The tragedy of the Great Famine was compounded by the fact that our seas were full of fish, yet the lack of a sustainable fishing industry, and a general dislike of fish among the peasantry, left untouched this abundant food source. As the appalling statistics of hunger, riots, death, fever and evictions began to penetrate the British government, some action was at last taken*. Unsuitable as it was for Irish palates, vast quantities of American maize was imported, and distributed. Public relief schemes, such as canal-building and new roads were introduced to provide some employment, and efforts were made to establish a fishing industry.
The historian Cecil Woodham-Smith** tells us that in the case of fishing, the government’s action was not always as enthusiastic as it appeared to be at first. A Mr Mulvany, a Board of Works Commissioner and an Irishman, was appointed to prepare a fisheries plan. He urged that £100,000 be spent at once on the construction and improvement of harbours, quays, and boat-slips; and an additional £10,000 a year set aside for repairs ‘to make up for past neglect’. Mulvany was not successful. Under Lord John Russell’s relief scheme of January 1847, only £5,000 a year was to be spent. Mulvany also suggested, again without success, that Irish fishermen should be allowed small loans, direct from government, to finance small improvements on their boats and tackle. The government feared that such an offer would be damaging to the fishermen’s morale. The secretary to the Treasury, Charles Edward Trevelyn*** pronounced ‘’that the fishermen are induced by it to rely upon others, instead of themselves, and that they acquire habits of chicanery and bad faith in their prolonged struggle to avoid payment of the loan.’ The British Association then offered £500 for loans for fishermen, but this too was refused.
It was really the Quakers, the generous Society of Friends, who made practical inroads on a despairing people. I have written before about the wonderful James and Mary Ellis from Bradford who, in 1849, leased about 1,000 acres at what is now known as Letterfrack. They farmed, and planted woodland. With money raised in northern England they also built a schoolhouse, housing for tradesmen, a shop, a dispensary, and a temperance hotel. They taught basic farming and fishery skills to men; domestic and home crafts for women.
Working with the coast guard service other members of the Society of Friends prepared a plan which included small loans for poor fishermen for repairs and replacements of boats. This scheme was again rejected by Trevelyn. Nevertheless the Society gave fishermen money to survive. Claddagh fishermen were given money to buy warm clothes for the sea, and offered cheap loans to provision their boats to allow them stay out fishing for several days at a time.
The Society of Friends established fishing stations at Ballinakill Bay, near Clifden, at Achill in Mayo, and at Belmullet in Erris. Ten currachs and other boats were fully equipped with nets, lines and other gear at a cost to the Society of £300. At Castletown Berehaven, west Cork, a fish-curing factory was set up, and a trawler, Erne, was hired for six months at £45 a month. The Erne would accompany the small boats, take their catch on board and head back to Berehaven for processing. This time the British government did get involved. Six fish-curing stations were established. Experienced fish-curers were brought in from Scotland to teach their trade.
Unhappily these measures did not succeed. The difficulties which had prevented a fishing industry from developing in Ireland remained: The poverty of the country, the want of proper boats, their remoteness from a market, the dangerous of the ‘tremendous coast’ particularly along the west. In some instances the currach had to row out 25 miles to the fishing grounds. The weather was unreliable, and small boats, particularly if laden with fish, were a liability if a squall blew up. Fish-curing stations could not operate economically if the supply of fish was not on a regular basis. A number of stations had cured-fish left on their hands.
After about two years’ operation the fishing stations in Mayo and Galway were closed. In April 1852 the Berehaven factory was closed as well.
NOTES: *The Great Famine 1845 - 18 50 was a watershed in Irish history. Its effects permanently changed Ireland’s demographic, political and cultural landscape. In a short period of time approximately one million people died from starvation and fever, while more than a million emigrated. The island’s population fell by between 20per cent and 25per cent.
One -third of the people depended on the potato for food, which was destroyed by a blight which spread from the European mainland. The lack of political will and local control, proper social infrastructure, effective food distribution, and economic factors all contributed to the distress which remain subject of historical debate today.
** The Great Hunger - Ireland 1845 - 1849, published by Hamish Hamiliton 1962. For an overall review of the Galway situation, read Famine - Galway’s darkest years, by William Henry published by Mercier Press.
***Charles Edward Trevelyn, a pompous man if there ever was one, represented the British government’s controversial policies of minimal intervention. It insisted that it was better for the starving poor to became self-reliant rather than relying on government handouts.