In his new book, Humble Works for Humble People, Noel P. Wilkins explores the history of the fishery piers and harbours of Galway and north Clare. In the following article, he gives Ireland’s Own readers an insight into what they can expect to find in his book.
The coast from Black Head in north Clare to Killary Harbour in Co. Galway has an abundance of fishery piers and quays. No less than 320 have been recorded there, about one for every two or three kilometres of coastline. They vary from very small, rude structures to some relatively large harbours.
One of the smallest is Céibh an tSagart, a little landing place in Connemara built by the parishioners so that the priest from Rosmuc could arrive by boat to say Mass in a now-ruined church at Camas Íochtar.
Among the largest are the piers at Tarrea in south Galway and Spidéal in Connemara, both huge structures compared with others in the region.
But Galway and Galway Bay are not entirely unique in their abundance of piers. If we draw an imaginary line from Baltimore in West Cork to Derry in the North, the vast majority of the piers and quays will be found to lie west of that line.
Why has the West such an abundance? After all, history tells us that sea fishing was an activity pursued mainly on the east and south coasts of Ireland. Weather conditions, a hard coast and the absence of any large market in the West meant that there was little enough fishing carried on there – certainly very little offshore fishing – that would necessitate such a large number of fishery piers.
Most of them were erected during the nineteenth century and, indeed, during four particular periods of that century. These are the 1820s, the period 1846 to 1852, the period 1879 to 1887 and during the time of the Congested Disrticts Board from 1892 to 1922. With the exception of the last period, all of these were times of famine in Ireland.
In the 1820s, the Fishery Commissioners who regulated the sea fisheries decided to build fishery piers and quays in order to stimulate and encourage fishing activity.
Their plan coincided with the onset of famine in the West, to which the Government and others responded by providing money to start public works for the relief of distress.
The Commissioners decided to make grants from the Government money, of half the cost of erecting any pier or quay, on condition that the proposed developer, usually the local landlord, provided the other half.
Later on, the Government contribution towards any pier was increased to three-fourths of the cost, but the proposers still had to meet the final one-fourth.
During the 1820s, a total of 65 piers were constructed in 15 counties of Ireland, most of them (42) in the West, where the famine prevailed.
When landlords were unable or unwilling to provide their portion of the cost, Relief Committees stepped into the breach. One such was The London Tavern Committee, a body of concerned persons who met in London in May 1822 and raised a subscription for the relief of the people in the famine-stricken counties of Ireland.
They were joined by others from various British cities and, from much further abroad, by like-minded persons in Calcutta and other dependencies of India.
By the time the London Tavern Fund was fully allocated and wound down in August 1822, it had given a massive £300,000 in charitable relief funds to Ireland, a largesse now almost completely forgotten.
The unused residue of the fund survived and was utilised for piers up until the very end of the century.