Fishing and the Famine
County Kerry
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Fishing and the Famine

Why wasn't fishing a solution
during the famine years?

Considered a "nation of paupers" the Irish did deal in small scale fishing in the west, "but fish remained a luxury, and potatoes were the subsistence food of fishermen". The Irish Famine by Peter Grey

"the fisheries of Iraland, were undeveloped, and in Galway and Mayo the herring fishermen were too poor to buy salt with which to preserve a catch.

... A large part of the Irish coast, in the south-west, west and north-west is perilous: there are cliffs, rocks, treacherous currents, sudden squalls and above all the Atlantic swell surging form America across thousands of miles of ocean. By the nineteenth centruy timber was short in Ireland; in the west, practically speaking, there was none, and fishing-boats were small, the largest being 12-15 tons. The national boat of Ireland is the 'curragh', a frail craft, often of considerable length, made of wicker work covered originally with stretched hides and latterly with tarred canvas. The curragh rides easily over the great Atlantic swells, is fast, and with four oarsmen can cover suprising distances. The Curragh was not suitable for the use of nets in deep-sea fishing, and according to an expert writing at the time the fish off the west coast of Ireland lay many miles out at sea in forty fathoms of water. A vessel of at least fifty tons was needed, capable of going out for several days, laden with nets, to face 'the frightful swell of the Atlantic'. If a gale blew from the east the nearest port of refuge was Hailfax, in Nova Scotia. The curraghs and small fishing-boats of the Irish were 'powerless in these circumstances'; and an inspector, reporting from Skibbereen, wrote that the failure of Irish fisheries was due to the want of boats suitable for deep-sea fishing, 'though this coast and the coast of Kerry about with the fines fish in the work' another report commented that the courage and skill of Irish fishermen were remarkable; 'the native fishermen' were 'out in thier frail curraghs whenever an opportunity offers, and in weather when nobody else could think of venturing themselves in such a craft'.
. ..but the heavy swell off the west and south-west made deep-sea fishing in curraghs impossible. 'The poor cottier had a miserable curragh, fished for his family or neighbours and got paid in potatoes."

In 1847 there were no railways in the west of Ireland and no means of refrigeration; even if great quantities of fish had been caught they could not have been sold.

The finest fishing-ground in Mayo was off Porturlin, a small fishing village in Erris, ' which', wrote Richard Webb, a representative of the Central Relief Committee of the Society of Friends, 'the only access by land is over a high and boggy mountain, so wet and swampy that it is difficult to reach it even in summer. It is probable that there is not in Ireland a cluster of human habitations so completely secluded from easy access.' Fine cod and ling abounded off Porturlin, but that the time of year when the fish were most abundant the weather was uncertain and dangerous. Mornings were fine, but the sky then overclouded, a wind sprang up and blew with violence, and certain destruction awaited the curraghs. This tremendous coast is lined with cliffs up to five hundred feet in height; for ten miles the small coves of Porturlin and Portacloy are the only shelter, and it is difficult to enter them in an Atlantic swell.

When the potato failed, fishermen all over Ireland pawned or sold their gear to buy meal. At Claddagh on Jan 1847 'all the boats were drawn up to the quay wall, stripped to the bare poles, not a sign of tackle or sail remaining... not a fish was to be had in the town, not a boat was at sea'.

Shortsighted and rash as this proceeding appears, there was a rational explanation. The primitive boats and curraghs in which the Irish fished, combined with the hazards of the 'tremendous coast', made regular fishing difficult; the Irish fisherman could never go out in bad wather, and was often kept on shore for weeks at a time. He then depended for good on his potaotes- though the seas might be teeming with fish, they were inaccessible to him.

The difficulties which had prevented a fishing industry from developing in Ireland remained; the poverty of the county, the want of proper boats, the remoteness from a market, the dangers of the 'tremendous coast' in the west. In many places trawling was declared to be impossible, owing to the rocky and foul nature of the sea bottom; in others- for part of the season the fishermen had to row twenty-five miles to the fishing -grounds; the weather was unreliable, and small boats, curraghs especially, laden with their catch were difficult to bring in when a squall blew up. Fish-curing stations could not operate economically when the supply of fish was not regular, nor did it prove easy to dispose of finished product; a number of stations had cured fish left on their hands." The Great Hunger by Cecil Woodham-Smith


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