Hardiman tells us, “There was from time immemorial a gap in the river called the Main Gap, through which small boats, sometimes with difficulty, passed up and down the river from the lake to the sea. This particular gap was always kept open from February to August, when all others were shut. The proprietors of the fishery, finding that it diminished the value of the weirs, caused it to be closed. This became the subject of legal contention, but it was finally decided that the gap should be, and it has ever since accordingly been, kept open.”
Our photograph today (courtesy of the National Library ) was originally taken c1865 and shows workmen taking salmon from the gap, which at that time was officially known as the King’s Gap or the Queen’s Gap depending on whatever monarch was in power. It was known locally as The Salmon Traps or The Cribs and was designed as a weir used to trap salmon for commercial sale up to 1998.
Fishing was always important on the river. Ownership of this stretch of water took on great significance c1260-1270 when Henry III granted it to the Earls of Ulster. Over the next few centuries ownership swung between the Crown and the De Burgos, both of whom made substantial profits granting licences to the merchant families of the town for fishing along this stretch.
Illegal fishing was a constant problem for the owners. In 1389 Walter De Bermingham, who had an interest in the fishery, was troubled by poachers and complained to the Lord Justice and Council, “That certain Irishry of the lower part of Connacht had fished the waters of the said Walter in these parts and they were accustomed to take salmon against his will, and sell the same to people and merchants of Galway, to his great loss.” So the officials and commonality of the town were commanded under a penalty not to buy any of the said salmon, “but to cause proclamation to be made that none should henceforth be bought from these Irishry and to ascertain who should be found to transgress in that respect, and to then imprison until due amends should be made.”
O’Flaherty tells us, “On the bridge over the river from the town to the west, salmons are taken by casting trident spears at them with long ropes to draw up the spears again.” According to Hardiman, “The handle of the spear was about five foot in length and was secured at the top by a rope of sufficient extent. The spearman generally stood on the battlement of the bridge and, having spied the fish, he seldom missed his aim.” We do not know whether these spearmen were poachers or men hired by the owners of the fishery.
In 1520 William De Burgo granted the fishery to the Franciscan Friars. It later passed to a Mr Dodd in the time of Cromwell, to a Mr Preston in 1663, and in 1710 it was in the possession of Mr Eyre from Eyrecourt. In 1852 it was purchased by the Ashworth brothers for £5,000. It was they who constructed the watch tower at Wolfe Tone Bridge. The export of fish from here became a flourishing business. The last owner of the fishery was Colonel Cross and then it came under State control. Col Cross lived in the house we see across the river in our photograph. It would appear from the tower-like construction of windows on the façade that this was also a lookout post for trying to catch poachers. This building is occupied by the County Club today.
In the recent past poachers like ‘Mate’ Lydon and ‘Snatcher’ Kelly were regarded almost as local heroes. Mate was up in court once, charged with poaching. The judge said sternly, “Mr Lydon, you have been up here in front of me before, what did I give you the last time ?”
“Not much your honour, you only gave me three bob a pound.”