Sea Fishing & Oyster Beds
Be not sparing, leave off swearing,
Buy my herring, buy my herring, buy my herring,
Fresh from Malahide, better ne'er was try'd.
Come eat 'em with pure fresh butter and mustard,
Their bellies are soft and white as custard,
Come, sixpence a dozen to get me some bread,
Or like my own herrings I too shall be dead.
Supposedly by Dean Swift, 1746
There are port records in Chester and Bristol for the 15th century mentioning Malahide fishermen landing herring and whitefish and taking cargoes of salt home for fish preservation.
Malahide was an important supplier of fish to the Dublin market. In the course of putting down the 1641 Rebellion the lords justice sent the Duke of Ormond to Fingal with instructions to lay waste the towns and villages. He placed a garrison in Malahide but wrote to his masters suggesting this would not be wise in respect of the fishing towns and villages. They responded, agreeing that: “as the burning of the fisher houses may prejudice the market at Dublin we think fit your Lordship should forbear burning them”.
In August, 1785, the Irish House of Commons received a petition stating that the fishermen of Baldoyle, Malahide and Howth were greatly distressed by a clause in the 1785 Revenue act prohibiting them from fishing unless their vessels were square rigged and fitted with standing boldspits (stet) and paying relief.
The fishing was of two distinct types – pelagic such as cod and herring and shellfish, principally oysters. Lieut. Josef Archer, in his Statistical Survey of the County Dublin, (Dublin, 1801) states that there were three wherries fishing out of Malahide:
"These wherries carry each seven or eight men, and receive a parliamentary bounty of 20 shillings a ton. The hands are all employed on shares, two of which go to the owner of the wherry. Those, therefore which carry eight hands are divided into ten shares. In the season they catch, cod, ling, haddock, ray, herrings, etc. They generally complain that the parliamentary bounty is too small at present, on account of the great rise of iron, hemp and other articles in their line."
The census of 1831 showed a population of 1255 persons in Malahide. 237 families living in 217 habitable houses were mostly living by fishing. The ratio of Catholics to Protestants was 4:1.
In December 1837, The Times, of London, carried abridged details from the “Report of the Commissioners of Enquiry into the State of the Sea Fisheries in Ireland”. It appears that the bounty referred to above by Archer had ceased by this
ime and the fishing was in a state of severe decline. Boat-building and the manufacture of lines and nets had transferred to the Isle of Man where Baltic timber was exempt from duty. No new boats had been built in the Fingal fishing villages since 1820, the number of boats had declined drastically, the working boats were in poor condition, over-manned and had not adopted the ‘winch-windlass’ which had permitted much smaller crew numbers on English boats.
"The wherries of Malahide are in a very bad condition, but the fishing gear seems good… All the fishermen hire potato land from the farmer, for which they pay from 8l. 8s. to 12l. per annum… At Malahide the earnings of the fishermen are sometimes as low as 2s. 6d. per week. All classes indulge in ardent spirits."
In submissions to a Select Committee to Enquire into Coast and Deep Sea Fisheries of Ireland in 1867 it was stated that:
"a pier at Malahide was greatly wanted as three fishing vessels had been lost for want of one within the last few years."
Another contributor said there is ”very little fishing now at Malahide”. Meantime, there was a big increase at Howth with cutters for trawling and luggers for herring fishing.
Herring continued to be important to the small industry at Malahide but the catches declined drastically in the late 19th century. However, they were never on the scale of Howth where over 400 boats landed an incredible 58m herring in 1864. By 1878, no fewer than 985 boats from up and down the coast had congregated in Howth for the herring season.
During the following 15 to 20 years the fishing declined rapidly and drastically due both to the fickleness of the herring and over fishing.
Malahide was better known for its cod fishery. The local fleet of yawls ranged up and down the Irish Sea using a method known as long lining. A very long line, with many hooks set at intervals and baited principally with whelks, was towed slowly behind the boat. Some yawls had holds which allowed the sea-water to swish through thus keeping the catch fresh. They were open boats with a mainmast fairly far forward and a small mizzen mast stepped close to the transom. They could be rowed or sailed. They were ballasted with sacks of stones or shingle which could be easily heaved over the side to lighten ship when the need arose.
Cod, which are a relatively large fish, were prized not just for eating but also for the oil which could be extracted from the livers. The health benefits of taking vitamin-rich cod liver oil were well recognised even in the 19th century. So well known were Malahide cod that there was a popular expression - “standing there open mouthed like a Malahide cod”. Most of the catch was likely sold fresh in the Dublin market and carts carrying fish were allowed toll-free passage on the Malahide Turnpike. Some would also have been dried and salted for eating out of season or for provisioning ships and armies using salt from Cheshire as mentioned above or from the local salt works near The Green.
The 36 foot yawl Anne of Malahide tragically capsized off the bar in 1828. The four crew were lost but it appears only one body was recovered. As was common in those days, the event was commemorated in a ballad entitled ‘The Malahide Fisherman’ supposedly written by a teacher in St. Andrew’s School. It recorded the tragedy in rather colourful language, one of the nine verses of which goes as follows:
On the nineteenth in the morning, as bright Phoebus was adorning,
These lads they were returning all o’er the ebbing tide,
And their sails and oars were handling, for to reach the place of landing,
When Death did soon trepan them, on the Bar of Malahide.
The inscribed tombstone of 33-year old Michael Gaffney, erected by his wife Rose, is to be seen in the nave of Malahide Abbey close to Malahide Castle. The inscription reads:
Gloria in Excelsio Deo
Erected by Rose Gaffney of Malahide
In memory of her beloved husband
who was drowned in this Harbour of Malahide
The 14th Nov 1828 aged 33 years.
The Anne, which was built in 1809, was apparently salvaged and remained in the Gaffney family. Her owner died at sea in 1833 and the skipper, John Gaffney, died in 1864. She was officially registered in June 1845, presumably to assist in making a compensation claim from the Dublin-Drogheda Railway Company for damage to fishing rights caused by the crossing of the estuary by the newly built railway. The boat was described as two -masted clinker built with a counter stern and wherry rigged. She did not have a figurehead. She measured almost 37 feet long, 12½ feet wide and a depth in the hold of just over 9 feet. On 17 January 1854 John Gaffney made a declaration to the effect that he was:
" the owner of 24 shares and that the owner of 48 shares in the ship on or about the 14 July 1833 had been drowned at sea and dying intestate and I do declare that the whole of the said fishing boat is not above forty pounds (£40) in value. 19th Day of Jan. 1854 signed X his mark. John Gaffney. "
Another tragedy occurred in 1862 as reported in the Freeman's Journal:
"FATAL ACCIDENT AT MALAHIDE
On Friday morning, the 14th March four fishermen were capsized off the bar at Malahide, and three of them were drowned within hail of their own homes. Two of the number, named Farrell, were the father and eldest son of one family, and leave behind them a widow with five orphans, the eldest of whom is only twelve, the youngest being but two years of age. The other man Hatch, is mourned by a widowed mother of whom he was the only support. The survivor, Jones, has lost the boat and tackle, which were the only means of livelihood for himself and a large family.
A subscription has been set on foot to provide some relief for the helpless widow Farrell and her orphans, and to assist the others in proportion to the exigency of their wants.
Subscriptions from the charitably disposed will be thankfully acknowledged by one of the following gentlemen, who will vouch the truth of the foregoing statement, as well as the good character and claims to sympathy of the persons on whose behalf this appeal is made:— Lord Talbot de Malahide, Malahide Castle, Rev. Thomas Kieran, P.P. Swords; Rev T. T. King, Donaghmeade, Raheny; F. W. Cusack, Esq., Malahide, H. A. Dillon, Esq., 79, Dame-street, Dublin; H. Lloyd, M.D., Malahide; R. Stanistreet, M.D., Malahide."
There followed a list of subscriptions already received, mostly in the sum of £1.
Oysters were cultivated at several points along the Dublin coast including Sutton where Lord Howth seeded the beds with various varieties. However, none matched the ancient beds in the Malahide estuary in the vicinity of the present railway viaduct. In 1733 the then lord of the manor of Malahide, Richard Talbot, appears to have leased The Tavern in Malahide along with the oyster beds to a Nicholas Edwards. However, when the latter fell into arrears with his rent Talbot re-possessed the properties in 1740 where upon Edwards sued Talbot. The case was heard in Dublin and Talbot’s steward, Edmond Totterick, gave evidence to the effect that Edwards had “run away from Malahide” and left the oyster beds in a very bad condition and took no care of them for three years and owed considerable arrears of rent. He said Talbot was ill and confined to his room for a considerable time. He was not able to travel to Dublin but he believed he may be able to travel by boat in three weeks time. The case was adjourned and the eventual outcome is not known to the author.
The beds are clearly marked on John Roque’s map of 1760. In an area of approximately two acres great numbers of the large native European flat or green finned oysters were harvested annually, except during the breeding season from 15 May to 4 August. The level of the water at low tide made this a relatively easy task. A Talbot estate map of 1851 shows a ‘car track’ meandering out from the bottom of Old Street to the beds. This track ran about 50 metres on the seaward side of the railway embankment. Along with all the fishing rights in the estuary, the oyster fishery was the property of the Manor of Malahide. John Rutty (1697–1775), a Dublin Quaker physician and naturalist wrote:
"The third Bed, which is also supplied by nature, does not require to be renewed as the artificial is the Malahide Oyster, which is partly green-finned and reckoned very delicious."
This is thought to be a reference to the fact that other Dublin oyster fisheries did not naturally replenish themselves and had to be stocked with seed from elsewhere. John Dunton, a London bookseller and publisher, wrote about his walks in Ireland in his publication A Merry Ramble to the Wild Irish in 1698 and mentioned a ramble to Malahide “to eat oysters where they may be dredged out of the sea almost at anytime”. Dunton stayed in Ireland for a year and in 1699 in The Dublin Scuffle wrote: “Sometimes I would for my diversion ride out a few miles either to Santry, Swords or Malahide, a place as eminent as Billingsgate for people going to eat oysters there.”
Another commentator, Brabazon, mentions that oysters from Arklow were laid down on the Malahide bed, which " dried out at the last ebb and the oysters were picked off by persons employed by the lessee of the bed and sent to market," He continued:
"These beds are taken great care of, they are the property of Lord Talbot de Malahide, and are let on lease at one hundred a year from them. The lessee has a profit of a hundred and fifty or two hundred a year from them."
In October, 1827 the following advertisement appeared in the Freeman’s Journal:
"William Smyth begs leave to return his most grateful thanks to his Friends and the Public for the kind support he has received during the last six years since he became Proprietor of the Malahide Oyster Beds, and assures them, that as long as he continues proprietor, it shall be his constant endeavour to have them well supplied with the Purest and Best Oysters that are sold in the City.
The Malahide Beds, lying Ten Miles North of Dublin, are entirely beyond the reach of the Liffey water, which carries the nuisance of the City into the Channel, and have no connection whatever with any of the Oyster Beds near the City, which cannot possess the like advantage."
However, not all lessees farmed the beds responsibly and by 1838 the Malahide green-finned oysters were no longer self sustaining and required constant replenishing but continued to supply the city of Dublin with oysters for some time.
The rental from leasing the beds was an important source of income and food to the Malahide Estate. A number of these leases survive among the Talbot Estate papers including an indenture dated 1 May 1835 whereby Richard Talbot let to Henry Murphy, John Gaffney, the elder, and John Gaffney, the younger, the oyster beds for a yearly rent of £110-15 -4½ and “five thousand marketable oysters to be delivered in such quantities and at such times as he may demand or require at the oyster beds under penalty of Fifty pounds in any year that the same shall not be supplied”.
The aforementioned Murphy seems to have been a flamboyant character if he is to be judged by his advertisement in the Freeman's Journal on October 4, 1837.
Our good Citizens, last week, were divided in their admiration between the Lord Mayor's Show and the Grand Procession of the celebrated Malahide Oysters. The latter, in our humble opinion, bore away the palm. They came into the City in a line of twenty-five vehicles, the horses ornamented with laurel boughs, and preceded by music.
Not less than FIFTY THOUSAND of these delicious Oysters were thus brought to the impatient Citizens.
From this and many other signs of public preference, we fear that the spirited Proprietors of these valuable Beds,
Messrs. MURPHY and GAFFNEY,
will scarcely be able to satisfy the extraordinary demand, although at the commencement of the Oyster season, about a month hence, their Stock at Malahide consisted of TWO MILLIONS of Oysters."
A year later the Malahide oysters were again being promoted:
"MALAHIDE OYSTERS NOTICE
Messrs Murphy and Gaffney, Proprietors of the Malahide Oyster Beds, from the extraordinary and increasing demand for the celebrated Oysters, find it absolutely necessary to caution the Public against purchasing inferior oysters which are daily imposed on them under the name of Malahide. Although nothing can prove more clearly their great superiority over all others than this discreditable attempt, those who desire to consult their health by eating the GENUINE Malahide Oysters must be on their guard. For this purpose a correct list of those persons who are alone authorised to sell them in this City may be had on application at the Bar of the
Albion Hotel & Tavern
Dame Court (off Dame Street)
Where all Orders, Wholesale and Retail, are punctually attended to.
N.B. The Malahide Oysters are brought within 2 hours from the Sea to Dublin."
The building of the railway seems to have had a deleterious effect on this fishery – there were no environmental impact studies in those days. The leaseholder in 1864, John Gaffney made the following informative statement, presumably in furtherance of a claim for compensation or reduction in rent:
CULTURE of BEDS at MALAHIDE.—STATEMENT made by Mr. J. GAFFNEY.
Mr. John Gaffney, of Malahide, rents the ground for his oyster layings from the Lord Talbot de Malahide. He, his father, and his grandfather, held the beds for more than a century back under the Talbot family, formerly at a rent of £110; but since the railway cut them across, at sixty guineas. The whole of the ground at present in his occupancy is about twenty acres, of which about ten are stocked with oysters. The railway has done very considerable injury, by causing an accumulation of mud, as well as by cutting off nearly ten acres of the original beds.
He is obliged to stock the banks every year. The cost of stocking with a million of oysters used formerly be about £500, but for the last three years the cost has been progressively increasing. Last year it cost £900; the year before, £1,100. The stock is generally brought by the Arklow men from the "Ballivalden" and other banks, on the Wicklow and Wexford shores; the size of the oysters varies from 2½ to 4 inches. They are never allowed to remain on the beds more than twelve months, but generally six months. The stocking commences in March, and many of them are taken up in the following September. Some of them, during the summer months, shed the spat, and the small oysters falling on a stone or old shell are visible; but he fears that the stock never has increased from the spat, though he thinks that the oysters raised in March and April and May do not shed their spat, in consequence of being disturbed. Small oysters, removed from their natural beds, will not improve on artificial layings; but sometimes finds that small oysters are adhering to the large one, which he thinks must have been the produce of the summer spat. Those he invariably removes from the old shells, and they become some of the best oysters.
The very high prices lately, he attributes to the great demand from France and England for the small oysters. The price last season was 5s. the flour barrel, having from 600 to 700, according to size. The price at the beds, to the retailers, is 25s. per thousand or 2s. 6d. per hundred.
They cull the " clappers" or dead oysters twice in the year, and are well satisfied if they have of live oysters eight out of ten. His ground was very favourably circumstanced till the railway was made, but the mud is since increasing.
Their former value is evidenced by the very large compensation payment of £7,000 to Lord Talbot by the railway company. Ironically, mussels are again thriving in the estuary due to the waters being enriched by agricultural run-off and human effluent. For these reasons they are unsuitable for human consumption but provide a significant food source for the birdlife. About 1885, a Major Hayes attempted to revive the culture of oysters. As late as 1903, American oysters along with stock from Carlingford and Tralee were being laid down. However, these efforts failed partly due to the impact of the railway viaduct and because of pollution caused by coal dust from unloading colliers and more importantly by a growing sewage problem.
Dr. G.A. Little, who decamped with his family from Rathgar to ‘Ormiston’ on Church Road each August in the early part of the last century, quotes a fish seller’s cry in his essay “About Malahide”:
Oysters, oysters, Sir, said she,
If you want oysters buy them from me;
Two for a penny, but three I'll give thee
If you’ll buy my Malahide oysters.
Oysters, oysters fresh and good,
As ever came from an ocean flood,
They'll nourish your heart, cherish your blood.
Come buy my Malahide oysters.
There were also extensive mussel beds in the estuary which were a useful source of food and employment. However, the construction of the railway in the early 1840s led to their decline also.