A voyage of discovery into Cork sea-faring

Colette Sheridan reviews Marc O'Sullivan Vallig's 'People of the Sea: A Maritime History of Beara'. 
A voyage of discovery into Cork sea-faring

Left to Right: Jim O’Sullivan (Beara Tourism), Robin Barnett (British Ambassador to Ireland), Paul Smithwick (Founder, Sullivan’s Ale), Larry Murphy (owner and skipper of the Menhaden), and Marc O’Sullivan Vallig (author) at the launch of People of the Sea: A Maritime History of Beara in Castletownbere. Picture: Anne Marie Cronin Photography

FROM piseogs and mythology to adventures on the high seas, People of the Sea: A Maritime History Of Beara by Marc O’Sullivan Vallig, is an interesting read.

The author, a writer and artist from Eyeries in Beara, is clearly familiar with the sea-faring culture of the area.

Indeed, the book is dedicated to his uncle, Cormac O’Sullivan, whose tragic death in 1973 at the age of just 28, brought home to Marc “the dangers associated with fishing for a living.”

On New Year’s Day, Cormac fell between a trawler and the pier in Cobh where he was casting off ropes.

His name is one of 72 inscribed on Barry Linnane’s ‘Twilight Haul’ monument, erected on Dinish Island in 2010 to commemorate those who have perished at sea.

The first part of the book is an account of Beara’s maritime’s history, including the folk tales such as the one about the Children of Lir coming ashore at Allihies.

Their extreme old age was apparent there and they were buried side by side near Allihies village.

The Cailleach Bhéara, a major figure in early Irish mythology, can still be seen overlooking the sea in Kilcatherine in the parish of Eyeries. She lived for 900 years before being turned to stone by an angry clergyman when she refused to convert to Christianity.

There is an account of Dónal Cam O’Sullivan (born in 1561) who was the last chieftain of Dunboy. He had the lordship of the Beara Peninsula and, apparently, was engaged in smuggling wine and brandy from France and Spain. The English regarded him as the most dangerous chieftain in the south of Ireland.

When the game was up for this chieftain, he led a party of 400 soldiers and 600 civilians on what is known as the Long March to Leitrim. They were fleeing the invading English and seeking refuge northwards.

The march was a disaster, with only 35 making it to the castle of the O’Rourkes in Leitrim. The defeated chieftain had to go into exile in Spain.

People of the Sea: A Maritime History of Beara' by Marc O'Sullivan Vallig, published by Beara Tourism, with support from BIM.
People of the Sea: A Maritime History of Beara' by Marc O'Sullivan Vallig, published by Beara Tourism, with support from BIM.

From ancient history to interviews with twenty-three ‘people of the sea’, the second part of the book is a mixture of contemporary observations and nostalgia for the past — as well as an acknowledgement of just how hard life at sea can be.

Local fishermen, boat owners, agents and search and rescue personnel, are interviewed.

Ted O’Sullivan, a Bere Island native, is a retired teacher who divides his time between the island and Cork city, where he lectures at UCC. The author of a short history of Bere Island, he talks about how Cumann na mBan were particularly active on the island during Ireland’s turbulent years in the first few decades of the twentieth century.

“Some of the women used go to dances at the British Army camp but they’d only dance with a man if he gave them a bullet,” says Ted.

“So they’d go home with a bunch of bullets in their pockets. They were involved in communication with the prisoners and general intelligence gathering...”

Berehaven was a Treaty port and the British authorities maintained a garrison on Bere Island until 1938 when they handed over jurisdiction to the Irish State.

The military presence was a boon for businesses in Castletownbere and also for local suppliers on the island.

The economics of fishing is a feature of the book. Jerome Harrington, aged 87, of Blackball, Cahermore, started fishing at the age of 13. He recalls that fish were plentiful but the fishing gear was primitive. There were no lights in the boats, despite the fact that the fishermen worked at night.

“Lobsters would go in night time better,” says Jerome.

He adds that “the money we got for the fish was nothing at all, but everything was cheap... In the ’50s, you could buy a trawler — a 60-footer — for €3,500. You wouldn’t get a punt for that now. The money wasn’t there but at the same time, they were happier times.”

Jerome has plenty to say about extreme weather long ago. He recalls coming home as a small boy with his parents from New York in what became known as Black ’37.

“That was a savage year. We had eight feet of snow... cattle died in some people’s sheds.”

He recalls skating across the river to school in the 1940s.

“We’re getting a different patterns of weather now, the whole thing is changed, but I think it’s just cycles.”

Described as “one of the most prominent trawler men in Castletownbere, Kieran O’Driscoll became the youngest skipper in Ireland when he commissioned his first vessel, the St Gervase, in 1968, at the age of 16. He continues to pot lobsters.

Fishing has changed hugely in Kieran’s time at sea, with sonar being the first big change for him. It helps considerably in spotting and tracking fish.

One of the few women to feature in this book, Margaret Downey-Harrington, born in 1940, owns the trawler, the Sea Spray, is a director of Fast Fish and founding member of the women’s organisation, Mná na Mara. Established over 50 years ago, it is a support group for women whose men folk are away a lot fishing.

“Fishing,” she says, “is a beautiful occupation, but it has got very heavily regulated, and I think of the lads going out there sometimes, and what they have to put up with. It’s rather daunting. They’re caught every way they turn.”

Signed copies of People of the Sea can be bought from the author. Email: marcsull@gmail.com.

The book, published by Beara Tourism, with support from BIM, costs €20 plus postage. It is also available at local bookshops and from amazon.co.uk.

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