IEHN Online - Reviews
Troubled Waters: A Social and Cultural History of Ireland’s Sea Fisheries by Jim Mac Laughlin. Published in 2010 by Four Courts Press. 414 pages with index. Hardback. ISBN: 978-1-84682-258-2.
Dr. Jim Mac Laughlin of University of Cork has written extensively regarding the groups that exist in social margins, such as gypsies and travellers. It is from this milieu that Mac Laughlin positions his study of Ireland’s sea fisheries, setting out his stall from the outset with the subtitle of this book. The history of Ireland’s sea fisheries is a fascinating subject and deserves comprehensive coverage, and in addition to this the social and cultural facets are an important aspect of Irish fishing history that merit a thorough examination. The only other relatively recent and extensive treatment of this subject is John de Courcy Ireland’s Ireland’s Sea Fisheries, published in 1981, which still provides an excellent overview of the development of the Irish fishing industry.
Mac Laughlin’s main premise is that the development of Ireland’s sea fisheries has been strongly influenced by political, cultural and social factors. Of particular concern to Mac Laughlin is the post-famine marginalisation of the coastal poor that he attributes to social hegemony facilitated by the Nationalist movement. He regards the neglect of maritime folk in Irish society as a consequence of the drive to promote settled agrarians as a foundation stone of successful nation-building. The disappointment with this book is that although Mac Laughlin proposes valid theories as to why Ireland’s sea fisheries did not develop to their economic potential in the modern period, the evidence he presents to support his arguments is often unconvincing and lightweight. Troubled Waters reads like a compendium of Irish fishing history, and in this way it builds on de Courcy Ireland’s seminal work, by conveying a greater body of information in the form of historical facts and anecdotes, in addition to updating our knowledge of the scale of the fishing industry in the past.
Chapter two contains fascinating glimpses of prehistoric fishing activity through archaeology and comparative ethnological studies, although I was somewhat surprised by the omission of O’Sullivan and Breen’s 2007 study Maritime Ireland: an Archaeology of Coastal Communities, which is an important and comprehensive study on this subject. The author also asserts that prehistoric coastal dwellers hunted whales, and offers the presence of whale bones in kitchen middens as evidence. However, any trained archaeologist would avoid making such an assumption; although hunter-gatherers would certainly have valued the bounty of whale carcasses, they more than likely exploited the cetaceans that strand upon our shores rather than actively hunted them. These stranding events are far from rare; in their Irish Cetacean Review for 2000-2009, the Irish Whale and Dolphin group (IWDG) report that in recent years there have been 140-150 stranding events recorded each year, and these events often involve multiple animals.
In chapters three and four, Mac Laughlin chronicles the increasingly commercial nature of fishing in pre-modern and early modern Ireland. He also includes exploitation of freshwater fisheries in his history, but gives no indication of the wider European context that would greatly contribute to an understanding of the dynamics of fish consumption and exploitation. A large body of recent work on European fisheries history has been ignored by the author and so his arguments are stifled by the confines of a solely national history. There is a tendency for generalisation when he does look outside Ireland in support of his arguments, such as his descriptions of the nature of fishermen in chapter six. Mac Laughlin does provide a narrative on the multitude of foreign fleets that exploited Ireland’s marine resources from early medieval times, but the narrative is hindered by a disjointed chronology that makes it difficult to ascertain the broader picture. Likewise, readers will find the narrative hard to follow when the geographical location being discussed jumps from one sentence to the next.
Mac Laughlin’s arguments are perhaps most compelling when he quotes large sections of text from other scholars (for example. p. 168 and p. 182). There is much conjecture but little detailed analysis; for example, why was it that “this great migration (herring) ushered in a new era of prosperity for English, Scottish, and to a much lesser extent, Irish fishermen” (p. 102)? There is also a lack of analysis when Mac Laughlin presents us with facts; for example, he writes “those engaged in this fishery were also banned from fishing from June to the end of October” (p. 208), without noting any reasons for this ban. Was it based on environmental considerations? Political? Economical? There is no examination of the cause, context or the consequence of these events.
Chapter five is similarly ambiguous and inconclusive. Public health fears in urban centres during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries were reason enough for authorities to impose restrictions on traders, including fishmongers, without looking to a “petty bourgeoisie” who had an agenda of “prejudicial” victimisation of fish marketers and processors. The process of “civilising” the markets of urban ports was driven by the general trend of mercantilism, and the inherent need for control that came with such economic principles. Such reform would certainly have had profound effects on the fishing industry in Ireland, but sadly this is not discussed here. Instead the author goes to great lengths, with much anecdotal evidence, to convey the stench associated with fish processing and marketing, but his point is not obvious. The repugnant nature of fish waste products to those not accustomed to them has more to do with human physiology and the olfactory system than notions of bourgeois sensibilities! It would be useful to know whether tanneries and meat markets were also heavily restricted and marginalised due to public health concerns, the rising tide of mercantilism and a general distaste of all things stenchful.
Mac Laughlin highlights significant issues concerning Ireland’s sea fisheries, such as the influence of William Petty (1623-87) and other colonial ‘improvers’ on the commercial development of the fishing industry. Chapter seven includes discussion of the ‘new learning’ methods that some colonial landowners proposed would increase the efficiency and efficacy in the exploitation of Ireland’s natural resources. Mac Laughlin offers a tantalising glimpse into the potential mine of information that private correspondence and personal records kept by landowners may contain. Not least contemporary accounts of fishing methods, processing methods, insights into fisher-folk society, and environmental accounts of fish abundance, biodiversity and seasonality, for example.
Another valid observation by the author is the dichotomy between ‘noble’, settled agriculturists and ‘uncouth’, ‘backward’ coastal poor that is apparent in late nineteenth to early twentieth century literature. He attributes this to social Darwinism and that “In nation-building Ireland, social class attitudes... were strongly influenced by evolutionary theory“ (p.335), and thus fishermen struggling to survive were considered relicts of a primitive past and therefore marginalised. However this is not a wholly satisfactory explanation; the author ignores the influence of the Victorian self-improvement mentality. In order to be a successful industrial nation in Victorian terms, all facets of the nation’s industry must be functioning to their full potential. The potential of Ireland’s marine resources was often discussed at that time, and there was a great effort through people like Baroness Burdett-Coutts to help Ireland reach this potential, and therefore fisheries underdevelopment cannot be solely attributed to social Darwinism.
Mac Laughlin would have produced a more effective vessel for his fundamental points if he had focused on developing his main arguments, and fully explored the implications of the social and cultural factors in the development of Ireland’s sea fisheries in a wider European context. Instead the important issues he raises are sometimes lost in confusingly presented masses of poorly organised information; anecdotes that are interesting in their own right but lack clarity and analysis in their composed form. Mac Laughlin’s endeavour to address the paucity of academic studies on Irish fishing history is highly commendable, but a deeper analysis of the dynamics at play are needed.