Wrights of Howth: from small fry into fish empire

Bernie and Michael Wright started business from home with £250 overdraft and two tots

 Bernie Wright: “I often made deliveries myself with the kids in the car.” Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill

Bernie Wright: “I often made deliveries myself with the kids in the car.” Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill

 

Family business has long been the bedrock of Irish corporate life. However, the role of women has traditionally been to support the men in the family. This was even more so back in the 1960s when women in public service were obliged to give up their jobs on getting married and many others were encouraged to work solely in the home.

Bernie Wright was never settling for that. She has been a driving force in building a fish empire that bears the family name and continuing a legacy left by other formidable women over many decades.

“It all started in 1897 when Michael and Mary Wright, my late husband’s grandparents, set up a general store and fish merchants in Malahide village,” says Bernie.

Bernie’s mother-in-law, Ita, was a terrific businesswoman in her own right, who handled the finances in the business in Marino.

She had four sons, and the eldest, Michael, was already working in the business there when he met Bernie at a local CYMS dance. Bernie was an air hostess with Aer Lingus at the time, a highly prized profession for a woman. But on marrying Michael in 1963, she had to give up work.

New horizons

For her, it was not a door closed but rather a chance to explore her entrepreneurial talents.

With a young family and a new home being built, they decided on the strength of a £250 overdraft to set up their own fish merchant business.

“We decided to open up on a Friday in 1966 and by the Monday we were in business. It was a different time and we had help from Michael and Muriel Doran, who had a strong fishing fleet in Howth, and who gave us premises to use opposite Howth train station.”

In the early days Michael would go to the markets with his uncle from Malahide and buy the fish, while Bernie sat by the phone in the family home they had built on Howth Hill and dealt with the customers.

“I’d take an order from the restaurants and hotels and then pop the babies into the back of the Mini and drive down to the shed where Michael would process the order, Bernie recalls. “I often made deliveries myself with the kids in the car – not that you’d be able to do that nowadays, for health and safety reasons.”

Working from home

It seems incredible now but at that time, the installation of a phone took from six months to one year so, while the fledgling business was waiting for its phone line, Bernie had to use the home line.

“I’d take the phone off the hook while driving down to the store with orders and then, when I’d get home, I’d put it back on the hook and apologise to the next caller for the delay in replying because we were so busy.”

At the end of the first year, there were two new arrivals – a third son and a first non-family employee as the business prepared to relocate to Howth’s west pier.

In the early 1970s, the fish industry was booming in Howth but the sector was about to change radically with the introduction of restrictions imposed by the Government and the European Economic Community. It’s an issue about which Bernie Wright still has strong views.

“It is shortsighted and irresponsible for an island nation to accept such low quotas from the EU. The west pier used to be lined with trawlers and fish boxes but now the pier is a walkway for tourists.”

With a fourth and fifth child arriving, the last a longed-for daughter, Aishling, Bernie decided to step aside from the business and opened a hair and beauty business in Malahide but when Michael became ill eight years later, she had to move back into the fish business.

Smoked salmon

A turning point for the business came when Bernie bought a second-hand smoking machine, allowing production of what has since become Wright’s famous smoked salmon.

Another expansion gave the business the space to sell directly to the public.

With the EEC rules biting hard, the fish industry in Howth was in rapid decline and Wrights had to source stock from other countries.

“In 1992, we opened a shop at Dublin Airport,” she remembers. By that time, Michael snr was in a position to help drive the business again.

“He was always a great salesman and acquiring the airport shop provided a terrific outlet for our smoked salmon.”

Bernie designed the shop, its layout and the staff uniform at the airport and worked closely with the staff. Dublin Airport has proven good for the company since.

Through it all, Bernie has always been firmly at the helm of the business in Howth, which employs between 210-250 people on a seasonal basis. She’s still passionate about fish and the business, though she says her 19 grandchildren are her greatest pride.

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