The Fish Trade

Fishing was an important commercial activity, particularly herring fishing in the north-west and west of the country. For instance, in 1773 Robert Alexander, a Derry merchant, began a fishery with two 40-ton sloops; the next year he added a brig and exported 650 barrels of salted herrings to Antigua. He also had a coastal trade, and the fate of one of his vessels indicates some of the problems and dangers of this activity:

In 1775, he had the same brig and three sloops, and loaded all four in bulk for the coast trade; one of which on her voyage was put ashore at Black Sod, in the county of Mayo; and, though the sloop was not the least injured, the country came down, obliged the crew to go on shore, threatening to murder them if they did not, and then not only robbed the vessel of her cargo, but of every portable material. The cargo was 40 ton, or 160,000 herrings.

However, Alexander recouped this loss the following year when he exported 1,750 barrels of herrings to the West Indies in another of his vessels, the 340-ton Alexander, and, finding his business restricted through lack of facilities on Lough Swilly, he built a salting house at Downings to prepare fish specifically for this trade.

The proper preserving of fish for the overseas market was important, as shortly before Charles O’Hara (1576) had warned the Royal Dublin Society that ‘it is apprehended that our fresh herrings not being in esteem in foreign markets is owing partly to the Fish not being properly cured.’ O’Hara explained that they were usually salted in bulk in factories on the coast. After a time they were packed into a ship’s hold and sent to be marketed as bulk herrings. If the merchant was unsuccessful they were either sold on easy terms or barrelled up and exported. But as wood for barrels was scarce, packaging was probably as much a problem as defective curing technique.

In 1775 Alexander had about 500 ships involved in his enterprise. Although it was very large by contemporary Irish standards, it was not the only such capitalised undertaking. Another ambitious venture was the Burton-Conyngham (0303) fishery on Rutland Island, off the Co. Donegal coast, ‘where a village with every necessary building and accommodation for setting and curing the fish was erected, at an expense, to himself of £38,000 and £20,000 granted by Parliament’.

The fishery was supported by an elaborate infrastructure of roads and the provision of 300 ves­sels and 1,200 boats but, after an initial success, the herring disappeared and the scheme failed, confirming Young’s observation on the Alexander enterprise that ‘here appears a very noble profit; but fishing on paper is an easier business than upon Loch-Swilly.’ The behaviour of the fish made the outcome of such enterprises unpredictable.

At a lesser level, the personal and financial risks involved ensured that fishing was usually a co-operative activity. Often the methods used were simple and traditional. At the beginning of the nineteenth century Wakefield discovered the fishermen in Co. Clare making fishing boats from cow-hide daubed all over with tar - a method they had inherited from remotest antiquity. These cost about 32s.

Further south the two-ton herring boats at Dingle, Co. Kerry had 14-foot keels and cost £3 5s to build. A string of three nets cost £3 3s. Nets made of Baltic hemp were used for professional fishing. These boats carried five men and, as was common elsewhere, the poor fished in partnerships. At the end of the century in Co. Dublin the fishing boats, known as wherries, carried seven or eight men, each of whom had a share in the catch, while two shares were reserved for the boat’s owner.

There were many small herring fisheries on the western and southern coasts. Although herring was the principal catch, it was not the only fish. For example, in the middle of the century Pococke found that there was plenty of cod on a bank some distance out from Newport, Co. Mayo. Young found that at Sligo a good night’s catch was 3,000–5,000 herring, and this could be sold at an average price of 16s 8d per 1,000. At Galway there was a large herring fishery which at one time was estimated to employ 2,500 people.

In 1786 the Cork and Waterford merchants lobbied the House of Commons to have the duty on foreign herrings removed as it interfered with their provision trade, but the Galway fish merchants counter-petitioned, pointing out that while this might benefit the southern provision merchants it would be disadvantageous to the nation as a whole.

The considerable fishing activity off the south coast depended less on the exportable herring and more on the home market. The Nymph Bank lying off counties Cork and Waterford abounded in cod, ling, skate, bream and whiting. In the spring there was some whaling off the west coast that attracted Dutch and Danish whalers – including some from Greenland - as well as British and Irish fishermen. Young attributed the invention of the gun-harpoon to Thomas Nesbitt of Kilmacrenan. At the same time Irish fishermen from the south were fishing off Newfoundland. The men often travelled to and fro for some seasons before bringing their wives over and settling there.

Oysters and shellfish were very popular, particularly on the Dublin market. Traditionally the capital was supplied with oysters from Carlingford Lough - ‘fresh Carlingford oysters’ was one of the street cries of Dublin - but in the mid-eighteenth century oyster beds were being cultivated at Sutton and Clontarf, while Pococke, visiting Lough Conn, noted in 1752 that ‘they have a bed of small oysters here which at spring tides is left by the sea, and the people go and pick ‘em up, pickle ‘em and send them to Dublin. They sell them there for a penny a hundred and on the bank they load a horse for 4d.’

Fish was preserved for the Dublin or overseas market in a variety of ways. The scarcity of wood also created problems in smoke-curing fish. The fishing was done by the men but, as Wakefield noted at Kinsale, women prepared and cured the catch. In Kilkenny fresh salmon was prepared for the Dublin market by parboiling or ‘setting’ it. Nevertheless, given marketing conditions and the short lifespan of fresh fish, especially shellfish, food poisoning must have been common.