Sunday, 12 November 2017
Where the boat comes in: Scot whose engineering genius saved the remote West of Ireland
It was a Scottish a civil engineer whose vision helped to rid the West Coast of Ireland of desperate hunger and alleviate the distress of the Forgotten Famine of 1822.
Alexander Nimmo of Kirkcaldy in Fife helped to lift this heavy yoke off the shoulders of the starving, poverty-stricken population of the Connemara, Galway and Clare coastline.
The civil engineering genius had been commissioned by the UK government to investigate and report on where piers, harbours and breakwaters would be beneficial to the coastal population around the whole island of Ireland.
Politicians and public officials, who had recent experience of a failed French invasion at Bantry in Co Cork and a smaller, successful one at Kilcummin in Co Mayo in 1798, were afraid that that any new harbours and landing places could present clandestine gateways into the country for potential invaders.
Prior to 1819 there were no Irish sea fishery authorities of any sort, or any other Irish public body with a dedicated role in the provision of piers, quays and harbours.
Since so much of the coast around Galway, Connemara and Clare was remote and difficult to defend, it was considered inadvisable if not outright dangerous to consider building any landing facilities at all.
It was felt that to proceed with such a project would have been illegal following the passing of an Act in 1806 requiring that no pier, quay or jetty be erected in any natural harbour anywhere in the country without the proposer giving at least one month’s notice to the UK Admiralty.
Nevertheless, the Ordnance Survey map of Ireland of 1839 recorded 61 man-made piers and quays on the coasts of Galway and Clare, 23 of which were built in the 1820s, leaving 38 of uncertain, but early, date.
Considering the region in four notional sub regions – Galway Bay (from Blackhead to Ballinahown; South Connemara (Ballinahown to Roundstone); west Connemara (Roundstone to Killary); and the islands of Aran, Inishark and Inishbofin – the number of piers and quays recorded before 1820 were:
Galway Bay 28; south Connemara, six; west Connemara, four, and the islands, one.
When the outskirts of Galway city are excluded the number of piers and quays greatly exceed the number in Connemara and many of them were associated with what would have been known as the “big house” in the locality.
By the end of the 19th century the number of manmade piers and quays had soared to 315 and the vast majority of them are still there to be seen.
Some of them are seriously dilapidated however.
A new book Humble Works for Humble People by Noel P Wilkins reveals that the funding for these piers came mainly from Government for the fisheries and from funds which had been allocated for the relief of distress in times of famine. The landlords and charities also made a contribution.
Legal ownership of a large number of these piers was transferred eventually to the relevant county councils which maintained them mon behalf of the public. Only a few of the smaller ones remain in private ownership.
The Commission for Irish Fisheries was set up around 1820, an independent body whose main duty was to encourage and support the fishing industry by introducing a scheme that helped to finance the fitting out of fishing boats and rewarded fishermen for landing fish.
They appointed inspectors to report on the numbers of people involved in fishing, the number of boats and the general accessibility if the harbours to particular districts.
One of the most important things they did was report on the state of the harbours and the most advantageous sites for fishing stations.
And this post was given to Alexander Nimmo, who had been given a similar task on a national scale and had been responsible for overseeing the engineering works on Ireland’s roads, railways and bridges.
Despite the slowness with which it was initially taken up, the pier scheme was driven forward when famine struck in 1822.
There was no general or absolute shortage of food: the problem was that the indigenous poor had absolutely no money, nor any opportunity to earn money with which to buy food when their own crops failed.
It was decided to scrap a scheme which involved local people having to pay for half the cost of the construction work and some charities stepped in to fill the vacuum.
Nimmo, who had been working on the east coast, was immediately sent west and within weeks he produced a list of 33 sites suitable for small piers.
This list was pared down and eventually added to, including four in Galway – Killeany, Duras, Clifden and Claddagh – as famine aid flowed in from the UK, Calcutta and other dependencies on India.
By the time the London Tavern Fund was wound down in August 1822, it had given over £300,000 in charitable relief funds to Ireland – “a largesse now almost completely forgotten”.
The residue of this fund was used right up to the beginning of the 19th century.
Of the first 12 piers on Nimmo’s list, three were in Galway – Costello, Roundstone and Cleggan – as were five of the next 20, Barna, Spideal, Rinville, Ballinacourty and St Kitts (Killeenaran). One, Burrin New Quay, was on the north Clare coast.
Killeany, (Inis Mor), Duras, Clifden and Claddagh were added later.
Wilkins writes: “The Commissioners were fortunate in having Nimmo as their engineer; he had surveyed Connemara in 1813 on behalf of the Bogs Commission and was thoroughly familiar with the area.
“He identified places where fishing villages could be profitably developed around proposed new piers, including Cleggan, Clifden, Roundstone and Beal an Daingin, and he was generally sanguine about the prospects of the whole region, which others had virtually written off.”
The Scot was also pout in charge of famine relief measures in Connacht. He is said to have been flexible in his approach and achieved more than had been initially anticipated.
The quality of the work done was generally very good and some of it was “technically quite sophisticated”.
It was of a higher standard than the piers at Derryinver, Leenaun and Clonisle, which were built of stone laid in rough courses in an open form and financed only by Western District funds.
These piers were enlarged and strengthened over time however and Leenaun, which was used for the export of Connemara marble, remained unaltered until recently when it was renovated by Galway County Council.
Today most of the piers and harbours in Connemara and Co Galway are no longer used for commercial fishing, but there are still some small piers such as Rossadillisk, near Cleggan, where fishermen still go out in curraghs.
Piers and harbours though are at the heart of the tourism industry. A walk down to the pier or the harbour is an irresistible attraction for visitors to the many towns and villages along The Atlantic Way.
Cleggan itself provides a maritime gateway to Inishbofin, which has become exponentially more popular with eco visitors, people who love nature, walking, cycling and angling.
Large numbers of people have fallen in love with Galway and Connemara through the pages of Walter Macken’s novels such as Rain on the Wind and the works of J M Synge, which include the world-famous Playboy of the Western World and is set in the Aran Islands.
The author of this excellent book, a retired professor of history, states that early in the research for it he asked a resident of Carraroe whether there was a quay, pier or landing place of any kind at the bottom of a particularly long boithrin in that part of the Gaeltacht.
The person replied that in Connemara there is a landing place at the end of every boithrin leading to the shore.
Humble Works for Humble People is a guide into not all, but nearly all of these landing points and is beautifully illustrated with coloured and black and white photographs.
It explores the history of the fishery piers and harbours of Co Galway and north Clare.
It is also a riveting account of the human aspect that shadowed their construction and a beautiful rendering of the maritime activities that gave life to the Wild Atlantic Way.
Kelp-making, fishing, turf distribution and sea-borne trade are all dealt with in this book which is published by the Irish Academic Press and available in all good bookshops and on-line.
The Inishbofin ferry leaving Cleggan Pier for the island. Picture by BILL HEANEY