MARGARET Downey-Harrington has a beautiful way with words, along with memories of events from decades ago as clear as if they happened yesterday. I tell her she should write down her life story but she only laughs, saying she wouldn’t know where to start.
With a life spent in a coastal west Cork village, where she made strides for the betterment of the fishing community, Margaret has recently been recognised with a lifetime achievement award at the BIM National Seafood Awards.
She is the second ever recipient of the BIM Lifetime achievement Award, following in the footsteps of the late Killybegs skipper and businessman Martin Howley. The award itself appropriately depicts the fish sculpture that featured in the BIM sustainable seafood garden at Bloom earlier this year. It would be a splendid feature on anyone’s mantelpiece.
“It’s a huge recognition and a wonderful honour. I didn’t expect it at all but I accept it joyfully and with dignity”, she says modestly, before adding that she dedicated it to the fishermen on the coast of Ireland and to Mná na Mara, of which she was a founding member.
Mna na Mara was an organisation established in the early 1960s to strengthen links between women in her native Castletownbere and women’s groups elsewhere in the fishing community.
Margaret explains: “It grew out of the fact that in Castletownbere the men would go to Dunmore East fishing herring in January and they might get home only once every three weeks. Communication then wasn’t like what it is now; there were no mobile phones. The only contact was through Valentia Radio. Or if you had a single-sideband radio we could pick them up talking to each other. But the further they’d go, they’d go out of range and we wouldn’t be able to pick them up.
“They wouldn’t land in Dunmore East for two days, so we’d make contact with the wives there to ask had they arrived.”
It seems the women of Dunmore East greatly benefited too: “In the early ’60s, our fishermen, when going to Dunmore East, some fell in love there and brought home girlfriends who became wives. These young wives left their own community and they may not have been from a fishing family, so not seeing their husband from Monday until the following weekend — Friday or Saturday — that was a huge change for them. We made contact with them when they were settled and befriended them.
“With young children, there was no such thing as crèches back then, so we used to mind each other’s children.”
The women formed a much needed social bond at a time when there were few diversions for people. It would be a few years later before television arrived to Margaret’s home, for instance. She recalls there were about 12 members to start off — it would later grow to 40 — and they would meet in each other’s houses one night per month. And lest the hospitality got out of hand, there were strict rules.
“We’d have a cup of tea and Marietta biscuits. That was specifically stated”, says Margaret. “We opened a post office account with two names on it and they’d collect the price of a packet of cigarettes from each member once a month.”
Mná na Mara was far more than a social outlet for the women, however, and the achievements of the organisation are noteworthy. There is a growing awareness of devastating maritime pollution now but it was also an issue back then.
“Pollution is a terrible thing; it’s harmful and destructive in our seas and shores and rivers. The first thing we did was we got bins put on piers around our coast. Fishermen could bring home their boats and dispose of their rubbish there.”
Also, with elections and referendums held midweek when the men were away, the fishing community wasn’t getting the chance to fully voice its opinion. Mná na Mara campaigned for — and succeeded in getting — postal votes for fishermen. Up until that time this had only been available to the diplomatic corps and the defence forces serving overseas.
In 2010, in collaboration with the Department of the Marine and Cork County Council, Mná na Mara erected a monument on Castletownbere’s Dinish Island, dedicated to those who had been lost at sea from their local port.
Entitled Twilight Haul, it depicts two fishermen holding a boat above their heads with oars rising out of the boat towards the sky. The poignant artwork also features a plaque etched with 72 names of those who perished.
It must have been a constant life of worry being a fisherman’s wife, with the sea’s potential to be as cruel as it is bountiful.
“To a degree you would worry. That’s why contact was so necessary and vital; just to know that they’re all right. But you’d have full confidence in them that they’d be able to get out of any difficulties if they got in to them. They’d always be in before the bad weather came.
“When you’d hear a North-West gale blowing you’d be very conscious, very aware, but you’d work with it. You’d be preparing all the time and watching out for different signs. We had the shipping forecast at 6 o’clock on the BBC and we’d be tuning in to that every evening.”
It’s just as well that Margaret had the ability to keep her worries in check, as such a huge portion of her life has been spent with those she loves out on the waves: her grandfather — on a small scale — plus her father and husband Frank.
“My father worked on a small open boat. He was out fishing every week; scallops in the wintertime; lobsters and crayfish in summer. It was all done with nets. There was also herring or mackerel in the winter months in the harbour.”
Margaret remembers, aged seven or eight, along with her brother, helping her father sell fish on the pier on Wednesday mornings after he had been out fishing the previous day.
“That was our bread and butter,” she says. “We’d have a string to loop through the fish to keep them together or they’d be wrapped in newspaper. There were no shopping bags then.”
Margaret also recalls how the fishermen’s on-board snacks were also simple: “What they brought with them was bread and butter — there was no such thing as a ham sandwich — and a bottle of tea wrapped in newspaper in a sock.”
It may seem like a tough way of life by today’s standards but it was the norm for Margaret and her family and she never had any thoughts of choosing a different way of life for herself.
“No way, I wouldn’t dream of it,” she says emphatically.
So she married fisherman Frank Downey and they were blessed with four children. Frank was the skipper of a boat he part-owned with two other men, Joe O’Sullivan, who worked in the engine room, and Brendan Murphy, who did the shore work. After a few years, Frank bought his own boat in Scotland and continued as a fisherman until sadly he was diagnosed with motor neurone disease, suffering for six years until he passed away in 1989, aged 56.
“It’s a horrible illness and it’s a lonely illness”, she says. “There was no home help at that time; no-one called to help out. But we’re glad we were able to look after him at home.
There was no respite, no treatment — there still is no treatment. It got to the stage that he couldn’t speak. He was born and raised on Bere Island, left home at 14 and built up his business and here he was now in that state.”
It gave her the strength and determination to keep the boats going in his honour. “I was not going to let it all go down the swaney”, she says.
In time, she married second husband, Tadgh Harrington, a retired garda, and they had 11 years together before he lost his battle with stomach cancer.
She’s had some hard times, I suggest. “I’ve also had very wonderful times”, she says, without missing a beat. “Memories don’t get taken away. They remain with us and they’re fantastic. It would be lovely if things were different but we have to accept what happens.”
To this day, Margaret is still involved in the fishing industry but she has also branched out. She is one of three directors of the Fast Fish Company Ltd, which owns a boat called Sea Spray. Three years ago the company bought the local holiday resort, which had been known as the Wheel Inn, now re-named the Berehaven Lodge. In addition, a local hotel — formerly the Camtrignane Hotel — came up for sale and was bought by the company, operating now as the Beara Coast Hotel.
Life is good in Castletownbere, as the village basks in the attention brought by the clever marketing of the Wild Atlantic Way. “It’s brilliant. We are, ourselves, looking at it with different eyes. Even though it’s the same as it was 100, 200, 300 years ago — it’s nature at its best, they just gave it a name. And bless the man who thought of it! Our coastal fishing industry is the twin sister of the Wild Atlantic Way. It’s the jewel in the crown.”
Meanwhile, Mná na Mara has been reactivated under the name Women In Fisheries, with EU funding directed by BIM.
One gets the feeling that there are many more adventurous chapters ahead for Margaret — in that book that she really should write!