An Irishwoman's Diary

 

He has been a lobbyist, a street protester and the bane of Ministers' lives; and few of those who know him believe he is cut out for retirement. Those who think they know him, that is. For there is no one quite like Joey Murrin of Killybegs.

If there was any doubt about that, it was dispelled some nights back in the Donegal fishing port, when almost 300 people attended a function in his honour. A week before, he had signed off as chief executive of the Killybegs Fishermens' Organisation (KFO) after a very eventful 22 years.

The guest list was a "who's who" of the fishing industry, with pioneering skippers such as Albert Swan and James McLeod and Bord Iascaigh Mhara's man, John Murrin, among those present, along with Joey's wife, Betty, family members, and his former secretary, Terry Tully. Politicians and peers sent messages of support to the master of ceremonies, Pat Nora, and the Murrin's son, Joseph, spoke from west Africa on board the Atlantic Dawn. One almost expected a European Commissioner or two might walk through the door.

Fishing limits

One former fisheries commissioner, Denmark's Finn Gundelach, was recalled by the KFO chairman, Mr Martin Howley, in his opening speech. He was talking of the time Joey Murrin, former deckhand and recently elected fishermen's representative, "eyed him up" over Ireland's right to a 50-mile limit after EU accession. In 1975, six major ports had been blockaded by fishing vessels demanding Government action on fishing limits, a fuel subsidy and development of marine resources.

Joey had been a deckhand, starting off in a 48-foot boat, Pursuit, with a 66-horsepower engine that had no start button. He spoke for an industry full of deckhands at a time of serious underdevelopment and neglect. "When Joey began fishing, the wheelhouse was the size of a phone box, because there was nothing else to put in it," Mr Howley, himself a former supertrawler skipper, said. "Fishing in the 1950s and 1960s was a low substance industry", with a home market dependent on the Friday penance decreed by the Catholic church.

Joey was to deal with 15 fisheries/marine ministers during his time, one of them being the current incumbent, Frank Fahey, who was invited to the tribute night. Mr Fahey recalled Joey's relationship with the late Brian Lenihan, Minister for Forestry and Fisheries from 1977 to 1979. "They hopped off each other, but there was also a great respect."

The Minister admitted that he had felt the strength of that hop himself, several months after taking office earlier this year. Recalling the occasion, he described how Joey could "dip the head and bend the eye", and one knew then that he was at his "terrible best". However, he was also someone who had given great support to many bereaved families in the days, months and years after tragic loss at sea.

"A guiding light, a rock for the industry," was how Mr Brendan O'Kelly, former chairman and chief executive of Bord Iascaigh Mhara (BIM) described him. Joey was a referee in local football, and he certainly "knew when to blow the whistle" on ministers, Mr O'Kelly pointed out. The Fianna Fail Connacht-Ulster MEP, Mr Pat "The Cope" Gallagher, recalled many late-night EU negotiations with him in Brussels, and paid tribute to his role in securing a search and rescue helicopter for the north-west.

"Frosty occasions"

Mr Tadhg Gallagher of the Donegal Fish Processors, who introduced himself, to sympathetic groans as a "poor fish merchant" , recalled several "frosty occasions" when he and Joey had not seen eye to eye. At one point, Mr Gallagher had asked him to "bury the hatchet". "Yes, and I know where you've buried it - in my back," was the Murrin reply.

Mr Tom Carroll, secretary-general of the Department of the Marine and Natural Resources, complimented Joey on his efficiency, and his long-time interest in marine safety; while Tommie Gorman, RTE's European Editor, thanked him for an invaluable induction, and praised him for his "empathy with the little people".

Some of those little people had been salmon fishermen at a time when there were regular run-ins with the Naval Service, and Mr Gorman - who must have a future himself in politics - recalled one VHF radio message to a patrol ship off the south-west: "Hey, you in there in that feckin' warship," said the voice, "you'll never get skirt down here in Kerry again."

Arthur Reynolds, former and founding editor of the Irish Skipper, said Joey was consistent in his message that the fish industry could be a major national asset, capable of benefiting every citizen. He recalled Joey's forecast in 1978 that there would be no future for the fleet it if was forced to remain inshore.

The current chairman of BIM, Pat Ridge, praised Joey's skill and his "passion", and Mr Murrin's successor, Sean O'Donoghue, acknowledged how daunting it was to be taking over his job.

After over two hours of speech-making, one might have forgiven a mass exit. Indeed, the Killybegs harbour master, Patsy Kelly, had left his meal to bring in a ship, and returned discreetly in time for dessert. Yet there was hardly a movement when the man of the moment got up to respond. He talked about his own beginnings with the late Tommy Watson, and he paid a special tribute to a great deckhand, Packie Cunningham, who had helped save fellow crew-members off Dunmore East in 1957.

Joan McGinley

He singled out politicians such as the former Taoiseach, Garret FitzGerald, and former Tanaiste, the late Brian Lenihan, and he paid credit to scientists such as John Molloy, and civil servants in Leeson Lane. However, one special tribute had particular punch in a week when 20 European fishermen lost their lives in Irish waters. Joan McGinley, then a fishing skipper's wife in Teelin, Co Donegal, had made a "massive" contribution to search and rescue off this coastline, Joey said.

He recalled how he had been trying for years, but then she came along and "pulled us all together". Her campaign in 1988 was media-driven and effective - and though she was backed up by a committee, she had done most of the work, he said. An "unbelievable" number of lives had been saved since, and when one saw the television shots of helicopters bringing people ashore, this was a tribute to her.

Joey intends to remain active. He is a board member of the Marine Institute, among several other posts. But he said he was looking forward to being able to bring his wife Betty that cup of tea in bed.