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Boats and Fishing

Besides the rowing curraghs up to 25' in length there are also in Donegal smaller paddling curraghs 8'-10' long... In an account of the Rosses (1753) we read of the funeral processions to the island of Aranmore in Donegal which comprised as many as 60 or 80 curraghs covered with seal skins. A hundred years later Sir Geo. Hill describes their construction - "the frame of sallies and laths, skinned with hide or tarred canvas, was lashed together with cords of horsehair." He tells us that cattle were transported in them by lifting an animal into the curragh on its back with its legs tied, & carrying the loaded vessel into the water.

The long rowing curragh with its high pointed nose is widely distributed on the west coast from Donegal to Kerry. They are rowed by 2, 3, or 4 men, & the largest are said to carry a capacity of 2 tons.

In-shore fishing has been combined with farming all around the coast. This type of fishing was well-suited to the Irish crofter economy - visitors often remarking that the Irish did not go out to fish but waited for the fish to come in to them. The shore-dwelling farmer is knowledgeable about the ways of fish & knows the "signs." ...Herring were formerly in great demand not only locally but for many miles inland for salting down as winter "kitchen"... The great days of salt herring were the 18 th & 19 th cent. when a potato diet cried out for a tasty accompaniment. On the northwest coast the herring fishery extends through the winter, with consequent serious risks which the Donegal men have nonetheless been willing to take. Here perhaps is an explanation for the survival of the light rowing curragh down to the coming of powered vessels, for a small sailboat brings many hazards on the stormy Atlantic coast... Long line fishing for cod, skate, & other big fish is most certainly far older than the herring fishery... the division of labor was on a primitive scale, for to the women folk fell the tedious labor of baiting & preparing the hooks. The long line fishermen were exceptionally hardy & were regarded with awe & respect by the inshore fishermen - farmers... Their knowledge of the sea & of the fishing marks was a guarded secret.

- E. E. Evans, Irish Folklore1


"In Newport, Mayo, we inspected a corragh, the construction of which has undergone little change for centuries, being almost precisely that used by the ancient Irish. It is of rude form, the stem being nearly as broad as the stern. It is made of wooden lathes covered with coarse, tarred canvas; this canvas is manufactured by the peasantry, the cost of the whole vessel is about 30 sh. The size is usually large enough to carry 4 men; each man rows two oars; the oars are short, flat, & broad. It is very light & rises & falls with every wave - literally dancing on the water; they are seldom if ever upset."

- Halls, Vol. III, p. 385


Fishing was a backward and neglected industry in Ireland. A large part of the coast in the SW, W, & NW is periolous; there are cliffs, rocks, & treacherous currents, sudden squalls, and above all the Atlantic swell, surging across thousands of miles of ocean. By the 19 th cent. timber was short in Ireland; in the west, practically speaking, there was none, & fishing boats were small, the largest being 12-15 tons. The national boat is the "curragh," a frail craft, often of considerable length, made of wickerwork covered originally of stretched hides, & latterly of tarred canvas. The curragh rides easily over the great Atlantic swells, is fast, & with 4 oarsmen can cover surprising distances. It was not suitable for the use of nets in deep-sea fishing, and according to an expert writing at the time, the fish off the W. coast of Ireland lay many miles out to sea in 40 fathoms of water. A vessel of at least 50 tons was needed, capable of going out for several days. If a gale blew from the east the nearest port of refuge was Halifax, Nova Scotia. The curraghs & small fishing boats of the Irish were powerless under these circumstances. An inspector reported that the failure of Irish fisheries was due to the want of boats suitable for deep-sea fishing. Another report commented that the courage & skill of Irish fishermen were remarkable. The native fishermen were "out in their frail curraghs whenever opportunity offers, and in weather nobody else would think of venturing themselves in such a craft." But the heavy swell of the west made deep-sea fishing in curraghs impossible. "The poor cotter had a miserable curragh, fished for his family or neighbors and got paid in potatoes."

When the potato crop failed fishermen all over Ireland pawned or sold their gear to buy a meal. At Claddagh, on Jan. 9, 1847, "all boats were drawn up to the quay wall, stripped to the bare poles, not a sign of tackle or sail remaining - not a fish to be had in the town, not a boat was at sea." On Achill, James Hack Tuke wrote that the waters could not be fished because nets & tackle had been pawned or sold "to buy a little meal;" the Vicar of Ring, in Co. Waterford, appealed for help because fishermen had sold or pledged their fishing gear to obtain food; similar reports came from Belmullet, Killybegs, Kilmoe, etc...; and indeed for every fishing port along the coast.

- Hunger, p. 289-9


1 Emyr Estyn Evans, Irish Folk Ways. London : Routledge & Paul, 1957.