“There wasn’t a man who hadn’t a foot on the land and a foot on the sea!” according to one old time islander. Like the whole western seaboard and islands of Ireland, the small farmers were often fishermen as well. Fishing from Valentia, as well as the processing of the catch on the island, was once a major industry. Today, though some islanders still engage in fishing, they land their catch elsewhere. It is a dying breed on the island, where once the seine boat ruled the sea, hauling their catch at night and rowing home to work the land by day.
It is hard to know exactly how many vessels the island once had, for example in 1825 it was said there were 252 sailing-boats and 271 row-boats fishing from Valentia it was during this time while the slate quarry was at his height the pier in Knightstown was constructed.
But when the fishing failed in the late 1800’s, early 1900’s many a young island man was lost to greener pastures, a song ‘The waters that flow around Valentia’ composed by Islander Johnny Murphy eloquently describes the simple joys of boyhood, the transition to manhood and the reality of emigration & changing times. Johnny Pon who is mentioned in the eight verse refers to John Patrick O’Neill, who was a fish merchant. He would send fish to America packed into barrels. After the Second World War the ‘Beet Campaign’ was initiated as a means of providing seasonal work in England. Many of the migrant workers stayed in England and found employment in the building trade many never to return to their island homeland.
The waters that flow around Valentia
By the waters that flow around Valentia,
There’s one spot of fame and renown,
That catches the eye from the quarry,
As you gaze up the river to town.
When we grew up into manhood,
And fishing got into our heads,
Out the lighthouse at six every evening,
There was never a word about bed.
Out board she was one of the old ones,
She never saw any smart paint,
She was tarred from the keel to the gunwale,
But still bore the name of a saint.
To see her lie there at her anchor,
With everything there up to date,
You might not believe when I tell you,
She was built in the year ninety eight.
We rowed her along nice and grámhar,
‘til we came to the slopes of Culloo,
We there took our oars off the water,
And decided on what we should do.
We then steered a course to the North-West,
‘til we nearly lost sight of the light,
Bray Head far away in the distance,
Ceann Glass on the Coonana Strand.
We had shot just one hour before darkness,
And then we started to haul,
The first fish we hauled was a conger,
The most troublesome fish of them all.
The second we hauled was a halibut,
To us it appeared nothing strange,
For it was not our first time being lucky,
To shoot on a halibut range.
We hauled away out in the darkness,
With turbot and brill sure galore,
And the very next place you will find us,
Inside Johnny Pons famous store.
Whenever we ‘subbed’ it was a fiver,
Whenever we ‘subbed’ sure at all,
For anything less than a fiver,
To us would appear mighty small.
We always kept cider and whiskey,
In bottles from E.J. O’Neill,
There was always a ‘céad mile fáilte’,
At the point from ould Mother O’Neill.
But there’s two of our crew gone to England,
To toil day and night at the beet,
Sure nobody here would begrudge them,
You all know that sugar is sweet.
But now that the fishing is over,
And Spaniards are cleaning our shore,
(the Spaniards are fishing too near)
I’ll bid you adieu for the present,
I’m off for a strange land next year.