The Rambler 01/11/2002
THIS week, I turned on a recording of an interview which I had with a retired Lough Neagh fisherman, circa 1988. He was then 80 years of age. Here are the extracts.
His name was John and he started off with a boast that he had been out in a boat from he was nine, mostly after school, and that his father, and his father before him, had both been fishermen.
First of all he, John, did nothing but keep the live bait alive. They were stored in a tank and needed fresh water. The fish wouldn't take dead bait, so small live perch were used. They had to stay alive on the hook so you had to put it in near the tail.
Lines carrying 300 hooks, maybe 400 were used. It was a tricky job hitching the hooks on the lines, and then layering them in the boxes so that they didn't get snarled up. They were always laid in the evening and lifted in early morning.
John's grandfather shipped fish, but in John's day a local man, who had a wee shop, set up a kind of a depot, and collected the catches and took them to the railway station with a pony and van. They all went to Billingsgate market.
In John's day, they were about 15 or 16 shillings a stone. The Tyrone men claimed they got £1.
Fishing was done from an open boat - no cabin, no engine, nothing but oars. If the weather was bad, you just didn't go out. For a long time they had no oil skins or anything like that. Wellington boots hadn't been heard tell off, no life belts, no shelter, no nothing.
"We had no licenses. Any license you could have got just said 'Fresh Water'. It didn't cover Lough Neagh. You needed a special one for that, but we would have had to sell any eels we caught to them at their price. I mean, the people who claimed they owned the Lough (Planter stock?).
They had patrol boats and if they caught you, they lifted the lines. They didn't take the fish. They threw any there was, back, if they could prove who laid the lines, they summonsed you. But it wasn't easy. We had our own way of getting the better of them. Duff of Coagh was the main man. He gave out the licenses. Gibson was one of his men. He did the patrolling."
If Gibson saw a line, he just sailed over it and lifted it. If there were more than one he just tied floats on them, and came back and lifted them all. That was what was going on all summer. We had look-outs and we lifted the lines before Gibson got near them. As soon as he was spotted, we cleared off. We had a scout who lit a whin bush on Derryclone Point, so that everybody could see it, including the Tyrone boys.
"If the one of the Tyrone boys saw him first, they lit a fire at Ardboe. Whins were the best. They burn well with plenty of smoke.
"The baliffs didn't come in till the 1920's. I think the Stormont government was responsible. They lifted lines for 40 or 50 years, till a settlement was got. A priest from Toome got a co-operative set up.
There was a man in Lurgan, Paddy Marley who had a barber's shop at Castle Lane. One day the talk came round about eels. Paddy told me that when he was in the army he used to drive a lorry to Billingsgate market for fish for the army.
"When it opened, nobody got eels till the army got theirs. They had a whole string of lorries. They paid 170 shillings a stone!"
John wryly concluded "There was somebody profiteering then."
P.S. Seamus Heaney (Nobel Poet Laureate) has confirmed to me that his wife, whose name was Devlin, and who came from Ardboe, was one of those who lit the whips.