Belfast Telegraph

'I was fishing before I left school and it really does get in the blood'

Barry McMullan and John Morton in the fish and chip shop
Barry McMullan and John Morton in the fish and chip shop
Kevin, Angela, Carol and John Morton in Ballycastle

John Morton was born to be a fisherman. His love for the sea was passed down to him by his father and it has helped him expand the family business into a thriving fish and chip shop in one of Northern Ireland's busiest tourist destinations.

Morton's Fish and Chip Shop in Ballycastle came about as a way of ensuring the future of a business that had been passed down through the family for several generations.

It was originally established by John's grandfather more than 100 years ago, who bought fish as it arrived fresh into Ballycastle harbour and sold it on.

The mantle was taken on by his children, including John's father, who began to venture out into the seas to catch their own fish for the business.

John says: "I always loved being out on the boats, it's definitely something I learned from my father.

"I was fishing before I left school, it is something I have always enjoyed, it definitely gets in your blood.

"I suppose it's like farming in that it's handed down, it's something you learn from a young age."

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The family has always had premises overlooking the harbour in the seaside town and it has been from there they have sold their fish, including prawns, salmon and lobster.

However, as the years went by, the Morton family realised they would have to expand the business in order to ensure its future.

John adds: "Our fish shop was just on the border of being viable.

"I think we came under a lot of pressure from the supermarkets in those days, although I do think that people have gone back to buying fish from fishmongers.

"However, at that time we had to think of how we could introduce something else to the business and that's when we came up with the idea of the fish and chip shop."

With an investment of £100,000, they transformed their premises at the harbour to include a shop, as well as a fish and chip shop.

That was in 2005 and the family hasn't looked back since.

"We really hit the ground running," says John.

"It was a bit of a gamble, but it was just something that we had to do.

They were fortunate to get support from the owner of a chain of local fish and chip shops, Garth Godfrey, who offered them advice and training in the early days.

"They were very, very good to us," he says.

"From there we were able to progress and come up with our own ideas on how to do things."

During the summer months, it isn't uncommon for people to queue out the door of the shop just to get their hands on some of the freshly caught fish, including cod, haddock, scallops and crab cakes.

"We try to make it so that we offer things like crab cakes, which are a little bit different from your normal fish and chip shop, although cod is still our most popular item," says John.

Over the years, the family gathered a large proportion of their stock by catching it themselves.

Both John and his brother Kevin spent countless hours at sea and at one stage they had five boats.

However, in recent years that has been scaled back and they now have two boats.

John explains: "I'm 60 now and it's a young man's job, I want to do something a wee bit easier because it's very physical.

"It can be very, very tough and it's hard to get young people to go fishing nowadays.

"It's unsociable for one thing, it's quite dangerous, it's the unknown factor of how you are going to do at the end of the week - are you going to have enough money in the bank?

"It takes great determination, it depends on the fish you are fishing for.

"The boats normally leave in the early hours of the morning, it could be anything from 3am, and you're basically not back to anything up to nine or ten at night.

"If you're setting out for two or three days in one of the bigger boats then you'd only be getting a few hours sleep."

Kevin was also forced to take a step back after he suffered a stroke. However, the fish they sell is still as fresh as it always has been, coming off the boats that still come in to the harbour.

And the fish is still processed in the same area that has been in the shop since John's father's time there.

"There is nothing better than catching your own fish, processing it and cooking it," says John.

"It would be nice to catch it all but between things like quotas and different restrictions, we also buy from the market as well.

"We buy on price and we buy on quality as well."

As it stands, there are currently no plans to expand the family-run business any further, such as through the development of franchises.

John is confident that it can continue to grow and flourish and there are plans to pass it down through the family.

However, he did express some concern about the potential effect of Brexit on the business.

"From a fisherman's point of view, Brexit is to be welcomed because of the regulations and laws and we will have more control over our waters," John adds.

"However, from our point of view, we depend upon tourists coming here so I'm very much on the fence because we need it to be easy for tourists to come here and for them to always feel welcome.

"The most important thing, however, is perseverance because making a success out of a business takes a lot time and effort to get it right.

"What matters to us is that we keep attracting people in and they get to enjoy this beautiful part of the world."

Belfast Telegraph