Cork fishing port that depends on the Spanish for exports


There may be tension between Ireland and Spain over fishing grounds, but the south-west has its own Spanish community, Anne Lucey reports

The Beara peninsula, home of Ireland's largest whitefish port, was named after a third century Spanish princess who married the local chieftain.

She is buried just outside the port of Castletownbere, Co Cork, itself, where depending on who you talk to these days, a fleet of 20 or 40 large Spanish boats offloads tonnes of monk, prawn, and pollack destined for the Spanish mainland each weekend, while Irish fishermen look on, out of quota, and it is claimed, subject to too many arrests and too many inspections.

There are other stories doing the rounds in Castletownbere these days. Spanish sailors "work night and day on the Spanish boats", stopping for an hour at most on Christmas Day. They go out in "crocks of boats". They go out in all weather. They are paid nothing. This is the talk in the cafés and in the bars.

Even the measured Mr Simon Coveney, Fine Gael spokesman on communications, the marine and natural resources, dipped momentarily into "the anti-Spanny" act, as it is known, on his day trip to the fishermen's day of action rally at Castletownbere during mid-December.

"The Spanish armada," he reminded his audience was being kept out of the Irish Box by legal means at the moment. The impression is firmly abroad an armada of Spanish boats, perhaps 200, is waiting to enter the box and take even more than they are already taking from Irish waters.

Recently Spanish boats were advised by their agents not to land in Castletownbere to offload their catch for the following week or so. They went instead to Fenit and to Dingle. Feelings in the town were running too high, things were "too hot and heavy", they were told.

The Spaniards were warned the bridge taking the trucks from Dinish Island where they land their catch would be blocked as it was during the tuna wars of two years ago.

Other things came together to heighten feelings in Castletownbere of late. Fishing for most closed as a ban on monkfish, megrims, prawns and white pollack was issued because the quota limits had been reached for the year, just as the weather improved. The previous day, one of the town's biggest Irish boats, the Dawn Ross, was arrested for alleged monkfish offences. It was the second arrest in two weeks.

To be fair, Dutch herring boats, as well as "the Spanish fleet" got a lash from the articulated truck that acted as a stage at "the day of action". Mr John Nolan manager of the Castletownbere Fishermen's co-op said it was time for people to be good Irishmen; no other EU country was arresting its fishermen for quota offences.

But the bulk of the anger was directed at the Spanish boats.

Yet for all that, tucked beside the sea with its back to the Slieve Miskish mountains, the links between Castletownbere and Spain, are strong and direct.

Historically, before Cromwell, it was the Spaniards who managed the fisheries at Ardgroom, Kilmackillogue and on the Beara. Their expertise is just as much in demand today.

Most of the large boats in the 60 or so whitefish fleet in Castletownbere employ up to four Spanish fishermen.

Around 24 Spanish families live in Castletownbere and work in the fishing industry there. Their children go to school locally. Some have been in the town for more than six years.

There is increasing inter-marriage between fishermen who come to work and local girls with at least one wedding planned in the next weeks between a Spanish fisherman and the daughter of an Irish fisherman.

Mr Diarmuid Oliver O'Donovan, Spanish shipping agent in the area, is also honorary Spanish vice-consul in the town. Known to the Spaniards as "Cornelio" and to the locals as "Derry", Mr O'Donovan and his wife Elizabeth, this November received a certificate of meritorious service from the Minister of Communications, Marine and Natural Resources, Mr Ahern, for their "outstanding contribution to marine search and rescue".

Over the past 32 years "they played a vital link in assisting marine emergency management", and acted as translators "at any time of the day or night", the citation read.

The O'Donovans understand both sides. Their son, Diarmuid, owns a whitefish vessel and will feel the brunt of the quotas and the proposed cutbacks on species. But blaming the Spaniards is wrong when the reasons are historic and tied to Ireland's entry to the EU, Mr O'Donovan said.

"The biggest scandal of the late 20th century is the complete sell-out of the Irish fishing rights in the 1970s when government ministers and their advisers sold out and signed the deal on fishing quotas," Mr O'Donovan added.

"It's very hard for the Spaniards to understand that we are out of quota whilst they are not. They can't understand we have been so foolish," Mr O'Donovan explained in the middle of a phonecall to a Spanish ship-owner.

Earlier that evening he and his wife assisted a man with shingles off a Spanish boat and to a doctor. The fisherman from Pontevedra in Galicia was to fly home via Cork the next morning.

The accidents are less horrific now. No longer open-deckers, the Spanish boats have improved as have conditions, the O'Donovans remarked. But there is still at least one emergency illness or so on board that has to be dealt with each week.

Some 80 per cent of the fish the Irish catch is sold in Spain. Too much anti-Spanish feeling and the Irish exporters will feel it, Mr O'Donovan noted. "The mistakes made in the 1970s which left Ireland with only 5 per cent of the EU quota despite having 11 per cent of the whole EU waters, are coming back now to haunt the Irish, just as the stocks run out.

"It is a major problem for everyone in the industry," he said with resignation.