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)

Tracking the Trains: Railway Reminiscence

…Like all children, the boys of Ballydehob found the platelayers’ trollies irresistible. A lady in Cambridge, Massachusetts wrote about her father (born in The Skames in 1900). Her father and some small boys recalled a ‘small hand-cart’ which was kept near the station and used by the platelayers. “When Mr Crocker, the station master, was not alert the small boys, led by Connie Sullivan, the acknowledged leader of the group because his father, Jack, worked on the railway, were able to steal off the cart. They would push it by hand towards Schull, getting the cart about one mile above the station. Then the boys would pile in and off they’d go down the hill past the station and up the hill on the far side until, caught by gravity, back would come the cart again at such breathtaking speed that it would rocket across the viaduct, then run back through the station. Mr Crocker would come out to see the speeding cart and sometimes shoot with a gun, always in the air and never to do any harm. He was a good chap, and we took advantage of him at the time…”

Last week I wrote about an exploration we had made of the old railway line that had served Ballydehob until 1947 – exactly 70 years ago. I was delighted – and excited – this week to discover a rare copy of a detailed history of the line in that Aladdin’s Cave of bookshops: The Time Traveller, in Skibbereen. The book The Schull & Skibbereen Railway was published  by The Oakwood Press in 1999, and has long been out of print. Although a modest volume, it is a monumental, detailed work which took half a century to write!

This is a view of Kilcoe Halt, taken in 1953 by the author of The Schull & Skibbereen Railway, James I C Boyd. At this time the line had recently closed, and the track had been taken up. The author’s wife and two daughters are in the photograph

The header picture shows the endpaper of the book – a postcard photo of Ballydehob taken from the east of the station around 1910, when the railway was still in use. The 12 arched viaduct – mentioned in the extract given in the first paragraph – can just be seen to the left: that account doesn’t really make geographic sense, but – remember – it’s a story, told from a distance both in time and place.

It is Chapter 18 of the book, entitled Miscellanea, which has given me the most pleasure to read, although this is not to decry any of the highly informative data and history contained in the rest of it. The book’s author, James I C Boyd, explains the context of the chapter:

…Over the half century during which I have formed close associations with West Cork, there have been many reminiscences, conversations and situations surrounding this subject which were noted down at the time in the hope of further attention. Some were legendary, others biased, a valuable few were personal but all gave me an insight as to the ethos of the local people in relation to their railway. Bearing in mind that during those fifty year the line has closed completely and many of my informants have passed away, their memories have been set down here… Such recollections do not fall neatly into the pattern of the previous pages, so form a chapter entitled Miscellanea…

Left – James Boyd and his family; right – from the 25″ 1901 Ordnance Survey Map: Ballydehob, with the station and the viaduct

Born in 1921, Boyd went to school in Colwall, Herefordshire. There he encountered two influences: the first was W H Auden, who taught him English, and the second was a miniature railway line which was attached to the school: the Downs Light Railway. This venture is the world’s oldest private miniature railway – which can carry human passengers. It has a track gauge of 912” (241 mm). Set up in 1925 for the principal purpose of education, the Downs Light Railway is today the only railway in the world to be operated solely by children aged between 7 and 13 years. These two significant experiences in his life set Boyd on his own track: to become a writer and a specialist in railway history. His opus includes over 20 highly detailed accounts of narrow-gauge lines in Britain, Ireland and The Isle of Man (including this definitive work on The Schull & Skibbereen Railway) and countless articles, photographs and other collected information.

A photograph which Boyd found in a collection by G R Thomson: it shows the ‘naming ceremony’ which took place in 1906 on the Schull Pier extension line of a new locomotive ordered from Peckett & Sons of Bristol. Father John O’Connor, the Parish Priest of Schull, broke a bottle of champagne over the engine and christened it GABRIEL – after the mountain, not the Archangel!

From Mrs P McCarthy of Schull – recorded in Miscellanea:

…You were asking me about the men who worked on the track, and who lived in the crossing houses? There were two sets of men: one between Skibbereen and Ballydehob and the other went from Ballydehob to here. Denis McCarthy (or ‘Foxey Din’ as we called him on account of his red hair), his son Mick (he went on the broad gauge when the S & S closed), and Batty Harrington. Sometimes Paddy O’Donovan would help them… From Ballydehob we had Connie O’Sullivan, Jackie Daly (who was the Foreman for the whole line) and Gerry McCarthy, who was known as ‘Vanderbilt’ from the careful way he had with money. Then at the Skibbereen workshops there was Charlie Murphy the chargehand / fitter and Willie Cottam, the carpenter… I don’t remember about all the gatehouses – Mrs Connor was in Kilcoe and Hollyhill was occupied by two men; they may have been gangers. When the railway closed, the occupants were given the first opportunity to buy…

The Company Offices in Skibbereen, taken by James I C Boyd in the 1950s, after closure

From Miscellanea – an anonymous contributor:

…In the long school holidays, mother used to send us children out with a large tin bath of the sort we used in front of the open fire in winter. On reaching Schull station we, and the bath, would ride the first train, to drop off at the best places and comb the fields for mushrooms, only stopping when the bath was full. Then, dragging the unwilling receptacle behind us, we would bring it to the road alongside the railway, and so back to Schull again on the returning train…

The line at Hollyhill, 1938: ‘Curly’ Hegarty is the driver. Photo by H C Casserly

From John Browne of Creagh:

…The Secretary of the Company [William Goggin] owned a bar at the corner of the main street [of Skibbereen] and that to the station – it was very convenient for those going by train… When the Directors wished to visit Skibbereen they ignored the Railway and used a converted Lancia armoured car, the property of one of their number. On alighting at the Skibbereen office, there would be fussing and genuflection akin to a royal visit…

…The curb-stone margin which divided the Railway from the highway in numerous places, was a considerable barrier. A party of my friends attended the Ballydehob Fair in an open car. On the return journey the driver was ‘very happy’, misjudged a bend and struck the kerb. The damaged vehicle had to be abandoned. The revellers walked back to Skibbereen, leaving the car to block the passage of the first Up train from Schull. However, the combined efforts of all the crew and passengers were needed to drag the wreck back on the road…

…Willie Salter of Castletownsend said that a pony and trap from Skibbereen often reached Ballydehob before the train; it was better that way if you were in a hurry. He would see passengers getting out near Crooked Bridge or Church Cross to give the train a push…

Sad days: James I C Boyd located and photographed this ‘Gloucester’ carriage from the S & S line in a field beside Bantry Bay in 1967. It had been sawn in half before final abandonment; is it still there today?

This post is a short taster of the treasures that this volume holds. A fuller review – and more Miscellanea – will appear in future posts. To finish today, we were delighted to find this photo taken by the author just around the corner from us. Finola’s article, here, tells the story of this Lost Landmark.