Hundreds of thousands starved while the sea teemed with fish

Potato riots : Panic as starving people attack and steal potatos from a shop in Galway (London Illustrated News 1847).

Potato riots : Panic as starving people attack and steal potatos from a shop in Galway (London Illustrated News 1847).

Reading William Henry’s book Famine - Galway’s Darkest Days*, I was struck yet again by the fact that while thousands of people died of starvation in the west of Ireland, when whole communities abandoned their homes in a desperate search for food, our seas were boiling with fish. The author tells us that in Galway at the beginning of the Great Famine in 1845 the Claddagh fishermen fiercely protected their fishing rights in the Bay, which they regarded as their exclusive property. But as the famine dragged on to the end of the decade the Claddagh fishermen had no means left for catching fish. They had pawned their boats and fishing equipment for food. The historian Cecil Woodham-Smith in her classic account of the Great Famine**, tells us that on January 9 1847, ‘all boats were drawn up to the quay wall, stripped to the bare poles, not a sign of tackle or sail remaining....not a fish was to be had in the town, not a boat was at sea.’

I think it’s worth looking again at why, when fine fish abounded, especially along the west coast where distress was most severe, it was not harvested industrially and distributed or sold. Instead, thousands of people were reduced to eating old cabbage leaves, roadside weeds, rotten turnips. All along the rocky shore, people scavenged for dilisk (edible seaweed ), and raw limpets. James Hack Tuke, one of the extraordinary band of English Quakers (Society of Friends ), who worked tirelessly, and generously distributing relief, which had been privately subscribed by Quakers in England, stood on the cliffs of Achill, and looked down through the clear Atlantic water. He saw:‘ Shoals of herring and mackerel in immense quantities.’

I have heard it said that the vapour from the potato blight kept fish off shore in deep water, out of reach for the fishing boats of the time. Certainly James Hack Tuke observed that ‘in the deeper waters were cod, sole, turbot and haddock’, yet around him stood starving creatures ‘who made no use of this inexhaustible supply of food. It wasn’t for lack of bravery, or navigation skills (as we will see in a moment ) or the knowledge of curing, salting, or smoking fish for its preservation, but the simple tragic fact was that fishing was a backward and neglected industry in Ireland at the time, and that potential markets for the sale of fish were out of reach of the small fishing communities. This had dire consequences for the people.

Hunting the shark

The most widely used boat in the Wwest of Ireland was the curragh, a frail craft, long enough to hold four rowers and two other men. Originally a light wooden frame was covered with stretched hides, and latterly with tarred canvas. It could ride over the waves with ease, and travelled long distances at speed. Despite our rocky coastline, with its cliffs, rocks, treacherous currents, sudden squalls, and above all, the Atlantic swell surging from America across thousands of miles, you’d imagine that these frail craft would be ineffective for fishing and island communication. Yet E. Estyn Evans (Irish Folk Ways, published by Routledge & Kegan Paul, London 1957 ) tells us that the curragh was used for inshore net fishing, for setting lobster pots or long lines, for gathering kelp and carrying freight, livestock and passengers.

But its most spectacular purpose was to hunt and harpoon the great basking shark or sunfish about 30 miles off Achill Island. Measuring up to 40 feet in length, the basking shark is one of the world’s largest fish. They move in large shoals down the west coast in summer. Although harmless, its diet is tiny copepods, its bulk makes it a formidable adversary. Before the advent of paraffin, the liver oil from the sunfish was used for lamp light. A single fish will yield from seven to 10 barrels of oil.

These great fish come to the surface in the mornings and evenings off the Sunfish Bank. It was a dangerous place. The Sunfish Bank lies near the edge of the Continental Shelf. There is always a heavy swell making it difficult for small boats. ‘Yet in the early 19th century as many as 30 or 40 sharks were harpooned and killed in a single day of fine weather.’

Remote villages

Where were these skills at the height of the Great Famine? An official report notes that generally ‘the native fishermen were out in their frail curraghs whenever an opportunity offers, and in weather when nobody else could think of venturing out themselves in such craft.’ But fish was not seen as a substitute for the potato; and anyway ‘the heavy swell off the west and south-west coast made deep-sea fishing impossible. The poor cottier had a miserable curragh, fished for his family or neighbours, and got paid in potatoes’.

But what about curing, smoking and salting fish either for home consumption or selling at a near-by market? All these crafts were known, but it would be only much later when the British government brought over Scottish workers to teach the Irish how to preserve fish with a view to sell to the market. A lot of the difficulty, however, in seeing the potential of fish as a commercial enterprise was that any sizeable community was too far away to be serviced from the scattered fishing villages along the coast. The finest fishing-ground in Mayo was off Porturlin, a small fishing village in Erris... ‘ to which,’ observed Richard Webb, a Quaker and a representative of the Central Relief Committee of the Society of Friends, “ the only access by land is over a high and boggy mountain, so wet and swampy that it is difficult to reach it even in summer. It is probable that there is not in Ireland a cluster of human habitations so completely secluded from easy access.”

When James Hack Tuke was in the district he noted that a fishing smack from Scotland fished 25 miles off Achill, and sold its catch in Wesport. Cecil Woodham-Smith writes that in 1847 there were no railways in the west of Ireland, and no means of refrigeration. “ Even if great quantities of fish had been caught they could not have been sold. In Galway, when the catch was plentiful, the market was piled with unwanted fish, tons lay everywhere, producing ‘the most disgusting effluvia.”

Next Week: The Society of Friends ‘frustration’ with the Claddagh fishermen

NOTES: * Famine - Galway’s Darkest Years by William Henry, published by Mercier History, on sale €14 99.

**The Great Hunger - Ireland 1845-’9 by Cecil Woodham -Smith, published by Hamish Hamilton 1962 (pages 289-293 ).The author, who died in 1977, was an historian with a lighter touch. She also wrote a biography of Florence Nightingale (1950 ) and The Reason Why, a study of a military disaster during the Crimean War in 1953.

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