Fishing in Lough Neagh

When most people think of Toome they think of the eel fishery. Fishing for eels in Lough Neagh has been going on for centuries. There are records of fifth-century monks along the loughshore catching eels for their oil which was used in lamps. In 1830 one visitor to the area noted: ‘Toome is famous for its eel fishery’.

Until the twentieth century, however, fishing in Lough Neagh was primarily focused on pollan, a freshwater whitefish unique to Ireland. By the 1930s fishermen were concentrating more on eels for which they were receiving better prices, though pollan fishing did experience a revival in the Second World War. Today Lough Neagh is home to the largest commercial eel fishery in Europe.

Matt Quinn was born into a family that has fished in Lough Neagh for generations. He grew up in Moortown, Ardboe, on the west side of Lough Neagh, home to the largest community of fishermen around the lough. There Quinn is one of the most common names, so much so that the different families are known by nicknames. His Quinns were known as the ‘Laddies’. ‘We were all brought up on the lough’, reflects Matt, pointing out that he was one of five sons (John, Philip, Charlie, Peter and Matt), all of whom fished. At one time they had three boats on the lough. Matt started going out on the boats when he was nine or ten. He explains that he was big for his age and was regularly in demand: ‘I had a good interest in it and if any boat along the area was a man short I would have pulled in.’

In the early 1940s, when Matt was eleven, his family moved to the northern shore of the lough to an area known as The Three Islands. His father, Peter, had purchased a farm of 20 acres, as well as a house and outbuildings, thinking it would be a handier place from which to fish. Matt lives in the same house today. Though he may say with a slight smile, ‘that’s why we were so poor’ in response to a question about the family’s longstanding associations with the fishing industry, there is no doubt that the life of a fisherman is neither easy nor lucrative. It can, however, be deeply satisfying. As Matt now reflects: ‘It’s a hard life, the fishing, but it’s enjoyable too. … Whenever you got a good catch you were on top of the world.’

The farm helped to supplement the fishing. They had a couple of cows that provided their milk and they made their own butter with a plunge churn. They also grew some potatoes and cereals on land they took in conacre. A few pigs were also kept. During the quiet season for fishermen, his father might have hired himself out to a farmer. However, when asked if his father was a fisherman who farmed or a farmer who fished, Matt is very clear that his father was first and foremost a fisherman. For health reasons his father had to give up fishing when he was about 70, but he retained a keen interest in the lough, as Matt recalls: ‘When we would have come in, he wasn’t long asking you what you got and where were you at.’

Having been out on the water for nearly three-quarters of a century, Matt has an immense knowledge of Lough Neagh and its fish. In later years Matt’s understanding of the lough was put to good use when he worked as a boatman for the Freshwater Laboratory of the University of Ulster at Traad Point on Lough Neagh. Despite his experience he is far from complacent about the potential dangers of working on the water. ‘You have to respect the lough’, he cautions, pointing out that in March and April especially the wind can come in very suddenly and make boating dangerous. He is all too aware of this personally for on 26 November 1948 his brother Peter was drowned in the lough. Matt still has clear memories of the moment he was told this tragic news.

In his interview Matt talked about the nets used, pegging lines (which took about three hours), baits (got mainly from around the shore), and the fishing seasons (pollan was fished from February to May; at one time the eel season did not start until June, but it is now 1 May). He used nets to fish for scale-fish – trout, perch, pike and pollan. When landed, these had to be sorted into different boxes which were then collected by the local fish merchant, William John Johnston. Some of the scale fish were sold locally, from house to house. He points out that one bad spawning season for pollan could affect fishermen for two or three years.

Eels were caught using lines that were set in the evening and lifted again early the next morning. At one time he might have gone out as early as 3am, but this was later curtailed to 4.30am. At times you could get a ‘real big catch’, perhaps 2 stones to a hundred hooks (typically they would have had 600 hooks). Once the eels were landed it was vital to keep them alive. They were, therefore, put into tanks into which water was pumped. They were then lifted in a lorry and taken to the fishery in Toome. Ultimately, they were transported to the famous fish market in Billingsgate, London. Today, most of the eels are exported to the Continent.

Matt has seen many changes to fishing in Lough Neagh in the course of his lifetime. The lough was ‘black with boats’ when he was younger. He reckons that there were over 300 fishing boats on the lough with 3 men to every boat. He points out that one of the reasons for the higher number of fishermen in the past was that there were fewer alternatives sources of employment. This was especially true in those rural areas adjoining the lough. It is also true that today the size of the catches is nowhere near what it once was. Now an eel catch of half a stone to a hundred hooks would be considered good. Despite this, Matt remains optimistic for the future of fishing on Lough Neagh.

South Antrim Living Memories Project wishes to acknowledge the assistance of: