Belfast Telegraph

Thursday 27 November 2014

Restless disquiet in Kilkeel - the town built upon fishing

When the trawlers in our largest fishing port can't put to sea, it affects more than just the crews. Dave Whelan talks to people on the quayside

Areminder of more abundant times in February 1968 when Bonnie Boy, the smallest registered trawler in the fleet, landed a record catch of 150 boxes of cod
A reminder of more abundant times in February 1968 when Bonnie Boy, the smallest registered trawler in the fleet, landed a record catch of 150 boxes of cod
Fishing boats stuck in port at Kilkeel harbour

Huge fishing trawlers and small fishing boats alike bob and clatter against the sides of the harbour that is at the heart of the once thriving fishing community of Kilkeel.

Traditionally a hive of activity, the relentless storms of recent months have left a limp atmosphere in the Co Down coastal town.

The only sign of life around the harbour yesterday was those few crews who have been instructed to clean their vessels for lack of something more productive to do.

Matthew McBride, a young fisherman, summed up the situation when he said that he has been ashore for almost a month, while other crews have been on dry land since before Christmas.

"The weather is impacting on everyone. Just looking around here at the fish factories and the number of boats tied up, there's no activity and that means no money," he told the Belfast Telegraph.

"It's not just one spell of bad weather, it's happening more and more frequently and going out in those winds poses too much risk.

"They're not ideal conditions for fishing but if the wind would let up and let us get a couple of days pushed in during the week, we'd manage a wage at the end of the week."

It wasn't always this way. A retired fisherman of over 50 years' experience spoke of times when the pier had a carnival atmosphere.

"I remember days when you couldn't have fitted one more boat into that harbour. On a Saturday morning down here you would have met everyone from the town down here with their families," he reminisced.

"There were butchers selling their meat, grocers selling their fruit and veg and just about everything else you could think of. This town thrived on fish."

It's hard to imagine such an energetic atmosphere looking at the faces of the helpless fishermen destined for another wageless month.

The clatter and bang of lorries and vans travelling to and from the factories on the pier is now an eerie silence, with only a minimal amount of workers left to deal with the stores of produce, so worryingly depleted.

Jenna Reece, owner of the fisherman-friendly Neptune's Larder Cafe, looked out over the restless boats and clouds yesterday afternoon.

"For the last few weeks I may well have not opened the shutters," she said. "The weather conditions have impacted on everyone. If the fishermen can't get out, they can't bring back a catch and that mean's there's no money to go around.

"When the catch is good you will see men paying for their crews to eat, but recently, guys are coming in and they don't even have the money for a cup of tea and a bun.

"It's the uncertainty of it. I still have to buy the food and pay the bills in hope that the boats can get out. If not, it will be after Easter before we start seeing any business."

It's not just those that work directly on the harbour that are affected. A quick look at the Main Street in Kilkeel, with its number of empty shop fronts and shuttered businesses, goes some way to painting a picture of the plight of the town.

Patricia Clark from the Port Inn pub said that she was faced with not having one single fisherman on the premises for as long as she can remember.

"Usually we would have quite a few in throughout the week when the fishing is good and in those times Thursday through to Sunday is always buzzing.

"You can tell when it's not, because people's purse strings have to be tightened. It would be frightening to think what might happen to this town if aerospace work dried up."

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