Growing up amongst the nets

Growing up in a fishing village like Cheekpoint in the early 1970s, nets were part of the everyday scene in the community. They lay around in the same way tractors and machinery hang round a farmyard.  Nets for fishing the weirs, trawl nets including beam and otter, drift nets for Herring and Salmon and Eel pots.  Old fishermen like Andy Joe Doherty come to mind, sitting amongst the maze of meshes of a weir net, a section slung across his knees as he worked to repair some hole by the ‘Red Shed’ on the village ‘Green’.
I suppose because it was summer, and we had more time being on holidays, I remember the salmon nets most of all.  The salmon season stretched in those days from Feb 1st to August 15th.  It opened each Monday morning at 6am and concluded the following Saturday at 6am. Sundays were a day of rest, mass, the Reading Room for cards, a match or the pub.  But Saturday was for boat and net repair, and the quay was generally buzzing with activity.
Buddy McDermott and Tom Sullivan hauling out the nets
Photo courtesy of Tomás Sullivan
The nets in those days were nylon.  They comprised of a head rope which had corks each about a fathom apart keeping the net afloat, and a lead rope which kept the net down in the water. Between both ropes was suspended a curtain of netting which once set in the river drifted on the tides. Because of the position of Cheekpoint and the strong currents in the area, drifts would normally last from between fifteen minutes to an hour.  
Another feature of the drifts was the countless fouls and obstacles to be negotiated. The meshes got ripped due to snagging rocks, weir poles, old fouls, the bottom, getting caught in the jetty, wrapping them up in the outboard engine propeller.  As we were below the ports of New Ross and Waterford we also had the risk of being cut by one of the many ships in and out of the ports.
A mending needle
Although the general perception of drifting was that salmon swam blindly into nets, the local reality was that we predominantly ‘jammed’ fish. Jamming fish was an expression used in trying to outfox the salmon, catching them in ‘the bag of the nets’ or trapping them as nets ‘fell ashore’ when drifts ended with the nets gathering in clumps close to the shoreline. The local practice had actually more in common with draft netting and snap netting, both techniques happened above us in narrower waters, than the common perception of drift netting on the high seas.
drift net
As a consequence the repair of nets was a constant necessity.  Saturdays then, would see fishermen at work, hauling out the nets from the boat and ‘ranging them over’ again on the shore, quayside, or the green. Some fishermen preferred to stay in the boat, a more boring job again as at least if you were on the quay there was more banter. Some skippers could overlook only the largest gap, but for many as much as a damaged “half mesh” was a no no. These were the skippers you didn’t want to get stuck with, as you could spend the day standing in the one spot without a break.
a typical break
The process was always the same. One person on the cork rope the other on the lead. As you ranged them along you looked carefully for a gap or a tear. Once found the skipper would use a penknife to trim off and tidy the hole and with a mending needle, set about re-meshing the hole. In some cases it could take a minute, in others a heck of a lot longer. In all cases our job was to hold the net in a particular way. As a consequence we were often referred to as ‘human nails’ as if we were not around the fisherman would hang the net on a nail or other fixing.  As he worked we got no more than a grunt, when it was time for us to shift, or pull tighter, or move a fraction to enable the skipper to see what he was doing. Once done, he would snip the end of the mending twine, returning the knife and mending needle to his pocket.  Then we would stretch out of the repair job and you would hear either a grunt of satisfaction or disgust, depending on how the job was perceived. Then it was back to the careful ranging and on to the next hole.
repaired and time to range on
Some Saturdays could be spent entirely in this way, and after a while you learned to avoid the quays when such activities were taking place. It would be a few years yet before I had to learn the craft, and many more (if ever) before I could say I could repair a net in any kind of satisfactory way.  Of course in the 1990’s the nylon nets started to change and before it was out, mono-filament netting was legalised. Because these were practically invisible to the fish anyway, repairing holes became virtually a thing of the past.  It was easier to pull sections of a hole together with string, or cut out a section and replace it.  Net repair started to become a thing of the past, and with it, what might have seemed like a chore to a child, but a very difficult skill nonetheless.
For this years Heritage week I am leading a walk highlighting Cheekpoint’s Maritime past including the nets of the village.  It takes place this Saturday evening 19th August at 5.30 pm.  It commences from McAlpins Suir Inn and is free of charge.  
I will also co-host a walk on Sunday 20th August on the Geohistory of the area with local geologist Bill Sheppard.  It commences at 2.30pm and departs from Faithlegg National School. Also free of Charge.
This excerpt this morning is from a forthcoming book I have written on the Cheekpoint fishery which will be published in the autumn entitled “Before the Tide Went Out” 
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

Threatened monuments of Waterford harbour

Some might consider this title a mite provocative.  Indeed others might think on the date of publication and ponder a connection. However, although it is intended to be provocative, it is in no way a joke. The monuments I refer to are at least a millennium old and are quietly slipping into oblivion.  They are the Head Weirs of Waterford harbour and, at this point, are very possibly unique in the world.

Firstly, let me define a monument.  The concise Oxford dictionary states that “3. an ancient building or site etc that has survived or been preserved”  The head weirs certainly fit this definition having been worked over the centuries and regularly maintained by their owners/leasers.

via AJ WENT 1

What is a Head Weir some might ask.  A Head Weir is a method of catching fish which uses the tides to bring the fish to the net. As such in legal terms it is defined as a “Fixed Engine”. The weirs themselves were a V shaped structure. The mouth of the weir is the widest part of the structure. The wings that made the v shape were constructed from straight poles driven by manpower into the riverbed, and held together with horizontal beams. Both wings came together at the “head” from where a net was hung, and it trailed away from the weir. This conical net worked similar to a modern day trawl net.

Depending on the direction they faced, weirs were known as Ebb or Flood weirs. An Ebb weir had its mouth facing upriver, and when the tide was leaving the harbour, it flowed through the mouth, towards the head and concentrated the flow of water into the fishing net, in much the same way a funnel would direct fluid into a bottle.

an indication of the weirs 1950s
via AJ WENT 1

Taking the ebb weir as our example, the net was hauled at low water by bring a punt alongside the weir and hauling down to the cod end. The cod end was taken aboard and the fish emptied into the punt. (In summer time the weirs tended to be used for bait for eel fishing, and in winter they caught bottom fish like cod, flats etc. Herring shoals would be a problem at times, with millions swimming in the habour in just one shoal, weir nets would have to be hauled up, or risk being carried away.) The net was then reset, but would only start fishing again, when the ebb tide started to run. (The tides in Waterford have a 6hr 20min cycle approx)

Duncannon weir. 3

As to the age of the weirs, well even locally there is confusion about this.  Growing up in the harbour, there was uncertainty about the weirs, because a lot of newer weirs were constructed by the landlords in the early 19th C, a method known as the scotch weir, typified by the construction at Woodstown. Many of the older weirs were amended at this time.
However, the Head weirs were recorded in the monastic possessions of the Cistercians during their dissolution. The Cistercians started construction at Dunbrody in the harbour circa 1200.  But it is interesting to note that when the Knights Templars were granted land and ferry rights at Passage and Templetown (1170’s) and “they operated a salmon weir, or fish trap, a large edifice of strong wooden poles, built in the river, which channeled salmon through an ever narrowing chute towards an exit, where they swam into a net“2 What I can’t answer, but suspect, is that they Templars took over an existing structure, rather than building their own,  
Buttermilk castle and weir 3

Interestingly some more recent research has indicated an earlier development of weir in Ireland, but not directly a connection to Waterford. It claims that certain structures in the Shannon and in Co Down, were V shaped structures of stone or wood.  The dates on these structures are Early Christian and records the earliest to between 447-630AD. It also notes that laws, dating 6-7thC, were written to oversee the use of weirs. 

Although I have no proof that the Waterford Harbour weirs are a continuation of use back to Early Christian times, I think they are nevertheless a spectacular connection to Ireland’s ancient east. To allow such structures to simply disappear due to neglect and disinterest (principally due to official disinterest) is to my mind a disgrace, Hopefully, the heritage value of the weirs are realised soon. Otherwise we may have just memories, photographs and written words as a basis to our interpretation of them.
Weirs in the harbour, view from the Hurthill
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

1. via Arthur EJ Went.  JRSAI LXXXVII Piece titled Sprat or white fish weirs in Waterford Harbour
2. Niall Byrne, The Irish Crusade.  p107
3. Billy Colfer. The Hook peninsula