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Water, water everywhere and not a bite to eat

Outdoor Living

BYGONE DAYS Fishing once provided a living for many of Achill’s inhabitants, and it was little piers like the one here at Dugort that provided access to the sea and to its precarious harvest. Pic: Edwin McGreal

Country Sights and Sounds

John Shelley

James and myself rounded the base of Slievemore mountain and walked as far as the pier in Dugort, where we sat for a while to soak up the midday sun. Talk of fishing boats, the abundance of mackerel and the now-extinct herring fishery was inspired by white-topped waves that rolled in from the north to violently rock the single curragh that was tethered close by and slap at the land.
Small clouds of spray carried on the wind, which itself varied in power and direction. One moment it was a warm breath, the next it charged down from the hill to hit the water some distance offshore and whip up a succession of miniature water spouts.
It was a typical Achill day. Too warm for the coat and uncertain enough to ensure we could not leave the same behind, it had produced sunshine and showers at will. At least we hadn’t to climb the mountain.
Only once, years ago, did we venture to ascend the flanks of that mighty quartzite mound. We had made good progress up the gently sloping lower third and had thought the summit to be within easy reach. However, our route was not well chosen and we had to give up when the loose scree went tumbling away beneath our feet. We walked around then, to the northern side, and followed a sheep track through low heather until that, too, petered out, as if the sheep would go that far and no further.
Those sheep were an infestation until a decade ago, thanks to EU headage payments. The damage they caused to the vegetation of the entire island will be slowly repaired, but will take a long time and might never come back as it was. Before the advent of industrial-scale sheep farming, fishing provided a means of living for many of Achill’s inhabitants, and it was little piers like the one here at Dugort that provided access to the sea and to its precarious harvest.
‘Rather them than me,’ remarked James, referring to the hardy men and boys who hauled on the oars of canvas-skinned curraghs and sailed their frail Achill yawls into dangerous waters in search of herring, the season for which peaked in the latter months of the year to combine with some of the roughest seas anyone would ever wish to encounter.
The herring are long gone at this stage. And some would say thankfully so, for the living they provided was both dangerous and odorous.
“What happened to them?” I wanted to know.
James explained. “The great shoals always did move around. One year they’d be here and the next season they’d be somewhere else, as if the gods themselves were sharing the fish around. And then one year they hardly turned up at all. Men and their wives were waiting for them, depending on them, and there were few for many and none at all for some. They had changed their ways and gone to swim in Scottish waters, and there they’ve stayed.”
In the difficult famine years of the 1840s the sea was filled with fish yet the people were starving. How could that be? When the potatoes began to fail men pawned their fishing tackle to see them through what they thought would be a short period of darkness. In 1847 people had barely a scrap to eat, yet the sea was teeming with fish.
James Hack Tuke, long time treasurer of the Friends Foreign Mission Association, visited Mayo at the peak of the famine and wrote the following: “...standing on the magnificent cliffs of Achill, we saw deep inlets and bays filled with shoals of mackerel and herring, the whole surface of the sea seemed completely alive with them.” With neither boat nor net, the former fishermen whose families were wasting away before their eyes were helpless and completely unable to provide.
Shortly thereafter, the fishery was resurrected with the aid of government loans and charitable donations, but even then there were additional problems. It was difficult to obtain the quantity of salt needed to preserve any excess catch, and the roads in and out of Achill were so poor that any any preserved fish had to be transported by sea to the market towns of Newport and Westport to be sold, a voyage that, while not far on the map, would take a full day to complete.
The lower slopes of Slievemore still bear testimony to those trialsome times. Ancient dwellings, their roof timbers taken for firewood and gables thrown down by the wind, are cold and uninviting, scars of ruin. Nothing was ever simple in this part of the world.
“Come on,” James prompted, “I’m ready  for a pint.”
These are different times, that’s for sure. As James said, “We hardly know we’re in it.”

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