The herring fishery, the king of the Claddagh and the lost village of Freeport, Bearna.

The pier in Bearna, a small village West of Galway was originally built by the industrious landlord Lynch in 1799. It was redeveloped on a larger scale later by the renowned engineer, Nimmo in 1822 to promote the growing herring fishery in the bay. Part of it was washed away in 1831 and rebuilt shortly after with a donation of £70 from the coast guard, whom had a station on the pier road at the time. The 1840 map of Galway shows Nimmos pier in all its glory, protecting the small fishing fleet from the SW gales. But more interestingly, it also shows a row of small dwellings, called Freeport (An Chéibh), along the shore, between the pier and Mags Boreen to the East. By the time the Ordnance Survey revised their maps, with their 25” series in the late 1800s, there was no sign of these buildings. So what happened to Freeport, and the herring industry that supported it?


Ordnance Survey Ireland

In 1837, a report on the fishing industry in Ireland confirms that these houses were built and rented to fishermen by Lynch (whose descendents including none other than Che Guevera!), for 10s and 6d per year (Reports from Commissioners, 1837). The report states that the inhabitants only income was from the sea, that they conformed to the fishing rules of the Claddagh*, caught herring and brought their catch to Galway by ass and carts (there was no drying or smoking in Bearna, just fresh fish). There were 21 hookers, under 9tonnes, and 20 rowing boats, supporting an industry of over 200 people in 1837 (to give some perspective, at the time there was 80-100 hookers fishing from the Claddagh, some sources even put this at 200+). At the height of the fishery, 20 new hookers were built each year in the Claddagh, costing on average £70, and these traditional boats were generally fished for 2 years before being sold on for transport use (seaweed/turf) (Connacht Tribune, 1959). Despite the sheer biomass being removed by the fleet, the catch rarely met demand, often being subsidized by imported Scottish herring. With the advances in commercial fishing gear technology we see today, it is interesting to note the simplicity of these industrious fishermen, who used the same nets for both winter and summer herring, which ensured a constant selectivity for larger fish only. Trawling, as opposed to setting nets, was frowned upon, and the general opinion of the Claddagh fishers was it would “disturb the fish and they would leave the bay” (Dutton, 1824).

In deference to their Claddagh counterparts, the Bearna fishermen did not use excess cork to float the tangle nets. The idea being that when the net had fished as much as it could, the minimum amount of corks would sink slightly, signalling the men it was time to haul. Galway Bay supported two herring fisheries at the time; a winter fishery in January using nets. From March until September they switched to lines, and finished out the year harvesting the summer fishery with the same nets again. Shoals of two square miles were not uncommon during the more fortuitous summer fishery. While 5,000 herring would be a ‘middling nights work’, 20,000 herring could be taken in one night by a venturous crew according to Dutton (1824). Inevitably tragedy’s occurred due to overladen hookers, with the weight toppling the boat and drowning some of the occupants (Connacht Tribune, 1922).

So what happened to this small “bustle of industry” (Freemans Journal, 1836)?  Perhaps a storm wiped them out. Could a series of poor herring recruitment topple a once prosperous industry? A GMIT researcher looked at historical data-sets of Celtic Sea herring from 1959 to 2009 and found remarkable variation in length proportions at spawning during this time frame (Harma et al., 2012).  Could a small fleet of tangle netters 100 years previous, whose very lives relied on a two part fishery with rudimentary gear adapted to catch only larger fish, be impervious to variations in proportions of size at maturity? Or did a combination of environmental and fishing pressures in Galway Bay flick the ‘big red survival button’ in the herring population, influencing them to adapt to a new spawning season in response (Melvin et al., 2009)? Or could ‘an Gorta Mór’, the Great Irish Famine extend its tragedy to a small community, whose very existence depended on the Sea and not the land?

To Be Continued…………….

*The rules of the Claddagh were extensive and deserve an investigation in their own right. They included such articles as what time of year the fishery can begin, certain breaks which should be taken during the fishery to reduce product and increase prices, religious festivals, and what gear to use (e.g. trawling was banned inside the Aran Islands due to the belief it damaged the natural stocks). The Claddagh men were so efficient at self-regulation, that industrious fishing companies used to request naval support to trawl in the Bay in the early 1800s!. Another tradition, was the bigger harvest could not commence until after the 4th of September, when a festival called the Fair on the Hill was in full flow. This would be followed by the Claddagh men taking some of the Dominican Friars out to sea to bless the harvest. No hooker could begin fishing until the King of the Claddagh decreed it, upon which time up to 500 boats would collect and sail out together to begin fishing at the signal of the kings boat (which was designated with a different color sail!). What a sight to behold.


Dutton, H., 1824. A Statistical and Agricultural Survey of the County of Galway: With Observations on the Means of Improvement. Printed at the University Press, by R. Graisberry.

Harma, C., Brophy, D., Minto, C., Clarke, M., 2012. The rise and fall of autumn-spawning herring (Clupea harengus L.) in the Celtic Sea between 1959 and 2009: Temporal trends in spawning component diversity. Fish. Res. 121-122, 31–42.

Melvin, G.D., Stephenson, R.L., Power, M.J., 2009. Oscillating reproductive strategies of herring in the western Atlantic in response to changing environmental conditions. ICES J. Mar. Sci. 66, 1784–1792.

Reports from Commissioners, 1837.


About James K

Marine ecologist, diver and maritime history enthusiast.
This entry was posted in Fisheries Science, Marine Biology, Maritime History. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to The herring fishery, the king of the Claddagh and the lost village of Freeport, Bearna.

  1. john boyd says:

    great post James! Thanks a million. Great book on 19th century herring industry and CDB efforts to promote it:

  2. Pingback: The Miracle on Galway Bay (1949) | an tAtlantach

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