Father of the modern Irish fishing industry


Albert Swan, who died on February 17th aged 81, was one of the fathers of the Irish and European fishing industries. Founder and managing director of Swan Net, his own net-making firm in Killybegs, Co Donegal, he was a pioneering skipper who set many records during his time at sea.

During that 60-year-long association, he also made a major contribution ashore. He was the longest surviving member of the first board of Bord Iascaigh Mhara (BIM) and was chairman of the Killybegs Fishermen's Association, among other honorary positions.

His initiative and skill as a fishing skipper were legendary, as was his keen sense of humour. Yet in spite of his enthusiasm for the latest technology, he retained a few superstitions. For instance, he would never turn the bow of his trawler against the rotation of the sun.

Albert Stanley Swan was born in Drumany, Co Fermanagh, on July 6th, 1920, the son of William and Edith Swan. His grandfather, from Perth in Scotland, came to the North to manage the Erne and Lagan fisheries. His father, who was a farmer, died when Albert was very young, and his mother was left to rear five boys on her own.

He was educated at the Masonic School in Dublin, and returned to live with his uncle in Ballyshannon, Co Donegal.

He began fishing with his cousin Tom Swan in 1937. The following year he took a course in engine maintenance in the Kelvin factory in Glasgow, and in 1939 he and his cousin relocated their vessel from Mullaghmore, Co Sligo, to Killybegs.

The pair were still in partnership when Albert Swan bought his first vessel, the Maeve, in 1947. By this time he had settled in Killybegs and had built his own house. He was also one of the port's leading skippers, along with contemporaries, James McLeod and the late Tommy Watson.

Albert Swan was the first Irish skipper to get an approved "ticket" under the State's new system of qualifications for fishing crews.

Albert Swan studied Swedish methods of fishing - then Europe's most efficient in the under 100-foot class. His fame spread to Norway when he took up pair midwater trawling, along with Watson. Often, their vessels were the only boats in the fleet to bring in a catch.

He changed vessels frequently, and owned five in all, including the Evening Star, a 50-footer on which he paid off the loan in a record 12 months; the Christine and his last vessel, the Mallrin, which he partnered with Charlie Gallagher. The Mallrin was the first Irish vessel to be built in Norway under a credit scheme set up by former BIM chief executive Brendan O'Kelly.

Albert Swan treated his boats like yachts and had a habit of putting on a double-breasted jacket before he stepped ashore from a fishing trip. He also treated his crews well, and was one of the first skippers to insure his crew against accidental injury.

He served as a voluntary crew member of an RNLI lifeboat which was stationed in Killybegs during the second World War. He helped to deliver the vessel to the port, and was involved in the rescue of an aircraft crew after they crashed in Donegal Bay. He was also a member of Killybegs Harbour Commissioners, a vice-chair of the Irish Federation of Fishing Co-operatives and one of the founders of the Donegal Co-operative Fisheries Association Ltd.

Albert Swan came ashore in the early 1970s and in 1974 set up a branch of the Swedish netmaking firm Syversen Trawl in Killybegs. This was to become his own firm, Swan Net. The company built up an international reputation and its nets were sold right around the coast, in the Shetlands, and as far away as Alaska, Vancouver and Chile. Latterly, the Icelandic group Hampidjan took a major share in the company, and earlier this month it merged with Gundry's Ltd of Killybegs - founded by Albert Swan's contemporary, James McLeod.

Albert Swan and his wife May, who died nine years ago, were very involved with the Church of Ireland parish of St John's in Killybegs. He was a vestry member for many years, and was treasurer up until his death.

He once said that for all the journeys he had made, his most treasured was with his wife to the Holy Land in the early 1980s. Standing on the shore of the Sea of Galilee, he was able to assess the state of the stock offshore.

He developed Parkinson's Disease but retained a keen interest in his garden, which he once described as "a little bit of heaven".

He kept a pair of binoculars at one of his windows, which took in a full view of the harbour and he followed the activity closely.

Albert Swan was predeceased by his wife May and by three of his brothers, David, Jack and William. He is survived by his brother Sidney, who lives in Belfast.

Albert Stanley Swan: born 1920; died, February 2002