CONNEMARA LOBSTERS AND CRAYFISH
It is always difficult to learn a new trade, but it is possibly less difficult to do so if the latter is completely different from the one exercised beforehand. At the beginning of my exile, I often regretted not having more manual or technical knowledge that would have made it much easier for me to obtain work. Long afterwards, I recalled this problem with Doctor Kervran and his wife, who had come to visit me, as I was showing them around my installations. They wondered at the lobsters’ incessant rounds in search of food. In calm fine weather they come out of their holes and are drawn irresistibly towards the current of fresh seawater coming from the opened sluice gates and the open sea.
“You certainly should not regret it,” said Mme Kervran. “That you were able to succeed in setting up and developing this business is precisely because you were an intellectual.”
In fact, an intensive specialisation may have imprisoned me within far more limited horizons. The only engineers and technicians who manage not to become too intellectually narrow minded, are those who succeed in escaping from their technicality thanks to an extensive general knowledge. Intellectuals in particular, if moulded in French schools or universities where there is a proliferation of preconceived ideas, suffer from this failing in reverse: their propensity for manipulating ideas in general, often leads them to forget reality. One cannot live purely on ideas and abstractions, and theory should always be put to the test of facts. Life is based on reality: the best theoretical structures favoured by our intellectuals, particularly as regards the organisation of political society, invariably lead to bloody failures or unbearable tyrannies. It is undoubtedly the study of federalism, that concrete philosophy, which protected me from this failing that the French, their teachers at school and at university and their politicians suffer from too often. Any idea, no matter how good it is, should never be pushed to its extreme consequences when it evades the reality that will always restrict it and clip its wings.
Committed to entirely new tasks and confronted with a new trade I had to master, consisting quite considerably of technique, I often repeated to myself the motto of my distant ancestors, the Kergariou from Ploujean, from Plonevez Moëdec, from Porzamparc and from Cosquer:
”Here or elsewhere Kergariou”. It is always possible to follow new paths and still remain true to yourself.
I would probably not have dared take on the task offered to me by Marcel Samzun had I not been certain that his experience, for a couple of years at least, would continue to help me and prevent me from making mistakes. He taught me a great deal, from the point of view of the technique, during the buying and collecting of merchandise that we often did together at the beginning, but much less from a commercial point of view. As a Breton, I certainly knew what a lobster was. As a child, and later as an adolescent, I had caught them with my uncle Liégard and with my father in the hollows between rocks at Ebihens or Ploumanac’h at spring tide. I was not as ignorant on this subject as the Parisian poet Sully Prudhomme who described the lobster as “the cardinal of the seas”, having probably only see it cooked or on the table at the elegant restaurants of the French capital. I also knew how to distinguish a lobster from a crayfish. But that was about the extent of my knowledge. Samzun taught me that it is not a commodity, nor a fish like any other: Shellfish is the sort of merchandise that is alive and fragile, therefore precious. In order to fetch a good price it has to be still alive on arrival at its destination. When buying, handling or packing them, great care has to be taken not to injure them, as they bleed easily: the lobsters easily lose their claws. The crayfish shell is dotted with sharp points: they could not be piled one on top of the other without taking care to separate each row with reeds, fern or straw. It was also important to leave lobsters and crayfish in the open air for as little as possible, to protect them from the wind, the sun and the rain, to cover them with a sack or foliage soaked in seawater during transport, to plunge them back as quickly as possible into their natural element, which was the waters of The Pond. In summer, the packing generally had to be done at night and the transport overnight, or very early in the morning to avoid the heat of the day.
I also learnt little by little to detect, just by weighing up their behaviour when holding them up from the back, whether the animal was vigorous, weak or dead. It was also necessary to check if any congealed blood, bluish, transparent and gelatinous, was hiding a fatal wound, and know how to distinguish congealed blood from sperm, which was not quite the same colour. Thanks to the books and documents I was able to obtain, as much as to the experience of my associate, I also learnt that it is only possible to successfully hold shellfish in stock by seeing to it that the seawater where they are held is changed as frequently as possible. The opening and closing of the sluice gates was therefore essential. Lobsters and crayfish suffocate quickly after using up the oxygen in the water if it is not renewed. The same as humans quickly suffocate if too many are confined in a sealed room where the air is not renewed.
The biggest challenge when stocking for several months to take advantage of the high selling prices in the winter is the mortality rate. This is considerably greater where lobsters are concerned as they are inveterate cannibals: a lobster, as also a crayfish, only grows by changing its shell. Thus the younger it is the more often it changes shell: a small lobster measuring less than twenty centimetres long is already six or seven years old. When it sheds its shell, during the several days it takes for the new one to harden, it is weak, soft and exhausted: if it is unable to find shelter somewhere, out of sight of its peers, during that delicate operation, it is quite simply eaten by them. At low tide, I frequently watched as a lobster or crayfish changed shell on the seabed in the little water that covered them. There were always a few lobsters hovering around, ready to join in the feast. Crayfish are less prone to cannibalism. That is maybe why Alain Ouhlen, our competitor from Roscoff, called it the “grande dame”. However it is just as weak when it changes shell and is then like the lobster a prey to shrimps, young fish, crabs and other shellfish.
Those that go fishing for lobster, on foot, know that it is quite common to find both a lobster and a conger eel in the same hole: it is simply because the latter waits patiently until the former sheds its shell in order to be able to eat him. One of my first tasks therefore was to erect compartments in the pond, distinct and well separated with walls and wire mesh: allowing me to separate the lobsters from the crayfish and thus limiting the mortality rate. This work went on for quite some time as it could only be done at low tide and in the low season when the pond is practically empty of water: in addition tons of concrete had to be laid by hand. Thus I learnt that concrete sets and hardens just as well in the water as in the open air.
This is an indication of how rudimentary the Samzun brothers’ Pond was at the time when I started. It was then just a large expanse of water, covering not quite one hectare, with cliffs to the north and south and two stone and concrete walls to the east and west marking the limits. One of the walls was pierced through by sluice gates. This Pond was not suitable for any prolonged stock keeping. It did not have the five large compartments it has dividing it today, nor the concrete walkways alongside them, nor the relatively large buildings overlooking it with the cement tanks, supplied by pumps with seawater from a level below the spring tides. These last installations could only be built when the electric current finally reached us, in 1958, long after M.Samzun had retired. This is also an indication of how many years the construction and establishment of necessary facilities absorbed practically all our profits. Fortunately I was able to have practically all of these expenses incorporated into the overheads. I would probably not have been able to survive otherwise.
As embryonic and rudimentary as were its equipment and installation, the business was even more so on the commercial level. Marcel Samzun was truly the pioneer, the discoverer, or the trapper in the Far West. He lived as such and considered himself as such. Thrifty, even miserly for himself, he had a tendency to be extravagant for the business. He could have made his fortune several times over if his administrative spirit had equalled his spirit of adventure. He was certainly not a good administrator. He surprised me one morning, shortly after my arrival, by announcing all of a sudden that we had to send the lorry urgently to Galway, a return trip of 200 kilometres, to collect a few planks needed to make the door of the small garage being built: He said that if the wind came up, it could lift off the roof that had just been put on. The wind, in fact, did not come up.
Whenever he went to Shannon for the air freighting of merchandise, he was accompanied not only by the driver but also by another of our employees, whose only function was the lifting of a few boxes and to sit with him on the journey. Whenever he went to collect merchandise from distant fishing centres, he was frequently accompanied, not only by his foreman, John Delappe, but also by one or two others. It was not uncommon either for him to instruct work to be knocked down, which had been done the previous day, as on reflection that was not the place for it. He was very like the local people in that respect, too often acting simply on impulse. It was not reason alone that prompted him in life. He was very Breton in that respect, just as he was very Irish.
On the other hand Samzun was a scrupulous accountant, making a note of the smallest expenses incurred for the business, such as the sandwiches, tea or snacks consumed on the journeys to collect merchandise. He left me to carry on this journal of current expenses when he left for Brittany. On one occasion I discovered an entry for a very small sum: “purchase of sweets to thank my sister in law for her hospitality”. Her hospitality on his way through Paris had certainly saved him from incurring the cost of a hotel, which was logically the responsibility of the business. He would decide as suddenly to leave as he would to arrive. He never inquired beforehand as to the times of trains or planes. One day I received a telegram asking me to send a telegraphic money order to Cork, where he was stuck. He had gone there, thinking he would catch a boat; meanwhile the boat had ceased to exist several months previously.
He and his wife were first-rate people notwithstanding. We were soon taking Erwan’s example and calling her “Tante Caline”, the name her husband called her. A kind and gentle elderly lady with white hair, she had kept the gallo accent of the Plancoët region. She liked to play with Erwan who was only four years old when we arrived in Cleggan, and who reminded her of the son she had lost. She followed her husband unquestioningly, and without ever being surprised at his sudden decisions.
Marcel Samzun was known and appreciated in all the areas where we did our buying: though he was considered to be a little odd, practically fallen from the sky for the good of the region, a touch eccentric at times and with unforeseeable reactions. Since before the war, had he not opened up a new, previously unknown, market for the small local fishermen: that of the crayfish? This local fisheries market was not much different when I arrived in Cleggan from what it had been before the war. It underwent a profound transformation soon after with the frequency of air transport. It was still possible at the time to send boxes of lobsters overland by train and boat to the London market: but there was no market for crayfish in London. However, it was seldom profitable to send lobsters to London, the capital of a State that thanks to Scotland is itself a major producer, except in the case of a special order. Direct sales to the continent were the only profitable ones.
When I arrived in Cleggan, this clientele was practically non-existent in our business. Other than the sales to the Paris market, Marcel Samzun only had two or three buyers in Brittany, old clients or competitors of the Samzun brothers, and one client in Ostende, in Belgium. One of my first tasks over the next few years, once I had become familiar with it, was to extend and diversify that market. It was practically an obligation. Just over a year after my arrival, the French government had suddenly forbidden the entry of shellfish in order to protect its own fishermen. It was impossible without a special licence, difficult to obtain and subject to rigorous conditions. For us it was a catastrophe, considering our business’s narrow margin of operation. In reality Cleggan was until then only the Irish extension of a Breton business. It had to be transformed into an Irish business, with Brittany and France only as clients amongst the others. It was necessary to extend the clientele to the whole of Western Europe. Thanks to addresses provided by both the ministry of fisheries in Dublin and the Chamber of Commerce, I began to send out circulars offering my merchandise to the whole of Western Europe. I had to type them out myself on a primitive typewriter, an old pre-war Underwood. I had no assistant at the time to do any office work, apart from the occasional help of my wife. Thus I was able, the first in Ireland, to open up the Hamburg market, the Dutch market of Yerseke and of Bergen Op Zoom for lobsters and a more limited Swiss market in Zurich and Geneva for crayfish. During the following years, I was able to export large quantities of lobsters to Holland and Germany.
This is what saved the business. I was able to wait out the crisis that had temporarily closed the French and Breton markets to us.
In order to avoid a recurrence of this situation, I made the decision to create, as soon as possible, at least as a matter of form and on paper, a commercial enterprise based in Saint-Lunaire at my parents’ place. But as I was sentenced in France for my Breton activities, my “present and future property” had been confiscated. My position with “loss of citizenship rights”, inflicted on me for good measure, prohibited me from opening a business. I had to register the business in Saint-Malo under the name of Marie-Madeleine Fouéré. As for myself, I continued under the name of Mauger, which is Marie-Madeleine’s maiden name. I am still known today, especially in Ireland, in Cleggan and elsewhere under the name of Doctor Mauger. Few people in official and business circles know the name Fouéré, the name reserved for the man of politics and the writer.
In the meantime, I had been able to improve telegraph and telephone communications. We had no telephone when I arrived: the nearest telephones were the public phone boxes at the small post offices in Claddaghduff and Cleggan, the former nearly 3 kilometres from The Pond, the latter more than four kilometres away. These were the public boxes we had to use for all our communications with the outside world. Practically all our business transactions were carried out by telegram. Jobs were scarce at the time in that extreme west swept by winds, soaked with rain when the sun was hidden. The postmistress in Claddaghduff or the one in Cleggan were never short of young girls fresh out of school who would cycle in all weather to bring us the telegrams. We usually had them wait for the time it took us to write a reply that they would bring back to the post office to be immediately sent by telegram. Old Samzun had always paid them a modest sum to reward them for their trouble. It was not unusual, in the middle of the fishing or exporting season, for them to have to make several trips the same day.
It was only shortly before we finally moved to the new house that the telephone was installed. We had to pay in advance for the installation costs of a new line, over two kilometres long. At first the line stopped for the night, between eight at night and eight in the morning, and we could not use it for international calls. We also knew that it was not good form to use it at Angelus time. Kathleen Lacey, postmistress and only employee of the Cleggan post office, said the rosary at seven in the evening with some neighbours. It was only later that we were able after hours to link up directly with the main post office in Clifden, which also functioned at night. I quickly became an expert in the art of spelling and dictation to transmit telegrams by post. But I often had a fit with this instrument on which our business life largely depended.
In winter, the violent winds sometimes uprooted the telephone poles and damaged the lines that in this bare and treeless place did unfortunately disfigure the nearly virgin scenery. The lines therefore sometimes fell to the ground, cutting us off from the rest of the world. At other times it was the swans that in spite of their large wings were slow in taking off and would get caught in the lines, breaking them in their low one hundred metres flight from the lake to the sea.
The mail delivery on the other hand, had become a regular daily occurrence, apart from Saturdays and Sundays, ever since Tommy Mullen had finally become our postman. He was particularly conscientious in his work, regularly doing his long rounds on his bicycle. We also gave him our mail to be posted. His predecessor had tired easily and had had to be replaced. He was in the habit of stopping at one or other of the three or four pubs along his route. There he waited patiently, as long as he still had his wits about him at least, until he saw a person from the village going the right way or a child out from school, and could pass the mail on to them. Needless to say, it did not always reach its destination. Having become unemployed and eligible for a small unemployment benefit, he continued to use his bike: but never managed to ride it. He used it especially at night time to support him along his unsteady way. Later on Patrick O’Malley, who was just as conscientious, replaced Tommy Mullen.
Our purchasing of shellfish was not limited to the neighbouring areas of Cleggan, Aughrusbeg, Aughrusmore or Omey. At the time when I started, practically none of the fishermen had a car at their disposal: we generally had to collect their catch, every Saturday, from the little coves where their currachs were moored. We usually spent the whole Saturday doing this. The task was made easier at the time, by the fact that we did not purchase the lobsters and crayfish by weight. The price was set per dozen. Their size and weight was not a consideration: to catch a large one in a lobster pot was no more difficult than it was to catch a small one; and from our point of view, we sold the small ones easier, and dearer, than the large ones. But, though a dozen crayfish was in fact twelve, a dozen lobsters for some unknown reason was thirteen. This was probably an old tradition going back to the time when, by doing this, English wholesalers insured themselves against the inevitable mortality rate during the long overland transport. It was not until ten years later when the fishermen became more mobile and competition stronger that we began to purchase by weight. The competition was in fact not felt in the sales, but was strongly felt in the purchasing.
The old system had made it possible just after the war for the Samzun brothers to establish a certain number of purchase points along the coast. These were placed in the hands of local agents on a commission. We generally provided them with one or more wooden floating tanks that were moored in front their homes, where they could count and stock the merchandise until we came to collect it. The system was not without some risks, to the fishermen who did not always get their fair share, and to ourselves, as we depended completely on the agent, on his honesty, his care and conscience in settling with the fishermen for their catch. The system only changed when we began purchasing by weight and came more frequently in direct contact with the fishermen, as this was usually done on the pier or on the beach of each area. But the change involved new equipment in the form of baskets and portable weighing scales: it also involved more handling that increased the risks to the quality of this live, fragile and easily damaged merchandise.
The most colourful character and most well known of these agents, whom I gradually came to know well, was Pat Concannon.
He usually gathered together, in floating tanks moored in Inish Bofin’s harbour, the catch from the various islands situated some miles across the sea from our place: Inish Shark, Inish Bofin and Inish Turk North. He would bring it across to us in his poucan or in the Lily, the small boat we had provided for him, direct to the wall of The Pond. He would do the same when his own floating tanks were full. It was in Bofin harbour that the Samzun brothers had first gathered their merchandise before building The Pond, and Pat was their oldest and the most loyal of their agents. He had the figure of an athlete with a ruddy complexion, and was a born sailor and fisherman. There was not a rock or any other danger he was not familiar with, on this extremity of Westport bay or between the tip of Louisburgh and Slyne Head, and around the numerous islands and islets dotted all around them.
He was one of the few survivors of the October 1927 disaster that had struck the Cleggan fishing fleet, thanks to his endurance and knowledge of the coast, by hanging on to the net that was his floating anchor, while his companions continued to row in the direction the storm was coming from. These heavy wooden boats with four or five oars, used for mackerel fishing, a prosperous business for the harbour at the time, had been caught unawares by an unexpected hurricane type storm out at sea, on the far side of the bay. Most of the boats and their crews disappeared. Nine men from Inish Bofin and six from Rossadilisk disappeared. A number of families lost several of their men folk. Cleggan had not recovered from this catastrophe. The heavy wooden boats fell into disuse. Soon afterwards, in fact, the mackerel emigrated. There were only two or three trawlers left in Cleggan by the early fifties. One or two others were based in Inish Bofin. Their catch, mainly flat fish, was sent directly to the Dublin market. There were no outlets closer to home. By no means could it be considered as intensive fishing. There was no fishing on Sundays of course. But there was also no fishing on Fridays or Saturdays, even when conditions were favourable, as there was no market in Dublin on Sundays. There was also no fishing done on holidays, nor on the day before a holiday, as there was no market the next day or the following day. The harbour’s main activity was thus reduced to transporting the mail, merchandise and necessary supplies to the islanders of Bofin and Shark. The mail boat was also used for the odd passengers. It was only twenty years later that Inish Bofin became a tourist attraction, with the repercussion of giving Cleggan a seasonal activity again.
Patrick Concannon was also frequently in Cleggan harbour: seldom for the purpose of bringing the merchandise to us as, weather permitting, it was much shorter for him to deliver it directly to The Pond. But there were two pubs in Cleggan that he liked to frequent, as in Bofin there was only the one. This one he frequented every night of course. On the island, he only used his legs to go from home to his boat or to the pub situated on the harbour, whose owner also had a small hotel nearby. As a result he moved about with increasing difficulty: he had become practically obese, with a prominent stomach. The numerous pints of Guinness he consumed had certainly contributed to this. I had difficulty understanding what he said as, especially when he had just been to the pub, he swallowed most of his words.
”Don’t worry about it,” one of his crew said to me,” I also have problems understanding him at times, and we are not the only ones.”
Pat was a widower. He lived with his son in a small house a few hundred metres from the harbour where his boat and his floating tanks were moored. He could keep an eye on them from the pub. He also had an illegitimate daughter who was now married, but he still called her “my mistake”. Everybody on the island knew about this ‘mistake’, even though they never spoke to him about it. With the passing years, Pat left his son John and his friend Michael Burke in charge of delivering the merchandise to us. We never had any warning of their coming. But one of us would invariably make out the familiar profile of our little boat, with its sail set in the direction of The Pond, passing by the Kudoo and in between the Ferronagh, those rocky islands to the north that separated us from two miles of open sea beyond which lay Bofin.
It was thanks to Pat’s seamanship that, aside from Bofin and Shark, easily accessible from The Pond, I came to know the islands of Inish Turk North and Clare. They were both much further away, although they were a part of our immediate horizon at sea. From our windows, we could distinguish their high cliffs in virtually any weather. In Shark, there were only about fifteen people left divided between three or four families. They lived solely on their livestock, milk from their cattle, meat from their sheep, their potato crops and their catch of shellfish. They always had a warm welcome for all those who ventured to come and visit them, as the dock and slipway were hardly safe. These visits relieved the monotony of their daily lives. It was not a simple matter for them to leave the island that, in winter, was cut off by storms and wild seas for several weeks at a time. The only assistance they could call on was from Bofin, the closest inhabited island that was separated from them by a fairly wide strait, nearly always rough. There was no other way of communicating with Bofin, other than to cross over in their fragile currachs to call the priest or the nurse in residence there, risking their lives at times.
But the fishermen and islanders of Shark were accustomed to these harsh conditions: linked only to the outside world by their battery radio. But what a problem when they had to be recharged! Transistors were as yet unknown. There was no electricity in Cleggan: and even more reason why there was none in the islands.
On one occasion, one of the islanders died from acute appendicitis that under normal circumstances could have been operated upon. Neither the doctor, nor the nurse, or the priest had been able to approach the island that was isolated by enormously high waves. When ten years or so later, around 1960, the government decided to order the evacuation of some of the more isolated islands off the West coast, providing their residents with a house and plot of land, on the nearby mainland, Shark was one of these. One old man, in spite of the compulsory nature of this operation, refused however to leave the island. He remained there alone for a couple of weeks until the bitter solitude finally overcame his resistance. Today, there are only sheep vying with sea birds for these bare hills and rocks, sheltering on stormy days in the abandoned remains of the few houses with their hearths extinguished, their windows and roofs no more, but with the wind always howling.
The small community of inhabitants on Turk North was more numerous than on Shark: the island was further away and less accessible from our place than it was from Renvyle or Louisburgh. In fact, it was administratively part of the neighbouring county Mayo. However, it was the priest from Bofin who went there and generally said Mass once a month, weather and seas permitting. The life of these inhabitants was very similar to that of the Shark islanders: like them, they had an ample supply of turf on the spot; the homes were however more spread out with more water points. Just as in Bofin, the houses remained concentrated along the south and east coast of the island. The islanders had a reputation for being more hardworking and more industrious than their neighbours. It is true that there was not a single pub on the island; even today, Turk North still has a population of tens of inhabitants. The small harbour is quite deep and relatively sheltered. Whenever I went to Turk North, from where a visit to the small uninhabited island of Caher close by is easier, we usually took with us the priest from Bofin who could then tend to his flock on the island. It was Pat Concannon or his son, John, who usually brought us here also. Caher still has the ruins of a small chapel consecrated to St. Patrick on it: it faces directly out towards the mountain, on the mainland, bearing the saint’s name.
Compared to Shark and Turk, Bofin and Clare with their two hundred plus inhabitants appear as capitals. I very seldom went to Clare as their supply of shellfish generally eluded us. The small harbour lies under the protection of the ruins of Grace O’ Malley’s keep. Queen of the western islands, this was where her stronghold had been. The first time I was there, I met the island’s doctor. At the time, in Clare as in Bofin, there was a resident doctor, a civil servant paid by the state. These were generally temporary postings that, with the passing of time, became increasingly difficult to fill. There were few candidates: today these resident doctors have gone and have been replaced by a helicopter that will enable the visit of a doctor or the transporting of the seriously ill to hospital. The resident in Clare at the time was Welsh. He was very happy to talk about his country where I had recently lived. He had taken a room with full board at the small harbour inn, which was the most practical arrangement for him. He only had to come downstairs to the bar where he was one of their best clients and where, no doubt, he held most of his consultations. The community of the place he was originally from, far more temperate than this Irish one, had probably rejected him. Had he been Scots he would have been more at home.
It was certainly advisable to come to him for a consultation before ten in the morning. He was hardly able to take the few steps to see me off at the harbour: several times I feared that he would fall into the “baille”, as the Breton sailors say. There was of course no resident police authority to enforce the strict rules for pub opening and closing hours.
We were much more familiar with Bofin, with the daily mail boat link from Cleggan. Also, apart from being one of our best fishing centres, it was a frequent destination for our family excursions with friends or visitors in the summer. From the pond it was an easy crossing with the motor launch, probably an old lifeboat from a liner, which we had obtained to pick up merchandise from the islands, and had fitted with a stern mounted motor. The crossing did not take long. Bofin harbour, protected on all sides by hills and rocky headlands, is one of the safest on the west coast of Ireland. It has been known as such and frequented since ancient times by all the mariners and pirates navigating the Atlantic, from Portugal to Iceland and to Scandinavia. The island itself is full of history. Ruins of the old fort, first established in the 16th century by a pirate, probably Spanish, by the name of Bosco, are still visible. It had been raised and enlarged in the middle of the 17th century by Cromwell’s army that was garrisoned there. A real fortress, built in the shape of a star, whose ruins remain imposing, had been built to shelter the troops. It directly overhangs the entrance to the harbour on the south western side.
The island, at the time, had become a sort of concentration camp where Catholic Irish rebels and in particular their priests, had been crammed in. In the middle of where two sea markers point out the harbour entrance, Bishop’s Rock, submerged at high tide, recalls those tragic times. History and tradition relate that a bishop, held captive, was tied to this rock, stripped of his clothing and left to drown little by little in the rising tide. Further to the East, heading towards the beach and the village that the islanders call the East side, are the remains of the abbey and church of St. Colman; the original walls dating back to the Middle Ages. The south and east coasts of Bofin, facing the mainland with a magnificent panoramic view of the Connemara Mountains that seem to rise up directly from the ocean, enjoy a very mild climate. Practically all the island’s houses are situated there, apart from those around the old harbour. The north and west coasts are much wilder and inhospitable, battered by the winds. High steep cliffs, visible from afar, overlook the west coast.
Some of our other fishing centres nearby were for the small islands of Turk South and Turbot. They are situated at the entrance to Clifden Bay on the far side of Omey island and therefore to the south of Aughrus point where The Pond is situated. We usually went there by sea in our launch, which we called the “green boat”, and that could easily take up to seven or eight hundred kilos of merchandise. On leaving the beach where our boat was moored, we had to pass through between Aughrus point and Carrigculloo rock, then along the west coast of Omey, carefully avoiding the dangerous Mweelaun rock, into the channel that separates Omey from Turk south. At the far end we had to veer south along the east coast of the island to reach the slipway. The floating tanks that were moored close by contained the shellfish purchased for us by Patrick Wallace, our agent there. Pat was himself a fisherman and purchased from the fishermen the catch from both islands for us.
He was from a family of five brothers, two of them deaf-mutes, probably a consequence of frequent intermarriage in these small isolated communities. The three other brothers diligently used their pots for fishing. One of them, Willie, was in charge of the family’s fisheries operation, and would usually discuss prices with us at the start of each season. None of the brothers were married. Old Mrs.Wallace, their mother, was mostly bedridden and died not long after. The deaf-mutes took over the domestic tasks, preparing tea and food: baking the bread in the hearth. They communicated with their brothers through gestures and hand signals: they knew the deaf-mute sign language and the family mostly communicated in this manner.
I usually collected this merchandise myself, accompanied by one of my men. We always brought along a couple of safety belts and a good pair of oars. Just as well we did, as one day passing by Omey our outboard motor, probably badly secured, escaped from my hands and flew off before sinking to the bottom: that day we had to row back.
Whenever the children were home on holidays they sometimes accompanied me with Marie Madeleine on this expedition, which they enjoyed. Slowing down the speed we were able to fish, trawling two lines, providing of course that groups of porpoises were not playing around the launch, diving under it, accompanying or preceding it and then emerging jumping out of the sea.
Our arrival on the island usually followed an immutable ritual. Once the boat was moored, Pat took us to his place about fifty metres from the slipway, following a path between dry stone walls leading up to it. A small meal of tea, fresh brown bread, butter and milk was served up to us. John and Erwan would sit with the deaf-mutes whose sign language they were relatively familiar with, since they were boarders in Cabra, where there was also a school for deaf-mutes.
Then we set to work: we had to transfer the contents of the floating tanks to our boat, packing them carefully on the deck, before making our way back. The children also helped: but one day Rozenn and John who were on a floating tank, both moved to the same side, unbalancing it, and fell into the water. Their weight was not enough to overturn it however, as in that case there would have been a risk of them being trapped under its mass. They got away with a forced swim. Pat took them back to his house where their clothes were dried out in front of the fire.
Another time, on the way back, the sea had suddenly swelled: a strong North West wind was blowing. Passing by Omey we had to face strong waves. We were heavily loaded as well and I could feel the rudder harder to steer. Our two youngest daughters, Benig and Olwen, still very young, had fallen asleep, exhausted by the violence of the wind and watched over by their mother, in the shelter of the tiny binnacle at the front of the boat. I was at the back with Erwan and Walter Green, Jeanne Le Flem’s son who was one of our visitors that summer. At the back we were practically at water level and were taking in some of the sea spray. Marie-Madeleine was very worried. Worried myself, though not wanting to show it too much, being aware of the fact that I was only an improvised and relatively inexperienced sailor, I endeavoured to reassure her. It is always awe-inspiring to find oneself imprisoned in the trough of a wave, between two walls of white crested liquid hillsides, blocking out your horizon and only allowing you to see the sky. I regretted that I had not tried to run aground on Omey beach, but it was too late and too dangerous to veer in another direction. Hanging on to the rudder and praying that our motor would not break down on us, I slowed down, trying to take the waves slightly abeam, rising and falling with them. I had but one thought: to get past Aughrus point, after which, with the change in direction, the wind would be in our favour. Saint Feichin, founder of the monastery on High Island and of the oratory on Omey, which I could just see over to my right, probably protected us from those dangerous seas.
The collection of merchandise was mostly done by road and tracks, in little inlets and creeks surrounding the Cleggan coast, also in more distant places, towards Ballyconeely, Roundstone, Carna in the south and Blacksod in the north. In Carna, on the north shore of Galway bay, Pat Connolly purchased and gathered the merchandise for us. He lived on Mace point, not far from the now deserted and uninhabited small island where St. Mc Dara had set up a primitive monastery in the Middle Ages. Pilgrims from Mace, Mweenish or Carna continue to go there once or twice a year, on the saint’s feast day, in July and in September. Fishermen and sailors have a great veneration for the saint, dipping their sails three times in a salute as they pass by.
Pat Connolly, tall, red haired and very easy going, was a man of few words. He had a modest general supplies business with an extraordinary display of miscellaneous items hanging from the ceiling. His wife ran a small guesthouse. Erwan spent a few weeks there later on and was consequently able to improve his knowledge of spoken Irish. All that area around Carna was and still remains Irish speaking, with English being little used. It was more lobster that was caught there, rather than the crayfish that we were particularly seeking. Although, according to M.Samzun, it had been a good crayfish centre before the war. However, unlike lobster, crayfish prefer a habitat in deeper waters, further out at sea.
In Ballyconneely, on the other hand, crayfish were more plentiful. The rocky coast extends far to the west, towards Slyne Head where one of the most western lighthouses of the European coast is built. Its ray of light sweeps the coast between the mouth of the Shannon and Achill point. Paddy Duane lived by the small harbour of Bunowen, at the foot of a hill and castle ruins of the same name. He watched over our two floating tanks moored in the harbour, sheltered by the imposing slipway protecting it from the south west winds. He purchased and gathered the merchandise for us, just as Pat Connolly did in Carna. It is a beautiful place, with a white beach of fine sand facing fully south. In the distance, facing the East, stretched the beginning of Connemara’s south coast that opens out from Galway Bay, and the way to the Aran Islands. Paddy had a large family and was not short of help. Not far from his place was John O’Neill’s place of origin. Along the extensive sandy area that had formed in the shelter of Slyne Head’s long ridge of rock, horse races were held once a year, which we usually attended. Today there is a golf course in its place, and alongside it John has built a small guesthouse run by his wife and daughter.
We went to Bunowen quite frequently, as it was only forty kilometres from The Pond, on the far side of Clifden. Blacksod, which was one of the best centres for crayfish where the Samzun brothers had since before the war established a collection point, was much further away, nearly a hundred kilometres to the north of county Mayo. The journey took several hours. After Kylemore, the road ran alongside the deep fjord of Killary and passed through Leenane at the end of the fjord, a hamlet squeezed in between two steep hills that Samzun called the chamber pot of Ireland, as it rained there nearly all the time. From there we came to Westport and Newport, where we could either take the road to the north of Clew Bay through Mulranny, to continue on north towards Bangor Erris, or we could go to Crossmolina to reach Bangor before arriving in Belmullet and the peninsula, at the end of which is the little harbour of Blacksod.
The first road was the shortest but also the worst. It was however the more spectacular of the two. From Mulranny, we passed through a vast deserted expanse of peat bog, hills and rocks that M.Samzun had named the “Gobi Desert”, though he had never been to Siberia. We only came across the odd house. Flocks of sheep occupied roads and pathways as well as hills and moor that stretched to infinity, pink in summer with the heather in flower and russet as soon as autumn arrived. It is between Bangor and Crossmolina that the Erris Thermal Station has been established, fuelled by the turf extracted in abundance from the vast uncultivated and deserted stretches all around.
The Blacksod peninsula is practically an island: just like Achill Island, it is only attached to the mainland, by a bridge and a dyke, situated at the far end of Benmullet. Blacksod itself is of no particular interest: but if you take the trouble of climbing the small hill behind its few houses, you will discover Achill Head mountain rising over the sea, majestic, dominating the whole bay to the south, grey-blue, light blue or navy blue depending on the time of day. Further on, opposite Inniskea and small isolated islands poised on the ocean, the waves roll in regularly to die on the vast deserted beach of white sand. It was on Inishkea in the late middle Ages that a flourishing monastery was founded and there are still some traces left, also the ruins of a more recent chapel dedicated to St. Columcille. A little more to the north, another small island, Inish Glora, has the far more imposing ruins of a monastery founded in the middle of the 6th century by St. Brendan, the navigator.
On these two small islands, now uninhabited, fishermen still camp in the summer in order to be nearer their pots. The two Meenahan brothers used optic signals to communicate with their brother on the mainland, who was in charge of letting them know when we were due to arrive so they could be there in time to deliver their catch to us.
Our representative in Blacksod was old Heneghan who lived at the harbour. He ran a general dealer’s business, just like Pat Connolly in Mace, and also had the auxiliary post office ( Translator’s Note: According to Barbara Heneghan, it was not her ancestors but the Sweeney family who had the Post Office), and of course a pub. Two or three kilometres from there, on the way to Belmullet, was John Joe Gallagher’s pub with a similar business, who decided to also purchase crayfish. A sort of redheaded giant, he was less taciturn than Heneghan. He became an agent for the Ouhlen dynasty, Breton fish and seafood wholesalers from Roscoff and Plougasnou who rented Captain Trehiou’s old pond in Crookhaven, in county Cork, and suddenly decided to also compete with us in these isolated corners of the West Atlantic, though so far away from their base. It was only towards the end of the fifties that for a few years we forged closer business ties with them.
Heneghan and Gallagher were at daggers drawn; they fought over the clients and cordially detested each other. In addition to their business rivalry, there was an added political rivalry that led to even more bitterness between them. Heneghan’s father had fought with the Irish rebels in the fight for independence in the early twenties. Gallagher’s father at that time was, on the other hand, a member of the British army’s forces. Thirty years later, this gave them license to refer to each other as a “traitor’s son”. Their business methods were exactly the same. In general, the fishermen and their families ran up debts with them in winter, purchasing the essentials from them. They were given credit. It was one way of making them dependent, on condition of course that they paid their debt, which was not always the case. With the coming of the summer season, signalling the return to fishing activities, the fishermen settled their debts through debits on their earnings.
Before we set off on the road again, early in the evening, we were offered the customary tea, bread and butter. I stayed around for a while one day to observe how the system functioned. The pub was full to capacity. At one end of the shop, old Heneghan was paying in cash for the catches that had just been delivered to us. It was usually quite a large wad of bank notes as those of large denominations were rare. In the centre, the son, Tony, was serving drinks, which already lightened the wad of notes somewhat. At the other end of the counter, Mrs. Heneghan kept a record for each of her clients in the debit and credit book. Another stop with her lightened their debit. It was a closed circuit: the family being virtually the seller, the buyer and the banker all rolled into one. These small rural communities of the extreme west lived in a closed economy. They were far from any sizable centres, and communications at the time were much more difficult.
The days we did the Blacksod collection were long and hard and I soon came to dread them. Night had usually already fallen by the time we returned to The Pond, in spite of the exceptionally long days of summer in Ireland. It was imperative to unload the lorry straight away, sorting, counting and putting the shellfish in water as quickly as possible. The boxes were often very heavy as we carried them down the slipway. But these hard days did give me the opportunity of admiring untiringly the harsh countryside of barren mountains and vast moors, the harmony of Croagh Patrick, Killary’s deep fjord, the majesty of Achill, the deserted beaches of Mulranny and M.Samzun’s “Gobi desert”.
We returned from Blacksod one day, on Saint John’s night. The flames of the bonfires shone on the summits of the valleys and at the crossroads of the little towns and pathways. Their luminous points followed us to the pond, those of Cleggan, Bofin, Rossadilisk and our own of course, still burning brightly when we arrived.
Over the following years, the demand for more merchandise obliged me to seek out other and at times more distant purchase centres. In spite of the accrual in methods of fishing, the shellfish were becoming scarce, at the same time as their price increased. Purchasing methods were gradually changing. Thanks to Patrick Sweeney and Denis Gallagher, both teachers, anxious to increase the production and outlets for Achill Sound’s small flotilla, we were able to secure their clientele for a few years. I visited Achill quite frequently then, with its grandiose scenery, from Curran peninsula to its extreme mountainous point that can be clearly seen from our place, beyond Bofin’s low coastline. It was from Achill that the Irish painter Paul Henry, a native of Belfast, student in Paris and London, had drawn the best part of his inspiration. He wanted to paint “the soul of Ireland “. He found it in Dooagh, Keel, Keem, in Slievemore, the abandoned village in ruins on the hillside that dominates Dooagh, on the deserted beaches and bogs of the peninsula. He was also fascinated by Erris peninsula, one of the wildest and most deserted parts of Ireland. I passed through there on several occasions seeking new fishery centres.
Between Dooagh and Keem, on the mountainside, is the house that belonged to Captain Boycott, whose name became a new word in international vocabularies. It had become a Bed and Breakfast, not very popular at the time because of the owner, Freyer’s, eccentricity. He only welcomed those visitors whose look and manner he liked, and turned the others away without any explanation.
Denis Gallagher subsequently became a deputy to the parliament in Dublin. He was even Minister for a while until, tired of politics, he took voluntary retirement from it all.
Later on I was able to extend my purchasing to the Aran Islands and went there to set this up, thereafter taking delivery of their catch near Rossaveal, on the south Connemara coast. As for the Clare catch, I mainly took delivery of it from the little harbour of Roonagh, near Louisburgh. But the further away the purchasing centre was, the more we had to rely on second-hand purchases, making it often more expensive, not as fresh and of an inferior quality. Lucey, our competitor in the south, mainly covered Southern Galway and Kerry. He had been a hotelier in Waterville and had a pond in that locality. The Ouhlen from Roscoff and Primel covered Southern Kerry and County Cork’s western coast. Old Ricky Collins had remained as their local representative in charge of the pond at Crookhaven, after they had taken it over from Trehiou.
At the beginning of the season, I usually did a tour of our nearest fishing centres, from Galway to Blacksod. Later on, during off-season in autumn and winter I visited other centres to meet with competitors, buyers or clients. In Donegal, situated too far north, where the Gulf Stream had probably run out of strength and warmth, crayfish were few or non existent.
We were separated from Kerry in the south, another crayfish centre, by the steep cliffs along the county Clare coast, where only lobsters are caught. But it was on passing through this area that I came across the strange stone desert, still dotted with megalithic monuments, that constitutes the Burren. The scenery can only be described as resembling some countries of the Middle East. But whilst these are burnt and heated until red-hot by the sun, the Burren is swept by the Atlantic rain and wind. There is no soil, only rocks. Flowers and shrubs scarcely grow there except in the clefts. This was the region in Ireland that was most dreaded by Cromwell’s troops.
“It is impossible,” he would say, “to find a single tree on which to hang a man there, or a single river with enough water in which to drown him, nor even enough soil in which to bury him.”
Kerry is much more fertile and the countryside more pleasant. It could be reached by avoiding Limerick and taking the ferry that crossed the mouth of the Shannon from Carrigaholt to Tarbert. Here again fishing for crayfish was mainly carried out at the extreme western and south western parts of its different peninsulas, that of Dingle, of Bere and of Kenmare. Views that were often grandiose, deserted stretches of changing colours with the seasons, sea dotted with little islands that I can still see in my mind’s eye as I write this.
Once the children were back at school, Marie Madeleine sometimes accompanied me on these voyages of discovery. The coastal part of Kerry takes its place alongside Connemara for wild splendour. Off the coast of Waterville, the silhouette of the Skelligs rise up, from where it is said that Saint Patrick sent all the snakes of Ireland to drown, in order to protect his island from this harmful species, cause of the Creation’s misfortune. Off Dingle and Sleahead, the Blasket Islands, wild and rugged, once the sanctuary of the Irish language, are now abandoned. Except, however, by one of the Irish presidents, Charles Haughey, who purchased one of them, and where Francois Mitterand came to visit him recently. In Dingle, we could spend a few hours with Michael O’Sullivan, another shellfish buyer, who was a kind and gentle man, a little lost in the world of business. We carried on as far as Cork a few times, where we had the pleasure of meeting Raymond and Madeleine Delaporte again. They sometimes returned our visits in the summer.