During the nineteenth century Dún Laoghaire was an active fishing port and its vessels competed with Howth and Ringsend on the rich fishing grounds in Dublin Bay. Though the fisheries in the Bay declined, a revival in the 1960’s saw twenty or more trawlers operating from Traders Wharf, crewed by 4 – 6 men depending on the type of fishery.
Names such as Nordkap, Vingafjiord, Quitte ou Double, Brasil and Vestkusten, Nordhavet and Ville de Port Louis betray the origins of some of these sturdy 60 – 80 foot wooden vessels crewed by fishermen from all around Ireland and abroad.
The local fleet was augmented by visiting boats from Arklow, Wicklow and occasionally Kilmore Quay and Milford Haven, all of whom purchased supplies from Dún Laoghaire’s shops while their crews spent money and regaled patrons of the Crofton Hotel, Cumberland Bar and Top Hat with their exploits.
Most local vessels worked two to three day trips, heading north where the tides were slacker on soft level mud seabed seeking whiting, haddock and prawns, or south for prime fish such as cod, monkfish, sole, ray and skate and fishing in much stronger tides where the undulating hard seabed damaged trawls and sand peaks and mounds of brittle stars sometimes stopped vessels in their tracks. The nickname ‘roaring forties’ had a particular resonance to those familiar with the early Decca Navigation System which often went berserk at night leaving boats fishing blind.
Wrecks where fish congregated were prized fishing zones and considerable skill was required in strong tides to avoid losing or damaging gear. Every crewman was paid a share of the catch after all expenses were cleared. No fish, a lost trawl or bad weather literally meant no money and the sea often took its share in return for its bounty with tragic drownings of fishermen in Dún Laoghaire Harbour and elsewhere.
Hard though it is to believe now, there was little interest in monkfish or prawns in Ireland until BIM cultivated a taste for them. Fish was regarded as Friday penance food and consequently 100 or more wooden boxes of cod or whiting, gutted bare handed without gloves for speed, earned little more than £1 (€1.15) for a seven stone box (45 kg) less two shillings and sixpence (€0.125) transport to the Dublin Market and agents commission.
Nevertheless, fishermen generally earned more than shore workers, though their physical effort converted to an hourly rate fishing in bad weather with accompanying lack of sleep, fatigue and bodily wear and tear, meant the wages were hard earned. However, while white fish and prawns earned a fisherman a wage, the annual Dunmore East winter herring fishery was the bonus as long as a determined and lucky skipper invested in good quality fishing gear and drove his vessel and crew to their limits.
The accompanying photos of pioneering Dún Laoghaire skipper Brian Crummey’s top earning sixty-five foot (20m) Nordkap powered by a 230 HP Scania Vabis engine were taken in 1968.
It is hard to believe that a viable fleet which sustained over 100 jobs in a port that once had the fourth highest landings in Ireland had almost disappeared by the 1980’s, encouraged by the designation of Howth as a Fishery Harbour Centre and the mooring of the dredgers Sisyphus and Saxifrage end-for-end on Traders Wharf making life difficult for fisherman.
Now Howth has its Golden Mile of fish shops and restaurants on the West Pier, and only Dún Laoghaire’s old timers remember what an absolute gem was lost.
With thanks to author : Richard Mc Cormick. President of the National Maritime Museum of Ireland.