Thank you for making the journey this far, and I hope you enjoy the little presentation. For Heritage Week 2020 I am revisiting the origins of the Mesolithic period (8000-4000 BC) in Oughterard and then further expanding the scope to look at the continuity of fishing traditions in the 20th century and into the present day. For younger minds, I have written a little coming of age story called ‘Brannon’s Great Adventure’ and it is presented in both text and audio formats.
Because of the Bann Flakes (small stone tools) which were found in 1975 and again in 1984 at River Island, where the Owenriff River flows into Lough Corrib, Oughterard can claim a pedigree to be amongst a very small number of places in Ireland where the first settlers to this country came to live and build their homes, almost 7,000 years ago.
14,000 years ago marked the end of the last Ice Age. The era between the retreat of the ice and the development of farming is called the Mesolithic, or the Middle Stone Age. This phase lasted from 8,000BC to 4,000BC, which is over 40% of our recorded time on this Island. Ireland at that time was completely different than it is now and everywhere was covered in a thick canopy of trees. The new settlers could move more easily on rivers and lakes, and sought out these places for their refuge. A good supply of water was very important, for drinking purposes and also to attract wild game.
They were the last of the Hunter-Gatherer people, before humans were to become involved in farming (Neolithic) or metal-working (Bronze Age), but they were also very creative and inventive. Because they did not grow any crops, or have the ability to store their produce, they had to become very skilled at hunting and fishing. The main animals at the time in Ireland were the wild pig and hare, along with fowl, and the rivers and seas yielded salmon, trout, eels, oysters and mussels. They always had to be on top of their hunting and fishing game, or they did not eat.
From flints and sharp stones, they made sharp blades called microliths, creating tools and knives for cutting, and they were the first humans to create a vital new weapon – the bow and arrow. Long before there was any hint of farming practices in Ireland, they would have been hunting wild boar, also collecting hazelnuts and berries that would have been available seasonally. They would have known their landscape very intimately, and also what was available in certain areas at different times of the year.
A tool associated with the Irish Mesolithic was found by Jim Higgins, now Galway City Heritage Officer, in 1975 where the Owenriff River enters Lough Corrib just outside Oughterard. Jim also found a scraper and a piece of discarded flint in the same location in 1984. This provides us with evidence that there was a Mesolithic fishing community on the shores of the Owenriff or along the banks of Lough Corrib in Oughterard. Evidence for the Mesolithic is very hard to find because of the perishable nature of what they were using.
The Bann Flake from 1975 doesn’t show much evidence of having been ‘rolled’ around in the Lake for a long period of time and may have been dislodged from the banks of the Owenriff River in times of storm and high flooding.
The water level of Lough Corrib was lowered by approximately three feet due to Dredging Operations in the mid 19th century. In his excellent book ‘Wilde’s Lough Corrib’ (1867), Sir William Wilde remarks:
‘This sheet of water formerly extended over a much larger space; but by the drainage operations carried on from 1846 to 1850 it was lowered, much valuable land relieved from flooding, and large tracts rendered capable of cultivation; and I myself remember passing in a boat over places now in good pasturage, and fishing in places at present occupied by flourishing plantations’.
If you are feeling a bit data overloaded at the moment, why not take a 9 minute pause before we progress to the next section and watch some very interesting Drone footage.
This is a short video showing the final stages of the Owenriff River as it meanders its way into Lough Corrib. You will see River Island where the bann flakes were found, also take note of the very acute bend just before the river enters the lake. Imagine the camps of the Mesolithic people on either side of the river and along the shoreline of the lake.
Thanks to the Oughterard Anglers & Boatmen’s Association for kind permission to show this video.
When I was gathering the research for the Mesolithic Presentation in 2018, I was a little perplexed. The Mesolithic is very hard to explain to people for the first time, as there is usually nothing to see above the ground. I needed some replica archaeological material for the period, but where would I get them? I then thought of my old friend of nearly forty years, Brendan Hodgers from Ballymacoda in Co. Cork. Hodgie (as I call him) started to turn out some ornaments on a hand-made lathe a few years previously, and the quality of the finished articles were superb.
I E-Mailed him a few sketches to see if he could help me out. Nearly three years later he has given the Oughterard Heritage Group the best part of 80 pieces of replica material covering the Mesolithic, Neolithic and Bronze Ages, and we are currently sketching/designing for the Iron Age/Early Christian period in 2022. The artefacts are of a superb quality and we will always be forever in his debt for enabling us to bring our Presentations to life by demonstrating these replica materials. This output is all the more remarkable when you consider that Hodgie has been courageously battling MS for the past 12 years, and he also refuses to take any money for the magnificient and professional work he has completed for us.
The following are some examples from the Mesolithic period and specifically concentrating on fishing activities.
I have now moved forward over 6,000 years to Oughterard of the 1920’s to take a quick look at the Corrib Boatmen. They became celebrated in 1960 after the publication of T.C. Kingsmill Moore’s book ‘A Man May Fish’, which is still held in high renown across the world. Kingsmill Moore was a most distinguished judge of the Irish High Court and of the Supreme Court and he had played a part in Irish political life as a member of the Senate.
When he came to Oughterard to fish Lough Corrib in 1926, Jamesie Donnellan and Jimmy Mc Donagh from Billamore would be his Boatmen for the next 10 years. In the early years, Jimmy was in charge of the rowing and Jamesie dispensed the technical information. After Jamesie had passed away, Jimmy combined both of these positions.
Kingsmill Moore fished many of the lakes across Ireland, and it would be unusual for the Boatmen to get more than a couple of lines of reference. However, TC was so enamored at the skill and knowledge of Jamesie and Jimmy that he devoted two full chapters to them – Lough Corrib and Jamesie (Chapter 11) and the Wisdom of Jamesie (Chapter 12). It is a wonderful testament to two local Boatmen from Billamore and we should be very proud of them.
For the first time I will now ask the question – was there a continuity of tradition between the Mesolithic fishermen and The Corrib Boatmen? Did that original skill make its way down through all the millennia to the present day? I will be asking this question again in the next section.
Baurisheen is the most northerly of the Oughterard townlands and its eastern side is a window that overlooks Lough Corrib. Baurisheen became the epicenter of professional fishing in the area with the advent of the famed Corrib Bell Fishermen. The Corrib Bell fishermen used a smaller single boat called a punt or bricin, and was usually about 14 feet in length. This was essentially a single boat and a much smaller craft than the subsequent Lake Boat of 18 to 19 feet when the tourist economy came along. There hazel poles with thirty foot lines were trolled at the back of the boat, and a bell rang at the top of the hazel rod when a fish struck the line. The punt was very popular and every house in Baurisheen probably had a couple.
A look at the census records show that there were on average a couple of fisherman in every house. I also came across some data from 1905 that showed 50 people in the area working as fisherman, and they would have to catch an average of 10 lbs (4.5kg) per day to make it economical. I am told that the Baurisheen fishermen never feared the weather as they knew every inch of the lake and were also very knowledgeable to changing weather conditions. As a precaution they would always take some wrapped up cake out with them and some paraffin to light a fire if they had to stay on one of the islands overnight due to inclement weather. Nobody in Baurisheen worried if they didn’t come back at night as they had the reputation of being skillful and fearless fishermen. People from Baurisheen still remember, when they were young, ice being broken up on the banks of Lough Corrib and inserted into crates with the trout. This cargo was then put on the train from Oughterard to Galway, and regularly shipped as far away as the famous fish market at Billingsgate in London. The punt actually reminds me of the ‘coracle’ we came across earlier in the archaeological replica material section, both were light boats suitable for one person and there may be a connection here.
I am now going to switch to the Galway City fishing village of The Claddagh, and I’ll be coming back to Baurisheen again shortly.
The image (above) is interesting , as it shows the demolition of the fishing cottages on The Claddagh during the 1930’s. The new houses on Claddagh Avenue have already been built and we are looking into where the back gardens are going to be. You would wonder what the woman holding the child on the bottom right is thinking – maybe the end of a way of life that had persisted for many thousands of years? (image courtesy of Sean Sexton, Ireland in Photographs).
Up to the 1930’s The Claddagh was a very old fishing village close to the centre of Galway City, where the River Corrib meets Galway Bay. They survived as a standalone fishing society with their own laws and customs until their houses fell into disrepair and the City was closing in on them. The Claddagh is recorded as one of the oldest former fishing villages in Ireland and the people who lived here had been gathering seafood and skilled at fishing over many thousands of years prehistory and history. Thomas Carlyle, writing in 1849, described them as a ‘kind of wild Irish community’.
As luck would have it the American photographer, Branson De Cou, visited Ireland in the 1930’s, took a special interest in The Claddagh and the following are a selection of photographs taken only a few years before the cottages were demolished.
While you are looking at these photographs, try to imagine what Baurisheen, also a fishing village, would have looked like in the early part of the 20th century. There may have been similar cottages with thatched roofs, but they would have been spaced further apart with agricultural land.
Is it possible to establish a link between The Claddagh and Baurisheen?
There is no evidence to link both fishing villages at the moment, but this is what I think may have happened.
On the above image (Ref: Killian Driscoll) the possible Mesolithic sites that have yielded finds are marked with a yellow dot. The red arrow denotes the aforementioned site at River Island in Oughterard. You can see a nice bit of activity on the River Corrib in Galway, and this is where the first Mesolithic sites may have been located as they arrived from the sea.
After a while of settling on the River Corrib, and it could have taken a few hundred years, a group may have decided to explore up Lough Corrib and started heading west. The main party probably stayed in Galway to establish a fishing village which would later become known as The Claddagh.
As the exploratory Mesolithic group headed up the narrow part of Lough Corrib, they probably thought they were still travelling up a river like the River Corrib in Galway where they were coming from. As they started to approach Oughterard they may have got a little startled as the lake began to widen, and they may have thought they were back at the Ocean again. Then to the left they saw a decent looking river (Owenriff) flowing into Lough Corrib, they sailed up the Owenriff, liked what they saw and decided to stay for a while.
They built their houses on the side of the Owenriff, and they now had the advantage of a river, a lake and forestry area where they could hunt for the wild pig. While they were out fishing in the logboats one day they decided to hug the shoreline up another bit and they arrived at Bauriseen Bay. This was an even better place to launch our boats, they thought, and it was also serviced by the Derrylaura River. Baurisheen was now established as another Mesolithic site in Oughterard , and over subsequent years they would travel back and forth between The Claddagh and Bauriseen and over the course of prehistory into history, both of these Mesolithic sites became centres of excellence fishing sites.
That’s my take on it anyway, I can’t prove anything at the moment but I will look at other ways in the years to come to see if that link can be established. This way of thinking is not too far removed from what became known as ‘Riverford Culture’ proposed by Dr. Adolf Mahr in the 1930’s, and based on the excavations of V.G. Childe in Skara Brae (Orkneys) and the Shetlands. This theory postulated that the Later Mesolithic (5500-4000 BC) people started to travel up the rivers, cleared selected areas of vegetation, and erected weirs and traps to capture the annual migrating salmon runs. The Later Mesolithic people would also have used broader and stronger tools like ‘Bann Flakes’, and we have seen these earlier as giving evidence to the Oughterard settlements.
Before I did the Mesolithic Presentation for the local Primary Schools during May and June 2018, I wasn’t quite sure what to expect. I thought, maybe, with the advent of gaming, mobile phone and tablet technology that they would not have much of an interest in this sort of thing. How wrong I was. The children were highly attentive during the presentations, asked me a large number of interesting questions, and could not wait to get a feel of the replicated material at the end, especially on the fine days when we were able to go outside. It screams out to me now that we still have a captive audience in the Primary Schools if we present the heritage material in a simple and straightforward way and have some of the physical replicated materials on hand to make it come alive for them.
I wrote a little coming of age story for schoolchildren centering around a 12 year old boy called Brannon to emphasize the qualities of generosity, kindness, compassion and bravery.
There is also an audio version of this story available at the end of this text. Click Here
It was just after dawn, and the warm summer sunshine was creeping into his house. Brannon woke up quickly and thought of the exciting day that was ahead of him. He loved the summertime and he loved his house.
His house, where he lived with his Father, Mother and younger brother and sister was very cosy.
His Father had built the house when they were younger from wooden poles. Smaller sticks called saplings were wound around the poles and then everything was covered with rushes. In the wintertime, animal skins were also used as a covering to keep in the heat. The main fire was outside the hut, but a smaller fire was also built inside the hut to keep them warm and the smoke escaped out through the top.
The name ‘Brannon’ means ‘little crow’, he was now 12 years old and dark skinned. His skin soaked in the summer sunshine and it always made him look healthy and alive.
Today was a very special day for Brannon. When a boy and a girl reached 12 years of age they were taken hunting and fishing with their parents to see if they could capture a wild pig and a salmon. Today was Brannon’s day to show how skillful he was, and also to prepare him for adulthood in a few years time. This was a very important ritual in the village of Oughterard, and he was nervous but also confident.
After a quick breakfast of fruit and berries, Brannon and hid Dad set off from the river to make the journey into the deep forest. They had to leave as early as possible in the morning as the wild pig is a noctural animal which hunts during the night and sleeps by day. It didn’t take long to reach the woods as there were trees everywhere. They are also accompanied by Brannon’s black and white collie called Fia. Brannon loves all animals but he adores Fia and they are always together.
It wasn’t long before they were in the deeper part of the woods. Brannon was armed with a bow and arrow and his Dad carried a spear and a sharp knife. Suddenly, Brannon saw a young pig in the clearing, he was all alone and eating some plants from the forest floor.
Brannon paused for a few seconds, and then quietly said to his Father..
‘Dad, that little pig is young like me, and I want to give him a chance to grow up like me also. Can I do that?’, he whispers.
‘Of course you can’, said his Father.’We do not kill animals for pleasure, we only do it so that the family can eat’
‘You will make a great hunter Brannon’, his Dad said proudly, because you understand already that there is more to hunting than killing animals’
‘We only take what we need, and all living things should get a chance to live their lives’.
His Dad walked on ahead, with Brannon and Fia a little further behind.
Suddenly and without warning, a large and ferocious looking wild pig darts out of the undergrowth in the forest. Instinctively, Fia rushes towards the wild pig to protect Brannon, but he is thrown into the air with the impact of the wild pig’s tusks. Brannon sees Fia lying on the ground with some blood flowing from his wound and the wild pig is standing over him.
He takes an arrow from his pouch, places it in the string of the bow, and with a calmness, unusual for a boy so young, fires the arrow straight and direct into the throat of the wild pig. Sweating, he hopes that his aim will be good or the wild pig is going to kill him.The ferocious looking wild animal hits the ground with a heavy thud, and there is no more movement from him.
Brannon’s Dad was too far in front to do anything, but he heard all the commotion and noise, and rushed back to Brannon in a panic. He saw the enormous wild pig on the ground and the blood on the dog, who was being attended to by his son.
His Father congratulates him on his bravery and for being so calm in a very dangerous situation. They attend to Fia and his wound, the brave little dog is not too badly injured and starts to walk and run again.
Brannon told his Dad that everything happened very quickly, and he had to react very fast after the wild pig had injured Fia.
His Father was very proud of him. ‘You are an intelligent and very brave young man. It would have been easy to kill a young pig, but what you did was very brave and courageous’
When they got back to the village, his Father told everybody what had happened in the woods and everybody was hugging Brannon, patting him on the back and admiring the bravery of a boy so young.
But the day was not over for Brannon yet. In the afternoon he would go to fish with his Mother on Lough Corrib, and hoping to get his first big salmon.
In the afternoon, which was the second part of his challenge,Brannon was going fishing with his Mum on the lake. Brannon simply loved living beside the Owenriff River and Lough Corrib.
The Owenriff starts about 10 miles up in the mountain, passing through four or five lakes, charges over the waterfall near Oughterard and then enters the lake at a place called River Island. Lough Corrib was spectacular looking to Brannon, he had never fished there before and was really looking forward to this trip.He had fished with his harpoon in the Owenriff near The Shrubbery, and he had to be very patient standing in the middle of the cold river and waiting for the small trout and eels to come along.
But today was different , he was going fishing for a big salmon , and he was bursting with excitement!
Men fished and hunted and also gathered fruit and berries. The women gathered the fruit and berries too, but they also hunted and fished. In the village of Oughterard,men and women, boys and girls, were all equal.
Before they went to the lake, they took the coracle boat along the Owenriff to check the fish-traps. The fish-traps were very important to the village as many fish were caught during the night while they were sleeping.This way, they always had a plentiful supply of fish to eat.
When they reached the lake they got into the log boat. This was much safer on the lake , especially if they had to go out a bit from the shore.
Today they were going after a big salmon. Brannon had caught some small fish in the river, but today was the day to show what a good fisherman he was. He had dug up some nice juicy worms the night before with a sharp stick and he put them into a wooden container wrapped in some damp moss.
When they set off from Baurisheen, there were only a few white clouds in the sky and there was a light wind blowing. Brannon put a few of the worms on to a hook made from bone and let the line go out a bit on the water. The sun was shining, he was fishing for salmon, and he was a happy young boy.He had a younger sister, Eithne, and it would be her turn to go hunting and fishing next year. He also had a younger brother called Eshyn.
The lake and the landscape looked stunning and peaceful today, and there was a great feeling of joy to be so close to nature.
Brannon’s Mum was in charge of steering the boat with a timber paddle and she was doing a very good job. After about an hour or so , she said…
‘Brannon , we should take a break for a while now and have a bit of food, I’ll row over to the shore.
‘That’s great’, said Brannon, I’m starving anyway’
They lit a fire and wrapped the two small trout they found earlier in the fish-traps in leaves and moss, placed them on the fire, and it wasn’t long before the steam had cooked them through. They had a lovely meal, and after a short while they were on their way again rowing across the lake.
All of a sudden, Brannon felt a sharp tug on the line he was holding in his hand, and it felt very strong indeed. Then about 20 metres away they saw a very big salmon leap out of the water with Brannon’s line in his mouth.
‘Well done Brannon’, said his Mum. He’s a big fish, take your time, be patient and we’ll row out towards him. The salmon used all his strengh to get away from them but Brannon played him carefully and would let him go a short distance and then pull slowly on the line to get the fish towards the boat. There was a teriffic contest between the big salmon and the young boy , and soon Brannon had made him very tired and brought him beside the boat. Then both of them put their hands around the lovely big salmon and brought him into the log boat.
‘That’s brilliant’, said his Mum, a wild pig and a big salmon on the same day. Nobody is going to believe this!’
That evening there was a big celebration for Brannon in the village, and there was a beautiful smell in the air as the wild pig and salmon were being roasted on separate Spits.
There was a tradition in the village that the first salmon or wild pig is cooked in the presence of the person who caught it, and that person also has the first taste of the fish or meat.
But, like the episode with the young pig earlier in the morning, he broke with tradition, and offered the first pieces of wild pig and salmon to his Mother, Father, Sister and Brother.He also brought some meat over to his wonderful, brave and wounded Fia.
His mother wiped a tear from her eye, and said to Brannon – ‘you are going to make a great Hunter and fIsherman, and one day you will have a family of your own to pass on your wonderful skills, compassion and kindness.
That night, after the last of the embers went out on the fire, and exhausted after his great day and big adventures, he went to his cosy bed tired but very happy.
That morning he woke up as a 12 year old boy, now he was going to bed as a 12 year old hunter of wild pig and a fisher of large salmon.
He slept well, and had wonderful dreams that night.
Brannon’s Great Adventure Audio
In the tradition of keeping the best wine until last, I would now like to introduce you to John Oliver Molloy. John Oliver, from Baurisheen, has been working as a Boatman on Lough Corrib over many decades out of Currarevagh House. He is one of nature’s gentlemen, and his insightful knowledge, wisdom and experience has helped me enormously in putting this little Heritage Week project together.
I asked John Oliver recently why the Corrib Boatmen were always held in high esteem, and he told me that all the good Boatmen came from the ranks of the original Bell Fishermen, who knew the Lake like the back of their hand. He also remarked that the Corrib Boatmen have never had a fatality when they take people out fishing. Then we spoke about the tragedy of the Famine in Oughterard in that the river and lake were full of fish, but because people became dependant on the potato, nobody knew how to fish anymore. Interestingly, there are no records of anybody dying in Baurisheen of hunger during the Famine. They fished their way out of the Famine, as did the people in The Claddagh.
The following video is a thing of pure beauty, and our appreciation goes to Ultan Molloy, John Oliver’s son, who put this marvellous work together to celebrate the life of his Dad as a Corrib Boatman. It is not all about fishing either as it weaves man, landscape, nature, wisdom and life together in a myriad of senses.
Thank you for making the journey through this little Heritage Week project, and I hope you were able to find something of interest along the way. I would have preferred to deliver a more physical rousing and interactive Presentation & Exhibition, but we had no option but to go the online route this year. More questions as regards the Mesolithic tradition in Lough Corrib have possibly been asked than answered, but the journey and research will continue apace into the future. Please feel free to contact me at any stage on 087 9239194 or [email protected] if you want to give some input or get involved.
Bill Daly, Oughterard Culture and Heritage Group