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A history of the fishing industry in Ireland

The Fishing Industry in the eighteenth century.

The fishing Industry in the early 1700’s looked bleak. In the preceeding century fishing had become an economically and socially important factor in the life of many Irish. A great variety of fish were exploited including herrings, salmon, pilchards and hake. Certain types of fish flourished in certain areas of Ireland creating regional diversity within the fishing Industry. De Courcy (31,1981) states how the towns of Cork, Kinsale and Bantry became exclusively renound for pilchard fishing during this period. The export trade was also proving lucrative and this included herring, salmon, pilchard and hake being transported into several ports of Spain. (De Courcy, 37,1981) By the eighteenth century this rosy picture had some what dimmed. When describing the economy of County Down during this period, Harris (245, 1744) typifies the situation when he states; “Cows and cattle are their chief wealth.” At this time agriculture was the dominant economic activity yet the fishing Industry persisted. The County Down coastline proved to be a great enticement for a variety of fish; “…shoals are seen of codd, grayfish or old blockans, gurnard and knowds.” (Harris, 245,1744) However, herrings were recognised as the main asset. The bays of Carlingford, Strangford Lough and Carrickfergus were noted for a great resort of this catch when in season. Strangford was especially noted as a plentiful herring fishery, employing up to one hundred and fifty boats. (Harris, 246) Prices for the scaly cuisine ranged from 3s.6d to 1s.4d a mease yet this suffered and fell to two or three a penny in what Harris identified as a “decay in the herring industry.”(245,1744)


The herring is an advantageous breed of fish and it is clear the appeal it generated to fishermen in the eighteenth century. Herring are versatile in that they can be easily prepared for exportation (Pollock, 195,1988). Generally speaking there exists three distinct types of fish. Demersal fish are those which live on or near the seabed. These include round fish such as cod, haddock and whiting and also flat fish like plaice, sole, brill and turbot. The second category, shellfish, contains molluscs including oysters, scallops and mussels and crustacea identified as shrimps, prawns, lobsters and crabs. The third fish type are pelagic fish. These swim near to the surface of the sea and include those known as “oily fish” due to the fact that oil is distributed all over the body instead of being concentrated in the liver. (Meharg, Pilchards, mackerel and sprats belong to this type and it is in this category that the humble herring also belongs. Herrings fall into the category of passage or migration fish and therefore are an easy source to catch. (Pollock, This breed visit the shores of Down during July and August and this seasonal pattern was vividly apparent during the eighteenth century as the sea industry which developed relied heavily on the herring. (Pollock, 195,1988) Like salmon the herring spawn in one place and grow fat in another. As fish of passage they return to the place of spawn and breed, it is at this particular time that the herring is most sought after as they are plump, strong and ready to spawn making them an exceedingly favourable catch (Pollock, 196,1988).


During the eighteenth century the herring industry was far from problematic. As mentioned previously a decay in the trade and the falling prices at markets hit the fisheries if Down hard. A number of reasons were identified as the source for the poor state the Down fisheries found themselves in. The burning of kelp was a frequent activity (Harris, 248,1744). Kelp provided shelter and a source of nourishment to frys. By destroying the kelp future catches were killed off. Harris identified the problem of pollution in the herring bays, this acted as a deterrent to “the herring who wished to float in the area.” (248,1744) Larger fish also posed a problem, acting as predators they fed on the herring shoals at the time of spawning resulting in the demise of potential catches. (Harris, 248) The major problem that developed hand in hand with the fishing industry at this time, did not evolve from a lack of fish or polluted waters but was very much a man-made issue. The practise of using huge trail nets with narrow meshes proved to be disastrous to the eighteenth century fishing industry. Such nets were catching the large fish but also engulfed fry and smaller fish without providing a means for their escape. (Harris, 249) Therefore, employing this method was bleeding dry the future catches and resources of the County Down fishermen. Such a practise was considered so harsh and detrimental to the industry that many were of the opinion;

“…One might think we have declared war on the herring”(Harris, 250).

This opinion was echoed by Lecky (42,1981) who not only attributed the industry’s decline in part to the introduction of the trawl net in 1738, but also the apparent desertion of the coast by fish shoals. A suprising situation also developed in the late 1720’s as a whole, Ireland appeared at this time to import more fish than it exported. (De Courcy, 38,1981) De Courcy maintains that problems between government and the fishermen arose through “suspicion and misunderstandings” resulted in the fishing industry at home to under-compete and under-produce (41,1981). By the middle of the1700’s a series of steps were taken in an attempt to correct the problems. These developments took the form of founding fishermen’s organisations, creating trade unions and the implementation of proper training of sea-fishermen. (De Courcy, 41,1981) Government also provided aid in the form of subsidies on fish exports and raising the duties on imported herrings. (De Courcy, 45,1981) By this stage they had identified the potential of the Irish fishing industry and knew the importance of protecting it. With these implementations the herring industry began to revive and an indication of the skill and expertise of Irish fishermen was indicated by an invitation to share their knowledge with the fishermen of Shetland and Orkney. (De Courcy, 46,1981) This knowledge took the form of catching and methods in curing. In conclusion, with the nineteenth century approaching the fishing industry had suffered periods of slump and boom. With the help of government and internal reform it had managed to keep its head above board. The turn of the century was a period of political and social unrest with the 1798 rising by the united Irishmen coupled with the French wars curtailing fish exports.

The Fishing Industry in the nineteenth century.

For a good part of the nineteenth century Irish fisheries appeared to be under-funded and in decline. A system of government bounties was abandoned in 1830 and from this period until the 1890’s Irish fisheries were identified as a national resource for food and employment which was badly neglected and under-developed. (McCaughan, 122,1989) National figures for the number of men and boats active in the sea fisheries showed a decline. For example, in 1874 the Inspectors of Irish fisheries reported that the number of fishing boats were reduced to nearly a third of what they had been in 1846, while fishing crews shrunk to less than a quarter (R.I.I.F, 1874,367). A number of reasons have been proposed for such a decline. During this period Ireland suffered it’s greatest disaster in history. The potato blight resulting in the famine caused major population decrease. This coupled with emigration, deprivation and the lack of government loans for the repair and purchase of boats and equipment could only impoverish the fishing industry. However national statistics disguised regional exceptions. (McCaughan, 122,1989) Such exceptions are the herring fishery centred on the east coast of Ireland and the mackerel fishery based in the County Cork harbour of Kinsale on the south coast. The nineteenth century will be discussed in relation to these fisheries.

The Fishing Industry in nineteenth century County Down.

This section examines the nature and composition of the fishing industry in County Down, paying particular attention to the deep sea and offshore fisheries of herring and mackerel. The nineteenth century is a period symbolised by change within the fishing industry and this took the form of new technology and markets. A major factor owing to these changes was the availability of accessible resources. These determined the types of fish caught and where they were landed and sold. As mentioned previously a wide range of fish types were exploited around the coast of County Down and in the nineteenth century this allowed for the development of a variety of fishery enterprises. Stated before, sea-fish are classified biologically on the basis of their lifestyle as either demersal or pelagic species. Demersal fish which include the cod and haddock are a sea-bottom living and feeding species and usually remain in the same area all their life. In economic terms demersal fish provided a localised resource base for the County Down fishermen, as they were available for exploitation all year round. (Pollock, 406,1997) On the other hand, fish such as the herring and mackerel fall into the pelagic species. These appear periodically in large numbers in the coastal waters where they gather to feed and spawn. The activity of such fish bears great commercial significance. Pelagic breeds form huge homogeneous shoals at given times of the year in certain regions. This allows for abundant supplies of fish to be caught at relatively predictable periods and locations. ( Fishing solely from the pelagic group has its downside. Habits of shoaling and free migration also lead to times of distinct shortage in the availability of pelagic resources. (Pollock, 407,1997) Therefore, it could be argued that the lifestyle and shoaling nature of the different species of fish lead to the development of a wide range of sea-fisheries along the County Down coastline. These ranged from land-based pursuits such as the capture of crabs and lobsters, indicated by John Miller of Derryvoge;

“…Lobsters and crabs are very plenty”(R.I.I.F, 1835,15)

to seasonal pelagic fishing for herring and year round demersal fishing for cod and haddock. The variety of fish types exploited greatly aided County Down to become a prosperous fishing region. However other factors were also responsible. It was necessary to have reachable fishing grounds and Ireland was surrounded by sea with over 2,500 miles of coastline (Pollock, 407). What added to this situation was that much of this coastline was sandy beaches or rocky natural harbours. Both offered shelter for fishing vessels without the need to build artificial harbours at extravagant costs! (Pollock, 407) However, fishing villages which erected piers and harbours did flourish and those without were encouraged to construct them, Melisle County Down is one such case;

“There is neither harbour or creek on this part of the coast. Melisle is near a good fishing ground and if a pier to shelter larger boats than those at present in use, were erected, the business of fishing might be considerably extended.”(R.C.I.F, 1835)

As identified by Pollock (407,1997) catching the fish was a small part of the process, selling them was another. Commercial fishing developed due to the internal and external markets for the product. At home fish was traditionally an important food and stable part of the Irish diet. Cullen (154,1981) identifies this fact and states that in comparison with England, the per capita consumption of fish was significantly higher in Ireland. External markets were able to flourish due to Ireland’s close proximity to Britain and Europe, this allowed the demand for Irish fish to be sufficiently met and transported over relatively short distances. In essence, the success of the fishing industry in County Down during the nineteenth century can be attributed to its geographical position. It reaped sandy beaches and natural harbours in contrast to neighbouring County Antrim with its long cliff coast. (Pollock, 408,1997) Although the fishing industry was enjoying a revitalisation, County Down also enjoyed agricultural success and this was indicated through the establishment of many small local ports. Killough is one such example, built under the authority of Alexander Nimmo during the years 1821 to 1824;

“…The village of Killough is spacious and well sheltered …the harbour extends over 100 Irish acres, it is furnished with a small quay at the village, which is now in progress of being improved and extended under my direction.” (Nimmo, R.I.I.F, 1835,79)

Others included Ardglass and Donaghadee created under the supervision of Sir John Rennie during the period 1820 to 1830. The fishing industry in these small village ports was very different in nature to the offshore fisheries. They can be characterised as small-scale community ventures, many of which were family based. This type of fishery will be discussed later using the village of Killough as a case study.

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