Born Upon the Tide: Stories of Irish Men of the Sea

Born Upon the Tide: Stories of Irish Men of the Sea

by Pat Nolan

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In this work, maritime and social historian Pat Nolan interviews a wide selection of fishermen, boatbuilders and sailors from across the coastlines of Ireland. What emerges is a picture of a way of life that has changed beyond recognition, and which only lives on in the recollections of these men of the sea.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780750985710
Publisher: The History Press
Publication date: 09/01/2017
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 160
File size: 6 MB

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Jim Moore of Portavogie, County Down

It had been fifty odd years since I last travelled along the splendid scenic coastal route of the Ards Peninsula in County Down. During the course of a recent telephone conversation with Portavogie native, Captain Jim Moore, I gathered that many changes had taken place in the interim. When I asked the good captain if it might be possible to have a chat with him regarding his lifetime experiences, the response was, 'No problem, I will be delighted to meet you, and by the way, Jim is the name.' A date was arranged there and then!

On arrival at Portavogie I drove towards the pier. What I saw before me bore no resemblance to what had existed all those years ago. I spoke to a gentleman out walking a dog and raised the subject of how the pier had changed since I'd last seen it. 'Well,' he said, 'there have been two major developments in that time, one in the 1970s and another in the 1980s. The actual size of the pier has been doubled and a completely new structural arrangement was put in place in order to improve shelter facilities. A slipway has also been incorporated and the basin has been deepened. As you can see, there is also a large marketing hall/area and an ice-making machine. It is very different indeed.' Berthed at the pier, in addition to a number of smaller boats, there were upwards of twenty large trawlers (70–80ft), the vast majority of which were timber-hulled and of Scottish origin.

Jim's bungalow was easy to find and the man himself answered the door and warmly welcomed me to Portavogie. Comfortably seated inside and with the small talk over, Jim began to relate his memories.

I was born on 18 January 1933. My parents were local and my father was a fisherman. While attending the Public Elementary School from the age of 10 years onwards, all boys were gearing up for the only career on offer – fishing! That was it, no other career was ever considered. That being so, when I left school in 1947 I went straight into my father's fishing vessel as a crewman. The exact date was 26 July 1947.

We fished for hake off the Isle of Man and landed our catch nightly at Peel. As the year moved on we went into the Clyde and fished out of Campbeltown and Girvan. Coming up to Christmas we moved to Ardglass; a very busy port in those days. Boats and men from the northeast Scottish ports of Peterhead, Fraserburgh, Macduff, Buckie, Hopeman and Lossiemouth came in great numbers. Among them came the men who are reputed to have introduced seine netting to the north of Ireland in 1934 – brothers Willie and Jimmy, members of a famous Thomson fishing family.

In addition to the Scotch boats, you also had the Mourne men coming from Kilkeel and Annalong. Yes, Ardglass was indeed a very busy port in those days. To add to the confusion, it was necessary to land catches by 6pm so that buyers could get their purchases transported in time to catch the Belfast to Heysham Ferry. Whiting was the predominant catch landed; anything else was mere by-catch.

Jim remained in that particular fishing scene for three and a half years. During that time he was in daily contact with men who had returned from having done stints on merchant ships. Men tended to join the Merchant Navy whenever fishing was poor. It was a practice akin to that carried out by migrant workers. After their overseas travels, the men spoke glowingly of the wonderful places they had been to the marvels they had seen, and generally eulogised about the continuous sunshine and blue skies of faraway places. Furthermore, whilst out fishing, whenever a merchant ship passed by, not only were the old hands able to name the ship's owner, they also knew where it was coming from and where it was going to. As time passed, Jim was influenced by what he heard and decided to personally experience life on the high seas.

In January 1951 he joined a Burns & Laird Line (B&L) ferry ship running between Belfast and Glasgow. It was a fairly short-lived job as the ageing ship was broken up a year later. Jim stayed on with the B&L Line for a period of time during which he did relief work. Next he moved on to permanent employment with the Kinsale Head Line, a shipping company that worked out of Belfast and ran ships to Baltic Sea ports. Then aged around 19, Jim has fond memories of those days. He recalls the ship taking on coal at a port on the east coast of Scotland for transportation to Danish destinations such as Korsor and Copenhagen. Having unloaded the coal, the next assignment was to sail further on up the Baltic Sea, occasionally to its extremity, and take on timber at Swedish and Finnish ports for transportation back to Belfast and Dublin. For a moment he reflected before saying, 'To me, Denmark was and still is a wonderful country.'

Not one to stand still, a year or so after joining B&L, Jim moved on to an Ellermen Papayanni Line ship, the 5,000-ton Maltasian, engaged in running general cargo, and occasionally full loads of potatoes when in season, to Mediterranean Sea ports. Having discharged the cargo, it was usual to take on oranges and other fruits for shipping back to the UK. However, one trip was to be very different. Before leaving London, orders were received to take on a cargo of timber for the UK at a Black Sea port. The cargo was in fact to be taken on at Constanza, Romania, which was then behind the Iron Curtain. Jim reminded me:

It was 1954 and the Cold War between the USA and the Soviet Union was at its coolest. There were all sorts of stories told about how foreign sailors who stepped out of line in Soviet-controlled countries were harshly dealt with. Nevertheless, with all its intrigue, uncertainties and dangers the crew were looking forward to the adventure.

Having discharged the last part of its outbound cargo in Salonika, Greece, the Maltasian set sail for Constanza, via Istanbul and Zonguldak, a small port on the north coast of Turkey. Jim continued:

As we approached the Romanian coast, Russia's centuries-old punishment of sending undesirables to Siberia for the most trivial of offences was very much on our minds. No one wanted to spend the remainder of their days in those infamous 'salt mines'. Around 5 p.m. we dropped anchor. Immediately customs and port officials boarded. The crew were mustered and all accommodation was thoroughly searched. A medical examination, including checking for venereal diseases, was carried out by a doctor. The ship was cleared to berth at midnight. We spent the following ten days loading timber – the only western nation ship at the port. Thirty-six hours' notice was required of crew members who wished to go ashore. Intense security and strict regulations were in operation at all times. I recall that we were in Constanza on the day in 1954 when, against the odds, West Germany won the World Cup by defeating the highly fancied and crack Hungarian team of that era by a scoreline of 3-2. Sailing away from the port we had the same number of crew members as when we arrived. Things turned out not to be as bad as they had been painted. It was an experience that will stay with me for the rest of my life; all the memories are still fresh in my mind.

Following what Jim describes as, 'A wonderful time on the beautiful Ellermen Papayanni Line ship', he joined the Canadian Pacific Railway Line, a company that then ran a passenger service from Liverpool to Montreal or, in the wintertime, to Halifax or St John's when the St Lawrence River froze over. The line also ran twenty-day West Indies cruises from New York during the winter months. He went on to say how fortunate he was to have worked on two magnificent ships on those trips. He served as quartermaster on the Empress of Australia and as an able seaman (AB) on the Empress of Scotland. In those days, going ashore in Cuba was a formality and Havana was, he says, 'A beautiful city'.

While life was good, the years were passing by and Jim had an unfulfilled ambition – he wanted to become an officer. To facilitate that aspiration, he took a relief job in one of the John Kelly (Belfast) ships trading around the British Isles. In that way he had an opportunity to study and, as time went on, to chop and change between shipping companies where he gained the necessary experience to further his cause. Over a period of nine years between 1956 and 1965, he worked for and achieved Certificates of Competency at all levels – Mates Certificate (1956), Masters Home Trade Certificate (1960), 2nd Mates Foreign Going (1962), and the ultimate Masters Foreign Going Certificate (1965). Along the way he married Cissie in 1962.

Having acquired his qualifications, Captain James Moore returned to sea. He went to a Glasgow company, Gem Line, better known as Robertsons of Glasgow. He had previously worked with the Gem Line company during the period of 'experience gaining' for his Masters Foreign Going Certificate of Competency.

However, now he had a young family growing up at home who, on his return from long trips, were beginning to ask their mother, 'Who is that man?' Yes, home life was more or less non-existent! Jim, who was by then 34 years of age, and Cissie sat down to discuss what was best for the future. The conclusion reached was that it would not be right for him to go on spending so much time away from home. But what was he to do between then and retirement age – thirty years hence! Inevitably, a return to fishing came up as an option. The arguments made in favour of fishing pointed towards the fact that good money was being made at the time, he had been a fisherman in the past, many of his mates were fishermen, and he knew everyone involved. Why not give it a go! He would purchase his own boat. Should things not work out for whatever reason, he had the qualifications to go back to sea at any time. Although it was a major step, Jim and Cissie decided to follow their instincts. He retired from the merchant shipping way of life in October 1967.

Five months later, on 23 March 1968, Jim purchased a boat that was at that time fishing out of Ayr. She was named Kincora, a 70ft Tyrrell-built Lossiemouth boat, owned by Jimmy Thomson. Quoting Jim, 'I had the Kincora for the next fourteen years; it was one of the happiest and prosperous periods of my life.'

By 1982 the Kincora had over thirty years of service behind her and was at a stage where she was beginning to need a lot of maintenance. Therefore Jim decided to sell her. A replacement came in the form of the Killybegs-based, Norwegian-built Sanpaulin, owned by the legendary fisherman, Tommy Watson. Her stay under Jim's stewardship was relatively short – a couple of years or so – mainly because she had deep draft, which did not suit Portavogie harbour.

The next boat to come under his ownership was the Mayflower, a 66ft Lossiemouth vessel, built at the Herd and Mackenzie Yard in 1957. He bought her on 6 June 1984. When it came to re-registering the boat, the date of purchase corresponded with DDay (6 June 1944) so he used the digits '44', i.e. 'B44'. Jim had a long association with her as she remained in the family for twenty-four years. When he retired as skipper on 11 November 1994, his son Ashley, who now works for the Belfast Harbour Board, took over. By then the boat was getting old and the decision was made to sell her. So ended Jim's direct involvement with fishing, but he is still able to recall how the fishing scene in the north-east port of Portavogie unfolded over a period of many years.

When I asked Jim to tell me a little of the changes that had taken place, this is what he had to say:

During the 1930s the main types of fishing here were herring drifting and anchor seining. After the Second World War ring-netting came in, a lot of which was carried out by local boats in the Clyde. Circa 1955 trawling began to emerge as the foremost method of fishing. While it became well established during the 1960s, with prawns being an important part of the catch, a few ringers continued to work out of here. From the early to mid-1970s, influenced by Scotch and Isle of Man fishermen, queen scallop/queenie dredging became significant. From around 1976 onwards there was a decline in demand for queenies, resulting in a drop on prices paid. Consequently some boats returned to trawling. Prawns and whitefish, including whiting, cod, and hake to a lesser extent, became the main catch. For the most part, fishing was virtually non-existent during the month of May – often referred to as 'hungry May': when boats underwent annual overhaul and cleanup. In late May and early June, herring began to show up. While not yet plentiful, prices were good. Towards the end of June or early July, they arrived in copious amounts and continued as such until well into September. As time went on, big boats with powerful engines did really well at the herring. Come October it was back to trawling.

As with all County Down fishing fleets, a great deal of their time was spent harvesting the waters away from home, with the Isle of Man sea area, the Solway Firth, the Galloway coast and Firth of Clyde being most frequented. On a personal level, Jim concentrated a great deal on queenie dredging. He found it to be very profitable fishing. There was, he said:

Big fishing and for the most part prices were good at around £5 per bag. A normal catch for two days was around 100 bags. We landed at Peel when fishing off the Isle of Man. It was a case of two days at sea, a night in Peel, and back out the next day. When fishing further south and closer to the mainland we occasionally landed to a Scottish merchant at Garston, a port on the Mersey. We also queenie fished in Cardigan Bay. It used to take us fifteen hours from Portavogie harbour to the fishing grounds. We left home on Monday, made two landings at Holyhead, and returned home on Friday. The dredges we used were made in Peel and required quite a bit of maintenance.

As for the development of fishing on the County Down coast, especially the move away from drift netting to seining, Jim believes much is owed to the Scotsmen who came to Ardglass. They were, he said, 'miles ahead of us'. He attributes the progressiveness of the Scots to the fact that their boats tended to be new and were equipped with top-class fishing gear. Those who owned the boats were frequently wealthy professionals and businessmen who had no direct link with fishing, but who had lots of money to invest where it mattered most, in providing the best of boats and gear. It was a major advantage to have an experienced, well-informed and open-minded skipper, who might also be a shareholder. It was also claimed that a famous net-making firm at Elgin, close to Lossiemouth on the Moray Firth, worked very closely with local fishermen, to the extent of putting nets into boats and monitoring effectiveness. As a result of consultation between skipper and net maker, alterations were made to enhance performance. It is said that legendary fisherman Willie Thomson, who went on to become a prolific whiting catcher, and indeed was decorated by King George VI for his expertise, benefited greatly from working in such an environment.

In contrast, boats on the County Down coast were likely to be skipper- and/or family-owned, well-used, second-hand Scotch vessels requiring a great deal of costly maintenance. The financial backing prevalent on the Scottish scene was not readily available in County Down. The tendency was to go on doing what had always been done – the same old fishing methods using traditional gear. As such, local men were dependent on their Scotch counterparts to pioneer the way and share in their experience and expertise. The arrival of the Lossiemouth Thompson brothers, Willie and Jimmy, to fish out of Ardglass in the mid-1930s heralded a new era in fishing on the Irish coast. They were the men who had revolutionised fishing off the northeast coast of Scotland, specialising in seine netting for whiting. Quoting Jim:

Being the gentlemen they were, they willing supplied information based on their experiences to advance the cause of their County Down colleagues in every way possible. As a result, standards of fish catching and fish handling improved greatly. Neither did they shy away from pointing out to their fellow skippers that if they were to really advance they needed to invest in bigger, more powerful boats. By the late 1940s around twenty-four boats, many of them Scottish, fished from Portavogie in the wintertime. The use of seine nets ensured that very large landings of whiting were recorded. As time went by and the Thompsons of Lossiemouth moved on to fish the whole Irish coast, the legacy of knowledge on seine net fishing they passed on to local fishermen at many ports left an indelible mark on the development of fishing on this island.


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Copyright © 2017 Pat Nolan.
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