Water Heritage Day 2022 – Building a Traditional Fishing Weir

For Heritage Week 2022, I am running an interactive course for 12 people on how to “sink” a typical local fishing weir based on my experiences as a child and young adult. We will also have a trip courtesy of Tomás Sullivan to an existing weir to appreciate the scale and positioning of the structure. Tomás will also do a short input on the issue of marine litter as part of this. The course will take place at Moran’s Poles from 11am – 1pm on Sunday August 21st as part of Water Heritage Day and supported by Local Authority Waters Programme . Prebooking is essential here, and participants can expect to learn about the history of the weirs, how they were sited, the methods employed in construction & repair and how they were operated by local fishermen. (I will also give a talk at Reginald’s Tower on Thursday 18th about the Portlairge dredger -but more details to come). To whet the appetite, or at least give you a sense of what’s involved, here’s a chapter from my first book entitled “Sinking a Weir”.

That first season on the eels opened my eyes to the working of the weirs and I quickly learned to respect and admire the creators of these structures.  When the tides ran at full strength and the waters rushing through hummed with the force, you got a true sense of their durability. 

I was reared on the lore of sinking weirs.  ‘Big Patsy’ Doherty told me one time of sinking the family weir on the Coolya mud.  They were working away when they spotted the Moran’s pushing off from Moran’s Poles.  He expressed his relief at the sight of them rowing across the river, knowing their skill and strength was going to make light of the job.  Big Patsy had been a fisherman all his life and worked for many years in the Harbour Board on the Port Lairge.  In my late teens he was retired and unwell, being cared for by his wife, the ‘Madonna’ and his two daughters Agnes and Ann Marie.  They waited on him ‘hand and foot’ as the saying goes. He had been unwell for some years but each spring, he miraculously raised himself up once the salmon started the run.  Then he and Walter Whitty would fish for as he put it, “one last season”.  He had a few last seasons yet to come however, before his final sailing.

The first job I ever worked on was the weir known as Mahon’s weir at the Rookery, owned by John Heffernan.  Any repair works on weirs tended to be done with the neap tides, when the river ran at its slowest or most gentle. Weir poles, pine trees of between twenty-five to forty feet in length, were prepared on the shoreline, trimmed, pointed and tied together and towed out by punt to the weir.

Mahon’s Weir at Sunset. Photo Credit – William Doherty

Alongside the weir were two boats, one an old-style yawl, now a motorised half-decker, called the Maid of the West, the other Paddy Moran’s punt called the Judy.  They were each positioned on either side of the outside wing.  Across the gunwale of each boat was tied a strong plank, which was our working platform, where the men could stand, and the poles could be hoisted up to.

Around the Maid of the West the various tools for the job were in place.  It was a basic tool chest, the mare, lump and sledge hammers, hatchet, spanners, a coil of rope and dozens of homemade metal pins, the largest being almost a foot long.

My crewmates were known to me and all very experienced.  John Heffernan as owner was in charge.  But my grand uncle Paddy Moran was there, and he was the oldest man present.  Matt ‘Spoogy’ Doherty was present.  Matt had his own weir further down known as the Sheag weir now gone after being struck by a ship in the 1990s. Gerry Boland and Pat Moran were there. This was their way of giving thanks for the access to bait from the weir for Eel fishing.  Anthony Fortune was also present, as he fished with John.  The brothers Paddy and Mickey Duffin made up the team.  Paddy was one of the strongest men in the village, with a pair of hands that looked like shovels.  Mickey was a river pilot, and a great man for the yarns.  It was a mixed and motley crew all under the direction of John, who was a man of unbelievable strength and who always led from the front.

The real work started once a pole was chosen for driving.  I was sent down in another punt to untie and bring up a pole, this was the young man’s job.  The poles were upper end towards the weir, all the pointed ends which would be driven into the riverbed, were facing downriver.  Although they may have all looked alike, John had his eye on certain ones, and I was verbally jostled from one to another until my hand clasped the preferred pole. 

Untied, I pushed it up against the outflowing tide and as the tip of it came up to the working plank.  Pat Moran knelt down and brought an end of a rope under it, and passing the end up between them they hauled on each end of the rope and the upper end on the pole rose up to meet them.  The end of the pole was placed on the plank and then it was grasped by powerful hands and heaved along, raising it out of the river water and into the air.  Once it started to balance across the plank, the job became a bit trickier, and I was told to stand on the part of the pole that remained in the river.  As the men lifted, I kept my weight on the pole in the river, and slowly it started to straighten into a more vertical position.  The aim, as I quickly figured out, was to get the pole upright which when combined with the suction of the mud on the riverbed made the movement and positioning of the pole much easier, something that would have been impossible on land.

Within moments the pole was vertical and then the job of getting it into position began. This was an altogether slower job. The pole could now be manhandled by two men, because its weight was supported by the river and the muddy river bottom.  The men worked to align it with the line of the weir wing.  But with short abrupt movements, too high and the end might float up to the surface and the whole operation would need to start again.

Once a position was agreed on, the pole was lifted by hand and dropped to secure it.  This was a temporary holding position and it would be then held in place by hand.  A second plank was laid between the two boats and this was tied into place, offering a more secure working platform.

Then the Mare came into play.  The Mare was a two-piece metal implement.  Each part had a long handle at the end of which was a semi-circular cup with holes at either side. These cups fitted into each other and as each end was offered up to the pole, large bolts were put through the holes and then washers and nuts were hand tightened into place to bring the two semi-circular cups together around the pole.  Spanners were used to tighten the nuts and bolts, securely fastening the Mare around the pole, so much so, that it made a solid bar of the two halves.  This then was the leaver to be used in driving the pole.  No one knows the origin of the name, but many thought it was French.

The Mare was positioned as high as they could get it on the first drive, perhaps seven feet.  The drive started with everyone taking a position on either side of the pole and as evenly as possible along the shafts of the mare.  We began by lifting the pole out of the mud once more then dropping it back. Then it was done again, but not as high and dropped once more, with force.  This motion of lifting up and dropping down would continue with increasing force, but always with perfect care to keep the pole vertical and straight. The drive would continue with much grunting and verbal encouragement until the Mare hit the platform planks.

Then the Mare was opened and repositioned further up the pole.  On the second drive, it would not go so high, because it would take a lot of strength to re-lift it once stopped for any length of time.  The deeper the pole went, the harder it was to lift out of the suction effect of the river bed. Speed was required, because the more the mud settled around the pole, the more difficult, if not to say impossible, it would be to rise. Having driven the pole a second time, and perhaps in total twelve feet into the river bed, you would be forgiven for thinking that you had gone far enough.  But the operation would continue for as long as the riverbed gave way.  Not until the pole was refusing to budge another inch would John be satisfied. As we got towards the end, I was ordered up the pole to give extra weight on the drive. As the men lifted, I would transfer my weight onto previously driven poles, and then as it was dropped I would jump with all my force onto the descending mare, careful to avoid hands and fingers. 

A sketch of a pole driving crew in action – Niall O’Driscoll

As the day wore on and more and more poles were offered up and manoeuvred into position I began to realise that this was close to being a ritual.   Any deviation was considered unacceptable and you could be forgiven for thinking sometimes that it was all a bit of a show.  It was anything but.  A practiced hand could tell a lot from just holding the pole, and as they manoeuvred it into position, whether the end was touching off previous weir pole butts or other fouls.  The intention of getting the pole into the right position would sometimes lead to discussions, history lessons, or arguments.  The sole concern was to get it right.  I noticed that Matt and John had a lot of old knowledge, but the other men weren’t shy to express opinions.  Where no agreement could be found, it tended to revert to Paddy, because as the oldest, and with a lifetime of fishing behind him, his word carried weight. 

After seven or eight hours, we might have the same number of poles driven, or if lucky, double that.  And not a part of your body would be free from pain.  As we worked the vertically driven poles needed to be strengthened with horizontal poles which we called ‘Rubberies’.  Again, no one knew the origins of the name but these were always very long, but not as thick as the uprights.  It was rarely possible to get a pole that long so the poles were joined, and fixed in place with the previously mentioned metal pins. The rubberies were positioned every few feet, and made like a ladder, albeit a very slippery, treacherous ladder, up the weir wings.

Heffernan’s Weir, Cheekpoint. Photo AJWent

I went on more weir-building trips after that. There was always something new to learn.   Some were easy jobs, some comedic, while others were pure grief.  I recall one event when the entire wing of a newly driven weir popped up and floated away on an incoming tide.  Or another, when a chap helping out but with no experience left his leg in a spot where the entire weight of a descending Mare struck.  The team that John Heffernan put together that first trip was hard to beat.  It had strength, energy, experience, and a bit of light relief, essential ingredients for such a task. 

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