When the Claddagh fishermen worked, they did it with a will, and when not fishing, they were generally found mending their nets. They had the reputation of being so well prepared for sea, that lives were seldom lost when they went fishing. The strand often presented a lively sight at The Claddagh preparatory to the men proceeding to sea. They usually brought with them some oatmeal cakes, potatoes, water, and firing, no spirits of any kind.
Sadly, the long tradition of fishing in The Claddagh began to decline towards the middle of the 19th century. Time and again throughout the decades, the fishing community faced disaster. Efforts to improve the fisheries around Galway Bay had affected the livelihoods of the Claddagh men. Larger vessels fished further out to sea and the stocks of fish in the bay declined. At the time of the cholera epidemic in the early 1830s and during the Great Famine, the village suffered due to the high cost of provisions, the poor supply of fish, and the curious fact that the first effect of the potato blight was to render the herrings almost unsaleable, they were so used to having them with potatoes. Many fishermen pawned their nets and tackle and so were unable to take advantage of the herring shoals, even when they approached the coast.
An illustration of their tragedy was the appearance of a tall, fine, athletic young man named Martin Connor before the Galway Board of Guardians in 1860. He had been at sea for eight days and nights without catching anything to feed his family. In his absence, his wife and hungry children had applied to be taken into the workhouse. In accordance with the Poor Law, they would not be received without the husband and father also applying.
On his return the desolation of his home and hearth only added to his desperation. He sold all his little effects for the sum total of one pound. Then he distributed 20 shillings among his creditors. He, now clearly destitute, went to the Board of Guardians and asked for asylum for himself until next spring. Then he hoped he might get work and wages. He got it, but his case illustrated the harshness of the system which separated him from his wife and children, which confined them in separate apartments. It also showed the problems of the Claddagh community as they faced into the harshest months of winter.
Our photograph, which dates from c1890 and was given to us by the National Library, shows the fishing boats moored at the quay in the Claddagh in a romantic light, but in reality, life was about grim survival for many of the residents. Sundry old practices and customs had to be given up, and others began to slowly die out.