Life in the 18th century was one of transition for the native folk with the influx of planters and displaced people. They kept to their ancient customs and ways of life as much as possible. They had no requirement for hard currency as they still used the bartering system and worked as a team known as a “meitheál”. Towards the end of the century, outside influences began to change their way of life. The need for cash was becoming more prevalent with the need to pay increased rents and the introduction of shops with new household commodities. Credit was often given by these shopkeepers, in turn increasing the need for paid employment to clear their bill and their shame.
With no employment in their native area, children as young as seven years were forced to seek work on farms in east Donegal. They walked to the hiring fairs at least 40 miles from their homes. They were hired by farms who gave them work milking, cleaning the barns or harvesting their crops if they were old enough.
The men folk sought employment in farms in Scotland. The men of the Rosses went to Lothians and the Borders. They stayed away nine months, returning after the harvest was won for their winter’s rest. Many returned to the same farm annually at the end of March. This way of life continued up until the outbreak of World War 2.
There was no industry at home until the establishment of the Congested Districts Board in the 1890s. The work provided by the board helped with the income from Scotland and the Laggan. Now for the first time the people were able to pay their rent arrears and shop bills.
A short history of the Congested Districts Board’s influence on the Rosses Fishing Industry
The Congested Districts Board was set up by the government in the 1890’s to help and develop the poor coastal communities of the West Coast of Ireland. They invested in infrastructure and established manageable industries in rural areas. One such industry was the herring fishery on the Donegal coast. They sought to enable small farmers and part time fishermen to make their living at home. Since the last herring fishing boom of the 18th century, there was a steady decline in the fishing industry resulting in a loss of knowledge of the sea. There was an attempt by the Lower Templecrone parish priest Fr. Walker in the 1880’s to restart the local herring fishery. Fr. Walker invested in two boats with nets and his venture was a successful.
Up until the foundation of the CDB the coastal communities of the Rosses were using currachs (coracles built with hazel and covered with cow hide or tarred cotton) and yawls for inshore fishing, catching species such as Pollack, Turbot and Ling with long lines and Wrasse with a jigging line. In the estuaries they fished for salmon and sea trout.
As herring was scare on the west coast of Scotland, the Scottish Fish Merchants came to the Rosses in 1896. Some of the local business men saw the potential and set up curing stations while others invested in boats. James Sweeney of Burtonport bought several luggers and had a record catch of 130,000 herring on the 4th of January 1898.
The Donegal Fishing Company was set up by the Duke of Abercorn and John Herdman on Edernish Island. This company set up a station to cure locally caught herring. In 1898 alone the company paid £8,000 for fish and wages. It was said that they paid the fishermen in gold. In the same year a curing station for pickling herring was set up at Gortnasade. 500 barrels of herring cured there in 1899.
An estimated £70,000 worth of herring was caught there between 1897 and 1902 while the price averaged just one penny a herring. The fishing was so great, the cooperage in Burtonport were sold out of barrels. The Rosses fishing fleet had about 300 yawls, each had a crew of four and could carry 3 ton of herring. Most of the fishing was carried out in Traigheanna Bay, this bay with it’s shallow bottom suited the draft or ring net. There were two sets of crews of six men and each one of them had a herring net which was thirty feet long and ten feet deep. They laced the six herring nets together and when they saw the bubbles in the water, they made the ring. There were two men with a smaller net and they would sweep the ring with the ring net and then lift the fish with the small net. Sometimes at suitable tides horses were used instead of boats. The herring was so numerous that they could be caught with any kind of tackle including creels.
In 1898 the first CDB luggers came to the Rosses. The St Bernard and the St Micheal were allocated to Kincasslagh crews. Each crewman of the St Bernard earned £12 4s for 32 weeks work. The total fishing for that year amounted to £13,000.
1910 – 1920
In 1910 the 49’ St Augustine was given to a Carrickfin crew for £160 and £57 for gear and a Nobby the St Joseph came to Arranmore. The 50’ Gola became the first Zulu to be built for the CDB fitted with an engine in 1910. She was built by Robert Buchan at the Killybegs Yard. Also that year a Belcruit crew acquired the 45’ Motor Zulu the Aztec.
In 1911 a large fleet of English and Scottish boats landed in Kincasslagh . One local lugger landed 100 cran which made £150. That year the 53’ Vine LY 850 came to Kincasslagh and the 50’ St Marcellinus LY 119 was allocated to Donie Rodgers of Mullaghduff. After the winter herring season, Donie’s brother Murty decided to leave the crew and go to the harvest in Scotland. With reports of a large shoal of herring off the Kincasslagh coast, Donie needed his brother back from Scotland to get back to fish, so he sent a telegram to Murty. The telegram went like this….
Murty Murty come or stay plenty herring in the west bay, fine weather, signed Donie.
In 1913 a further four motor Zulus came to the Rosses. The 51’ Little Flower was given to a Kincasslagh crew. The 58’ St Finbar to Cruit, the 60’ Daylight Star to Kincasslagh and the 60’ Summer Star to my own granddad Jimmy Duffy from Carrickfin. The Board provided instructors to train the local pioneering engineers. In 1914 a Mullaghduff crew received the 65’ Motor Zulu the Morning Star, other boats with local crews included the 49’ Gowan LY832 of Carrickfin and the 50’ Gola LY 813 of Keadue. In 1915 the last of these boats came to the Rosses with the 47’ Emerald LY 65 to a Kincasslagh crew and the 49’ Donegal Bay LY 455 to Carrickfin.
These motorised boats couldn’t have come at a better time as the war brought a bonanza for local boats especially the ones that could travel to the fishing grounds. The price of herring increased mainly due to the requisitioning of steam drifters by the navy and the minefields that lay outside most of the British harbours. In Donegal there was a minefield on the entrance of Loch Swilly and together with the treat of U Boats the Rosses pioneers reaped the benefit.
Although my grandfather and his crew of the Summer Star acquired the boat in 1913 they didn’t buy her until 1916. She cost £818 and £143 for the gear and she was paid for at the end of that year’s fishing. She could carry 100 cran (I think about 18 ton). The price of a cran of herring in 1916 was £10. As mentioned before, she was built at the CDB boatyard in Meevagh by George Botan at a cost £1,050. She was fitted with a 55hp 3 cylinder Gardner engine.
During the War of Independence the roads and railways were blocked by the Volunteers There was also a ban in place prohibiting the sale of goods to Donegal by the Unionist controlled Derry chamber of commerce resulting in a shortage of food and hardware in West Donegal. The local motorboats the Summer Star, the Twilight Star, the Orient Star, the Spring Star and the Little Flower together with the steam drifters the Cherish, the Gweedore and the Carrigart each brought 2 cargoes a week from Derry. Shopkeepers Muris O Donnell from Mullaghduff, Charlie Dunleavy from Calhame, Anthony Sharkey and Charlie McBride from Annagry and Paddy Og from Crolly Bridge went on these boats. Having plenty cash with them, the Unionist merchants in Derry welcomed them and gave them all the goods they wanted. Theses cargos were landed in Bunbeg and Kincasslagh and it was then distributed to the other shops in the Rosses. With the evolution of motorised Zulus the fishery changed from a local Donegal based operation. Now they were fishing all year round, following the herring shoals as they spawned on different coasts. They went to Scotland for the summer season and landed in ports such as Frazerburgh, Peterhead and Stornaway. In the autumn they went to Yarmouth, Peel and sometimes to the east coast of Ireland. In the winter they concentrated on the local fishery. It was at the fishing in Ardglass that Charles Doogan from Gola Island was asked to join the crew of the Asgard to take guns from Germany to Howth. These guns were later used in the Easter Rising of 1916.
A total of six Steam Drifters were bought by the CDB in this era. Finross, Carrigart, Inishirrer, Cherish, Laurel and the Calistoga. Some of them were requisitioned by the Royal Navy for war duty.
The Inishirrer was built in Tyrrells yard in Arklow in 1912 at a cost of £1,717 and she was the smallest at just 65’ in length. She was allocated to several local crews over her years in Donegal. She was used as a gunboat in Cork during the Civil War.
The Cherish was owned by a Belfast Shipping company and was captained by Prionnsais Gallagher from Mullaghduff and a local crew. She was used for trading. Prionnsais died suddenly onboard, coming back for Derry in 1929.
The Calistoga was allocated to a Kincasslagh crew in 1915, but she was requisitioned by the Navy later that year. She was lost just six weeks after arriving for duty in the Dardanelles.
The 87’ Gweedore was first acquired by in 1913 by a Kincasslagh crew who fished her until 1920. She was then taken over by an Owey Island crew until her skipper died in 1924. Two local men Condy Boyle and Charlie McGonagle lost their lives off the “Gweedore”.
The 92’ Finross was fished by several crews from Gweedore Parish until she was requisitioned by the Royal Navy in 1916. She was lost at sea shortly after that.
The 87’ Laurel was allocated to a Killybegs crew in 1919.
The 87’ Carrigart was owned by Anthon Mc Gettigan from Downings.
The period following the Great War was a depressing one for fishermen generally. High fish prices during the war were a bonanza and the price of fishing gear which rose by 300% was easily accommodated. After the war the market for fish on the continent had vanished and the British markets were glutted. The cost of fishing gear and other items stayed high. Many fishermen faced and indeed experienced financial ruin.
During the boom time many businesses were set up as a result of the fishery. There were three shops set up at Kincasslagh alone to cater for the influx of fishermen and curers to the area. Coopers came from Co. Kerry help to keep with the demand for barrels. These coopers were responsible for introducing Gaelic Football to the Rosses. Prior to this the locals played Soccer and Caman, a type of hurling. The first Gaelic Football team in the Rosses was formed in Kincasslagh in 1922.
Written by Jimmy Duffy November 2015