West Cork Fishermen

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Fisherman, ca. 1913 (Image Credit: National Photographic Archive, Spillane Collection, SPL 13)

Some West Cork fishermen worked full-time, but many were farmer-fishermen for whom fishing was an alternative source of income. In 1810, Townshend wrote about the communities at Barryroe and Ibane near Clonakilty, commenting that:

every person near the coast is occasionally a fisherman.

(Townsend, Statistical Survey of Cork, 1810, p.228)

This duality of occupation was not unusual in coastal communities. In his writing about Brittany the French historian Gérard Le Bouedec refers to ‘pluriactivité’ and ‘bi-activité’ (multiple or dual occupations). This way of fishing is also recorded in Cornwall and the Isle of Man (Isaac Land, ‘Gérard Le Bouedec’s sociétés littorales‘, The Coastal History Blog).

Farmer-fishermen set to sea during the quiet periods of the agricultural calendar, or when crops were failing. Mac Laughlin suggests that ‘a good  harvest on land meant that small farmers devoted considerably less time to the sea…’ (Troubled Waters, p.228). There was a certain ambivalence of farmer-fishermen towards fishing, citing the phrase ‘nuair a theipfidh gach ceard eille ort, teir ag iascash’ meaning ‘when every other trade fails, go fishing’ (McGillicuddy, pp.14-15).

Another factor affecting the amount of fishing was the quantity of fish, which varied each year. In years where there was an abundance of fish, the farmer-fishermen were likely to fish more.

Some fisheries were run as enterprises, but many others were very small-scale, operating at a family level. In such cases fish were caught primarily to feed the family (the dried fish were stored and used throughout the year), but as Townsend observed in West Cork ‘many are able, not only to furnish themselves, but to sell to fishmongers for the supply of other places’ (Statistical Survey of Cork, 1810, p.228).

This sense of fishing as a family affair is borne out in local accounts. One Bantryman explained that ‘in the evening when the fishermen came home, the women cleaned and salted the fish’ (Mary O’Donovan, Rhearour, Kilcrohane, Bantry, Cork (story-teller, Thomas O’Donovan of the same address). School: Ceann Caorach, Cill Crócháin, Caher, Co. Cork (roll number 15952). The Schools’ Collection, Volume 0286, Page 023) and in the spring women were more likely to be involved in selling the fish (McGillicuddy, p.15). One of the occupations of the older women on Cape Clear was to extract salt from sea water prior to the fishing season. Children helped to untangle and repair nets, and boys assisted the fishermen.

After local fishermen had landed their catches, fish were either sold fresh or cured. Curing involved gutting the fish, washing them in fresh water, and then curing them in salt, which often took place in buildings known as fish-palaces or salting-houses.

Hake, cod, ling, herring, haddock and coalfish (also known as glassen) were the most commonly cured fish. In Ireland the custom was to cure fish on the shore, rather than on board their vessels. Curing required a ready supply of fresh water and salt. Salt was sometimes sourced from local mines, but it was also imported via the port of Cork.


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