Fish - Not regarded as real food during the Great Famine

Desperate search: This line drawing taken from The Illustrated London News at the time, conveys the stark reality as famine returns year after year.

Desperate search: This line drawing taken from The Illustrated London News at the time, conveys the stark reality as famine returns year after year.

Week II

A reader, Bill Daly, suggests another reason why, when the sea was abundant with fish during the Great Famine years 1845 - 1849, fish was not regarded as real food. There appears to have been no substitute for the food of the common family in Ireland of the time, which was meal or grain for bread and gruel, milk and potatoes. Nevertheless it adds to the tragedy that when food was so close it was ignored or treated as inferior, or was inaccessible for a number of reasons. Fishing was totally under developed at the time. The remoteness of small fishing communities from any sizeable market, made its commercialisation difficult. The historian Cecil Woodham-Smith* tells us that our inland shores were teeming with herring and mackerel; while in deeper water there were shoals of cod, sole, turbot and haddock.

Another reason given for the failure to land fish in sufficient quantity to feed the starving people was the‘ frail’ currach, the most widely used boat for fishing off the west coast. But our rocky coastline with its cliffs, rocks, treacherous currents, sudden squalls, and above all the Atlantic swell, made fishing dangerous in all but the calmest conditions. Yet what about the Claddagh, with its sturdy fleet of black-sailed hookers,** and its self-proclaimed rights to the fish in Galway Bay? Surely it had the key not only to sell its catch at the fish market at Spanish Parade to meet the needs of the town, and to have surplus to feed the thousands streaming in from rural areas in search of food. The Society of Friends, Quakers, who gave practical help and leadership in these terrible times, was asked by the British government to help the Claddagh fishermen. Their representative, William Todhunter, however, found them exasperating. ‘ They are,’ he wrote, ‘ next to incorrigible,’ and that ‘ some of their laws should be broken through. They will only go out at certain days and times, and if other boats go out the crews would be beaten and the nets destroyed.’

Woodham-Smith tells us that some days before Todhunter arrived the Claddagh men went out and caught a large catch of fine herrings. They then refused to go out again for several nights, nor would they allow anyone else to go out. Todhunter considered that a naval sloop should be stationed in Galway Bay to protect other fishermen from the Claddagh men. ‘ Their carelessness was maddening.’ It was ‘’ really awful’, he wrote, ‘to observe the waste of their property from want of attention and care... One sixth the number of boats properly equipped and manned would take a much greater amount of fish....Nothing could be more vexatious than to see many boats ruined merely from the circumstances of allowing the large stones to drop from the quays and the boats to rest on them as the tide ebbed’....

How were they to live?

When the potato failed, fishermen all over Ireland pawned or sold their gear to buy meal. Woodham-Smith tells us that on January 9 1847, all the Claddagh 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’. On Achill Quaker James Hack Tuke wrote that the waters could not be fished because nets and tackle had been pawned or sold ‘to buy a little meal’. The vicar of Ring, Co Waterford, appealed for help because the Ring fishermen had sold or pledged their fishing gear to obtain food. Similar reports came in from Belmullet, Killybegs, Kilmoe, the harbours of Clare, and indeed every fishing port along the coast.

Irish fishermen were reproached for going on the public works instead of going out to fish, but as Mr Hennell, Fishery Inspector for Donegal, explained, the exceptionally severe winter of 1846 - ‘47 made fishing impossible, the Killybegs men had not been out for weeks - how were they to live? ‘Fishermen are on the Public Works and fear to leave them until they can be sure the weather will allow them fish continuously.’

‘Famine foods’

(Reader writes ) It has certainly puzzled me over the years why the people didn’t turn to fish when it was so abundant around our shores. The reason, I believe, was the economic development that Britain prevailed upon Ireland at this time. In economic terms, we were more or less forgotten about. A culture of ‘laissez faire’ developed and we fell further and further behind. The poorest people were dependent on the landlords and their middlemen and they would continue to survive miserably as long as the potato and turnip started to break ground every year. The British, at this time, possibly knew more about the people who inhabited India and many parts of Africa than their nearest neighbours. We didn’t know how to fish or cultivate anything except the potato and it was a tragedy of huge proportions. It has always been considered to have been more of a ‘hunger’ that a ‘famine’ as there was plenty of food available in the country, but it had to be exported by the ruling classes. Growing up in West Waterford, cheese and fish carried a certain stigma and were always considered to be associated with ‘famine foods’.

Best Regards,

Bill Daly, (Oughterard ).

Next Week : Some attempts made to help get fishing industry started


* The Great Hunger - Ireland 1845 -1849,

published by Hamish Hamiliton 1962.

** The hooker was named after the hooked fishing lines before the introduction of nets. There are four types of hooker, each a different size: An Bád Mór, An Leathbhad, An Gleoiteog, agus An Púcán.


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