Grief gives way to anger in fishing town

 

THE Misneach - the Bere Island ferry - bearing the remains of Danny "Boy" O'Driscoll, inched away from the pier at Castletownbere and with it went a flotilla of trawlers and small vessels. A fishing community was expressing its grief.

Low tide that day was exactly at 2.30 p.m. The priest was asked to delay the Requiem Mass because if it ended too soon, the boats would not have been able to get over to the island - the O'Driscoll family home - for the burial.

It was a moving sight. Such solidarity, as the townspeople of Castletownbere, not by any means strangers to tragedy, gathered in their thousands to mark the death of a popular trawler skipper who lost his life while doing his job.

And it was an heroic death, although that didn't make it any easier for the O'Driscoll family or the local fishing community.

Danny O'Driscoll died, it appears, because having roused his fellow crew members - Mr Redmond Kelly and Mr Pat Joe O'Driscoll - he went back into the wheelhouse to report his exact position. A Spanish fishing vessel had crashed into his trawler, the Exodus, on a perfectly clear day with good visibility. The skipper's distress call went out at 1.20 p.m. on a Sunday afternoon, he didn't have much time to relay his position.

He managed to say "we've been hit", and then the radio fell silent. The Spanish boat, the Sea Horse, a flag of convenience long liner, registered in the UK, had cut through the Exodus like a knife through butter. The skipper didn't make it. The two crew men were luckier and managed to launch a life raft before the Spaniards picked them up.

After the collision, a radio operator in Kerry who had monitored the drama as it unfolded, was able to tell The Irish Times that the collision had been a fatal one. By then the rescue helicopter had picked Danny O'Driscoll from the water and was on its way to the Cork University Hospital. "It looks as if he's dead in the air," the operator said.

The radio enthusiast was a friend of the dead skipper and was shocked at the realisation of what had happened. Later, in Castletownbere, it could be seen that the entire town was shocked.

Castletownbere lives by and from the sea. Its people are the inheritors of a rich sea firing tradition that spans the generations. The fishing families know the risks. But you do not hear too much of that from the folk who work the sea.

If you had to characterise a Castletownbere fisherman, you would have to say that he enjoyed his pint, worked hard and didn't complain much. You would also have to say that he braved the elements in trawlers that are no match for the sturdier foreign vessels against whom he competes.

In the context of what happened on March 9th, 20 miles south west of Castletownbere, only one thing mattered to the grieving townspeople. The broader issues were swept aside as they united to comfort the O'Driscoll family and try to come to terms with the tragedy.

Danny O'Driscoll was a kind man, quiet spoken, and of a welcoming nature. There was an out pouring of heartfelt sadness that just barely kept the lid on another emotion - anger. But immediately after the tragedy, the priority was to give Danny "Boy" a respectful funeral. That happened.

Few sights would stay in the memory longer than that of the trawlers and small boats escorting the Misneach from Castletownbere to the island, only just visible through a clinging St Danny "Boy" was buried with grace and fine words from all who knew him. His memory will live on, but his death has served to bring to public notice a problem that has not received the attention it deserves.

Only after his funeral could the people of the fishing town express their real anger.

The probability is that the collision was an accident - not a deliberate ramming, as has happened many times in the past. That will be for the Department of the Marine to decide. The Department would do the people of Castletownbere a service by saying as quickly as possible what happened.

There remains the friction between Spanish fishermen and who those who man the Irish fishing fleet. Many in Castletownbere believe that Danny O'Driscoll's death was the inevitable end to a long history of aggression on the part of the vastly superior, steel Spanish trawlers towards the less efficient, timber trawlers from ports like Castletownbere.

The Spanish boats are better built, better equipped, and have better backing from their government than the Irish vessels. In their home ports, they have the kind of support facilities that Irish fishermen can only dream about.

Mr John Nolan, chairman of the Castletownbere Fishermen's Co operative put it like this: "After the funeral I was talking to Danny's mother. I said to her it was a pity that his death was more important than his living. The politicians the media the all came, and then they deft again. Castletownbere attracts attention when there's a tragedy but nobody comes back.

There is bitterness here and anger - anger at the fact that we seem to be forgotten by our Government. Take a look at the facilities we have. We are the number one white fish port in the Republic. But what have we got? We have a glorified shed for a auction house that doesn't even have refrigeration. There are no toilets or washing facilities and we are renting this from the State. It's too small and it doesn't meet our need.

"There is no vision for the future. No development. Investment lacking. I take my hat off to the farmers. They are organised, they get things done. The Government listens when they have something to say. We are the farmers of the sea, but we are left out on a limb. We gave all the fishing rights away and it maddens me.

In the 1850s, there were 5,000 people involved in fishing on the Beara Peninsula. Today, there are about 600. The fishing fleet has not developed, neither has the infrastructure, and the result is that the Spanish vessels and others, are out performing the Irish boats in their own waters.

In Spain and France, Mr Nolan says, the fishing ports receive the full backing of their local chambers of commerce local government and central government. Everything is in place from processing facilities to management structures to ensure every possible job is secured. In Ireland, the opposite is the case.

We are being left behind.

There's a lot of talk about what we get from the EU in monetary terms. But about £1.8 billion worth of fish is taken out of our waters every year. We are giving back in fish what we get in money. The fishing industry has a right to be treated differently but it's not happening. The State is not making it possible for us to upgrade the fleet. There are grants for everything else but not for our industry. Our contribution to the national economy is not reflected in Government support," he said.

The 75 trawlers in the Castletownbere fleet leave port on Sunday and stay at sea until the following Friday. There are people at sea and almost 2001 ashore, processing and preparing the fish for export.

Some 75 per cent of the trawlers are open decked yet they can be found fishing up to 100 miles out to sea. It's a tough life, but despite that, when times are good it has its rewards.

Right now, the market has collapsed, prices are well down on what they were six weeks ago, and the fishermen are not making money. That may be a short lived thing. What worries people like Mr Nolan is that a long term view is not being taken and that the Irish industry is falling further and further behind its competitors.