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The injury thus inflicted on the Irish poor cannot be adequately described. In former times, when fish scarcely repaid the trouble of catching them, the pretended rights of the monopolists were not enforced with any strictness except in a few places; but since steam has accelerated the communication between the two countries, salmon has risen to an enormous price; the monopolists of course “protect” the fisheries, and the poor can never taste a fish, unless in asserting their rights they are willing to run the risk of transportation or imprisonment. The extravagant prices which the monopolists have now the conscience to exact, compared with those which were paid a few years past, are enough to drive the people to desperation. From a few instances the reader may judge of all. So injured has the fishery of the Lee been by the weirs above Cork, that though salmon was formerly an article of export from the city, it is now scarce and dear, and the fisheries up the river never send any to the market.* Yet on this river there is less monopoly than on any similar river in the country. In Kilkenny, “ salmon used to sell for twopence a pound, and now it will be difficult to be got for tenpence.”+ In Antrim county, “in the early part of the season, as high as two shillings a pound has been obtained for" it. $ In Limerick, salmon used to be so plentiful “ that the bellman constantly went about town crying them at three-halfpence a pound;"& now they sell at from 1s. 4d. to 28. 6d. per pound in the spring:|| Mr. Little, to whom we have already alluded, says of the northern fisheries, that the people were hostile to them, because “ before we exported the salmon to England from those fisheries, they got their salmon very low, probably at not more than three farthings, or a penny, or three halfpence a pound. Now that we export them to England, a salmon cannot be got here at those prices." “On the spot, of late years, we generally obtain 10d. a pound in the spring months, and in other months about 6d.”I
The various evil consequences of this system seem to have been forced on the attention of the committee of 1825. We find them asking Mr. J. Fisher, a witness by no means enthusiastic in behalf of the people, the following question :66 Can
conceive any more direct manner of improving the
* Second Rep. of 1825, p. 16. | Rep. of 1837, p. 15.
Rep. of 1824, p. 107.
† Rep. of Select Committee of 1825, p. 145. $ Id. p. 40.
|| Id. p. 41.
condition and the comforts of the peasantry of Ireland, than giving them a greater abundance of the supply of fish, from their habits of life ?” and receiving the following answer:
I think it would lead to promote employment, and tend to increase their comforts ;” and asking a similar question of, and receiving the following reply from, Mr. S. Rice, now Lord Monteagle: “I have no kind of doubt, that if means were taken for the adequate protection of the fisheries of the Shannon, they would not only become a matter of very considerable local importance, but might also reach some degree of national importance; the local importance of this produce is apparent, when it is considered the effect which a cheap supply of fish produces on a potatoe-fed population, and that population of the Roman Catholic religion. There are few measures that would be more important to the comfort of the people than giving them an adequate home-supply of fish:"* and concluding their Second Report by declaring their conviction, “ that the salmon fisheries of the United Kingdom are eminently deserving, and stand greatly in need, of the protection of the legislature, and that there is every reason to believe, under the influence of a general law founded on sound principles, that they might rise to a magnitude and importance hitherto unknown.' Of such extraordinary improvements are the fisheries capable, that Mr. Little stated before the Committee of 1824, that if proper protection were afforded to the breeding fish, the spawn, and fry, the fisheries might “ be increased so much, that we would hardly find a market for the fish in this kingdom.”+
It is not only in enhancing the price of fish to an extravagant amount, and rendering the fisheries utterly insignificant compared with what they might be under other circumstances, that the monopolists inflict the greatest injury on the people at large, but in the mode in which they carry on those fisheries. Were the public right of fishing in those waters allowed to be exercised, every one who could command a rod or a net might go out and fish when and where he liked best, and thus thousands might amuse or employ themselves according to their tastes or necessities: but under the present system things are managed otherwise. In the fishing seasons the salmon go up from the sea towards the fresh-water rivers. Instead of employing a number of men to pursue them in boats, with nets or lines, in their progress along the monopolised coasts, bays, or rivers, the patentees, or proprietors, fix down weirs at the narrowest points nearest the fresh-water streams, extending generally in bays and rivers from shore to shore, and on the coasts of the sea as far as possible into the tide. These weirs secure all the salmon that attempt to pass them, and at the ebb of the tide three or four men take them out of the nets or chambers, and bring them ashore. Thus a weir and three or four men deprive perhaps ten thousand people of legitimate and profitable employment. Of the actual numbers thus debarred from employment, the reports before us give no return or estimate; nor have we been able, though we have spared no efforts, to obtain any from other sources: but to enable the reader to form some conjecture on the matter, we shall state the facts which have come under our observation with regard to the only two rivers respecting which we have been fortunate enough to ascertain any particulars of this nature. According to the report of 1836, there is no part of Ireland in which the rights of the public to fish in the sea and tidal rivers seems to be so well understood and generally exercised as in Wexford. Yet the commissioners, who in this instance only condescended to hear any evidence but that of the monopolists, adopting the statements of the fishermen, say: “ The present laws appear to be very strict, and passed as if intended to protect the employment of the fishermen from the encroachment of the gentlemen and weir-owners : but it is quite evident that these laws have remained a dead letter for the last century; the gentlemen and magistrates who should enforce them, became weir-owners and in the receipt of large revenues therefrom, allowed the fishermen, who were thirty years back a comfortable, well-clad, wellhoused people, to dwindle away into wretchedness and poverty;” though the salmon fishery, if properly and legally managed, would“ give ample and well-paid employment to one thousand five hundred people for six months of the year.” (Rep. p. 66.) The report does not say, but we suppose, that the herring, mackerel, and other fisheries, would employ them during the remaining six months. The Shannon is two hundred and fourteen miles long, from its source to its mouth, and navigable throughout all that extent, except for a few miles between Limerick and Killaloe, and a few miles more near its source; it passes through several large inland lakes (one fourteen miles by ten); is affected by the tide for sixty-four miles; is nine miles wide at its mouth; for forty miles has an average breadth of three miles; and
Rep. of 1824, p. 157.
| Rep. p. 120.
for the remaining twenty-four miles, gradually narrows to something less than a quarter of a mile at Limerick. About two miles above Limerick the corporation erected a weir across the channel, from shore to shore. This weir was so constructed that not a salmon could pass through or over it. Between it and the main sea the corporation would not allow any one to fish, and between it and the source of the Shannon they of course did not allow a salmon to appear; and thus all the fishing in the river was confined to that one spot, and was managed by five men-four to take the fish out of the chambers of the weir, and the fifth to kill and count them. Had that weir been indicted and abated as a nuisance, and all other illegal weirs and fixtures along the course of the river been removed, and all persons been allowed to exercise their rights of fishing, and in a lawful manner only, there would have been“ ample and well-paid employment ” afforded to at least forty thousand persons.
But it is not the poor alone who are defrauded by these weirs. Every gentleman who has lands on the banks of a fresh-water private river, up which salmon would come were they not prevented by these weirs, is defrauded of the full enjoyment of his property; for to the lawful fishery in such a river he is as much entitled as to the fruit in his kitchen garden. The country-gentlemen very soon saw the wrong inflicted on them by such weirs, and endeavoured to relieve themselves by the aid of the legislature. A bill was introduced, in 1784, into the Irish parliament, for promoting the inland fisheries ; one of the clauses of which provided that in each weir on the Shannon there should be fixed a sluice, or flood-gate, of six feet in width, and that it should be left open from Saturday evening to Monday morning, in order to permit the fish to go up the river to spawn. This very fair proposition was opposed by a Limerick member, on the ground that the corporation “had for many years enjoyed under a charter the right of having weirs on the river Shannon," and that their chartered rights should not be thus interfered with. “ The attorney-general doubted very much the legality of the charter encroaching on private property. The charter mentioned by the honourable gentleman was undeniably of that description : for by the weirs erected under its authority, all the upper part of the Shannon was rendered destitute of fish, and the proprietors of land abutting upon the river were deprived of the benefit of the fishery, to which they must have an original right. The bill now before the committee was intended to restore in some degree the benefit of the fishery to the interior country, without injuring the city of Limerick; for though at their weirs there were often caught from six hundred to one thousand fish per day, for the whole upper part of the river it was only desired that a small passage should be opened for a few hours once a week, that the mother-fish might go up to spawn.”* The bill was lost; but a few years afterwards another was brought in, and passed; which provided that in every weir in every river, and in the deepest part of such river, there should be a passage twenty-one feet wide, called the king's gap, left always open. This statute has been, however, in most cases disregarded by the weir-owners. The Limerick corporation for a long time set it at defiance, till at length legal proceedings were taken against them; and even when they were obliged to leave the gap open, they endeavoured to defeat the object of it, by putting several white substances in it, and particularly one in the form of crocodile, to frighten the fish from passing up. I In general, throughout the entire kingdom, wherever the gap is left, various expedients are resorted to for the purpose of rendering it inefficacious; so that the proprietors of the fresh-water fisheries are almost as completely defrauded of their fishings as if that statute had never been passed. But even supposing that the weir-owners fairly complied with it, see what a fraction of their rights they leave to the private proprietors—twenty-one feet out of an average breadth probably of a quarter of a mile!!!
Looking at all these circumstances, can we wonder that the whole population should be hostile to such a system; or rather ought we not to be amazed that human beings could be found patient and broken-hearted enough to submit to it? Everybody, not directly interested in it, lifts his hand against it. The people refuse to obey what they are told is the law, and the magistrates, who are not interested, refuse to enforce it. Both, in general, have some undefined notion that the pretensions of the monopolists are illegal ; and the latter dexetrously contrive, without bringing their titles directly in question, before magistrates who are uninterested or impartial, to throw the sanction of authority around them, by punishing
poachers," as they call those who fish in the waters which they claim as their own, for some offence against the general
* Quoted in Finlay, p. 145.
† 23 & 24 Geo. III, c. 40, s. 11. I See Rep. of 1825, passim.