In order to understand the harbour from a fisherman's point of view, we have to go back to the reasons why the harbour was improved by baron Hamilton in 1761. He gave all types of reasons for the improvement, and none of them had anything to do with fishing. Fishing was not an industry in Ireland; was not aided nor granted by the government in any way, and the people were too poor to invest in fishing boats. It was only used to supplement meagre income from the land, and money only became available for fishing when it was used as a means to alleviate poverty. When the baron presented his case, he called upon several people to support his cause. The following were the principal contributors. These men all voiced the same reasons for the harbour's construction, stressing the fact that Skerries was not a safe harbour.
James Mc Laughlin: Ship's Master
William Moore; Merchant and Master
John MaGilI Esq.
WilIiam Miller: Architect
The 'D' below represents Balbriggan
Most of the fishermen were involved with these merchant vessels while others carried on in small craft, line fishing and potting for crab and lobster.
Between 1866 and 1870 the harbour saw many changes, due to a power struggle between the merchants, Mr. Hamilton and the Ballast Board. Balbriggan had become the dearest small harbour in the country, with high ballast rates, dear wall berthing fees, and the compulsory purchase of sand for ballast. Mr. Hamilton claimed that all the above was necessary for the upkeep of the harbour, but it certainly did not encourage trading ships and fishing boats to use it. Several memorials were sent to the Ballast Board, the Department of Trade and to the Newspapers of the day, complaining about the cost and about the poor state of the harbour. Mr. Hamilton felt he had to reply and had a letter drafted in Dublin to be sent to the Ballast Board. However, while this was being done, a meeting was organised in the local hotel, by "The Inhabitants of Balbriggan", mainly, Mr. Hamlet, Mr. O’Neill, Mr. Sharkey, Mr. Bankhead, Mr. Murphy and Dr. Mc Evoy, and drew up the following statement:
The future management of the harbour should be undertaken by a Committee to be appointed for that purpose.We beg to express the pleasure with which we meet Mr. Hamilton’s wishes on the subject,but we would request him to suggest to the Ballast Board that the Town Commissioneras of Balbriggan,coupled with the Engineer of the Ballast Board or such officer as they may think it fit to assosiate with them, would be the more proper parties to whom to entrust the management of the harbour
This satement was forwarded by John Madden Esq. JP. and seconded by Francis Mc Evoy Esq. Jp.
Mr. Hamilton, his agent, Mr. Blackbourne and Mr. Moss did not attend, but news of the event reached Hampton Hall quickly and Mr. Hamilton had his letter amended before it was read to the Board. The amendment was as follows:
Since drawing the foregoing Report , I have been
informed that the Town Commissioners of Balbriggan are dersirious
that the Ballast Board should appoint them to receive the dues and
expend them, under direction of the Ballast Board, in maintaining and improving the harbour.
If the Ballast Board should think it proper to make this appointment,
I shall be ready to close my account and resign my office on the expiration of the present Quater
G. A. Hamilton
Meanwhile, Mr. Hamlet brought Mr. Townsend, Mr. Hamilton’s harbour master and ballast dues collector, to court, for overcharging. Mr. Hamilton defended Mr. Townsend and looked at the matter of the ballast dues and found nothing irregular. However, he claimed that Mr. Townsend was unwell and, that his second in command, Mr. Markey would take over.
Shortly after this the B.B. wrote to the Town Commissoners. and they in turn held a meeting on the 3rd. of Sept. and passed two resolutions-
 that they [Town Commissioners] undertake the duties of management of the harbour.
 that a group of them go to meet the B.B. and that Mr. Ellis should arrange it
The meeting took place and the following arrangements were introduced with the Commissioners agreeing to take over the running of the harbour:-
3rd. September 1866
We agree to take over the harbour
We agree to meet the Ballast Board appointees.
Agreement as follows
Local Council to collect dues, ballast money etc.
Clerk of Town Hall to oversee money.
Accounts to be sent to Ballast Board every month.
Harbour Master and Harbour workers to be paid from above.
Money left over to be used to improve harbour.
Rest of loan to be paid back to Ballast Board.
Mr. Hamilton was paid the money that he was owed and left the harbour to the local men, or so they thought.
In October, Mr. Binden Bold Stoney, the BB’s chief engineer, and probably the finest engineer in the country, visited the harbour with Lord Dombrain, and met the two Mr. Hamiltons, and some of the local Council. As a result of this he recommended that the small breakwater heading from the spur at the end of the North West pier be extended, and improved. Piles were to be driven into the sand. Floats would then be attached to these, filled with sand and tied together with anchor chains, which were to be sent down from Dublin. He estimated the cost at 43 Pounds, and recommended that two or three extra men should be added to the harbour workforce in order to complete the job. He also recommended that a timber fender should be attached to the pier-head at the lighthouse.
By the way, shortly before this happened, a complaint was made to the Ballast B. indicating that that the merchants and masters were not keeping proper account books. Who sent it is uncertain. I found a letter from the Ballast Board. to the harbour master requesting that all the merchants and masters by name, were to send in their account books for the previous 7,or 8 years.
Events took another turn with the "Harbour Act of 1870", which ended the reign of the old B.B and left the harbour completely in the hands of the new Dublin Port and Docks Board. For the next fifty years two men B.B. Stoney, and Nicholas Proud would have complete control of the harbour. At the start they would consult with the town clerk when any work needed to done but after a couple of years they would act alone. Gone were the gentry and in their place men like Mr. Murphy of Palgrave Murphy and Co., and Michael Davitt of Land League fame carried on the work of the Dublin Port and Dock’s Board. Everything became more professional. They immediately began work with an extension of the N.W. pier. Plans were drawn up and put to tender which was won by the local firm of Mr. Heeney and Son. If the new Board thought they had finished with Mr. Hamilton they were mistaken. Mr. Blackbourne wrote to Mr. Stoney on behalf of Mr. Hamilton and made several suggestions as to how the pier should proceed. He received a short reply requesting him to write to the D.P.D.B., and to forward Mr. Hamilton’s consent, along with the consent of the builder to effect the changes without any rise in cost. This time Mr. Hamilton, himself replied to Stoney Esq. with his suggestions and plans and included new rough drawings from Mr. Heeney.
This was the last time Mr. Hamilton had any thing to do with the harbour. He died a couple of years later and his estate was sold, mainly to the traders with whom he had been in conflict.
The new pier was built and many causes were given as to the reason for its construction, but there was no mention of fishing or fishermen. However fishing returned to the harbour in the 1870,s for several reasons. There was a world slump in trade and many of the masters and some owners returned to the idea of fishing as a means of making money. After all they had become accustomed to Cornish, Manx, and Scottish boats arriving in huge numbers, either on their way to the Kinsale mackerel fishing, [1000 boats 1879]or fishing late Autumn from Balbriggan, for herring between Dundalk and Howth. Ireland had been left behind, while the Cornish, Manx, and Scottish fishermen built better and faster boats and great designs like the Brixahm trawlers, The Cornish luggers, the Manx Nickies, [much the same boat] and the Scottish Fifies, Zulus and Baldies were to be seen on a regular basis in Balbriggan. They followed the herring, reaching the various breeding grounds at different times of the year. In the late 60,s and 70’s a lot of Scottish fishermen, Reids, Mac Gillivrays, MacKinnons, Mac Intyres, Grants etc. arrived in the harbour, settled down, and some of these as well former schooner masters like the Carvins , Cartons, Corcorans and later the Tuites, Dohertys, and Richardsons, who were fishermen, formed the back-bone of a new fishing community. These men bought secondhand Manx, Cornish, and Scottish boats.
Towards the end of the century the Manx men replaced the Nickie with a smaller and faster sailing boat, which could be managed with as little as three men or four men, and a boy at most. It was called the Nobby, meaning well groomed in Manx Gaelic. This left a lot of Nickies for sale and Balbriggan men bought a few.
There was a new mood about especially when the Congested Districts Board began to buy boats from the Isle of Man for fishermen on the West Coast harbours. William Paynter, the famous Cornish boat builder moved to Kilkeel and began making Nickies for the local men while the Fisheries Board began to buy boats, and leased them out to Skippers on the East Coast. Tyrrels of Arklow began to make fishing boats in the Nobby style and the Arklow fleet began to grow. However it was cheaper for the Balbriggan men to go to the Isle of Man or Scotland to buy secondhand boats as these areas began the change to motor driven boats. If these men wanted to trawl or seine net they needed stronger pulling boats. Of course trawl at this time was simply the bringing together the ends of a ring net, as trawl boards and bag trawl was not yet possible, due to boats being sail only or sail with very small powered engine used only to leave and enter harbour. It was also difficult to bring a boat around as the mainsail had to be lowered and brought around to other side of the mast, and hoisted up again.
By the 1880’s Fishermen from the Isle of Man, Kilkeel, and Arklow were arriving in Balbriggan in large numbers for the "Fall Fishing", which started on the 1st. of Oct. and ended around Christmas Eve. However not all was well in the harbour, the age-old dispute between the merchants and the fishermen had never gone away. The latter believed that they were treated as second-class citizens and that the D.P.D.B. only listened to the traders and ran the harbour for their benefit. Mr. Hamlet and Murphy were gone but a more aggressive opponent had taken their place, namely Flower and McDonald.
The various posters from the DPDB around the harbour were definitely not in favour of the fishermen.
Things really came to ahead in 1909 when the fishermen approached the town hall. They put a petition together which lambasted the harbour master and Flower and MacDonald. This letter was signed by the senior fishermen in the harbour, and accompanied by six pages of names from local men as well as men from Arklow, Kilkeel, and Peel. They signed the following statement:-
On behalf 0f the Boatowners and Fishermen of Balbriggan................................................1909
We, the undresigned, state
1.The harbour is in decline.
2.The harbour is not maintained on a daily basis.
3.Steamers and larger ships get preference over local fishing boats.
4. Coal,Salt and Timber boats constantly block the Saltberth and harbour mouth.
5. Ships drawing 10 - 13 feet are put in berths of high tide of 9 feet.
6.Numbers of fishing boats are constantly being damaged, especially their bowsprits.
7. Fishermen are losing 10 shillings a day and owners are losing up to £15 and are being fined for not putting out to sea.
8. The lighting of the harbour is poor.
9. No provision is made for fishing boats in stormy weather when steamers are in harbour.
Signed: John Carton B.O. Alex McKinnion B.O.Patrick Reid B.O.
The other local men who signed the original petition
...the improvement of Balbriggan from a fishing point of view, by asking the town to subscribe £300 and the Dublin Port and Docks board to subscribe a like amount, and the latter being in control of the harbour only look after the interests of the Coal and other Merchants by providing special berths for the discharging cargo, thereby ignoring the interests of the fishermen.
As a result of this he received a reply stating that that the D.P.D.B. could not give money to the harbour, because by Law they could only support the Port of Dublin. He wrote again to the P.D.B. stating that at the moment there were 70 boats in the harbour from outside the area and that this would increase greatly if something was done about the state of the harbour and about the traders. Once again he was told that there was no money and that there was nothing that they could do. He turned to the townspeople who set up "BalbrigganHarbour and Improvement Fund" to which many subscribed.
This helped the harbour somewhat and the men continued to buy second-hand boats, mainly from The Isle of Mann and the north of Ireland. Between 1900 and 1930 these boats continued the herring fishing and as engines improved they began "ringing" and hunting for plaice. We shoud not forget World War One however as it had a great impact on the town and on the harbour when 42 young men were killed, sixteen of whom died in the service the British Navy. Many of these came from Clonard Street making the name "Sinn Fein Alley" an invention of later times. After the war there was a sleight increase in fishing right up to around 1925 but after that it it settled to a small number of boats only increasing when the herring season was at its peak time, and the foreign boats arrived.
Having spoken to several fishermen who had fished in the Fifties, Sixties, Seventies and some into the Eighties, all maintained that the best years were the Forties and early Fifties. Some wished that they had had Whiting nets at the time and they would have made a fortune. However they did quite well ringing and most of them earned ten times the average working wage of that time. One man remembered his father bringing home sixty Pounds a week while his uncle made four Pounds working for the Council.
After a meeting of the Fishermen’s Association in Westport in 1949, which was attended by a large number of Balbriggan men, the Fisheries Board under the Department of Agriculture became the new Board Iascaigh Mara. This had an immediate effect with the introduction of the ‘Fifty Footers’. A full account of these boats can be found in the ‘Marine Times’ every month. It should also be mentioned that Balbriggan harbour did quite well from this scheme. The boats received under this scheme were as follows; Ros Bremore, Bob Reynolds 1954; Naomh Siobhan, Jay Richardson, 1958; Eiscir Riada, William Reynolds; St. John, J Richardson, 1959, and the St. Jude, George Griffen, 1959. These supplemented those received in an earlier scheme in the 1930’s; Naomh Fiachra, Richard Tuite ; Pride of Balbriggan, Chris Tuite ; Naomh Colman, Andy Reid, and Ella, James Kearns.
The fixed prices disappeared and the Northern boats stopped coming for the whiting. This led to a slump in the fishing industry and Balbriggan fishing fleet dropped to a low of three to four boats. When Ireland joined the EEC many local fishermen believed that our fishing rights were sold away to obtain more subsidies for the farmers, a belief not without some truth.
Subsequent years saw bigger boats, all secondhand in Balbriggan, and better ways of fishing but not necessarily a richer or better way of life. They did not last long and the introduction of subsidies put paid to the inshore fisherman, which led boats to go farther out to sea in the worst of weather to catch their quota on time. In Damien Tiernan’s book ‘Souls of the Sea’ he has a wonderful comment from Tom McSweeney, Marine Correspondent for RTE , he quotes:
Fishermen get little sympathy until tragedy strikes. They work to earn a living for their families, but unlike most of us, do so in more dangerous circumstances. Economic circumstances have a part in forcing fishermen to sea in what many ashore would call bad weather.
Fishermen are locked in an economic battle to stay afloat, they want to fish, they love to fish, they are happy to earn their living this way, but they are finding that their efforts are being strangulated by unsympathetic policies and bureaucracy at it’s worst.
The author adds to this, and I quote:
"They feel attacked on three fronts; reduced quotas, rising fuel prices, and a hostile government attitude."