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 signal.

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.

Once 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.

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.

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