Dúchas Thír Chonaill

Donegal Heritage



Big Herring Harvest of 1916

From an article that appeared in the Irish Standard on April 8th 1916

The fishing community of Donegal has had a remarkably successful season. Up to August things were little better than average years so far as supplies went, but, of course, more advantageous in the better figures realized. Then towards the end of the month shoals of herrings appeared unexpectedly in the fishing grounds, and the whole fishing population was immediately astir.


The Congested Districts Board was apprised of the prospects, and arrangements were forthcoming for making available the motorboats and sailing boats provided by the Board along this section of the coast. In due course a contingent of Scotch and Irish buyers appeared on the scene, and, with keen competition, the Donegal folk have been able to reap a splendid herring harvest. There were times during the season when the price of herrings went up to as much as from £3 to £4 and £4 10s a cran, and even higher. Reduced to a more easily understood basis, the higher quotations mentioned worked out at as much as 2d apiece for the fine qualities which are attracted to these Northwestern grounds, and the fishermen, as might be expected, rejoiced in their luck. The Board’s steam-drifters were requisitioned by the Admiralty.
The New Motor Boats
One of the developments which has accrued to the fishing interests in the district is concerned with the matter of the provision of the motor-boats and steam-drifters by the Congested Districts Board. Up to 1894 only open boats of the Greencastle yawl type
had been in use by the Donegal fishermen.

Greencastle Yawl at Greencastle Maritime Museum, Co.Donegal

In that year a number of large decked sailing boats, known as the “Zulu” type, were introduced by the Board for herring fishing at Downing’s Bay and other centres. These boats were worked by crews on the share system, a boat and gear being handed over to a crew of six as joint owners, subject to a repayment to the Board of about one-third of the net earnings. The system worked satisfactorily for many years, and the Board were repaid the entire cost of the boats and gear originally supplied. There were still several others of these craft, however, in respect of which considerable sums had yet to be discharged before the debt to the Board would be cleared off.

In 1907 a big change had to be met. Steam-drifters, which had been introduced into Scotland and England, took part in the Donegal fishery, with the result that the crews of the local sailing boats were discouraged by their inability to compete with the steam vessels which were able to land large catches both in stormy weather and in calms when sailing boats had to remain in harbour. Even when sailing boats were able to go out, the steamers could go farther out to sea where the best fishing grounds are and get back sooner to harbour, thus securing better prices. The Donegal fishermen, therefore, urged the Board to provide them with steam-drifters and motor-boats, so that they might share upon equal terms in the fishery off their own coast. With the aid of a loan from the Development Commission the Board acquired some steam-drifters and motor-boats.


Changed System                                                                                                                                    
New conditions suggested to the Board that it might be well to vary the terms for repayment for these boats and gear. Under the share system the length of time before repayment in full could be made and caused the crews, after a number of successive poor seasons, to lose sight of the prospect of becoming owners, and men changed from one boat to another. In
many instances, too, the crews did not maintain their boats and gear-in good order, and it was quite evident that, in the interest of the fishermen as well as of the Board, nothing short of ownership would stimulate the crews to take care of their boats and gear. It was, therefore, decided that the Board “would sell each boat and gear on the loan system to some one or more fishermen. The present value of the boats and gear was ascertained, and these
amounts were treated as having been lent to approved applicants, the advances to be repaid by half-yearly instalments. The initial cost of the boatswith gear ranged from £1,000 to
£2,000 each for motor-boats, and present values were fixed according to the condition of the craft, with a discount of 20 per cent for cash paid at the time of sale. The prices of the sailing boats and gear were, of course, very much less.


Activity at the Centers
The principal centers of the industry are at Downing’s Bay, Kincasslagh, Gweedore, Burtonport and Killybegs. Each of these places is a port where the fishermen keep their boats and where buyers attend, and the marketing conditions, influenced by the scarcity existing in the chief centers across the Channel, have been such as to assure fair ruling quotations at
every center. Buncrana, on Lough Swilly, which used to be the chief market, and in years back was the biggest and most important fishing base in the North-West, has suffered
because of the Admiralty Order closing Lough Swilly tor fishing, except in a restricted way within certain local limits, and the principal market is now at Downing’s Bay in Sheep Haven. Here a very large quantity of herring has been cured for export, and at the other centers mentioned the season has been scarcely less busy. At Killybegs in August, 1915, herrings of extraordinary fine size and quality were landed. Only a relatively small proportion of the catches was dispatched fresh to the markets.
Donegal Salmon Fishing
An interesting story appertains to the very appreciable development in the salmon fishing which has taken place off the West Donegal coast in recent years. It was not known that
salmon, when proceeding from the deep water to rivers, followed the same course year after year. To the late Father Bernard Walker, of Burtonport, is due the credit of proving this theory, and that, too, in the most incontrovertible manner. During some boating trips well outside the islands which fringe the Rosses, his observation was directed on a few occasions to the splashing of salmon, as he conceived it to be, and curiosity tempted him to try his luck with a salmon net along a course where he had seen salmon rise. His acumen and his enterprise were rewarded in a fine capture, and his initiative was quickly followed by the fishermen of the West Donegal coast, who found in the new grounds a successful area of operations.


Séimidh Eoin na Bráid Duffy born 1839 in Braade to Mary McGinley and Eoin Mhicheál Phadaí, died in Carrickfinn in 10th February 1898, he married Nablá Phadraig Óig Duffy from Annagry East in St Mary’s Belcruit in 1864. They lived in Braade where their first two children died. Séimidh went to Pennsylvania USA and earned the price of a farm in Carrickfinn which he bought from a Hugh Duffy, possibly a relation in 1872.

Family 1. John Shéimidh Eoin 2. Grace Shéimidh Eoin, 3. Mary Shéimidh Eoin, 4. Jimmy Shéimidh Eoin, 5. Donnchadh Shéimidh Eoin, 6. Micí Sheimidh Eoin.

  1. John Shéimidh Eoin born 13th October 1866, died 1866 in Braade.
  2. John Shéimidh Eoin (2) born 1868, died 13th June 1893 from Tuberculosis .
  3. Grace Shéimidh Eoin born 18th February 1869, died 28th June 1870 in Braade.
  4. Mary Shéimidh Eoin born 4th May 1873, died 16th May 1959. She wasn’t married.
  5. Jimmy Shéimidh Eoin born 6th February 1876, died 21st March 1954 married Annie Mhicí Frainc Mc Ginley from Mullaghduff on 17th March 1918 in Letterkenny.Duffys
  6. Donnchadh Shéimidh Eoin born 14th May 1879, died tragically in Crucakeehan 11th January 1917. He wasn’t married.
  7. Micí Shéimidh Eoin born 1881, died 25 August 1971 married Mary Mhicí Eoghainín Rodgers from Mullaghduff on April 1918 in Letterkenny.

    Biography of Jimmy Shéimidh Eoin Duffy 1876-1954

    My grandfather Jimmy Duffy was born on the 6th of February 1876 to James and Nablá Duffy (née Duffy), in the townland of Carrickfin, which was then in the parish of Lower Templecrone, West Donegal. Jimmy was the second child to be born on the new three-acre holding bought by his father upon his return from America where he worked for the previous three years in the Pennsylvanian coal mines. His parents moved to Carrickfinn from the nearby townland of Braade after the deaths of their first two children in 1866 and 1870.

    Somewhat surprisingly for a Gaeltacht Catholic child, Jimmy attended the local Church of Ireland school where he received a sound grounding in the ʻthree Rsʼ and achieved a good command of English.

    After his father had returned to work in the USA the young Jimmy assisted his mother about the farm and supplemented the family income by acting as ferryman across the treacherous sea-channel which separates Gweedore from Carrickfin. Folk from Lower Rosses often used this ferry to reach Lord Hillʼs General Stores in Bunbeg, thus saving a dayʼs journey by road.

    A tragic incident will illustrate the dangers of this particular crossing. On Sunday afternoon May 2nd 1897 a sailing vessel overturned in the strait in full view of the twenty-one year Jimmy, his brothers and friends. The five young men aboard were thrown into the waters and were drowning. Without hesitation, Jimmy and his companions swam to the rescue and saved three of the crew. Their heroism was recorded in a lament composed at the time.

    Earlier in that same year Jimmyʼs father had returned from the USA, his health undermined by his years toiling at the coal-face. He died in the following February, 1898, aged only fifty-eight.

    Jimmy became a fisherman and together with his brothers Denis and Mickey and a cousin, Paddy Duffy, they operated a twenty-five foot yawl in the lucrative herring fishery of the time, sometimes having to row up to thirty miles to reach the shoals. When the herring season passed the four switched to fishing for lobster and white fish. Jimmy also fished for salmon in the Gweedore estuary from his currach. In 1910 the brothers and some neighbours formed the crew to operate a powerful forty-nine foot ʻZuluʼ fishing boat, the ʻSt Augustineʼ. This was a distinct improvement and lasted for three years until 1913 when as first mate, Jimmy joined the crew of an even larger vessel, the newly-launched sixty- nine foot motorised fishing boat, named the ʻSummer Starʼ. The range and capacity of this new boat was much greater than that of a sailing vessel and gave them a command of extensive fishing grounds and an ability to follow the shoals further than ever.  Unfortunately the good times were not to last.

    The outbreak of war in 1914 effectively destroyed the industry. Many steam vessels were commandeered by the English navy and when minefields were laid around the coasts it was only certain parts of the west coast that were safe to fish in.  For those fortunate enough to escape government requisitioning the home market provided a very lucrative alternative to the pre-war export market and Jimmy and the ʻSummer Starʼ were lucky. Jimmy leased the boat from the Congested Districts Board in 1915 and was so successful that he then went on to buy the ʻSummer Starʼ outright in 1916. He paid the sum of £962 sterling for it. The good times continued until the end of the war. Competition and the inflated price of fishing gear after the war made it near impossible to keep his venture going.

    His mother Nablá had died from cancer in October 1914 and so Jimmy had no woman to look after him. So, with commendable determination, the forty-one year old set about acquiring a wife. He and his brother Mickey, armed with a bottle of whiskey approached Mickey McGinley in nearby Mullaghduff to ask for his daughter Annie’s hand in marriage. The proposal was successful and with a naggin of the cratúr left, he accompanied his brother to the neighbouring house where another successful arrangement was sealed. Jimmy married Annie McGinley in St Eunan’s Cathedral, Letterkenny on St Patrick’s Day 1918. The couple were married by the Bishop because they were second cousins. The new couple set up home on a four acre farm that Jimmy bought in 1907 adjacent to his homeplace.  On April Fool’s Day the following year they were blessed by the arrival of a child that they christened Annabella and sixteen months later twins Mary and Kitty were born. Over the next seventeen years Annie bore another eleven children, four of whom died in infancy. My father Joe born in 1932 was the only male in the family.

    Jimmy continued to fish the Summer Star throughout the War of Independence. In the final months of the troubles the British Army on the advice of the Unionist merchants in Derry refused to trade with West Donegal. The local shopkeepers pooled their money together and boarded the Summer Star and sailed for Derry. When the Derry merchants saw the colour of their money they had no hesitation to exchange their products thus saving the people from possible starvation. Fishing suffered greatly with the foundation of the Free State due mainly to the ending of the successful CDB and the absence of trade agreements.  In 1931 after several lean seasons the Summer Star seized fishing and Jimmy retired to inshore fishing with his small punt.

    While building a turf stack close to the shore in the autumn of 1928, Jimmy was again called upon to rescue someone from drowning. Fifteen year old Jack Boyd a ferryman from Bunbeg got into difficulties after falling overboard. Being a strong swimmer Jimmy plucked the teenager from certain death and resuscitated him.

    Jimmy eventually hung up his boots and his seafaring days continued only in the tales he had to share. He died at home on 21 November 1954 after a short illness.





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