In 927, the Vikings burned a small fishing village at the mouth of the river Corrib in Galway. It is likely that this village was in the area which became known as the Claddagh. The earliest written reference to a settlement in Galway occurs in the Annals of 1124. The city was founded by Richard De Burgo in 1232 and the fortification of the city began in 1270. However, Claddagh village, which had existed before the founding of Galway city, was situated just across the river and outside the new city walls – this separation probably helped to preserve its character and customs.
The Dominicans came to Claddagh in 1488 and built their first church. They were banished on a few occasions in later centuries but returned as the political climate improved. The Claddagh is recorded on maps and drawings in the seventeenth century by which time Galway had grown to a thriving trading port. Portuguese and Spanish ships were frequent visitors and local place names such as Spanish Parade and the architecture of the Spanish Arch in Galway still bear traces of the relationship with Spain.
The dawn of the eighteenth century saw the introduction of civil and religious restrictions following the Cromwellian settlement. As a result, many of the wealthy Galway merchant families departed and foreign trade declined. However, the fishing industry in the Claddagh thrived under the encouragement of the Galway Corporation which was anxious to preserve fish supplies for the local market. A new toll schedule prohibited the charging of any duties on fish supplied by the Claddagh fishermen.
By 1862, it was estimated that 200 boats, of which the vast majority were Claddagh based, fished Galway Bay. Fish supplies went from Claddagh as far afield as Limerick and the Irish midlands.
In his book “The History Of Galway”, published in 1820, James Hardiman paints a fascinating picture of Claddagh in the early nineteenth century and provides us with a level of detail which is relatively unique when compared to other contemporary social histories. He wrote that, although situated close to Galway city, the Claddagh people were “as different in habits, manners and character from the natives of the town as if they were of another country”.
The dwellings were all thatched and housed about 3,000 people. A “King of the Claddagh” was elected and he regulated the community according to local rules and customs. He also arbitrated on all disputes so that the Claddagh people rarely had to resort to “legal” alternatives. His other duties included acting as “admiral” for the fishing fleet. The only visible indication of his position was his entitlement to equip his boat with a white sail which contrasted with the red sails of all the other local fishing craft.
Fishing was the sole occupation of the Claddagh men and their fishing boats, known as Galway Hookers, varied from eight to ten tons and were built locally. The fishing fleet comprised about 250 of these boats together with a much greater number of smaller craft propelled by oars. While ashore, the men were joined by the women who were involved in repairing boats, sails, rigging, and in drying and mending nets. This diligence together with their skill earned the fishermen a great reputation. It was also noted that the Claddagh people seldom lost their lives at sea.
As soon as the catch came ashore, it became the property of the women who sold it in the Galway market. The men were provided with enough money for whisky, brandy, and tobacco and the women retained the remainder to run the household. The women, who had “unlimited control over their husbands” were regarded as more shrewd in business than their spouses and Hardiman writes that although they were “handsome”, infidelity was “never heard of and jealousy is equally unknown”.
The people rarely spoke English and their Irish dialect was scarcely intelligible to the city folk. They did not allow strangers to reside among them and the “general air of cleanliness” was “deserving of special praise”. They tended to marry within the community and a cabin was made available or built for the newly married couple. The parents usually provided a boat, or a share in one, for the new husband.
In 1838, Lewis in his “Topography” somewhat ambiguously described Claddagh as “remarkable for the primitive peculiarity of its inhabitants”.
The travel writers, Mr. and Mrs. Hall visited the area in 1840 and were struck by the appearance of the village and the unique customs and habits of the people. They echo the views of Hardiman and describe the cottages as “cleaner and better furnished” than houses in the city. People were “peaceable and industrious” but if ancient “rights” are infringed, they “become so violent that nothing can withstand them.”
Claddagh was still unchanged when it was described by H V Morton in the 1920s as “one of the most remarkable sights in Europe”. He writes : “Nothing is more picturesque in the British Isles than this astonishing fishing village of neat, whitewashed, thatched cottages planted at haphazard angles with no regular roads running to them. If you took three hundred little toy cottages and jumbled them up on a nursery floor you would have something like the Claddagh. It is a delight of unconscious beauty. The houses have been planted at all kinds of odd angles, one man’s back door opening on to the front door of his neighbour.”
Another insight was given by Stephen Gwynn who visited most of the houses in the village in the first decade of the twentieth century. He wrote: “It was odd enough at three or four in the afternoon to find strong young men rising up between the blankets in a corner of a dark little house. That, of course, is natural in any fishing community, whose work is mostly done at night. But a thing struck me which I have never seen elsewhere in Ireland, where generally men have a prejudice against handling babies or doing anything else that is taken to be women’s work. But here, in at least a dozen houses, I found the women bustling about while the men stood or sat with an infant on his arm – and holding it as a woman does, the arm making the same soft line where it supported the infant as a hammock holds the sleeper. It is curious to see, and very pretty – natural enough, too, when one considered; for the women must be out most of the day hawking their fish at the street corners. Yet more than anything it stamped on my mind that feeling of distinctness and aloofness in the Claddagh and its people. I have never found any other community in Ireland so alien, so shy, and so hard to know.”
Let us end with Morton’s evocative description of Claddagh after dark: “At night the Claddagh is most beautiful. There are no street lamps. You find your way through a maze of houses by the light that falls through windows and open doors….it is quiet and watchful and full of the chirping of crickets….through open doors you see little rooms with low ceilings. They are warm, clean and comfortable; but so small….beyond every little open door you see, sharp as an interior by Peter de Hooch, a woman bent above some task with a fine colour of scarlet on her; now and again an infant cries and a woman’s tender voice soothes it, singing an Irish lullaby like little waves falling on a shore; and in these rooms, warm with the peat fires and loud with crickets piping in the ashes, a red light is burning before the Sacred Heart.”
As we have seen, visitors who took a superficial look at the Claddagh were envious of the environment and the lifestyle of the people. Despite these descriptions of an idyllic life, the community also encountered many problems and, as we shall see, the domestic scene described earlier was not universal in the village.
Even as Hardiman wrote his glowing description in 1820, the seeds of the decline of the village were already sown. The use of “trailing nets” by sail boats and later by steam trawlers began to have a devastating impact on the livelihood of the fishermen of the Claddagh.
The fisherfolk were fiercely independent and were remarkable for their adherence to custom and tradition. But the peculiar insularity of the community, which were admired by outsiders, now served to inhibit the people from adapting to the new reality. Hardiman pointed out that, despite their many fine qualities, the Claddagh people “are still so wedded to old customs, that they invariably reject, with the most inveterate prejudice, any new improvement in their fishing apparatus, which is consequently now very little superior to that used centuries ago by their ancestors.”
In 1811, an effort was made to introduce trawling in the bay but the boats were attacked by Claddagh fishermen and the equipment destroyed. It would be unfair to ascribe all the opposition to a simple resistance to change. The locals had a strong belief that trawling would destroy the spawning grounds and drive the great shoals out from the bay. However, trawlers were gradually introduced to Galway Bay despite various acts of lawlessness by the apprehensive Claddagh fishermen.
In 1846, Fr. Thomas Rush O.P. (no relation, as far as I can establish) founded the Claddagh Piscatory school with the objective of teaching the young people the various modern skills associated with fishing in order that they would be more open to change than preceding generations. This laudable initiative, which was facilitated by a fund-raising trip to London by Fr. Rush, had a very limited impact. Lack of funding, the famine, and a lack of commitment to formal education among the locals were all contributory factors to the failure of the project. By the 1880s the school had given up all pretence of providing a specialised education and was functioning as a normal school.
The friction between trawlers and the Claddagh fishermen continued and there were many instances of sabotage. The Galway Vindicator in October, 1863, condemned acts of lawlessness by the Claddagh fishermen and argued that trawling would not interfere with fish stocks if carried out a long distance from shore. By 1876, a settlement had still not been reached despite the efforts of Mr. Brady, Inspector of Fisheries, who held a public meeting with the Claddagh people. Newspaper reports indicate that the lack of success of the encounter was due mainly to the language barrier.
Frustration at the destruction of their livelihood resulted in the attendance of the entire Claddagh community at a meeting of the Poor Law Board in October 1880. They pointed out that the spawn beds were being destroyed, young fish were being trapped in trawl-bags thereby damaging future crops and that trawlers were running through their lines and nets, dragging them away. The trawlermen denied all charges and the Coastguard were asked to investigate the situation. To the dismay of the Claddagh people, and the fury of the Vindicator, the outcome of the investigation was that trawling was allowed even into the shallows of the bay.
Common sense did not prevail until 1897, at which stage even the trawlermen recognised that the prevailing situation could not continue. By then, thirty-three trawlers were operating in the bay and, following the Fishery Enquiry, they agreed to stay outside a line from Black Head to Furbo. However, the damage was already done. It was estimated that only a quarter of the original number of Claddagh fishermen were still in business. Their gear was damaged or sold and the fish stocks had declined at an alarming rate.
By the arrival of the new century, many of the young men had left to join the British Navy or had emigrated to England or America. Some were still involved in fishing; they worked as deck hands on the hated trawlers. The once elegant, red-sailed Galway Hookers were abandoned by the quays near the Claddagh and most never sailed again. The indigenous fishing industry, upon which the community depended, was in terminal decline. The writer Mary Banim recorded the views of Mrs King, wife of the Claddagh King, in 1892: “Once the bay as far as the Aran Isles belonged to the fishermen of the Claddagh, of Oran, an’ the other people along the coasts; but the rich came in and drove the fish away, an’ now, I’ve seen the strong men weak for want of food, an’ the little children white with cold an’ hunger.”