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18 June 2014
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© courtesy of Bill Quinn
County Down fishing

Ireland occupies a position of rare advantage in relation to the fertile fishing grounds of the North Atlantic. Around her coast, opportunities existed many different types of fishery pursuit, including land-based operations involving the capture of crabs and lobsters; land and seafisheries for shellfish and molluscs, particularly oysters and mussels; seasonal pelagic fishing for migratory species such as herring and mackerel.

In warmer southern waters, pilchards; and all-year-round boat fishing for demersal species of round and flat fish, such as cod, hake, whiting, plaice and sole, are the norm.

Evidence from prehistoric kitchen middens (a study into the remains of shells) underlines the major importance of the harvest of sea and shore in the survival of Ireland's earliest settlers, while the status accorded to fishermen in early Irish laws and institutions, the Norse origin of Irish words pertaining to types of fish, boats and fishing lines, Medieval descriptions of whale fishing and Gaelic chronicles of cod fisheries indicate the establishment and development over centuries of specialised fishing activity.

From at least the 14th Century, Irish boats, merchants and mariners were busy supplying demand for fish and fish products throughout the British Isles and Europe. Both this trade and the enterprises which supported it grew apace during the 15th and 16th Centuries to make commercial seafishing one of the key sectors of the Irish economy.

It was during this period that Ardglass in Co. Down rose to prominence as a fishing station, a reputation that it still maintains. However, fishing was important all along the County Down coast, a region which, with its long seaboard and soft, harbour-dotted shoreline, its three sea loughs looking out to the Irish Sea, a shallow depression whose richness was not until recently challenged by pollution and overfishing, its ease of communication by sea with the rest of Ireland, the British mainland, Continental Europe and the Americas, and its relatively prosperous, numerous and urbanised population, was much more favoured in terms of fishery pursuit and development than many other parts of Ireland.

Words: Dr. Vivienne Pollock, Ulster Museum

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