Organisation : Waterford County Museum
Article Title : Desperate Haven - The Famine in Dungarvan
Page Title : The Fishing Industry In The Dungarvan Union
Page Number : 20
Publication Date : 08 February 2011
Expiry Date : Never Expires
Category : Irish Famine 1845 - 1852

Fishing In The Dungarvan Union
Dungarvan had been a notable fishing town for centuries exporting fish throughout the British Isles and to the Continent. The industry remained prosperous until 1830 when the bounties (government loans for repair and of boats and equipment) were withdrawn. The Commissioners on Irish Fisheries report of 1836 noted that the withdrawal of the bounties had resulted in the decline of the fisheries. Concerning Dungarvan the report noted that the industry 'brought great wealth into the town and very much increased the buildings and other improvements of the town.'

At Abbeyside...most of the fishermen occupy small allotments of land and are comparatively thriving, prosperous and industrious. Their boats generally well found and themselves and families well clothed. They rarely ever want food, as the the portions of land which they hold, generally gives them an abundance, and the best moral effects are produced by constant employment and the want of time to go to the public house. On the western side (Dungarvan town) the fishermen have comfortable houses built for them by the Duke of Devonshire and are subject to only a nominal rent, but they are huddled up into a dense community and have no land, nor can they obtain it...They are therefore solely dependent on the market for food, always unemployed when not at sea, liable to idle improvident and intemperate habits, often starving and rarely above want. The materials for their boats bad, and as well as their clothes and bed clothes often in pawn. [1]

Andrew Carbery, [2] a Dungarvan merchant, told the Commissioners that there were about 70 half-decked vessels in the town, but that only one third were sea-worthy. He also informed them that 2,300 people were employed in various aspects of the fishing industry. Carbery was an important supporter of the Dungarvan fishermen. The Waterford Freeman of 21 December 1846 praised his work in helping the poor of the town, noting that he had obtained a loan of £1,000 to employ the fishermen in breaking stones.

In coastal districts fish, usually herring, was eaten along with potatoes. The severe weather conditions of 1845/46 prevented the fishermen going to sea, particularly in boats which were in poor repair. Many fishermen had pawned their gear in the hope of recovering it the following year. Boats, oars, etc., were burned for fuel. As a result the supply of fish became scarce and prices went up, putting it out of the reach of the poor. Other sea foods were accessible at low tide such as limpets and seaweeds, but supplies did not last long with the large numbers picking them.

The Waterford Freeman reported in March 1847 that people were picking Doolamaun (seaweed) on the beach in Dungarvan and eating it raw.

In May 1847 the local military were praised for their work in assisting the Dungarvan fishermen. Major Gordon of the 47th Regiment (The Loyal North Lancashire Regiment) gave ten shillings to the crew of each fishing boat to enable them to go to sea. [3]

In June 1848 a petition concerning the Dungarvan Bay Fishery, signed by 2,310 people, was sent to the House of Commons. Their demands included: the passing of a law for granting a tonnage and production bounty and loan fund, new buoys for the harbour to protect shipping and the banning of trawl and trammel nets. It was remarked that the Waterford boats did 'incalculable injury to that valuable class - the hook and hand line fishermen of 90 port hookers. This evil is inflicted on a numerous body of mariners, about 1,530 persons in all, with their families forming a population of 9,000.' [4]

In November William Edwards of Helvick Fishing Station remarked that: 'the fishermen are literally starving, not for the want of fish, but for want of proper fishing boats and fishing tackle, fit for deep water.' He noted that their boats were too small, without sails or compass. He praised the work of the Society of Friends: 'they have given a good help to the people here; the one half of the people would have been in their graves had they not looked upon them in their misery.' [5]

Around this period it was reported that Lord Stuart de Decies had spent almost £2,000 in building a dock at Helvick and a curing house. A meeting of landlords and ratepayers was held to approve an increase in the rates to enable a new pier to be constructed at Ballinagoul. [6]

In January 1849 the Board of Guardians received a petition from the fishermen of Dungarvan looking for assistance from the Poor Law Commissioners. There are few references to the fishermen in the Dungarvan Union Minute Books. It appears that they were forced to enter the Workhouse for the winter months.

The Munster Citizen of 1852 [7] carried a report of a Dungarvan fisherman, Patrick Whelan, who had applied for admission to the Workhouse: 'I struggled and starved to keep myself out of the poor-house all the winter - I even pledged my nets, so that I cannot earn a penny now.'

In 1861 the Commissioners noted that 'there has grown up on the opposite shore of the bay, at Ring, a prosperous little fishing village community which promises to rival Dungarvan at its best days.'

In 1843 there was an average of 6 to 8 men fishing from each of the Dungarvan boats, but by 1864 it was down to five. In 1865 the Commissioners noted that the Dungarvan fishermen were mostly composed of young boys and old men, the latter of whom went to the Workhouse in winter. In contrast the Ring fishermen were described as young and able-bodied. [8]

The Ring Fishermen 
List Of Fishermen In Ring And Ballinagoul Assisted By The Society Of Friends In 1848

The population of Ring in 1848 was about 3,000, most of whom were employed in the fishing industry. Many of them also had a small area of land set with potatoes.

The Ring fishermen were also badly affected by the Famine but their situation changed dramatically due to the intervention of the Society of Friends and the local Church of Ireland vicar, the Rev. James Alcock (1805-1893). Alcock [9] was sent to Ring in the mid 1830s and lodged at Seaview House, Rathnameneenagh, the home of a local Catholic landlord, Henry A. Fitzgerald. The Friends project with the Ring Fishermen was inspired by a similar successful one at the Claddagh in Galway.
In 1846 the Rev. Alcock contacted the Auxiliary Relief Committee of the Society of Friends in Waterford to obtain aid for the Ring fishermen. Joshua W. Strangman was appointed to organise the aid along with the Rev. Alcock. Weekly supplies of meal were given to the fishermen and they were also given loans ranging from 10 shillings to £3 for repair of their boats and for purchasing gear. By 1847 the crews of 49 boats were able to support their families.

By April 1848 it was reported that there was no destitution in the area and that the fishermen were 'provided by sufficient supply of fishing gear for their immediate wants and therefore are constantly employed whenever fishing permits.' [10] The Society of Friends also contributed £1,350 towards the construction of a pier at Ballinagoul in July 1848. They also introduced new fishing methods and supplied the fishermen with special clothing to enable them to fish in all weathers. In contrast to this the Dungarvan men were still fishing with hand lines and entered the Workhouse for the winter.

In September 1849 Alcock sent a letter to the Society of Friends in which he remarked: 'While the surrounding hills were covered by a dense mass of disaffection and threats were used to force these honest and industrious people to join their ranks, not a single man left his station, though the headquarters of the insurgents were visible from their dwellings.' [11]

In December it was noted that 30,000 fish valued at £500 were caught at Ring involving 45 boats. In the same month it was said that there were no paupers in Ring: 'Whilst misery and starvation prevail in the surrounding parts of the Union; the fishermen's houses, furniture and clothing are all most comfortable; the committee (Society of Friends) having given prizes of aprons for the best kept cottages.' [12]

Joshua Strangman recorded an account of a visit to Ballinagoul in early December 1848. He noted that a number of fishermen wore Guernsey shirts which had been given as 'rewards' the previous year. Others wore jackets of a light blue colour which had been given 'as premiums to the most enterprising and deserving', these they called their 'Coats of Merit.' Strangman also commented on the progress of work on the new pier at Ballinagoul. It was constructed of local stone and 60 men were employed in the construction. Their wages had been reduced from 1/- to 10d. a day. 'We entered some of the cottages and were pleased to find the people comfortably off as regards both clothing and furniture. We also visited the curing house at Helvick and found the two Scotchmen, Edwards and Lister, to be shrewd intelligent men. The two model boats we are building there are in a forward state and are expected to be launched early in the next month.' [13]

Alcock published an account of his work in Ring during the Famine titled - Facts from the Fisheries in Four Quarterly Reports from the Ring District, Co. Waterford. It was published by the Society of Friends in 1848. This publication was reviewed in the Cork Examiner: 'It was at a period when distress the most appalling swept the poor population of Ring...that enquiry was directed by the agent of that body (Friends) to the Rev. Mr. to the best mode of assisting the fishermen.' Loans from £1 to £3 were given to the fishermen 'with an abatement for their punctual repayment.' They were also given a small quantity of meal and clothing. The article pointed out the success of the experiment. The crew of one boat obtained a loan of £3 with which they purchased a sweep net. Their first catch included 4,000 mackerel worth £10. Another man bought herring nets and after two days he had caught £15 worth of fish, enough, it was stated to enable him to buy the fee simple of his house. 'We find that in one hamlet there were last year, 100 families in distress, while there are not now more than seven.' It was remarked that the loans had enabled 230 heads of families to support themselves. Alcock called for the construction of a pier: 'often have I stood watching them, after a night of excessive labour and hardship, pushing up their boats against a steep bank, while their backs were literally streaming with blood from the exertions.' The report also noted that the fishermen had constructed 'a rude breakwater of loose stones piled together.' The articleconcluded by stating that the loans had recently been revived on a larger scale. [14]
The third Quarterly Report, dated 13 April 1848, describes the Helvick curing house and other buildings as follows:

The Helvick Curing House, which is a private speculation, has been recently erected by Lord Stuart de Decies, within a very short distance of the little dock or basin, which his Lordship, who has considerable property in the neighbourhood, caused to be constructed at Helvick for the benefit of his numerous tenantry. The situation is admirably selected as from its proximity to the fishing ground, the boats can approach it at any period of the tide, and having landed their fish, return again to the Banks without loss of time. It is rented by two Scotchmen of considerable experience in the curing of fish, and to them is the entire management consigned. The whole concern forms a kind of parallelogram, about seventy yards in length, but owing to an angle in one of the walls, it is fifty-three wide at one extremity, and thirty-two feet at the other. It is surrounded by a wall eleven feet high.

The Smoking House, which is raised nine feet above the level of the wall, occupies one end of the enclosure, and is thirty-two feet by fourteen, and 20 feet high. It is divided into three apartments of twelve, twelve, and eight feet by fourteen; and is capable of smoking 100 barrels of herrings at a time. Each of the apartments is again sub-divided (the two former into three compartments each, the latter into two) by the erection of standards or beams, about four inches square, reaching from the floor to the roof; to these, laths are appended, at an interval of fourteen inches between each, on which the rods rest, which support the fish. Thus we have three distinct apartments or chambers for smoking, which may be used separately or together, according to the quantity of fish, and each sub-divided into compartments four feet in front by fourteen. It should be observed that the lowest tier of rods, on which the fish are supported, must be at least seven feet from the floor, otherwise the fish would be materially injured by the fire from too close contact. There are usually four fires in each chamber, during the process of smoking, which continues until the fish assumes a sufficiently high colour. The wood used as fuel is generally oak, ash, birch, elm, etc., but pine-wood, larch, or bog fir, imparts a bitter taste to the fish and is not therefore approved of. Turf may be used with the fire-wood but it creates too much dust.

Opposite the smoking house at the further extremity of the yard stands a large shed, 53 feet long, covered with tiles, which is used as a store house for the cured fish, salt, etc., and on either side of the yard are smaller sheds. Here are the salting houses, office, cooper's work-shop, lumber rooms for empty barrels, etc., etc., a stream of fresh water runs through the yard, and on the Northern side, a wooden stage has been constructed reaching to low water mark, which is a great convenience in unloading the boats.
The same report also conveys the following account:

'It affords me the greatest satisfaction to be able to state that a most remarkable change for the better has taken place in the condition of our fishermen, within the last six months...all are beginning once more to look cheerful, robust and comfortable. A very visible improvement is, I say, now observable among the fishermen. Their houses have been all newly thatched and the whitewashed walls, and neatly sanded floors give an appearance of cleanliness and comfort to those humble dwellings.'

The Rev. Alcock died at Seaview House on 23 March 1893 age 88. A monument was later erected over his grave in St. Nicholas's cemetery with the following inscription:-

The Rev. Alcock A.M. who for 60 years was the faithful and zealous vicar of this parish for the above period, during the scourge of the Famine and Cholera he proved himself the generous friend, the wise guide and councillor of the sick, distressed and afflicted of all classes and creeds. As he lived he died the humble Christian respected and lamented by a large circle on March 23 1893. Aged 88 years.


  1. Report of the Irish Fisheries 1836, H.C. 1837, xxii, pxi.
  2. When Carbery died in June 1866 the Board of Guardians passed a vote of sympathy to his wife and particularly referred to his work in assisting the fishermen.
  3. Cork Examiner, 10 May 1847.
  4. Cork Examiner, 28 June 1848.
  5. Cork Examiner, 17 November 1848.
  6. Cork Examiner, 22 November 1848.
  7. The Munster Citizen, 1 May 1852.
  8. Donoghue, Thomas A., The Development of the Ring Fishing Industry 1846 - 64, Decies XVI, January 1981, pp. 3-14.
  9. The Rev. James Alcock was born in Waterford in 1805 the son of William Alcock. James entered Trinity College, Dublin in 1822. He was lecturer at St. Olave's in Waterford from 1829 to 1836.
  10. Donoghue, op cit., p.7.
  11. Cork Examiner, 18 December 1848.
  12. ibid.
  13. Johnson, Joan,  Quaker Relief  in Waterford during the Famine, Decies No. 51. 1995. See also Joan Johnson, 'The Quaker Relief effort in Waterford', in Brady and Cowman eds., The Famine in Waterford 1845 - 1850. pp.
  14. Cork Examiner, 8 March 1848


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