INISHOWEN FISHERIES: The journey from hunter-Gatherer to Farmer Fisherman

Presented by Andrew Ward – IRDL. Andrew was a skipper/owner of a vessel in Greencastle for 12 years.


It gives me great pleasure to give this talk on the changing roles within fishing from the hunter-gatherer, the emergence of the diesel engine in the 50’s which heralded a change in man’s relationship to the sea, towards today’s over bureaucratic EU controlled system of management.  Lessons can be learned from our successes and failures over the last 50 years to enable us to develop a sustainable fishery into the future.


From a geographical perspective, Inishowen is blessed between two Loughs with great natural resources.  The pure waters of the Atlantic give us a steady stream of nutrients from the Gulf Stream, an ideal area for a major sustainable fishery.  Charles McGlinchey in “Last of the Name” gives us a sense of how fishing is viewed in Inishowen:

“I’d heard my father say that it was people by the name of Toland who were driven out of Binion when it was taken over by McNeil.  My father was at the Carn fair one day in winter, and there was an old Malin fisherman sheltering from a shower beside him so my father remarked to him that this was a day for a topcoat.  The old man said if his people had their rights it wasn’t one but two or three topcoats that he could have his people that owned Binion in the old days”

Even in this extract, the land is viewed as extremely precious and indeed still is. While the old fisherman is almost viewed in terms of pity, the man would gladly turn his back to the sea if he could.

Fish is a scarce resource with high value.  It is ironic that the winter before last it was estimated that 6 million  small codling bordering on 30cm each were caught between Inishowen and Glengad Head.  This year the “Days at Restrictions” are in place because of the critical state of the cod stocks.  If we want a fishery we need to manage our resource.  We should not allow this type of action to happen because throughout history we have collectively closed our minds to the true value on our doorsteps.  Great changes have taken place since the 1950’s.  In 1958 the total value of fish exported in Ireland was 1.3 million.  Last year the figure was 450 million.  So when we talk about an industry in the 50’s it is important to understand that there wasn’t so much an industry as a subsistence fishery.


Subsistence Fishing

I would like to go back and say that first of all, things changed very little until the 50’s for many decades. They might have gone up and down but the basic way fishing was the same.  In 1894, W.P. Gaskell of the Congested Districts Board wrote the

sea fishery off the coast from Malin Head to Greencastle is important the fish caught being cod, haddock, halibut, herring, ling, place, pollack, sole, turbot and salmon.  The number of boats engaged in fishing in the area at the time were put 109 employing 685 men”

The boats used were decked rowing boats fitted to a standard rigging.  Described locally as Drontheim boats, they originated in Norway and the name Drontheim was a corruption of the word Trondeim, a town in the West coast of Norway.  The Drontheim was copied by local boat builders from boats delivered to Derry from ships trading between Ireland and Norway.  The vessels in the port were owned by Planter families living in the nearby town of Moville.  The vessels were fished by locals for a share of the profits.  This practice was very unusual in Ireland as it was more of a Scottish tradition.

I would like to give a brief explanation of how the fishing was carried out.  According to Duffy (1982):

Each boat carried a crew of 6 men, fish were caught with lines that is a length of twine with hook bait and sinker attached at one end.  Lines were baited with cuhorns, each hook 12 inches apart, baited by hand for the length of the line”.

Fishermen had no trouble catching fish once they had located the shoals.  The trouble was that once the boat was filled they had to make the journey home.  When they got back to the fishing ground the fish were gone.

On the outward journey it would have been normal for the boats to carry ballast. This ballast could be discarded depending on the weight of the catch of fish. There was also a superstition in choosing ballast. In a book published by Donald Mac Polin, Danny O Sullivan a lighthouse keeper in Inistrahull describes how ballast stones collected on a beach could not have white stones among them as they were fairy stones.  Similar whin stones found at the base of the whin or rush were considered unlucky.  Henry Canning has described how ballast was kept out from shore on a rock near the Warren light close to Greencastle.  At any time a great many Drionthiems were pulled up on a beach.  When going to sea the boats were launched and rowed over to a rock where two men got out to the rock and loaded the ballast stone while the others steadied the boat. The remaining ballast was then similarly unloaded on the way back.  Each crew had its own particular stone and some remain there to this day with boats and men long gone.

Fishing had been the main source of income in Greencastle for generations, indeed the first known human settlement in Ireland was on the nearby banks of the Bann where 6,000 years ago monolithic man settled beside the rich fish resources of the region.

The original stone pier at Greencastle was built in 1857 when Sir Arthur Chichester “obtained £7,000 through the influence of Sir Robert Ferguson for a fine stone pier” to be built in Greencastle.

Fresh fish was sold at Moville fair on a Monday or cured and carted to other markets by donkey and cart. The other markets included Carndonagh, Buncrana and Letterkenny. Fish was also brought by boat to Portrush. The quantity of fish bought by exporters at Moville/Greencastle and Portrush in1893 amounted to upwards of 8,000 boxes or over 600 tonne weight.  This included turbot and other flat fish, cod, crab and lobsters but not salmon, herring or mackerel.  This amount of 600 tonne is an awful lot more than we would have had in the 50s, but the relevance is that it is still the same types of fishing done in pretty much the same way.

There was a quite important lobster and crab fishery in the area.  However this was generally carried out by much older and less sea-worthy boats. The lobster pots were made from branches of willow trees and covered with fine netting made from cotton twine.  Each boat carried about 30 of them.  Pots were hauled twice daily and as soon as a cart load was made up, the lobsters and crabs were packed in to the cart and covered with green ferns or bracken to keep them packed into boxes and shipped to England and Scotland.  The shipping services from Moville to Glasgow in the 19th century occurred daily; to Liverpool three times a week, Morecambe twice a week and Fleetwood once a week.  So obviously in many respects Inishowen was not nearly as isolated then as it is now.  it could be seen however that the fish were being bruised during their carriage to Moville and were sold at a disadvantage on the British markets compared to the fish carried by sea e.g. Greencastle to Portrush.

Locals also had potato-patches fertilised by seaweed which was cut in the spring and brought ashore to the awaiting horses and carts on the strand. It was then it laid along the potato drills with sand being added to the soil to increase its fertility. Dog fish – called Gobóg locally – were brought in September and October and when salted provided foods for the pigs. The melt from these fish was boiled down for oils, which was used in lamps. Gaskell in the late 19th century recorded:

“Regarding the development of Inishowen fisheries it was not to be expected that the present generation of fishermen would readily adapt new methods even if they had the opportunity to do so”. He also adds: “all accounts tend to prove that if fishing could be carried out in vessels, which would accommodate the crews and be able to remain to fish in ordinary weather the aggregate take would be many times larger than in present conditions. To such vessels there is not shelter”.


The situation got worse not better. In the 1920s the fisheries and fish disappeared, effectively leading many to give up fishing. Consequently, they had to find additional supplement to their incomes along with the planting of crops and animal husbandry, in which they already engaged, thus beginning the practice of young men working on deep sea ships for a few of the winter months known locally as “going out to sea”. This had a profound effect on life in the NE Inishowen.

“Boats were laid off during these months and women and children took over the care of the animals. Ship liners or cargo ships usually those of Belfast or English companies gave employment to the men.” Duffy (1982).

They journeyed all over the world from the Baltic to Hong Kong and West Africa. With the arrival of men back from working at sea, preparations began in earnest. Boats were painted, nets were completed and barked.


The barking of nets

People went to Derry for the white twine to make salmon netting. Unfortunately it lasted only a year. However by barking the netting they made it last three or four years. Unfortunately, while barking was good for the netting it was also an environmental problem. In Northern Denmark they have had to dig up part of the area where large-scale barking took place because it literally killed all life in the area. Generations later, there has been no return to normal growth.

Another task that had to be performed was the job of making buoy-heads for nets. Although plastic buoys are used today many years ago fishermen had to make use of all resources available to them.

For example, one available resource was dog skin.

The Mossy Glen – an oasis of life found in bogs and mountains 5 miles west of Greencastle – was famous in Inishowen for its abundance of dogs. A dog bought in the Glen was taken home and skinned with the skin being divided into pieces and sewn, into round shapes and stuffed with old rags. These acted as a very efficient buoy.

Another thing that happened in the 20s was that the ownership of fishing vessels in Greencastle changed. Formerly they were owned by gentry living in the nearby town of Moville, but then a local man came on the scene, a Mr Cavanagh. He owned a shop, a pub and 20 Drontheim boats, which he rented out to local fishermen and in return the latter more obliged to trade in the local shop and public house. On Saturdays one would see people trading butter and eggs for tea and sugar and paraffin oil.

A form of subsistence herring fishing took place in many areas of Inishowen in which as many as nine men, each having a sheet, would gather them together and go herring fishing when shoals were spotted from the headlands. These would be used to feed the family and sold fresh locally.


1950s and 60s

BIM was formed in 1952 and in this area the Foyle Fisheries were formed. Foyle Fisheries became the first Cross Border body. Originally BIM started in the marketing of fish, which wasn’t initially a huge success.

It wasn’t until 1962 when a White Paper was produced on the development of the fishing industry. The White Paper changed the role of BIM to one of becoming a development agency, administering a scheme of grants for new boats and entering a scheme of grants for new boats and engines, together with advisory service on fishing techniques and boat building facilities. The Burke report was produced in 1960 in which it was stated that in the whole of Ireland there was not one seaport that was sufficient for the development of even a small modern port. It proposed the setting up of 8 ports capable of handling 100ft plus boats. In Donegal both Killybegs and Greencastle were among the nominated ports. The recommendation for development at Greencastle took another 27 years.

In the early 60s we witnessed the introduction, in the salmon fishery, of nylon nets. This was a huge advantage. If one examines the Foyle catchment area; in 1952 there were 39,000 salmon caught commercially. In 2002, 40,700 caught did not represent a significant change. Yet in 1961 the figures increased to 60,681; in 1962, 139,959 were caught followed a year later by 128,252, followed by 149,635 in 1964. Over 100,000 were caught every year up until 1970 excluding 1965 when 93,687 fish were caught. This increase coincided with the introduction of nylon netting.

A lot of people talk about salmon fishing being very good years ago. This often looking at the 1960s which according to the Loughs Agency records represent an historical high going back over 300 years.

In the last 30 years the amount of fish caught in the river on a five year running average has only varied by about 500 fish. It is different west of Malin Head in that the salmon fishery in the 70s and 80s would have been described as “great years”. There are many people in this room who would have fished during that time. The management of salmon fisheries in the Foyle was more severe with a reduction of fishing effort. What happened to the western side was that the nylon nets came out and people tended to fish more and more. In the end there were miles and miles of salmon nets. Boats were going out as far as Stanton bank. This result was that an unsustainable situation was allowed to develop through a lack of management and a low regard in fisheries at a national level. Another factor that fishermen would describe was that the decline of salmon was due to the abundance of seals in the British isles. There were 12,000 common seals and 2,000 harbour seals at the turn of the century. Now there are estimated to be 180,000 common seals and 80,000 harbour seals. So we have a dramatic explosion of seals which has had an effect.

Pier development in Greencastle were not on the scale of the recommendations of Bjork in 1963/64 in spite of the fact that a lot of boats from Culdaff, Glengad, Leenan and Moville moved to Greencastle for shelter. New names appeared in the Greencastle fleet, Ivors and Carneys from Leenan, McDaids from Glengad. These fishermen tended to want bigger boats and the only suitable place they could fish them from was Greencastle.


Fisheries education

It wasn’t until the late 1960s that the State started educating people in fisheries. The fishery college grew from a point in which, for example, Skipper’s tickets were being studied for in Willie Kelly’s shed at the back of his house in Greencastle. The fishery college started in Moville, building on the great seafaring tradition of the region, before moving to permanent accommodation at the National Fisheries College in Greencastle in 1974. At this time, in order to get the grants that were coming on stream, people had to have what was described as a “Skippers Ticket” so that people registered for a deckhand course went on to do the Skippers Tickets.

A couple of events happened that really changed fishing at this time. I think it is important to understand at this stage that what happened was that some people started fishing herring and mackerel. Jim McClenaghan was the first Inishowen man with hydraulic winch in Greencastle. With his 65feet vessel “Girl Maureen” he went down and fished with a Mr Wilde in Skerries and suddenly where there once had been subsistence fishing there were now people fishing for herring and earning the price of a house in a winter, coming back with maybe £3,000 and building a house. Naturally, the interest in fishing increased and multiplied. The early 70s Greencastle boats tended to go to Killybegs, Galway and Achill. Originally they went to Dunmore East. Quite frankly, there was an awful lot of money made, a lot of houses built and for the first time since the foundation of the state there was a stabilisation of the population in Greencastle. It is very clear to see that the stabilisation of the population in Greencastle is fish-related. On the other hand, if you come back to the next town-land – which is Tremore – it has continued to lose its population and if you go back to the 1840s the town-land of Ballyharry had more people in it than the whole eleven townlands of Tremore have now. The population decline stopped in Greencastle in the 1960s. So development offisheries at that time stabilised the population in that area.



As we come into the seventies there are a number of things which happened. The development of processors: Burns Seafood, Greencastle Seafoods and Atlan Fish who would be drawing a lot of crabs from Malin Head helping in the development of crab fishery. Trawlers used to fishing for white fish in the spring and summer, in winter would fish for herring.

We joined the EU on 1st January 1973. Four years before Ireland joined the EU our fishing had increased by an average of 25% a year. Development was capped at 2.3% of the European catch despite having approx 20% of Europe’s most productive water. So after generations of Irish fishing being subsistence fishing; when we finally got to the stage that we were developing rapidly, when people were moving, this suddenly stopped. The development of pelagic fisheries had a different dynamic. There was pressure on the stocks in the North Sea. So what happened was that there was a total closure of fishing in the North Sea. The EU 200 mile limit was introduced which effectively meant, Russian, and east European boats that could be seen off Malin Head, and other headlands had to stay out 200 miles.

Initially the boats concentrated on herring. With the market situation that was the most advantageous fishing. What happened then was that because of the 200 mile limit restriction the mackerel increased and multiplied in enormous numbers. The market was still there because it had been developed by east European countries. Irish boats which were able to go out became very, very successful. In the late seventies the boats, Father Mc Kee and Brendellan were ordered. They were two steel 90ft boats built for Greencastle skippers. These boats were ordered as white fish vessels. However refrigerated salt-water tanks (RSW) boats were proving extremely effective in Killybegs, fished by Teddy O’Shea and Kevin McHugh. Midway through construction they changed the outlay of the boats to include tanks for pelagic fishing. This was a very wise decision on their part because at the same time there was a spurt of new whitefish boats being built around the country. They weren’t being built to a design. Many people would call them Picasso in nature in that every fisherman wanted his own design. They were coming out at very inflated price. 70ft boats at £1.2 million which is similar to current prices. The price of diesel in the ‘80s increased by almost 200% while the price of fish fell by 10%. The white fish fleet was nearly back to where it started and major repossessions occurred nationwide. Meanwhile, on the mackerel (pelagic) front the conservation effect of the 200 mile limit and an agreement to double Ireland’s share of the European catch to 4.6% led to rapid development. The lesson in that for us, in many ways, was that it was a conversation measure which caused this to happen, the measure basically being the 200 mile limit. Once the fish were given a chance to gather and restock and come up to their natural maximum level they then were in a position to develop further.



In the 80s we had a number of fishing tragedies and boats were lost. Glengad was particularly badly hit and confidence in fishing started to wane again and the major repossession of boats gave another generation of young men a chance to buy those boats, which were lost in other parts of the country. There was seven or eight local fishermen who got good second – hand boats at reasonable prices. A relatively short period of good fishing began soon. However the increased effort on the home grounds led to decreasing rewards. The herring and mackerel were literally closed off. Nets were acquired to try Stanton banks for monk, megs and hake – locally – called Spanish fish and there were a number of years where that type of fishing was good. From 1983 in the white fish sector there were no new boats. Effectively the Government’s attitudes was they had got their fingers burned. They had invested a lot of money in it and the white fish fleet was literally given up. By the mid 90s, in 1995, a twelve-month period there were 25 fishermen lost. It was only, in many respects, with the loss of the Carriagatine that it became politically unacceptable for them not to renew fleets. So on the one hand we had the prosperous pelagic fleet and on the other we had the white fish which had gone through cycles of various crises and unless there is major conservation initiatives taken will continue to go from crisis to crisis.

The latest crisis obviously in that area is the days-at-sea. I don’t know if people understand what days-at-sea is, (this may sound unbelievable to people) but if you tow a 16mm mesh, you’re allowed to fish 25 days at sea. But if you fish what the boats here always fished, which is 100mm nets you are allowed to fish for 9 days. If you fish 16mm mesh, which the Danish boats do (industrial fishing), you are allowed to fish 25 days and this is in the name of conservation – that’s a story of its own. Within the CFP (Common Fisheries Policy), which came into force in 1983, conservation and politics have become intertwined to produce some strange decisions.

Within the Swilly salmon fishery there has been a stake net fishery in which the rights go back one hundred and fifty years. A net about 90 yards long was pulled across the mouth of the Crana. I was talking to Mr. O Doherty from Buncrana who had the rights to it for many years and he told me that they usually get 2,000 to 2,500 fish per season. Originally, they had hemp nets and then red nylon nets in the 60s. It ended in the 1990s, surprisingly enough. The best individual ring they ever had was in their last year, when one July morning they had 244 fish in the ring (pretty amazing). The other fisheries in the area include, shellfish, as mentioned earlier. Many boats in the early years had 20 pots which they pulled twice a day and maybe get up to two and a half stone of lobsters in pulling. There was little pressure on the grounds. At Malin Head they would often put the lobsters in a tea chest, put nettle on top of them to keep them fresh.

Also within the Swilly, they would have been oyster gathering or oyster fishing up near Newtowncunningham. The Foyle had its native Oyster Fishery. By 1990 it was believed that there were 1.1 million oysters sitting in the Foyle. It was predicted at the time that 120 tonnes of oysters a year would be taken from the Foyle and a survey at the time stated that the fishery could collapse because of the age structure and fishing activity within the stock. Thankfully that didn’t happen.

In the 1950s, we talked about people making their own nets, going to Glenagivney and getting dogs and swing them up. Obviously by mid ‘70s we had net menders, welders, twine and rope makers, chandlers and pot makers. So, things had moved on an awful lot.


Managing our resources

Before looking at how to progress in the future I should explain a little about the Foyle salmon fishery. They have a sustainable fishery in place whereby if Real Time management takes place based on the number of fish passing Sion Mills weir, with 8,000 fish seen as the required return to maximise sustainability. Any more than that can lead to increased netting or less to decreased netting. So the Foyle is a river with 60 draft nets and 120 drift nets fisheries. We have a situation where it is probably the most heavily fished river in Europe. It has the healthiest stock in Europe and yet any articles you read about the survival of salmon the first thing is they want to ban drift nets. There is a question there that needs answering and, in my opinion, the whole protection and development of the habitat is the most pressing issue in salmon conservation. You have to gauge what the habitat is capable of producing.

When it came, change in the fishing industry in Inishowen was rapid. There was families whose fathers’ fished lines and used dogs as buoy heads, whose sons own or have worked on modern super trawlers capable of catching more in minutes than their fathers could in decades. This sudden change happened for reasons mostly to do with conservation, such as EU regulations, 200-miles limit, closure of North Sea and market conditions. Conservation within the white fish sector has been poor. Its cyclical behaviour is a reflection of this fact. The whitefish potential has not been realised and we are either unwilling or unable to protect it or to manage it properly.

The recent explosion in shell fishing in the Foyle and to a lesser extent in the Swilly needs careful management to enable the development of long term sustainable fisheries. Real time management is the only answer to managing the fishing resource. That can not be done from Brussels. Conservation measures involving the protection of juvenile and spawning stock has to be implemented. The critical question is, how much fish is our water capable of producing and what action is needed to reach that optimum level?

When these levels are reached, real time management must be developed such as that in the Foyle drift net fishery. If there is a need for subvention over a number of years for not interfering with juvenile or spawning areas then so be it. The Icelandic economy is based on fish. They were one of the wealthiest people on earth and they increased mesh size dramatically once the cold war ended. Thereby not gaining in the short term but winning in the long term.

Effectively, what I am saying here is that we have changed in our ability to fish. We have moved from hunter gatherer to fisherman/farmer rapidly since the 50s. We have not kept up on the management of the fisheries side and effectively, the crisis in fisheries, in my perspective, is a failure of management.