The role of Salmon fishing in the estuary communities

I normally try to keep things light on the page. But after listening to the fanfare about a new Government Action plan for rural Ireland  I have to say I was disturbed. The plan is big on numbers; €60 million investment, 135,000 jobs yada yada. While in the same week it appears that there is no funding to maintain buses, a vital link to rural folk. Perhaps it was just the timing of course.  You see February marked the traditional start of the Salmon fishery here in the estuary area, and throughout the country. Generations looked forward to the spring commencement that would span to August 15th and provide a welcome income boost following a long winter. 
Fishermen gather to bless their boats and nets 1930’s

But in 2006 this way of life ceased with the ban on traditional drift netting. It was done without any consultation and no consideration to the local riverine communities, and what the effects might be. Nothing was done to replace the work. Two years later, in 2008, as I completed a five year part time degree, I chose as my final project an analysis of the Salmon closure.                                                                                                

My dissertation called for primary research and to do this I interviewed three fishermen from the locality. Although there were several questions asked, the big issue for me was the social implications of the closure.  The extract below comes directly from the dissertation and what they thought of it all.
From the outset it is worth distinguishing that participants felt that many in the community would think there had been no impact from the recent salmon closure. It is mostly felt by those directly involved in fishing. They agree that as fishermen they are much less affected now than they would have been twenty or thirty years ago. On the occasions where I challenged the men around improvements nationally via the Celtic tiger I was roundly challenged myself with rebuttals such as poor health, stress, commuting, shift work, uncertainty of work, no community spirit, rise in alcohol and drugs and so much more. 

The community has been impacted by the loss of commercial activity and the coming and going of boats and crews. Money was earned and predominantly spent in the community in the past. There was vibrancy about. As one man said “a trip to the post office could have taken from a half hour to a half day in the past. You’d be stopped chatting to people, now it takes five minutes”. 

This lack of people is blamed on factory shift work and people being employed in Waterford. As one man pointed out they are either working or in bed. Shift work patterns really impact on people and the area. Although fishermen often worked through the night, it wasn’t like the factory shifts. “You were working for yourself and could stop when you wanted. In factories there is no such freedom. It gets you into a rut” 

Participants believe that the lack of people about has a negative effect on the community. It impacts on how people feel about their security. Previously, if you were sick or incapacitated there were people to call. They might drop you in a dinner or a feed of fish. Messages would be run, there was someone to talk to. Fishermen in the past were around because the village was their place of work, landing fish, mending nets, repairing boats. 

Other concerns are that young men don’t have the same opportunities to come of age in the ways they did in the past. Although many have jobs through local restaurants which are well paid, clean, safe and “wouldn’t tax you”, it is considered a far cry from the training, challenge and satisfaction young men had in the past through fishing. 
Tom and Michael Ferguson (RIP)  drifting circa 2005

Fishing was a method of schooling in itself. Young men were taught valuable lessons. For example they needed to learn the capabilities of boat and themselves. For example catching a river marker buoy and how to extract yourself, nets and boat. This took common sense skills required, these have to be passed on – boat handling, fishing skills and psychologically – its not the end of the world to make a mistake. Other skills around salmon fishing were more unique and as it was explained would never be found in a book, including the role played by wind, tide, moon, and season. These will all be lost in the future it was felt as there will be no means of passing them on.

Launching a punt for the season circa 1996

Perhaps the greatest loss is the contact with other fishermen on a daily or hourly basis. As a fisherman you were in contact on the quayside, as boats passed each other, or waited for particular drifts. A key factor of this was the swapping of pieces of information vital for knowing how and where the fish were “running”. Men also cooperated around the seasonal activities such as hauling out boats for overwintering or repair and the making and repairing of nets. These were not so much tasks as occasions. There loss, ultimately, engenders isolation as men are more inclined to stay inside if they know there will be no one to see or talk to.

All in all, participants felt that previously the river had a deeper significance for the community. It derived an income, was a source of food, pleasure, challenge. It was a place for regattas where communities competed against each other and was a mode of transport to and from the city, but also to dances and social occasions in other communities around the estuary. The village, it is felt has embraced the car and the city and turned its back almost completely on the river. Though the salmon closure came on the heels of these wider changes, it cements them to a large extent. Without the Salmon fishery, there is little to hold the traditional character of the community in place.
A community event, turning a punt for cleaning

So how does that all fit in with the Rural Action Plan?

Well that was 9 years ago, and I’m sure the situation has only worsened. What was clear to me about the opinions expressed by those fishermen was they could see the value of such work, but not just in terms of finance. Such work held the community together, actually helped create a meaning of community. Announcements of last week ring hollow, because they appear to know nothing of community.  For them it appears rural is about economy, funding, units. If they can’t value the people and the professions that hold rural communities together, how can they ever hope to retain a rural way of life.

If you were interested to know how the political decisions were taken from a critical perspective my full dissertation is here.

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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
. 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

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
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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
[ii] Robertson.
I.A.  The Tay Salmon Fisheries since the 18th C. 1998. Cruithne Press.

“Running” the Salmon

I recently recalled the selling of Salmon in Cheekpoint.  In conclusion of that piece, I mentioned the practice of running fish, a means of earning a bit of extra cash for some of life’s pleasures, which invariably meant drink and cigarettes.

Because the existence of fishermen, then as now, is so precarious, it was common practice at the start of each Salmon fishing season for the fish buyers to provide credit towards the cost of fishing.  This would go towards nets, corks, lead and roping twine etc, or in some cases these were actually supplied. Over the course of the season to August 15th, a percentage from each fish sold went back to the buyer, until the debt was repaid. In years when fishing was good, this could be paid off quickly. But a bad year meant a boat could be hard pressed to make the repayment.

My Uncle John (RIP), Uncle Sonny and Grandfather Andy (RIP)
Thanks to Sean Doherty for the photo

As each fish lost a percentage to the buyer, it wasn’t uncommon to hold a fish back and “run it” as we called it locally.  Selling it to another buyer of course was out of the question, at least directly.  But there was always a willing buyer locally for a fine fish, including the pubs.  Of course it wasn’t just the buyers that were sometimes hoodwinked.

A common enough practice was that a boat and gear might be worked on behalf of an owner.  In this case, the shares (which were always divided by 3) were 1/3 for the owner and the 1/3 each to the two men fishing the boat.

Tom & Michael Ferguson (RIP) drifting for Salmon
Thanks to Tomás Sullivan for the photo.

I recall myself and my brother Robert being challenged one morning on our return from fishing the flood tide by the owner of the boat.  Aboard we had three peal (small salmon).
“Is that all ye have?”
“Shure isn’t it well to have it”
“The Garriger said he saw ye taking in a pig of a salmon”
“Shure there wasn’t a salmon caught by anyone over there this morning, we bagged the biggest one of them, twas a right struggle to get him aboard”
“Garriger said he was 20lb at least, are ye sure ye don’t have him hidden under those nets!”
“Well if you can’t see him from there, he mustn’t have been much of a fish”

The owner was well in his rights to ask, and it was always the large fish that were run.  In this case, it was our Uncle Sonny and he was blackguarding us, but we’d heard many similar challenges.  The big fish were run because they raised more money and as the saying goes, you may as well be hung for a sheep as a lamb.  But if you were going to run one, you would be sure to avoid being seen bringing the fish in over the side.  It was also as well not to return to the village with it.

Many was the fish that was landed at Watty Byrnes in Ballyhack as boats drifted downriver on the ebb tide.  You would wait until nearing low water and then steam across to the quay and in to the pub to sell your fish. Watty always did well from it.  A good price for the fish, and you invariably dropped plenty of it behind the bar as you left with a few bottles of beer, or other items from his shop.

On one particular occasion, I was boy in the boat with another young man from the village.  His skipper was attending a funeral, and I’d been asked to fish with him for that day.  Anyway, a fine fish was caught on the ebb tide, and we proceeded down river by setting them at Seedes bank and letting them drift down to Ballyhack.  When the tide slowed we steamed to Watty’s.  Although, there would invariably be someone from Cheekpoint in the pub, you never had to worry. As Martin Mahon (RIP) said to us that day as he tapped the side of his nose with a nicotine stained finger, “What happens in the pub, stays in the pub!”

Paul Duffin and myself early 90’s

Of course even when men were fishing their own boat fish were sometimes run.  I recall a friend sharing the story from home one evening after his mother challenged his dad when he returned from fishing with no fish and barely able to put his legs under him.
“Have ye no fish?”
“A watery haul”
“Watery was it, pity you didn’t put more water in the whisky”
“Where’s me dinner, woman”
“Arrah, it’s where you should be, on the back of the fire!”

In the nineties, when I was finally fishing my own boat, I’d occasionally be asked to take a fish from younger lads,  They were fishing on behalf of others and in time honored fashion, were keen to make a few extra bob.  It was a bit more awkward passing a fish off as your own, and in some cases selling it on their behalf.  Either way, when it came to handing over the money, you were looked after.  It was the early days of Jack Meades, and many was the great night was had on the “windy stools” on the back of “running the Salmon”

If you’d like to know more about village life and the history and heritage of Cheekpoint, join us for a free guided walk this coming Bank Holiday Monday.  Walk departs from Cheekpoint Quay at 5pm and is an easy going stroll.

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The travelling fish buyer

As a salmon fishing village, Cheekpoint, like all the others in the harbour, had to have a means of selling their fish.  In our case we either had to travel to sell them.  Or, when we were children in the 1970’s, the buyers traveled around to collect the fish.  They were a familiar and welcome addition to our growing up, and the smell of the salmon that they brought, was one that I welcomed as a sign of local prosperity.  

I’ve mentioned before about the significant export trade in Salmon in the past.  In my Grandmothers early days they brought the fish by foot or by donkey
to town (7 miles distance), and occasionally by boat.  She
told me once of an incident that had a deep impact on her.  Nanny and her mother were walking to town with a fine fish.  They were stopped by a
gentleman at Ballinakill (now a suburb of Waterford City) who asked if they would sell him the salmon, which her
mother agreed to.  My grandmother remembered her mother being pleased, money in her pocket and only half a journey.  However, when they returned home she recalled her father being angry, claiming that the buyers knew everything that happened in the harbour. The next time her mother went to the
buyer, he cautioned her, and warned that if she ever sold a fish behind his
back again he would blacken her from selling to any of the buyers in town.

The excitement of a fine catch

“Big Patsy” Doherty (RIP) told me that his brother Jimmy “Tailstones” (RIP) met his
wife Nellie O’Brien as she used to travel around with her mother buying fish in
a pony and trap in the 1940’s.  Jimmy and Nellie went
on to have a fish shop in Patrick St in Waterford that is trading to this day
under Jim Jnr.

As children
I recall the trucks of Michael O Neill(RIP) and Flanagan’s calling out to the village to buy salmon.  They called to the quay or to homes.  Each house had their own preferred
buyer.  Michael O’Neill always called to
our Uncle Paddy in the Mount, whereas my father, when fishing, sold to Flanagan’s.  When he wanted the buyer to stop, his signal
was a conch shell at the gate of the house, each fisherman had their own

When the
buyer pulled up you’d gather the fish and carry them out.  Depending on size, the peal (smaller salmon
up to 5lb and pronounced pale locally) might be weighed together and the larger salmon weighed individually.  The process was the same.  The tarpaulin pulled back, releasing a mass of fly’s and blue bottles, exposing boxes segregating fish by size, which had been bought previously.  (We were expected to take it all in and feed
back to our father, but if he was present he would chat away trying to find out
exactly who had caught what and where)

An “ouncel” as we called it, handy gauge of the weight

If I recall rightly Flanagan’s had a metal arm which would be fitted, or swung out from the van, and the scales attached.  (Michael O’Neill had a weighing scales of an old type which used the old weights to measure it up) Then the fish were hoisted onto it, or an
individual salmon would be threaded via the gills onto the weighing hook and
then left to hang while the scales balanced. 
We paid close attention to the weight, particularly of big fish, as it
was always a topic of debate and excitement, particularly with a very big
fish.  News of which would travel around
the harbour. We had our own “ouncel” as we called it to weigh the fish, but it was what was on the buyers scales that mattered. There was often tales of putting pebbles, or lead, down the salmons mouth to increase the weight.  I can only say that we never tried it.

everything was weighed the fish were sorted into the boxes on the back of the
van and then covered.  Then the docket
book came out, and the weight and price were noted and the total value made
up.  It was calculated on price per pound, Salmon being more expensive than Peal.  A copy of this, along with the money
was then handed over (at times you might have to wait for the weekend for this
to be settled up) Of course the benefit of being from a fishing family is that you had access to fish at any time for the table.  One of my most lasting memories of my childhood was the taste of the freshly cooked salmon at home, boiled on the hob, with a pot of my fathers freshly dug potatoes.  Heaven on earth.

As the summer progressed the prices tended to drop, and I recall many disgruntled fishermen by the time August came round.  Increased fishing along the coast depressed the price and in years to come, would actually belittle the price paid to fishermen.  And that was before the menace of farmed salmon. The only antidote to the lower prices was to try sell locally to homes or the pubs. In that regard McAlpins Suir Inn were to the fore.  “Mr Mac” as everyone called him, paid premium prices for large Salmon all through the season and was highly regarded for his fairness.  That said my father refused to either drink in the pub or sell to it.  The Tynan’s had the West end pub, known as the Jolly Sailor at the time.  They too were providing food, but their prices for fish were not considered as good,

Two dockets showing the drop in prices between two years

Each year
that the season started in February, a bit of new fishing gear would need to be
purchased.  Nets, ropes, corks or lead
would then be roped up for the new year. 
In many cases fishing families could not afford this, and as a
consequence, fishmongers would either give you the money towards it, or
provide the gear.  In these cases, the
money was paid back as a percentage of the fish you sold.  It made good business sense, and guaranteed to
a fishmonger a supply of fish.  But it
also led to, or rather added to, a practice of running the fish, something I’ll return to.

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An Sí Gaoithe, the Fairy wind

I’m occasionally asked what I miss most about drift-netting for Salmon. When it stopped in 2006 I was fishing on a part time basis, but I refused to participate in the buy out of licences, preferring instead to hope for a return. So when I answer, I’m usually a bit off hand and probably say something straightforward and easy to understand, such as the thrill of landing a large fish. But if I was honest what I miss about fishing is complex. A way of life is hard to quantify and communicate in a few sentences.  It has elements of relationships, boat handling, fishing nous, traditions, and experiencing nature and weather on a ongoing basis that you just don’t appreciate to the same extent on land.  A great example of this is the Si Gaoithe, or the Fairy wind.
I think I was sixteen when I first encountered the Si Gaoithe.  I was the boy that season with Michael Barry of the High Street, which would have made this event occurring in the summer of 1982.  It was one of those beautiful sunny and still summer days, which are so rare when fishing.  So dry and calm, that you can forgo the oilskins and woolly jumpers, and controlling the punt was a lot less of a challenge, having only tidal conditions to contend with.
An Sidhe Gaoith Daniel McDonald 1841 NFC
It was nearing high water, and we had the nets out on “the mud”, the Shelburne Bank, on the Wexford side of the rivers.  We had opted to leave the nets where they were lying, virtually static at this point given the time of tide, and joined several other punts on the “bank wall” – the embankment constructed around the Marsh on Great Island.  There we lay out on the warm summer grass keeping a constant watch on the nets for signs of a fish and swapped stories.  Below us other punts were with their nets, whilst at Nook the Whitty’s were in their usual perch on the grassy bank overlooking their bay, monitoring the nets at the Big rock or the Knock.
Suddenly all hell broke loose.  One of the punts was rocking and a voice could be heard in high animation.  Despite the distance, it was clearly the punt of Christy Doherty (RIP) and there was some talk that Christy must have “lost it” or perhaps had landed a “pig of a salmon” our parlance for a very large fish.
Hauling the nets Photo via Tomás Sullivan
Anyway, I was old enough to realise whatever was going on Christy Doherty was not a man to either “loose it” or get over excited.  Christy and his brothers were highly regarded in our house.  One of the stories I heard of him fishing was one night in winter, he went to the Sheag Weir, an old ebb weir just below the quay of Cheekpoint.  The wind was northerly, and it was freshening all the time. Christy was emptying the net when a squall came on and the punt sunk beneath him.  If I recall right he couldn’t swim, and of course would not have had a lifejacket, so he pulled himself up the weir net and eventually managed to climb the weir poles to the head of the weir where he settled down to await daylight.  When several hours later he was found, despite the wet and stinging cold, his only complaint was that he hadn’t had a cigarette in hours!
It later emerged that what Christy was so excited about was the Si Gaoithe, which was falling all around his punt and he was letting other punts nearby know, so that they might see it.  I was never clear if he was upset or happy to see it.  For many you see the Si Gaoithe is a omen they prefer to avoid.  When I told my grandmother later, she blessed herself and said, “God protected ye from all harm”

The Si Gaoithe itself however is a natural phenomenon and is something that traditional people have their own names for worldwide. We also have our own local traditions about it here in Ireland, which vary from county to county.  I decided to borrow a definition rather than pretend I know the science. “A dustdevil is a whirlwind of air into which dust and debris gets caught up, making it visible. Dust devils form through a different mechanism than tornadoes, and are much smaller, usually only 10 to 50 feet in diameter, and usually not extending more than 100 feet into the air. They usually are seen during relatively dry conditions, when sunlight is providing strong heating of the surface, and when winds are generally light. The heated land surface produces convective rolls of air (as in the diagram above) since the wind is a little stronger at (say) 100 feet in altitude than near the ground. If these rolls get tilted upright, then a dust devil can form.
Joel and myself many years back out on the river
I experienced the magic that Christy described several times later.  My lasting memory was one I shared with our son, Joel.  He was only a boy of about eight and we were drifting on the ebb tide one beautiful calm summer evening.  Again not a liu of wind, and the river surface was like glass.  Joel was chatting away and searching the bottom of the boat for a crab whilst I kept a close eye on the nets. Suddenly around us little whisps of straw started to fall.  I jumped with joy to see it, and explained what we were experiencing to Joel.  Looking up into the sky, we could see hundreds of little pieces of straw cascading down upon our general direction, and as they fell Joel tried to capture some of them. The straws were falling from out of a clear blue evening sky, from about 100 feet up, although very hard to judge.  We followed the line of straw with our eyes, as it went horizontally from above our position in towards the Wexford shore.  We were passing Nook at the time, and we could clearly see the line of straw heading in over the land and then trace it back down to a field recently harvested with straw lined up waiting to be bailed.  Amongst this a mysterious wind was whipping up loose pieces of straw into mini whirlwinds, carrying it into the sky.
Witnessing such events is a privilege, one that I haven’t seen since we stopped fishing.  It may seem like I’m fooling myself, but I still believe today as I did in 2006, that I would one day be back on the river and I am not going to loose sight of that anytime soon.