Fish business proves a fine catch for Galway family


TradeNames: The McDonagh family - with a fish mongers, chipper and restaurant - is one of the best known names in the fish business in the west, says Rose Doyle

The cod 'n fish from McDonagh's chipper and restaurant in Galway city is uniquely and globally appreciated, the proof in the eating and in the local and worldwide traffic to the Quay Street shop.

Good news travels far, as P J McDonagh, patriarch of the one-time Connemara family in Quay Street since 1902, discovered recently in Hong Kong. "They were serving 'McDonagh's Cod & Fish' in an Irish pub there - and it was a best seller," he says.

All a long way, and a long time, from that early move from Carraroe to Galway city. P J McDonagh laces the family story with anecdote and a appreciation of an older Ireland. At 57 he's a living example of how the country has changed in half a century, and of how some things haven't changed at all.

"My grandfather, Colman McDonagh, started off in 1902 as a coal merchant. He was known as Cogar, meaning whisper - a nickname in the McDonagh clan. My grandmother was a Joyce, also from Connemara. They had four in family when they arrived in Galway. Two more, including my father, were born in Quay Street."

And then he digresses. Slightly.

"Cogar had been farming, in Tureen, Carraroe, though I've heard more about his poteen making than his farming. When the American cousins come home I take them out there but you wouldn't recognise the place now. It goes right down to the sea and the ruins of the cottage are still there. My grandfather was a friend of Padraig Pearse and my mother's father was in jail in England with de Valera."

And he's off, talking about Michael Collins and others and stories heard, and more. We get back to 1902, eventually.

Colman/Cogar McDonagh rented a home for his family on Quay Street and space at the back of the Spanish Arch to start a coalyard, carrying the coal around the city in a horse and cart. By 1926 he'd bought both the Quay Street house and an open space opposite around which he built a wall, putting an office to the front and behind it a yard for the coal.

"Most local people had access to turf and timber," says P J, "coal was a new thing and you had money if you could afford it. I've a cheque for £3,000 for coal imported from England before the war. Polish coal, but everything was imported through England at the time."

Before the second World War, too, Colman/Cogar McDonagh worked for merchants Thomas McDonagh (no relation) unloading his own and the merchant's coal from the hookers as they arrived at the docks. "When the war came," P J says, "there was no coal coming in, so he worked unloading general cargo."

P J's father, also Colman, entered the scene in time. "He was known as Coley, to differentiate between the two of them," P J says. "Himself and a man named Paul Finn started the ITGWU on the docks. Dockers had belonged to British-based unions until then. There was great trouble, with fellows walloped with shovels over it."

Coley McDonagh married Margaret Grealish from Curraghgreen, near Oranmore and, in 1948, Margaret converted the office at the front of the coalyard into a fish shop.

"Quay Street was known as Fish Street because so many living there sold fish from upturned boxes outside their doors," P J says. "It continued into Spanish Arch where fish was traditionally sold. There were eight of us reared in the house across from the fish shop. I was the third, I've two older sisters and a brother and four other sisters under me. All I knew growing up was fish.

"My grandmother started filleting fish inside the shop, everyone else was outside in the street and they didn't fillet. I remember them all: Mrs Gill who sold from a pram all around Salthill; Mrs Jordan; Mary Folan who specialised in salted fish; and Mrs Lynsky who used pay me 3d to help her sell her fish. She was the opposition, of course, so my mother would give me a wallop. But my mother didn't pay me to help her."

And another digression comes on; this one about how everything but a fish's guts were eaten at the time, how fish grow from the bone and how, by cooking the whole fish, "people got the best out of it. People in those days thought of fish as the poor man's food. When my mother started filleting fish she attracted customers. Then, in the 1950s and into the 1960s families started to move away from Quay Street, feeling there was no future in fish. The area became derelict."

The McDonaghs didn't leave and P J, in time, became a bigger part of things.

"In 1962 we covered in the yard," he remembers, "built a shed and began to smoke our own fish. My father died in 1969 so didn't see any of the bigger expansion. We started exporting fish in 1970, to England first of all. Then BIM began building fish factories in ports around the coast and the IDA came on the scene and we got 60 per cent grants for a chill room. We couldn't have afford it otherwise.

"We ended up bringing fish to the Dublin market four days a week. It was tough going, through the 1970s and 1980s, exporting to the UK as well and eventually to France. The advantage about the French was that, no matter what fish was caught, they'd eat it; shark, Johnny Dorey (not eaten here at the time), monkfish that no one would touch here because they hated the look of it. All that changed when people started going abroad more on holidays. We've more than 30 varieties of fish on our price board in the shop today."

In the late 1970s P J McDonagh married Mary. Their sons Colm, Liam, Padraig and Tomas were all reared in the family house in Quay Street. As the 1980s went on, supermarkets began selling fresh fish.

"It became easier for people to go there than come to Quay Street," P J says. "When a fish shop I was supplying in the UK became a fish 'n chip shop, I thought it was the way to go but Mary wasn't sure. We looked around France and England and eventually put a table in the shop and started selling a cod cocktail. We had queues outside the door!"

One table became two, then three.

Margaret McDonagh died in 1983: "A kindly woman and a legend in her lifetime," her son says. "Business went on with Mary filleting on the right hand side of the shop, tables were on the left. The Continentals loved this but Irish customers didn't, so we put up a partition and the restaurant took off; we now had a restaurant in a fish shop. We decided to open at night, put wheels on the fish cabinets and wheeled them outside to put in more tables for the evenings."

The year was 1985.

"The winter's were killing us. There was no business and we were trying to hold onto staff until the summer. Mary and myself went around Ireland, taking a look at how things were. In 1993 we added a fish 'n chip shop to the restaurant."

But the health inspectors were worried about having a fish shop and restaurant on the same premises, and so, increasingly, were P J and Mary. It took a few years, and the selling of the Quay Street family home to one of P J's sisters, but by 1997 all had changed. The fishmongers was moved to a new premises on nearby Kirwan's Lane, the upstairs of which became home to P J and Mary, the restaurant in Quay Street was enlarged, the chipper too, and apartments built overhead.

These days Liam McDonagh looks after the fish n'chip shop, Colm McDonagh the accounts, Padraig McDonagh the cooking in the restaurant and Tomas McDonagh (who lives overhead) things on the restaurant floor.

"The family's all involved and that's the way it'll be," P J McDonagh says, forward looking but with an eye, as ever, to things past.