A collar of leather was fitted where the oar fitted into the rowlocks.  This meant that the rubbing of timber on timber didn’t happen as it would quickly wear away.  When using the oars in dry weather you’d have to use the bailer to throw water over the collar or the sqweeking of it would drive you mad.  The shaft of the oar tapered off to the blade which was again the width of the plank and allowed the rower to catch a good piece of water to drive the boat forward.

The rowlocks on the punt were carved from oak and shaped to allow the oar fit nicely in place.  The Rowlocks were bolted to the gunwhale and two Thole Pins (pronounced Towel here) were hammer into 1″ drilled holes on either side of the oar.  Ash was commonly used as it was a durable timber.  I once used Hazel as it was nice and straight and I thought it looked smart.  But when rowing hard on the mud the thole pin snapped and I went head and arse into the bow, so never again.

An old oar in a sunken punt

There were particular points to be learned about rowing.  One was when you were told to row, you rowed, if you were told to “row hard” you really put your back into it.  “Back” was another command, and if your mind had wandered, or you weren’t paying attention you could be in real trouble.  “Pulling” when you were supposed to be “backing” could mean loosing a fish – a cardinal sin, and one to be reminded of time and again.

After leaving the shoreline or the quay we would “steam” (use an outboard) to the start of the particular drift.  This could mean a wait or perhaps we could set straight away, determined by the time of tide and the particular drift.  Waiting  with other punts was usually fun, as you would hear all manner of yarn.  The nets would be set with the engine and once set we would “out oars” and for the remainder to the drift would row to “keep up with the nets”.  The skipper would be on the aft oar the boy on the bow or for’ad oar.

Row hard(ish) Chris Doherty Bow oar & Mick Murphy

On some drifts only part of the nets were set, like flood tide on the Coolagh mud or ebb tide on the point.  You would keep up to the nets for a particular place and then would set the rest.  The older men preferred setting the remainder with the oars, meaning you had to keep on rowing on the bow oar while the skipper rowed with one hand and set the nets with the other.

After a winter sitting at a school desk your hands would be soft.  As a consequence those first few days at the oars would be hell.  The welts would rise within a few minutes.  By the half hour mark they would be black and blue and swollen.  You might think putting them in the water would ease the pain, but it was of no benefit.  There was a partial ease when the welts burst but then the when the salt water leaked in it stung like hell.  There was also the muscles in your arms that would be aching and the back to which you could find little ease.  Of course by the end of the summer these would be only memories, but to be relived the following summer.  

Tom Fergison (bow oar) Michael Ferguson, “keeping up to the nets”
Photo credit: Tomas Sullivan


Hauling the nets also required the skipper using the oars to keep the punt “on the nets”  As you hauled the skipper stayed midships and the boy went astern and each took a rope.  As you hauled the punt would either drift across or off the nets and with the momentum of the haul the skipper could put out either the aft or for’ad oar to bring the boat back in or out off the nets.

Once aboard it was time to set again and if you were lucky, the boy got to lower the outboard and steam back to the start of the next drift.  If you were really lucky you might get to set the nets with the engine…a real step up.

Over time the use of the oars diminished and in recent times, up to the closure of the Salmon driftnet fishery in 2006, many punts would not have even carried an oar.  The outboard which had become more dependable and men more skilled in their use, took over in many aspects of the fishery practice.  Today if you look around the quays you will see few enough timber punts and fewer oars.  Something that diminishes the village in my opinion. 

In case anyone thinks I’m complaining about the work we had to do let me offer you this quote by the American comedian George Carlin on a definition of hard work; “hard work is a misleading term. physical effort & long hours do not constitute hard work. hard work is when someone pays you to do something you’d rather not be doing. anytime you’d rather be doing something other than the thing you’re doing…you’re doing hard work.”