From skullduggery to a fishing industry

 Gráinne Uí Mháille, Granuaile, controlled the western seaboard from Bunowen Castle, near Ballyconneely.

Gráinne Uí Mháille, Granuaile, controlled the western seaboard from Bunowen Castle, near Ballyconneely.

We know very little about manmade piers and quays along the western seaboard before the beginning of the 19th century, when a lavish programme of safe harbours were built not only to encourage fishing, but as relief programmes in times of distress. It was also an attempt to replace the activities of piracy and smuggling with an industry based on the believed bounty from the sea.

The lands of Iar Connacht in the west of Co Galway were in O’Flaherty hands for much of the time between the 15th and 18th centuries; while the lands of Co Mayo were in the hands of their in-laws, and sometime rivals, the O’Malleys. Despite the absence of harbors there is plenty of evidence that ships, often with evil intent, lay at anchor off safe beaches, ready for immediate action.

Gráinne Uí Mháille, or Granuaile, was the most notorious observer of fat merchant ships from her erie at Bunowen castle, on the coast near Ballyconneely, as they struggled to enter or exit Galway Bay. O’Flaherty castles were dotted throughout the west and northwest of the county. One of their principal centres being the district later called the Barony of Ballinahinch, the very heart of Connemara. It had good access to the open sea through the Roundstone and Ballyconneely bays. Almost hidden anchorages, well surrounded by land, was an ideal place for any O’Flaherty ship to lie beached or at anchor in perfect safety.

Noel P Wilkins tells us in his interesting book Humble Works for Humble People* ‘there was no need for sheltered piers or stone wharves in such a place. It was a foolhardy person who would follow a ship into the lair of the ferocious O’Flahertys, and hope to emerge unscathed, or even to emerge at all.’

Granuaile is one of the most remarkable women in Irish history. When her father Eoghan refused to take her on a voyage to Spain, believing that a ship was no place for a girl, she cropped her hair to look like a boy, which earned her the nickname Gráinne Mhaol (Grace the Bald ). Married at 16 years of age, to Dónal An Chogaidh O’Flaherty, she became embroiled with struggles against the rival Joyce clan. Following her husband’s murder, she married Richard An Iarainn Burke, and went after richer pickings than the Joyce’s sheep. She became the most feared sea-captain on the western seas.**

There was little shipping movement at the entrance to Galway Bay that the O’Flahertys could not observe at leisure from Bunowen, and act upon it as they wished. It is said of the 16th century that ‘the mariner or merchant who left Galway in pursuit of trade seriously risked his life in more ways than one’. Because of the nature of their activities, artificial stone piers and wharves would have been of little value to the O’Flahertys or to any other pirates. They would only have served to reveal to their pursuers the exact whereabouts of their lairs.

Respectable merchants?

As the power of the O’Flahertys waned in the late 17th century, their example of easy money did not go unnoticed among the respectable Galway merchants. City merchant family names like Blake, Martin, Bodkin and Skerritt became common in the Galway and Clare countryside, where they built manors, castles and fine houses. The O’Flaherty estate at Ballinahinch came into the hands of the Martins, and piracy declined throughout Galway Bay in consequence. It was replaced, however, by another clandestine maritime activity: smuggling.

The native Irish smugglers, men with names like McDonagh and O’Malley, were joined by some of the most distinguished, even ‘reputable’, Galway merchants some of whom profited from long criminal careers. According to the city’s famous historian, James Hardiman, Valentine Browne owned one of the most daring surreptitious entry points through Galway city walls: ‘By the marsh, a hole broke through at Val Browne’s house, shut up and opened as often as he has occasion to bring ankers of brandy into town’, (an anker was a liquid measure, used mainly at Amsterdam, about eight and a half imperial gallons ).

Towards the mid 18th century wool smuggling (known by the delightful term ‘owling’ ), was rampant, and accompanied by extortion, kidnapping and paid informers. The smugglers’ ships would lie to at Roundstone Bay, and the wool was delivered to them by small boats moving along the coast from Oranmore, Rinville, and Tyrone in inner Galway Bay. By this method it was usually possible to slip quietly by the naval patrol vessel, aptly named HMS Spy, which the government had stationed in the Galway roadstead specifically to prevent smuggling. Roundstone Bay, involving both inbound and outbound goods, was not the only centre for smuggling at this time. Casheen Bay, Costello Bay and Killary harbour are also mentioned in the records. It is reported that ‘the smuggling merchants of Galway were a small and fairly compact group, and the interests of the continental trade bound them and some of the land-owning gentry closely together. Many if not most of the Galway merchants in the 1730s had some share in this clandestine trade.’

Monuments to the past

Whereas some piers or landing sites were probably used in the smuggling trade, the extraordinary number of piers and quays that exist between Black Head, around Galway Bay to Killary Harbour, a coastline of about 700 kilometres, were mainly constructed during the 19th century. Three hundred and twenty piers were built partially to encourage a fishing industry, that never really took off.

It was the belief throughout the 19th century that offshore fish stocks were practically inexhaustible, and that the Atlantic ocean held an untapped bonanza for fishermen, if only they would venture out far enough. Historical accounts of Spanish, Portuguese, and other foreign fleets paying levies to Britain for permission to fish off her Irish coast appear to have fuelled that impression. But Irish fishermen did not have the equipment to fish far out to sea. Sailing into the prevailing onshore southwesterly winds that could drive small boats on to an unforgivingly hard coastline should conditions turn stormy, was never an attractive proposition to our fishermen. They rarely attempted, or even considered offshore deep sea fishing, beyond the Aran Islands. That would have required larger, decked vessels and these in turn would have required better landing facilities at all states of the tide, if they were ever to be really useful. Local fishermen generally fished from small boats close to the shore and in bays and inlets to meet their own requirements.

There were various schemes to encourage landowners to pay half the costs of the facility, and contributions were made through various charitable societies. During Famine times, large harbours were constructed as relief works, which over time fell into disuse and some into severe decay. Of the big leviathans there are a few dramatic survivors. Cleggan is now an important ferry port for Inishbofin. Roundstone is a major marine tourism destination. Rinville is a yachting centre. The main fishery port of the county is a modern development at Rosaveel, and part of the ferry terminal for the Aran islands, whose main piers see an impressive annual visitor throughput, never envisaged when they were first erected.

The author concludes that while many others serve small scale inshore-fishing, particularly for shellfish, many old structures that evoke and commemorate the deprivations of the 19th century - times blighted by hardship and hunger, works done by the hands of starving men - have suffered ‘improvements’ often done with no clear knowledge of their origin or history. Modern guard rails have been erected; old bollards have been removed. Today many of them stand like concrete mausolea, mute monuments without much sympathy for the past. Noel P Wilkins’ remarkable book has given them the dignity they deserve.

NOTES: *- A History of the Fishery Piers of County Galway and North Clare 1800 - 1922, published by Irish Academic Press, on sale €29.99.

** In between Granuaille’s piracy, she entered into battle with Queen Elizabeth’s agent in Ireland, Sir Richard Bingham, governor of Connacht. She was arrested for non payment of taxes, and treated harshly. She managed to get a pardon, but when Bingham held her son prisoner on a charge of treason, she sailed up the Thames, and requested an audience with Queen Elizabeth I at Greenwich, where she bitterly complained about the activities of Bingham. Incredibly the two women got on famously, and Bingham was reprimanded. Eventually in order to safeguard her lands and inheritance for her sons, she sided with the crown forces. She persuaded her sons to follow. She died in Rockfleet castle 1630 (? ), and is buried on Clare Island. A statue of her was unvailed at Westport in June 2003 by her descendent the late Lord Altamont.


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