Statistical Survey of the County of Clare, 1808

By Hely Dutton

Chapter V - Section 9

State of fisheries

THERE is not more fish caught than what supplies the markets of Limerick, Kilrush, Miltown, and the southern and the western parts of the county; the northern and eastern parts being mostly supplied from Galway. Though the numerous bays and creeks from Loophead to Kilrush are admirably well adapted for the fitting out and safe lying of fishing-boats, yet, from the poverty and laziness of those, who are capable of pursuing the fishing business, it is not carried on with the spirit, that such undertakings require. In the herring season upwards of 200 boats, sometimes not more than half that number, are fitted out at Kilrush, Carrigaholt, Querin, and other creeks; as the fishery is uncertain, a bad season completely ruins those poor men, who have expended their all upon the boats and fishing apparatus. If, on the contrary, some person or company of property would embark in this business, and who had sufficient authority to make other fisherman comply with regulations, that would be mutually beneficial, there could be little doubt of a profitable return. That such by-laws are wanting it is necessary to state, that at present, from want of some person of respectability and authority, they usually elect the oldest boatman admiral, and the next in seniority vice-admiral for the season; but neither of these has sufficient power to enforce the laws or regulations, which they have agreed to obey for the general good of all the fisherman. It is generally considered by the fishermen, that, if the herrings are disturbed for a few days after the shoal has come into the Shannon, they will retire from it; yet, though they are persuaded of this, they generally attempt to steal out at night on the first appearance of the shoal of herrings; this being observed by others, they steal out one after the other, until all the boats are out, and, whether from this or some other cause they frequently return without a single herring, loading each other with curses for having broken this agreement, which they think of so much importance. They are generally so cowardly, that, though the Galway fishing-smacks come above fifty miles, and fish outside of the lighthouse, not one of these would venture within five miles of the Shannon’s mouth. It is generally thought, that a very productive turbot fishery might be carried on in the mouth of the Shannon, yet no exertions are made; few, if any, of the fishermen being able to expend fifteen or twenty guineas for a trawl. Frequently for several months the inhabitants on the coast are almost without any kind of fish, sometimes owing to boisterous weather, and often to the more profitable and agreeable employment of carrying goods ashore from smuggling vessels.

No part of Ireland, or indeed of any other country, is so well situated for carrying on a lucrative fishery; but, as only the weak and small fish keep near the shore, it must be mere peddling, until companies are formed, that will be able to fit out vessels large enough to navigate the sea as far as the banks of Newfoundland. It is well known, that myriads of fine fish frequent the great bank, that stretches nearly from the coast of Galway in an oblique direction to Newfoundland, from twenty to thirty fathoms beneath the surface of the water, and of various breadths, from fifty to one hundred miles or more, extending from lat. 53 N. long. 10 10 of London, to lat. 45 and long. 53 W. The Danes carried on a most lucrative trade in this fishery with the south of Europe in the ninth and tenth centuries, and furnished Ireland and other countries with wine and other southern produce.

The French have had at some periods upwards of 500 sail in this trade. The English having explored only the western banks, the middle remains almost unknown, though it is highly probable it would be much more likely to afford large quantities of fish; for the whales, which used formerly to proceed from the eastern coasts of Greenland towards Newfoundland, and the coast of New England, have been banished by the Americans, and now make their way across the great bank, some where about lat. 50 and between 30 and 40 of W. longitude, passing off the western coasts of the Azores, Ascension, and St. Helena, towards the southern frozen regions, where they are caught by the southern whale fishers, who follow them from England and America; how much more advantageous therefore would it be to intercept them on the great bank, before they were exhausted by the length of the voyage? The western coasts of Ireland are particularly convenient for such a trade, as not only whales, but every other species of fish from the northern regions, might be obtained in the greatest quantity and of the best quality: it is computed, that upwards of 2000 vessels might be easily loaded in a season. To accomplish this, a company with a large capital must be formed, and there is every probability, that no speculation could be more profitable to the subscribers; and to the landed proprietors it must be highly advantageous, as the improvement of land and consumption of produce would necessarily keep pace with the prosperity of the fishing company, not only from the consumption of the fisherman, but from the number of boat-builders, coopers, salt-makers, sail and rope-makers, &c. &c. and their families, which must necessarily be employed. As a nursery for the best kind of seamen to a maritime nation, whose existence depends almost entirely on her navy, the advantage must be incalculable.

The boats in general use are such as have been used from the remotest period of history, wicker work covered with either horse or cow hides; they are the only kind, that could live a moment in the violent surf, that generally beats on this shore: it is astonishing, what a sea they will venture to encounter, one, where a ship’s boat would immediately founder, but these boats mount with every wave. It is nothing uncommon for a man to put his foot through the skin, when much worn; if he has nothing at hand to cram into the hole, he must keep his leg there until he reaches the shore, but frequently he takes off his wig, which answers the purpose; these accidents happen so often, that he is seldom at a loss and as little concerned. The small boats, generally used on the Shannon, are about thirty feet long, and only about three feet broad, flat-bottomed, and cost about four guineas; many are much smaller, for attending the weirs and for angling, and some much larger; it is astonishing to see the number of people, that these unsteady boats will carry across the Shannon at Castle-Connel, and other places, even in rapids, where one would think such narrow boats would be over-set; yet they are managed so skillfully, that few accidents even happen.

Oysters are taken on various parts of the coast; those taken at Pouldoody in the bay of Galway have long had a high reputation for flavour, but lately, from want of stocking the bed, they have become scarce. There are many other places on the coast of this bay, where oysters are found, and some tolerably good, but still greatly inferior to the Pouldoody. Inferior sorts are sold by the hawkers all through this and the neighbouring counties under this denomination, and the citizens of Dublin are often gulled by fellows crying "Burrin oysters, fine Pouldoody oysters," which I have seen them buying from oysters-boats at George’s-quay, the smallest being picked out for this purpose. Oysters are taken up on the coast of the Shannon, particularly at Querin and Poulanishary; the beds are small, but the oysters good; they almost all are sent to Limerick. What are sold at home are usually for a shilling per hundred; formerly they were to be had for 4d. or 5d.

Crabs and lobsters are caught in great plenty on the shores of the bay of Galway in every creek from Blackhead to Ardfry, and are generally sold at a very reasonable price; those, which in Dublin market Mrs. O’Brien would charge seven or eight shillings for, may be often had here for 6d., sometimes less. They are also to be had on the shore of the Atlantic, from Blackhead to Loophead, but are not caught in any great quantity. Crabs at Liscannor are reckoned very indifferent, but the lobsters good; whilst at Miltown-Malbay the crabs are excellent, and the lobsters very middling.

The salmon fishery of the Shannon is very considerable; and a few are taken in all the rivers, that communicate with it or the sea. That of Limerick was formerly much more abundant than at present, owing in a good measure to the illegal practice of destroying the fish at night by lights in Adair and other rivers in the spawning season, and also to the very general practice of watering flax in the Shannon, in full view of the magistrates of Killaloe, and in violation of an act of parliament against such practices.

Eels form another very material article of consumption; they abound in every river and rivulet; it would be a very desirable thing, if they could be caught without obstructing the passage of the water, as eel-weirs are the chief cause of very great damage to lands on the banks of rivers; I mean those chiefly, that are built of stone with a narrow mouth, for, if they are constructed with wattles like those on the Shannon, the mischief is by no means so great, because the water finds a passage through them. An eel-weir, that sets for perhaps 10l. a year, frequently is the cause of damage to land worth upwards of 1000l. a year, often much more; yet the proprietors of the land, thus injured, have not the spirit to bring it before a jury: for I think it is highly probable, that it is illegal to erect any other than those with wattles, at least it ought to be so.

At Liscanor bay a considerable quanity of small turbot is sometimes caught, and generally sold at a reasonable price, at least it appears so to a person, who has lived in Dublin; but the banks, that produce the large fish, are too far from shore to permit the small boats in use for this purpose to avail themselves of it; nor do even the fishermen of Galway or Kilrush, who have boats able to stand the sea, take advantage of this blessing; they are a cowardly set.

Fine mullet and bass are sometimes caught at the mouth of some rivers, and bass are often bought by inhabitants for mullet, but are greatly inferior. Many kinds of flat fish, with mackarel, herrings, whitings, &c. in their proper season are caught in abundance, and are great relief to the poor of Limerick and other towns.

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