February - traditional start date of the Salmon Driftnet Fishery

The traditional start of the Salmon drift net season in Ireland was, for generations, February 1st. Once opened it stretched to August 15th, the Feast of the Assumption, and a very important church holiday in the village in the past.   By the time I started to fish the season had been shortened to commence on St Patricks Day, but I was raised on stories of the February start and the harsh winter conditions faced by my father and my mothers people.  

My maternal Grandmother Maura Moran raised me on stories of the conditions her father (Michael) and brothers (Ritchie, Paddy, Christy, Mickey, Johnny and Willie) faced while drifting for fish. One of those earliest memories I believe, was 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, Catherine, often up through the night, keeping the fire in and turning the clothing, so that the men would be some way comfortable going back out to fish.  That might be the following morning, or in a short few hours depending on the tides.  The season in those times closed each week between 6am on a Saturday morning to 6am on the Monday.  Once the week opened it operated for 24 hrs a day.

Paddy Moran RIP and Michael Ferguson RIP
Ranging nets on Ryan's Shore 1950's
Walter Whitty (RIP) 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 and be fit to wear.  My Grandmother said that often as not an oilskin might return from sea journeys and during WWII might wash up on the strand or in the nets, but in general the men wore thick overcoats to keep the weather out and always a few pairs of socks if they had them.

Blessing the boats, Nets and men prior to the opening 1930's
Terry Murphy (RIP) 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".  It was often I saw the proof of those words since, I have to admit.

The oars were the only way to get around and it meant that fishing was a slower, more rhythmical affair.  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 as not, wouldn't eat from the time 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 boy that did the fishing in all the other families around, those old enough choosing the emigrant boat or a sea going berth, at least until the summer peal run.

Poles along the quay for "spreeting" or drying the nets 1950's
As I mentioned in my own time, the start of the season had been shifted to St Patricks 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 - 9pm.  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 as a means of preserving the Salmon stocks. Salmon stocks have not recovered however.  Now those media outlets have to look beyond the traditional bogeyman, and yet seem unwilling to challange any sacred cows such as farming, industry or forestry.  

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