The State of the Irish Fisheries in 1836

First Report of the Commissioners Of Inquiry

 The State of the Irish Fisheries in 1836


The quay of Clifden is near the eastern extremity of Ardbear Bay, contiguous to the village, and on the estate of Mr. John D’Arcy. Clifden is not a place of rendezvous from whence boats proceed to the fishing grounds, being too far embayed; but its utility consists in affording a safe landing-place, and a certain market for fish to any amount, and in supplying all necessaries for the outfit of the fishery and merchandise for the country in general; there being extensive stores erected on the quay for the curing of fish. And the supply of the necessaries mentioned above. The village is entirely a new creation, and owes its rise to the establishment of the Harbour, and opening the country by the Government roads that have been made.

The plan which was given by Mr. Nimmo consists of a Boat and slip quay, five hundred and eighty nine feet in length, with an elbow or obtuse turn along a cliff three hundred feet in length, for shipping of deep craft, but only one hundred and seventy five feet of the ship quay is finished, and three hundred and fourteen feet in length of the boat quay has been raised within two feet of its intended height. Sixty seven feet of the ship quay, the entire three hundred feet of the elbow or deep ship quay and two feet in height of the boat quay remain undone. Under the contract this work should have been completed on or before the 1st day of August 1823.

In 1822 the Board granted £228 9s 2d towards the expense of this work, including the cost of erecting a breakwater at Doughbeg, about a mile westward of Clifden; the amount of the estimate of the whole being £456 18s 5d; in addition to which, the Board supplied machinery to the value of £34 19s, and contracted Mr. D’Arcy, who undertook to contribute £288 9s 3d for the executions.

The Board agreed to pay Mr. D’Arcy in instalments, as certain portions of the work would be certified by the Boards engineer to have been duly executed; under which clause Mr. D’Arcy received payments amounting to £168 16s, including the value of machinery, and £94 12s 2d now stands to the credit of the work.

It may be proper to observe, that £342 9s 1 and a ½ d (Irish) is charged to Government as expended on this work, exclusive of the foregoing sums.

It is obvious that the work was inadequate to the expense of executing such extensive works, and believing it was not probable they would be completed without the Board’s interference, in November last I recommended that the balance standing to the credit should be expended in completing, so far as adequate, which would secure and finish as much of this interesting Harbour as would be at all necessary for fishery objects, and I now respectfully repeat that recommendation.

This Harbour may be placed in the second class for its utility in promoting the fishery.

The breakwater at Doughbeg was included in the foregoing estimate, though a distinct and detached work. It was finished, and is a useful work; it stands in need of some trifling repairs, but the damage being the effect of mere wear and tear, I do not conceive there is any fund applicable to it.

Extract from Mr. Donnell’s report of 1829- Notwithstanding the unfinished state of the greater part of these quays, some good stores have been erected on the finished part, and merchant vessels load or discharge their cargoes at them. They bring iron, pitch, ropes, earthenware and take away fish, corn, kelp and Irish Marble.

A few years back there were only some poor scattered cabins about this place; at present there are, exclusive of merchant’s stores, several streets of slated houses, church, chapel, School, bridewell, distillery and police office.

The place was heretofore only remarkable for illicit distillation and smuggling; at present it pays excise duties to a considerable amount.

Eight mooring posts and three mooring rings have been fixed in the quays, under the general order for moorings.


Appendix- Conditions of the Fishermen.


Conditions of the fishermen

There is no difference in the morals and social circumstances of the fishermen and agricultural labourers on this coast (Killeries); both pursuits are combined in the same person. For every man who has land is a fisherman, which causes him in a great measure to neglect both; the double pursuits injure both avocations, and if they could be separated by building fishery villages for the fishermen, I think the fisheries would improve, and the conditions of all parties much bettered; and it is my opinion that fishermen may be employed on this coast advantageously every day in the year, fishing or repairing fishing materials.

There is no difference between the houses of fishermen with land and those without it, in both cases they are generally very uncomfortable, or rather they are miserable. Most of the land in this county is in an uncultivated state, except patches along the shore, and generally let very low. When land is let for reclaiming, the rent is about 5s an acre. Favourably situated cultivated land lets at from 12s to 25s an acre; and the little let as con-acre, brings, with sea-weed, from £3-£4 per acre.

In some seasons, fishermen earn a good deal by fishing, but in other seasons, not being provided by capital, when the Herring season commences, they are compelled to purchase on credit, and often before they are ready to attend the fishing, it is over. This causes great distress: but it is the consequences of their not being regular fishermen, and always prepared when the fishing commences. – (Colonel Thompson.)

The fishermen of Scotland have small kilns attached to their houses, for drying fish, Most of the fishermen on this coast are farmers, and a few are agricultural labourers. The use of ardent spirits does not prevail to an injurious extent. The fishermen not being wholly employed in fishing, in consequence of other pursuits, is most injurious to the fisheries – (Mr. D’Arcy.)

The Islands on this coast (Connemara) suffered in common, from famine in 1819, 1822, and 1830. The cause was, in my opinion, the change in the value of money. The price of pork having fallen below a remunerating price, the people ceased to raise a surplus of potatoes for the food of the pig, and therefore had nothing to fall back on in a scarce season.

I am of opinion, that every famine which has taken place in Ireland, can be proved to have followed some unnatural check on national or individual industry; and that the contraction of the circulation in England, and the consequent fluctuation of the markets, will always be followed, at an interval of about two years, by a famine in the west of Ireland.

The fishermen are not wholly employed in fishing; they are chiefly engaged in agriculture; but people of all classes join more or less in the Herring fishery. A division of labour would be injurious to the fishermen, while our population is so much scattered, and the means of obtaining the necessaries of life so easy.

An industrious fisherman, paying in rent only one-fifth of the gross produce of his land, and fishing in his leisure hours, (for there is no occasion to work more than four months on the farms) may get quite wealthy even on three or four acres of land. A mere fisherman could hardly exist. Con-acre rent is about double that of farms.

The widows of fishermen generally occupy the lands held by their husbands, and I have always found them the best tenants. I consider absolute destitution very rare indeed. – (Mr. Blake.)

The Islands of this coast are sufficient to maintain the inhabitants, unless in seasons of famine, occasioned by storms, or some other cause. All the Islands on the coast have been remarkable for being more severely visited with famine than the mainland, as they are more exposed to the westerly wind, which generally prevails on this coast; and when it blows with violence, unaccompanied with rain, in the month of August, it is sure to destroy the potato crop, by burning the stalks. This wind is called, in the country, the red wind. When famine presses heavily, the Islands and mainland receive relief from charitable societies in England, and the Government.

There is very little con-acre in this district (Clifden), and when it is let, a share of the crop is retained by the owner of the soil. When land is let manured, a larger share of the crop is demanded. If this plan was generally adopted through the kingdom, fields of potatoes would not be left in the ground to rot, sooner than pay an exorbitant rent; and it would prevent the law proceedings for the recovery of con-acre rent.

In the winter of 1825, each row-boat, on an average, cleared £10; at that time, at least 2,000 row-boats were fishing. The take of fish has since fluctuated very much, until last season, which was rather good, some row-boats having taken from £30-£45 worth of Herrings, although Herrings sold cheap. – (Mr MacDonnell.)

The Islands of Aran, about thirty miles in circumference, are the property of the Digby family; Population, about 3,000; diminished, within the last three years, 500, by emigration to the United States of America. The Aran emigrants are employed in fishing between Boston and New York, where they obtain a comfortable livelihood; and many others would have gone there this year, but were disappointed in a vessel to take them out; in fact, the passage money had been paid to a person in Boston, by their friends and relations. Now, in my opinion, were employment afforded at home, by the establishment of a company, they need not to have gone abroad. The rental exceeds £2,000 per year, which is considered high, and several tenants are in arrears; the rent of each is from £2 to £6. Some have short leases, and others are tenants at will. They maintain themselves partly by fishing, and partly by agriculture. Distress has been felt in Aran occasionally, as well as in Connemara, by blight of potato crop, particularly in 1822; and relief has been afforded by the proprietor, government and private subscriptions. – (Mr. Morris.)

The fishermen in this district (Clifden) are engaged in agricultural pursuits, which I think injurious to the Fisheries and to agriculture. If they could be separated, it would be desirable, and beneficial to both pursuits; but I think it will take a long time to accomplish it. If the fishermen were congregated into villages, and separated from farming pursuits, and the farmer to employ himself in tillage instead of fishing, it would benefit both parties. – (Captain Andrews.)

All the male inhabitants of Cleggan are more or less fishermen. They are destitute of every convenience; they live in the most wretched hovels that can be described; they are yearly tenants, generally holding lands under freeholders, who themselves are miserably poor. I know of no con-acres let here. The condition of the fishermen is so wretched, that any change must benefit them. The aged are supported by their neighbours, and the widows by begging. –(Lieut. Warren, R.N., C.G.O.)

The most of the fishermen of Mannin bay have small farms for potatoes, corn, and the grass for a cow. I do not know if it has any effect on the fisheries. Those who have land are best off; without it, they would be hard set to support themselves. When not employed in fishing, they go as agricultural labourers, at 6d. or 8d. a day.

Stubble land, without manure, is let for £2 an acre; the average rent of farms is about £1 10s per acre. If the fishermen were congregated in towns, and schools established for education, and instruction in modes of net making, their conditions would improve. – (Mr. Burtchael, C.G.O.)

A loan fund has been lately established at Clifden, but on so small a scale, as to be of little use.

I do not perceive any good effect from the loan fund of the late fishery board; but the fisheries failed at this period, and there was also a failure of the crops along the west coast. At the time of the late fishery loan, fishermen were charged usuriously, as they could not obtain bail or security, unless through the persons who had fishery materials for sale; and for giving security, these persons charged their own price. – (Mr. D’Arcy.)

The assistance from the late Fisheries board rather injured than benefited the borrowers in this district (Renvyle), as it was followed by bad seasons, and the demand for repayment came upon them when greatly distressed. Its failure could not be ascribed to the imprudence of the borrowers. The condition of the people can never be permanently improved by temporary assistance or legislative interference. Steady markets alone stimulate industry and afford employment.

I am of opinion the Agricultural and Commercial bank will do all that is necessary in future as to loans; and the assistance of governments should be confined to piers, harbours, and roads, including bye-paths to creeks. – (Mr. Blake.)

No doubt the loan fund of the late Fisheries Board rendered service, but not that of permanent nature as would be desired. In many instances, it was used in discharging debts to shopkeepers, buying clothes, and other things, and not by any means for the Fisheries or their improvement. – (Mr. MacDonnell.)

I know of no loan fund or savings bank on this coast (Cleggan); the fishermen are too poor to have money in a savings bank.

I do not know the effect the loans of the late Fishery Board produced, but I think a loan to fishermen on this part of the coast would be entirely lost. At present, the fishermen cannot obtain credit on any terms. – (Lieut. Warren.)

I do not consider, on the whole, that the loan fund has been productive of any good effect. I know it gave rise to a system of raising the wind, in order to pay rents to landlords, in which cases the loans were recovered at an expense greater than the amount lent-for inspectors, travelling charges,- and a great number has not been recovered at all. Moreover, when an order was given to a shopkeeper, who notoriously had an understanding with the inspector, it was partly paid in cash, partly in goods of an inferior description, and at an enormous price, and very often not a shillings worth for boats or nets. – (Mr. Morris.)


feature photo courtesy of Harold Strong

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