Iascaireacht ar Leithinis Chorca Dhuibhne

The fishing industry of Dingle began amidst the suffering and starvation of the Great Famine. Prior to this, Dingle as a fishery district did not exist, and is not noted as such in the earlier annual reports of the Fishery Commissioners until c.1830. The famine, acting as a catalyst, established Dingle as a deep-water trawler port unique on Ireland's west coast, and this trawler tradition perpetuated into the present century.

The port of Dingle displayed many natural resources, a sheltered harbour, virgin fishing grounds in the bay and Atlantic Ocean, with relatively easy access across to Tralee, the county town, and beyond to Limerick, Cork and the Dublin market. These became more accessible as rail and road networks improved.

The district nurtured a maritime community along its coastal villages and especially at Dingle, where the traditions and values of a seafaring life were extolled and promoted. Yet for decades the average Irish fisherman could not successfully compete with their British counterparts, in equipment and skill. Over the century both peninsula and town populations continued to decline, thus denying the industry a new, more informed and youthful labour force, resulting in a decrease of County Kerry's professional fishing community as a whole.

Outside of Dingle port, open sail and row boats comprised the fishing fleet of a peninsula manifesting 100 miles of coastline in 17-1/2 parishes, yet only some 30 miles in total length. All parishes had a sea boundary and sustained fishing communities. Regular fish stocks and ensuing markets were precarious affairs, with the demersal fish (such as plaice, sole and turbot) consumed by the middle classes and gentry, while the coarser oily herring and mackerel, though principally the main catch, being a cheaper food source.

The industry on the southwest coast declined for some three decades in the post Famine era, with a resurgence in the 1870s. This was initiated by the Isle of Man fishermen, among others, in encountering mackerel shoals while fishing for herring off West Cork. Such fleets brought new fishing methods and gear on to the stage of a backward local pursuit. Migratory mackerel shoals necessitated the movement of such fishing fleets of nobby and hicky vessels around the southwest coast to the Shannon Estuary. Valentia, Dingle, Smerwick and Fenit were established as bases for these fleets in the season times of Spring and Autumn. Initially, the fresh iced mackerel were transported directly to Britain in fast steamers from such ports, but local entrepreneurial initiatives witnessed the establishment of coastal enterprises in the transporting and eventual curing the large mackerel catches along the west and southwest coasts in the latter decades of the century.

The Golden Age of the Irish Fishery had arrived. As in the context of Dingle, a Harbour Board was created, and ancillary maritime services such as a lighthouse and a new coastguard station were constituted. Government aid in the form of the Congested Districts Board supported and developed harbour and pier construction, the purchasing of larger and more reliable vessels and in the training of essential new skills to the fishermen. An urgency in Counties Cork and Kerry for more suitable landing places confirmed the erection of stronger and larger piers, many in remote regions of the area.

Fishing became a two-fold concern on the Dingle Peninsula, utilising a Manx mackerel nobby and a larger ex-Lowestoft drifter for trawling, as the season demanded. Some dozen families controlled the local fishery having vessels for both pursuits. At peak, the total fleet numbered some 20 craft of each, with canoes and curraghs used in the coastal villages. Prosperity and employment in Dingle's dozen or so curing sheds depended more on the yearly Autumn mackerel shoals than on the Spring catches.

The installation of the Dingle & Tralee Light Railway enhanced the possibilities of creating and expanding overseas markets. Though the service itself was inept and unreliable, large consignments of fresh, canned and cured fish were transported out of the peninsula in its lifetime, enhancing the brand names and market potential of the local produce in Great Britain, Europe, and especially of cured mackerel in the United States of America. The depravations of World War One and the collapse of the native American mackerel trade prolonged this period of prosperity until 1919, when its inevitable demise compelled many casual labourers, both men and women, to emigrate to these same countries.

The industry at Dingle underwent a depressive period, despite the efforts of the newly constituted Irish Sea Fisheries Association and its successor, An Bord Iascaigh Mhara. Fluctuations in the yields of fish saw Valentia supersede Dingle as the main mackerel port on the southwest. The traditional fisheries of herring and mackerel and their relevant fishing craft began to wane in the post World War Two era, with most of the demersal fish now being captured by trawlers, many of whom were grant aided and constructed in United Kingdom shipyards.

photo left:

At Dingle, in the early 1950s, such vessels instigated a new modernised inshore fleet, later supplemented by craft from the adjacent B.I.M. boatyard facility. Such a process has been ongoing over the past four decades, though the closure of this lone boatyard obliges vessels presently to travel to Valentia or Castletownbeare yards for urgent repairs. The position is tenuous in a fishery port rated fifth nationally in 1993.

A benevolent government and political benefactor enabled the construction of a new east pier and marina in Dingle in the late 1980s, though fishermen claim they were not consulted enough on the development plan and so are dissatisfied presently with its eventual outcome. Dingle's problems were of a functional nature more so than of natural resources, markets or manpower in the industry. Its Harbour Commissioners and interested local economic parties campaigned since the latter years of the 19th Century for continuous harbour dredging and an extending and widening of the landing pier. Paltry renovations occurred in the early years of the Irish Free State (1927-1930) and again in 1973, both contributing little to the economic life of the port.

Though Dingle Harbour is endowed with excellent shelter and area, large sandbanks arise on either side of the "roads" or narrow channel to the pier. Boats had to leave the fishing grounds early so that they could land their fish before low tide at the quay.

The 1960s beheld the creation of the Dingle Fishermen's Co-operative which operated successfully and with zeal for some dozen years, in conjunction with a few Belgian freezing plants based near Dingle and Valentia. Landings and profits increased, yet the Co-op had no fast freezing facility, hindering growth in this area. Internal mismanagement and political favouritism led to its demise in the mid 1970s, compelling skippers to sell their produce to a wider circle of buyers, who send trucks to the port at present. Emanating from this collapse, private enterprise aided by State and European Union funds now control 70% of all landings, giving seasonal employment to some 200 workers with a similar number in the fleet, contrasting with the pre-Famine workforce employed in the Dingle district fishery of 1846. The industry has never generated the envisaged thousands of on-shore processing positions promised by successive governments. By 1959, there were 6,100 fishermen in Éire, of which 1,600 were classified as being professional fishermen.

The Dingle fleet at present constitutes an assortment of many vessel types and uses, with an emphasis in recent decades on maritime tourism. This tourism has been supported by the development of a yachting marina and the Ocean World aquarium complex which opened at Easter 1996. Yet the Dingle pier extension and ice plant remain incomplete, to the fishing community's anger, and have lain in abeyance for four years. The traditional precedence of fishing as a lucrative and worthwhile profession has also altered in the area, with some crews now totally comprised of rural folk, while townsmen pursue other occupations. Such shortages have compelled several Irish skippers to hire all Spanish crews to fish their vessels out of Dingle port at present. This is in stark contrast to the 54,119 men engaged in the Irish Fishery in 1836, which had dramatically fallen to 2,772 by 1951. With a home market consumption of 8.2 kilos per head in 1993, Ireland still lags behind other European maritime nations (for example, Spanish consumption per head is almost four times that of Ireland, where fish as a major food source is concerned).

Dingle port has a role to play in the Irish fishing industry of the future, though this role has not been politically nor economically outlined or defined.

Thanks to Daniel Graham,
a post-graduate student in the Dept. of Modern History
at Trinity College Dublin, for contributing this article.


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