One of the most bitter disputes between neighbouring seaports in Clew Bay lasted for nearly 20 years the mid 20th century. The trade war between the ports of Westport and Newport led to anger, resentment and occasional physical violence.
The origin of the conflict went back to the 1930s, when the Economic War, the collapse in world trade and the restriction on imports led to the decline of the once-thriving Westport Harbour and, to a lesser extent, that of Newport.
But the real crux was that while Westport was a regulated port and subject to all sorts of statutory obligations, Newport was not. While Westport was compelled to operate under a Harbour Board, employ a Harbour Master, impose duties on all incoming cargo, and meet all its own costs, no such restrictions applied to its neighbour. In Newport, there were no charges, no regulations, and Mayo County Council was responsible for upkeep and maintenance, an expense it met from its countywide rates revenue base.
But most crucially of all, an importer using Newport could avail of casual, part time, low-cost labour, unlike at Westport, where the unionised dockers were paid agreed rates set at national level.
So when two of the biggest importers in west Mayo – McEllins of Balla and Mulloys of Westport – chose to divert their business to the cheaper option of Newport, it was the sign for all out war. The Westport Harbour Board appealed to Mayo County Council to impose duties at Newport, but the Newport members of the council mounted a successful defence.
On St Patrick’s Day, 1935, a steamer with 800 tons of cement berthed in Westport. Told to unload a portion of the cargo and allow the remainder to continue to Newport, the dockers refused, sensing that they would be ‘lightening’ the cargo to facilitate Newport. The ensuing deadlock saw the vessel impounded by the dockers for three days until eventually a baton charge by the Gardaí secured its release. It sailed out, still fully loaded, from Westport en route to Newport.
There followed a mass public meeting in Westport. It brought the Harbour Board, the dockers (two groups which did not always see eye to eye), the business community, the clergy and the residents of Westport Quay together in an attempt, as they said, to ‘stop the grass growing up through the harbour’. The two main importers, who had also been invited, failed to turn up.
It was decided to lobby the Minister for Industry and Commerce to exert pressure on Mayo County Council to impose harbour dues in Newport. Clearly favouring the Westport cause, the Minister warned the council that so many were the deficiencies at Newport (no proper register, no lighting, no safety, no first aid) that unless immediate action was taken, there would be a prosecution without further notice.
In the end, nothing came of the campaign. But that may have been due to another crisis that overshadowed the trade dispute. The owner of Newport house, Michael McShane, who was in the process of disposing it to Henry Mumford Smith, suddenly laid claim to the entire harbour property, the roadway, the storage sheds and the extensive public space which, it had long been assumed, belonged to Mayo County Council.
The baronial rights to the property, which he had acquired from the O’Donnells, the founding family, gave him ownership of everything right to the seawater edge.
By the time his claim was finally, after several years, settled in the High Court, the sea trade of both Westport and Newport had disappeared. There was nothing left to fight over.