Fish Palaces – and How They Worked

Four years ago I wrote about the fishing industry that once flourished on the shores of Roaringwater Bay (and around much of the west coast of Ireland): according to extant records it was active before 1500, and probably had its heyday in the seventeenth century, when it was heavily invested in by the Great Earl of Cork (Richard Boyle, sometimes described as ‘the richest man in the known world’). In those days, pilchards were the main catch: huge shoals of them came to the comparatively warm, sheltered waters of the islands during the summer months, along with other oily fish such as herring and mackerel. Seine boats were commonly used for this enterprise. Today, pilchards are rare: through a combination of overfishing and changing climate, the bountiful shoals no longer appear.

Header – pilchard curing in St Ives, Cornwall c1890: the pilchards are piled up in layers, forming the huge mound in the centre of the photograph. They are salted and weighted down. Above – curing the fish, Valencia Island, Co Kerry, early 20th century (Reddit / Ireland)

Shooting the Seine:

There were two boats per seine net, the seine and the faller. The seine boat was 27 foot long with a beam close to nine foot. The golden rule on the Northside was to never get into a boat whose beam was less than one third its length. The seine boat had five oars of about 17 foot (bow, Béal-tuile, aft, bloc and tiller oars). The crew of seven had to shoot the seine net; one man shooting the trip rope, another to feed out the bunt rope, four men rowing and the huer (master of the seine and captain of the boat) directing the operation. The faller (or bloc) boat was 24 foot long with a crew of five. Its job was stoning and to carry any fish caught. The largest load a faller could carry would be around 5,000 fish. All boats carried a Crucifix and a bottle of Holy Water.

(from Northside of the Mizen by Patrick McCarthy & Richard Hawkes, 1991)

Twentieth century remains of a seine boat, from Northside of the Mizen

If the fish are gone, remains of the machinery of that industry are still to be seen. In particular, the sites of some of the curing stations – or Fish Palaces – are visible, and are recorded on the National Monuments Archaeological Survey Database. Take a look at the map below: I have drawn green pilchards to show the sites of fish palaces mentioned in the database – eleven in all on this section of the map. Also shown by red pilchards, however, are the sites of another six ‘curing stations’: these are mentioned in a long article by historian Arthur E J Went, Pilchards in the South of Ireland, published in the Journal of the Cork Historical and Archaeological Society in 1949: Volume 51, pages 137 – 157.

Known sites – or historical mention of – fish palaces (curing stations) in the South West of Ireland (information from  National Monuments database and  Arthur E J Went, Pilchards in the South of Ireland 1949)

The active fishing of pilchards on a large scale in Ireland has been discontinued for many years so that, unlike Cornwall, there is little left, apart from published records, to indicate its former importance. There is, however, published information as to the methods of fishing, and a few sites of old curing stations, frequently called pallices, can still be identified.

from Arthur E J Went, Pilchards in the South of Ireland, 1949

Arthur Edward James Went (1910–80), noted fisheries biologist and historian, lived at Sandycove, Co Dublin. In 1936 he was appointed Assistant Inspector of Fisheries in the Department of Agriculture, Dublin, and later was promoted to the position of Scientific Adviser and Chief Inspector of Fisheries

As explorers of all things historic and archaeological – particularly in West Cork – Finola and I couldn’t resist visiting some of the sites of Palaces – or Pallices – documented in these studies. We have always know about the one nearest to Nead an Iolair, in Rossbrin Cove – it’s just down the road: a perfect sheltered harbour, although it does dry out at very low tides. However, there seems to be some debate about exactly where this one is located. It would date from the time of William Hull and the Great Earl of Cork, so how much would be left after 500 years? There is a field on the north shore of the Cove with an old name: The Palleashes which, according to Arthur Went (quoting local tradition), was the site of a curing station for pilchards, operated by the ‘Spaniards’. There seems to be some difference of opinion locally as to which of the many small fields here is the actual site, although it is likely to be close to the large, now modernised quay, as this shows up on the earliest maps.

In the upper picture: the quay at Rossbrin is still used by small fishing boats today. Centre – the field above the present quay may be The Palleashes, and therefore could be the site of the medieval fish palace: there are very overgrown signs of stone walls here. Lower picture – the old 6″ OS map, surveyed around 1840, shows a lane accessing the area above the quay (to the left of the ‘Holy Well’ – that lane is no longer there today) and there are buildings close to the shore which could indicate the palace. In 1840 there was no road running along the north shore of the Cove, but the strand at low tide would have been used as a thoroughfare. Just above the ‘Holy Well’ indicated on the shoreline – and slightly to the right – is a small red dot. This is the area shown by Arthur Went as the possible site of the fish palace (and subsequently marked as such on the Archaeological Database); in my opinion it is more likely to have been directly accessed from the water.

A sure sign of the site of a fish palace is a line of perforations or holes – as can be seen above at Baltimore, where a substantial curing station is recorded (although it may only date from the nineteenth century). Large timbers were inserted horizontally into these holes to form a ‘press beam’ to provide leverage for bucklers to squash out the oil from the salted pilchards, as shown in Arthur Went’s diagram, below:

The ‘Train Oil’ – produced from the compressed pilchards – was a valuable commodity, and was collected to be stored and used for treating leather, and as fuel for lamps. As a by-product of the pilchard industry it was said to be as valuable as the fish themselves.

Palace Strand, in Schull

To continue my researches I went along to Schull, where Arthur Went mentions a ‘Palace House’ on ‘Palace Strand’ – an inlet just to the east of the main harbour. This is right beside the old railway station which was not quite the terminus of the Schull & Skibbereen Railway, as a spur went on from the station to serve the harbour itself. The station buildings and part of the platform are still there – now a private residence. I could not find anything in the area shown on Went’s map at the east end of the strand, but I did find something at the west end.

In the upper picture is a wall on the western boundary of the old station site in Schull. This contains beam holes very similar in size and spacing to those we have seen in fish palaces elsewhere: it’s very tempting to think that this wall – now part of a derelict building – may have had this purpose, as it is well situated close to the shoreline of Palace Strand. If this was a fish palace, it is also likely to date from the nineteenth century, as the early Ordnance Survey maps don’t indicate it. The centre picture shows the old station buildings today, and the lower picture taken at Schull Station in 1939 reminds us of past times: the railway closed in 1947.

This post is a ‘taster’ for a fully illustrated talk I’m giving at Bank House, Ballydehob, on Tuesday 26 February at 8pm: Pilchards & Palaces – 300 years of Fishing in South-West Ireland. It’s part of the Autumn series of Ballydehob’s ‘Talks at the Vaults’

Below – a postcard showing fish curing on Cape Clear in 1906 (from Hely’s, Dublin)

Northside

It was a perfect start to the year – a crisp, transparent January day when the whole landscape was set out before us in meticulous sunlit detail. We determined that our own Mizen terrain would begin our 2018 posts. Finola reached for her camera; I took down from the bookshelves an old stalwart: Northside of the Mizen by Patrick McCarthy & Richard Hawkes, 1999, and we headed out for Dunbeacon and all points west!

. . . Welcome to the Northside ‘The Northside’ is tucked away in the remote and most south-westerly point of Ireland. It is a place of wild beauty, with hills to the back, overlooking Dunmanus Bay. In the past it offered a harsh living. where man has protected himself from the elements blown in from the Atlantic and where one person often relied on another for survival. It gave a camaraderie that can rarely be found today.

(all quotations are taken from Northside of the Mizen)

. . . January A new year and the cycle of passing months began again. With the weather at its worst, there was little to do on land or sea. Jobs around the home and haggard, or repairs to ditches and gaps on the farm were carried out. The house provided shelter and it was a time to be by the warmth of the turf fire for the long nights, whether at home or out scoriachting.

The heart of the home – Northside kitchens. Lower picture, Bridget McCarthy 1977. All early photos are taken from Northside of the Mizen

. . . Scoriachting Throughout the year, scoriachting (visiting neighbours) at night was the custom and in the winter the warmth of the open fire was the focus for games, songs and stories… Only Saturday night was not a night for calling to friends, as you would have to get ready for Mass early next morning. Different houses in the townlands would be known for their own form of entertainment; for example, the Coughlan’s (the Kit’s) for talk of people and who was related to whom, the Courcey’s and the Scully’s for cards, the Hodnett’s for games and tricks to test your wits and for a bit of harem scarem.

Harem Scarem? Upper – ‘Agnes O’Donovan at her fireside, 1969’ and lower – ‘Michael and Tom McCarthy out scoriachting’

. . . If you were a pipe smoker and you walked into a house where a man was smoking, he would offer you the pipe for a few pulls. When handing the pipe back you’d say, “The Lord have mercy on the dead.” Women would occasionally smoke a pipe but preferred snuff. Often the night’s scoriachting would start with the Rosary and two candles would be lit. One Sunday night in the nineteen-thirties, at the O’Donovans in Dunkelly a lad pegged (threw) a cap at one of the candles and quenched it. Danny O’Donovan said that it was a queer thing to happen in the house of God, to which the reply came, – “There’s a great deal of difference between you and God!” That was the end of the Rosary that night!

. . . A night would start with games, blackguarding (horseplay) and sometimes dancing, then progress on to songs and poems. Storytelling was the preserve of an evening by the fire. With the flames flickering and the wind and rain howling like the Banshee, the imagination of the storyteller and his forebears was let loose on a delighted and spellbound audience of children and adults alike. this, in turn, would lead to stories of a more superstitious nature, into a world of small folk, púcas (sprites), mermaids and of people’s misfortune when they interfered with the fairy ways.

. . . If the night was black as you made your way home and you couldn’t see where you were going, it was a good idea to call on the little people to help you. To do this you took a piece of clothing off, turned it inside out and put it back on. That gave you the sight back and you would find your way. It was also wise to carry a twig of hazel as it would protect you from the not-so-good little folk and get you back home safely!

. . . The last job of the night was to build the fire up and cover it with ash, so as to keep it red for the next morning. It was bad luck to let a fire go out, and it was said that many of the hearths had the same fire for generations.

Harvest Time

…The heat of the summer was eased by the cooling breezes from the Atlantic. It was busy on land and sea, with seine fishing by night and fish curing and farming by day, but there was always time for scoriachting, games and dance, sometimes on Carbery Island or across Dunmanus Bay…

(from Northside of the Mizen by Patrick McCarthy & Richard Hawkes, Mizen Productions, 1999)

This selection of photographs is from the collection of Tomás Ó Muircheartaigh, 1907 – 1967, who documented life in rural Ireland between the 1930s and the 1950s. I have chosen his pictures that concentrate on gathering the harvest – and the fairs that are associated with harvest time: the festival of Lúnasa. They are generally not captioned, so we are not aware where these were taken. When I travelled in West Cork during the 1990s I remember seeing traditional stooks in the fields: this method of collecting the corn was practiced by the small farmers then, although now I believe it has completely vanished.

…Most of the people on the Northside had holdings that were so small that they could only grow corn (barley or oats) or wheat, for their own use. The land wasn’t good for corn crops. By the middle of August, the stooks were seen in the fields. As with the bringing in of the hay, the cutting of the corn was a great event with a meitheal to help you if needed. For cutting, a reaping hook or the scythe was used. When buying a scythe it had to be sharp enough to lift a penny off the floor. A man followed the cutter, collecting the corn, a sheaf at a time, and putting it out behind him. This was called ‘taking out’. Two people followed the man ‘taking out’ and bound the corn into sheaves with a bind, making sure that the ears on the bind lay with the rest of the ears. Six sheaves were made into a stook and left for a week, then the small stooks would be made into a stook of twelve sheaves which was left in the field to finish ripening for the rest of the month. The stooks were gathered into the haggard, by donkey or horse and cart, and made into a barrel stack ready for threshing in October… (Northside of the Mizen)

Lúnasa is one of the important turning points in the Irish calendar: harvest time, fruitfulness, and the onset of autumn. The others are Imbolc – 1st of February (the coming of the light and new life, spring), Bealtaine – 1st of May (onset of summer and a time of growth), Samhain – 1st November (winter and darkness). All these points have to be marked and celebrated. Lúnasa, or Lughnasa is probably the most fertile time for celebration, and festivities could last for days or even weeks. There was always a fair: the most well-known one still celebrated is at Killorglin, in the heart of County Kerry, where a great wild Puck goat is crowned and reigns above the crowds.

 

‘Will the Hare’ – and the Mizen Olympics!

street market

…In ancient Ireland the festival of the beginning of the harvest was the first day of Autumn, that is to say, it coincided with 1 August in the Julian calendar. This has continued in recent tradition, insofar as Lúnasa or Lammas-Day was still taken to be the first day of Autumn; the gatherings and celebrations connected with it were, however, transferred to a nearby Sunday, in most parts of Ireland to the last Sunday in July, in some places to the first Sunday in August… The old Lúnasa was, in the main, forgotten as applying to the popular festival and a variety of names substituted in various localities, such as Domhnach Chrom Dubh, Domhnach Deireannach (Last Sunday), Garland Sunday, Hill Sunday and others…

making the stack

All the photographs in this post are from the collection of Tomás Ó Muircheartaigh who travelled and photographed the west of Ireland during the 1930s, 40s and 50s and is an invaluable documentary of the times in which he lived. Generally, the locations of the photographs are not noted, and very few are likely to be specific to the Mizen: they do however record life as it would have been lived at that time in all the rural areas

Today we celebrate Lúnasa – the festival of the bringing-in of the harvest. Kevin Danaher (The Year in Ireland, Mercier Press 1972) wrote (above) about what he observed in the middle of the last century, when things were already changing and many of the old customs were, as he notes, ‘in the main forgotten’, although still talked about. What changes do we see in Ireland, a few generations on?

seascape

Northside of the Mizen by Patrick McCarthy and Richard Hawkes was written in 1999 (Mizen Productions) and is a collection of memories and stories still being told then about traditional life in this westerly part of of the country:

…The heat of the summer was eased by the cooling breezes from the Atlantic. It was busy on land and sea, with seine fishing by night and fish curing and farming by day, but there was always time for scoriachting, games and dance, sometimes on Carbery Island or across Dunmanus Bay…

…Once in the year Carbery Island was the location for a dance and in settled weather the Northsiders could shout across and give the signal to the people of Muintir Bháire to meet at Carbery Island. As many as forty-five people in three boats would cross Dunmanus Bay to the White House, and a good crowd of men and women from Bear Island would also come to the dances. They were great hearty people. Ann Daly from Kilcrohane and Agnes O’Donovan of Dunkelly played the melodeon…

I like the idea of the Northsiders shouting across the water to the residents of the Sheep’s Head, two miles away! I wonder if they would be heard nowadays?

horse race

…There were competitions at Dunmanus for swimming, running, jumping and weight lifting, and you could be sure that the Northsiders were well represented in each of the events. ‘Will the Hare’ (William McCarthy of Dunkelly Middle), was good at the long jump and the running races and would often win and bring great honour to the Northside. It was said that ‘Will the Hare’ got his name by catching a hare on the run! It was also said that when you blew the whistle to gather the men for seining, by the time you had finished, ‘Will the Hare’ would be at Canty’s Cove waiting!

boat race

…Wild John Murphy would take the lads to the Crookhaven Regatta which was held on The Assumption (15th August). It was a long pull around the Mizen but a good time was had by all. The Northsiders were great with the oars, but it was hard to beat the Long Island crews in the boat races…

(Danaher): …In very many localities the chief event of the festival was not so much the festive meal as the festive gathering out of doors. This took the form of an excursion to some traditional site, usually on a hill or mountain top, or beside a lake or river, where large numbers of people from the surrounding area congregated, travelling thither on foot, on horseback or in carts and other equipages… Many of the participants came prepared to ‘make a day of it’ bringing food and drink and musical instruments, and spending the afternoon and evening in eating, drinking and dancing…

picnic

…Another welcome feature of the festive meal was fresh fruit. Those who had currants or gooseberries in their gardens, and this was usual even among small-holders in Munster and South Leinster, made sure that some dish of these appeared on the table. Those who lived near heather hills or woods gathered fraucháin (‘fraughans’, whortleberries, blueberries) which they ate for an ‘aftercourse’ mashed with fresh cream and sugar. Similar treatment was given to wild strawberries and wild raspberries by those lucky ones who lived near the woods where these grow… A number of fairs still held or until recently held at this season bear names like ‘Lammas Fair’, ‘Gooseberry Fair’, ‘Bilberry Fair’…

market in town

One interesting custom was the driving of cattle and horses into the water. This is mentioned in the 1680s by Piers in his Description of the County of West-Meath:On the first Sunday in harvest, viz in August, they will be sure to drive their cattle into some pool or river, and therein swim them; this they observe as inviolable as if it were a point of religion, for they think no beast will live the whole year thro’ unless they be thus drenched; I deny not but that swimming of the cattle, and chiefly in this season of the year, is healthful unto them…

at the fair

Canty

slipway 2

On the north side of the Mizen we found Canty’s Cove. The little road which approaches the Cove from the west has been recently resurfaced, and there have been some major restoration works on the stone jetties and steps there. Don’t try to reach the Cove from the east side: a trackway is shown on the OS map (88), but it is virtually impassable – even on foot – at this time of the year, as the harsh winter storms have waterlogged the ground and submerged parts of it.

wild water

Wild coast beyond Canty’s Cove

Our reason for visiting the Cove? We were looking for pirates! Or, at least, for traces of them… We had heard that there are ‘pirate steps’ in the vicinity of the Cove, and we had unearthed some legends of Canty himself: a notable pirate and all-round rogue.

windlass

As with many of the ‘secret’ quays hidden away around the rugged and heavily indented coastline of West Cork, Canty’s Cove was used primarily by fishing boats, either working individually for shellfish or, communally, seining for pilchards, mackerel and herring. We have touched on seining in a previous post. It seems to have been brought to Ireland’s west coast by fishermen from Cornwall back in the sixteenth century. The shoals of pilchard, first seen in Mount’s Bay and around Land’s End in the early spring, naturally moved west and the fishing fleet from Cornwall followed them in July or August. Traditionally it was St James’ Day (1 July) that saw the start of the seining season in West Cork. For the next three months the pilchards were …dark, fat and full of oil… With the onset of winter the seine boats were laid up and the nets repaired and hung out in the lofts. The pilchard industry on Ireland’s west coast is said to have been most productive between 1550 and 1750, with millions of pressed and salted pilchards going by the barrel load to Spain, Portugal and France. Seining survived well beyond those days, although mainly then for mackerel. Northside of the Mizen records a very active industry within living memory:

…Both Canty’s Cove and Gurthdove had streams and the waters from them were used in the cleaning of the mackerel. When grading, the fish were sorted into bloaters (big), rags (damaged), medium and small grades, and you were allowed so many of each grade per barrel. The fish were then salted by rubbing coarse salt into them, and this happened twice with the second salt on the tenth day. On the second salt, the fish were packed flat into the barrel, and pickle was poured over the fish until the barrel was full. After the second salting the lid of the barrel was then put down, sealed with an iron hoop and the barrel was branded with the mark of the buyer, along with its weight and number of fish. The barrels were left on their sides and a hole was made three-quarters of an inch in diameter, which was closed with a wooden stopper. Tom Collins of Dunkelly West, as a boy, would earn one shilling a week by topping up the barrels with pickle after school. Salt added to water made a pickle that had to be strong enough to float a medium size potato with a six inch nail through it. The barrels were constantly filled with pickle until they went for export, when the wooden stopper was hammered home and the barrel stood up. One Cash and Tally of 132 fish would sell for five shilling in the nineteen-thirties. There could be up to 1000 barrels lined up in Canty’s Lane until November Dark…

fish table

Fish processing on the pier at Canty’s Cove, taken in the 1920s. This photo and the one below are from Northside of the Mizen

On the west coast, the last working seine boat was said to have put out from St Finan’s Bay, Kerry, in 1946. This was remembered by Mike Séamus O’Sullivan and recorded in The Kerryman in 2003:

…the place was alive with fish. We put out the seine and in no time at all it was full. We arrived below at the pier in The Glen with 24,000 mackerel and every man made £24 pounds that night – a fortune in those days…

dunkelly fishers

The fishing community of Dunkelly, late 1920s

But what of the pirates? I hear you all cry… And, is there any buried treasure…? Of course there is! According to an excellent article by John Hawke in the now defunct Mizen Journal, Jeremiah McCarthy of Dunkelly (who died in 1989) recalled how he and his forefathers had dug for gold as a boy – “The old people spoke of ‘Canty’s Gold’ that lay buried seven ridges from one of the walls and many have dug for it – it was great exercise, but we never found it.” Jeremiah told the story of how Canty was a pirate and robbed people who came to buy goods from him and then threw them over the cliff into the sea, from the door of his house in Canty’s Garden. In the Collection of Irish Folklore dating from the 1930s this story was recorded from a Richard Moynihan of Dunbeacon, then aged 59 years:

…Another secret building was situated in Goleen Parish. It was built across the quay leading from a hotel which was owned by a man named Canty. Lodgers often came to the hotel and the man used to take them back to the secret room. Whilst they were talking to him, he shifted a lock in the trap door which was in the room which caused the floor of the room to go to the side and the lodger was thrown down into the tide. He then had a net with which he hauled up the corpse and took whatever money he possessed. Around this place is ever since haunted. Lights were frequently seen there and cries were often heard…

Many other similar stories connected to the Cove have been told or written down over the years. Today, the place still has an otherworldly feel to it: partly it’s to do with remoteness and the barren coastline in this wild place. ‘Canty’s House’ and ‘Canty’s Garden’ can be identified on the cliffs above the Cove: they are marked on old versions of the OS map. All that’s left now are a few stone walls and a steep drop into the sea. It’s not hard to picture Canty himself disposing of his victims over the edge, nor to hear their cries on the wind, wailing across the centuries.

Canty's Cove

There are Cantys living in West Cork today. We shouldn’t brand them with the reputation of one who was possibly a forebear: after all, many centuries have passed since the time of Canty the Pirate – and we do live in a more civilised age, don’t we? In fact, the Cantys – sometimes O’Cantys (O an Chaintigh) – had a prestigious past: in the age of the castles they were bards, like their O’Daly neighbours across the water on the Sheep’s Head (it’s only four miles away as the seagull flies). Interestingly, I have heard it suggested that Canty’s House is actually the remains of the ‘lost’ O’Mahony castle at Dunkelly: the site is certainly impregnable.

Canty's Garden

The approach to Canty’s Cove seen from Canty’s Garden. The building on this site may once have been a ‘lost’ O’Mahony castle

Pirates, castles, seining, treasure – there are also the ‘Pirate’s Steps’, although they are very hard to find (and on private land, so seek permission if you go looking) and – evidently – the Buan, or ‘perpetual well’ (which we couldn’t trace): in all, a wealth of history and legend. We have to respect Canty for lingering in folk memory a good few hundred years…

For this research I am indebted to Northside of the Mizen by Patrick McCarthy and Richard Hawkes, Mizen Productions, 1999, Canty’s Cove – Legend and History by John Hawke, The Mizen Journal No 5, 1997, and also local memories, still alive. The fine view of the Pirate Steps (below) was taken by Peter Clarke, at great risk to life and limb…

Pirate Steps Canty's

November Dark

November Dark

Dramatic sky over Nead an Iolair on November Dark this year

The month opened with Snap-apple night and tales of pucás and little folk. From the rising of the moon on November Dark the mackerel would make their way to deeper water; it was the end of the seine season. With the crops all in and hill grazing finished, fires were set on the hills and preparations made for the winter. There was little employment for the months ahead… (from Northside of the Mizen by Patrick McCarthy and Richard Hawkes 1999)

I have mentioned this reference to ‘November Dark’ in previous posts but, apart from the Northside book, I have been unable to find any other allusions to the term – either on the internet (which is usually a sure source of every conceivable fact or fiction) or on our bookshelves (which are overflowing with volumes on Irish culture, traditions and folklore). According to McCarthy and Hawkes it points to the appearance of the November new moon: this year it occurred last Wednesday – the 11th – which was also Martinmas.

bookshelf

gallimaufry on the bookshelves at Nead an Iolair

Once, the day had particular significance: …With the rising of the moon from November Dark the mackerel made their way to deep water; it would be the end of the seining season. Most of the barrels of fish were collected by ships from September onwards. Limerick Steam coasters and ships from England and America anchored offshore, and the barrels would be taken to them. The faller boats took five to eight barrels per trip to the ships. They were hauled up by a derrick, two at a time, into the hold. Often 300 barrels would be loaded onto one ship… Although the barrels of fish were taken throughout the season by the fish buyers, it was on November Dark that the seine crews received their money… (from Northside)

Seining: the huer (top) watched for the arrival of the shoals and then signalled their location to the boats at sea; the lower photograph shows seine netting on the beach at Greystones, Co Wicklow

Historical evidence documents seining in the South West Coast of Ireland from County Waterford, to County Kerry, from the 16th century onwards. This was an important industry with Baltimore, Dunmanus, Schull, Sherkin, Kinsale, Bantry and Whiddy Island as centres, together with outlying curing stations called Fish Palaces or Pallices, of which there were significant numbers along the Southern coast. The fish – usually pilchards – were caught by means of a seine net: two boats, the seine boat and the so-called follower (locally called the ‘faller’) were used. The seiner, a large boat pulled by perhaps a dozen or more oars, carried the net, which was often 300–400 yards long. An experienced fisherman acted as a huer by directing fishing operations from a suitable vantage point ashore. From high land, the huer could see the shoals of pilchards clearly, and he alerted the seine boat, by shouting (the ‘hue and cry’) or making suitable signs as to the location of the shoal. Often the shoals were too far out to be seen from the land, and one of the crew – known as  a spyer – had the job of locating them from on board. On a given signal, the net was shot around the shoal by the seine boat, and in the meantime, the free end of the net was picked up by the faller, with a crew of perhaps five or six, pulling the ends of the net together. The footropes of the net were gradually drawn up until the fish were completely enclosed, and by means of baskets the fish were transferred from the net to the boats.

Tucking

Cornish ‘Tucking’ – gathering in the pilchards from the seine net – by the Newlyn School artist Percy Robert Craft: the original painting is in the Penlee Gallery, Penzance. As the seining season advanced, the Cornish boats followed the shoals to the west coast of Ireland

…After the season’s fishing all the nets were barked in a ceiler (a flat bottomed iron pot) at Dunmanus or Goleen… The ceiler would be full of boiling water and bark (a non-sticky type of tar), and the nets were steeped for a good spell. Barking drove out the salt and would preserve the cotton mesh for the next year’s fishing. The nets, when being repaired, were spread out in a field. In Dunkelly the field was called the Seine Field, and at Gurthdove it was at Willie’s Paircnafarriga. Only the experienced and older men were allowed to repair the nets, as the younger lads rarely had enough care for a job that had to be done so well… (from Northside…)

The Barking Pot at Goleen has been restored as a historic site: sadly the pot is no longer in use

Seining was used to catch pilchard, mackerel, herring and pollock off the Irish coast. A ‘Kerryman’ article by Ted Creedon in the Irish Independent back in 2003 gives a very comprehensive account of the living made in pre-war years – this is a short extract:

…Mike Séamus O’Sullivan of The Glen, St Finan’s Bay, was a member of the crew of the last seine boat to land a catch in South Kerry. Mike began fishing lobsters with his father when he left school aged sixteen.

“That was before the war and lobsters were making four shillings a dozen in those days, but when the war came the fishing really got going in these parts,” Mike told The Kerryman this week.

“We were catching mackerel, pollock, herring and they were cured and boxed at Renard Point before going by train to England. The seine boats were catching all mackerel in the war years and prices were about two shillings per hundred, but one day in 1942 an English buyer arrived at Renard Point and offered £3 a hundred!” Mike recalled.

“There was a fortune made in those days then and the local buyers put their prices up to £4 a hundred for the mackerel to keep the English buyer out!” he said…

mending nets

Mending the nets – in this case in a traditional Irish kitchen: a photograph by Tomás Ó Muircheartaigh, who documented life in rural Ireland between the 1930s and the 1950s. The Irish caption to this photo suggests that the net was damaged by a shark

We have been looking back through our archive of the photographs which we’ve taken here on or around ‘November Dark’ in past years. There’s quite a contrast: we have had times of golden sunsets and warm days when we could sit out, while this year has brought a period of wild storms and grey skies.

Mizen Sunset November

November evening

November contrasts: our view a year ago (above) and (below) in the last day or two, brief respite from a period of Atlantic storms

November Dark – have any readers a recollection of this term? We’d like to know – and record – memories of the day and its significance here in West Cork…

sad end for a seine boat

From Northside of the Mizen – the photo is captioned ‘A sad end for a seine boat’