Search billions of records on

Linen Industry


in County Down

The seas of Carlingford and Strangford Bays provide long and sheltered inlets along a coast which has many small havens frequented by fishing boats which were the recipiants of a bountiful catch of herring and mackrel in the shallow waters. The fishing was especially good from Cranfield Point, to St. John's Point. Many of the commnities there are steeped in commercial fishing heritage all the way back to the 15th and 16th century. Nobbies of Portavogie and the Nickies of Kilkeel, along with boats from Scotland, the Isle of Man and Cornwall, have all played their part in the fishing history of an area of undoubted maritime richness.

Robert E Ward deepened the harbour at Kircubbin and in 1837 erected a pier to increase trade charging carrying vessels for harbour facilities, however fishing vessels were given free facilities.
In 1846 landlords throughout the Ards formed the Ards Fishing Company to better train and employ Ards fishermen int he rapidly changing fishing industry. The founders were Andrew Mullholland, Rev John Echlin, and RB Blackiston-Houston.  1877 a total of 876 boats worked out of Howth, a major landing station. Of these 876 boats 26 per cent were Irish-owned, 20 per cent Manx-owned, 26 per cent Scottish-owned and 28 per cent Cornish-owned. (R.I.I.F, 127,1878) Englishmen engaged in the summer herring fishery in Ardglass.

In the later part of the nineteenth century many offshore fisheries developed around the east Down coast, such examples included the ports of Kilkeel and secondary port of Annalong.  Unlike the historic County Down harbour of Ardglass, Kilkeel was a newcomer to large-scale fishing activity. Situated at the southern extremity of the county on the coastal plain between the Mourne Mountains and the Irish Sea, the town’s commercial life, until the 1860’s were based on the scenery and agriculture of its hinterland. However, there was an extensive small boat fishery on the nearby coast and the practice existed of shopkeepers extending credit to fishermen for tackle and gear.  (R.C.S.I.F, 1837,77) By the 1860’s Kilkeel was made into a fishery station with vast improvements made to the pier and harbour.  But by 1880 it was recognized that the harbour was inadequate to accommodate locally owned fishing boats as well as foreign fleets attracted to Kilkeel due to its ideal location to fishing grounds. (McCaughan, 126,1989) During a public meeting in 1880 the harbour Master Thomas Grills declared that;

“…They had only accommodation for twenty-one fishing boats in the basin and that was quite insufficient for their fleet during the summer. He had often witnessed boats in stormy weather beating about the channel to the pier, but the harbour was filled up and the crews were obliged to go to Arglass or Howth. If Kilkeel harbour were enlarged they might have got into Kilkeel as a harbour of safety. They had as many as 400 boats coming in during the herring fishery…there were very large takes of herring brought to Kilkeel.”  (Downpatrick Recorder, 1880)

By the middle of the 1880s government acknowledged that Kilkeel had developed into one of the most important centres for the herring fishery on the east coast and that the existing harbour did not meet the requirements of the district. (McCaughan, 126,1989) A major extension and improvement was undertaken by the Board of Works and was completed in 1887. These included a new wharf and jetty along with deepening the basin of the harbour. In conclusion, during the nineteenth century a substantial infrastructure had been developed in a bid to create the right conditions for the progression of the offshore herring industry in Kilkeel, Ardglass, Annalong and along the Down coastline. The autumn fishery began in early September when the shoals came very close to the county’s southern shores. This was of great local importance but was in comparison to the summer season, a small boat enterprise. This can be characterised by south Down men in skiffs who balanced fishing and agriculture together, fishing only when the herrings were in the area. (Pollock, The winter season was in contrast highly predictable with shoals occasionally located in Carlingford, Belfast and Strangford during the months of January and February. (Pollock, The nature of the herring fisheries created a great deal of productivity. Official figures between 1864 and 1919 showed 225,000 tons of herring were landed at ports in County Down giving an average annual return for the fishery of over 4,000 tons of fish, worth over £30,000 in quayside value. (Pollock, 1988,statistical abstract) Pollock argues that these figures under-represent the full extent of the local fishery as they fail to take into account boats which fished from the county’s harbours but landed their catches elsewhere, such as Liverpool, Hollyhead and Glasgow. (409,1997) Pollock also maintains that figures fail to consider the earnings of local boats and crews who were working as well as landing fish elsewhere. (410,1997) The travelling fleet was an important means of employment;

“…For the last five or six years about twenty of the young fishermen get employment for the months of June and July in Ansthruther in Scotland to assist in the herring fishery; they each get a share , one-twelve, in a boat.”  (R.C.S.I.F, 798,1859)

Herring were traditionally followed from harbours along the length of the Down coast; their main visits favoured the county’s southern shores. By the middle of the nineteenth century certain ports emerged as the key centres of the industry. Kilkeel and Annalong, mentioned previously, developed as fishing ports and fishery harbours and were bases for many of the Down travelling fleet. (Pollock, Ardglass which had first developed, as a fishery harbour in the Middle Ages also became a principal herring port during the nineteenth century. Despite the fame as a port, Ardglass never produced a community of fishermen. Even at the turn of the century when hundreds of boats from Portavogie, Kilkeel, the Isle of Man and the Scottish ports, there were never more than half a dozen local boats. (Fitzpatrick, 46,1971) For example, in July 1876 over 200 boats fished from Ardglass made up of 140 Scottish, 20 Manx, 42 Irish and 19 Cornish illustrating the magnitude of the traveling fleet. (Fitzpatrick, 46,1971) The locality and development of the ports of Ardglass, Kilkeel and Annalong provided the appropriate conditions for a new fishing industry to emerge.

In 1906 the governmant of GB wanted to develop a large fishing district as a port of departure or landing for the fleet.

County Down was home also to a class of fishermen who may be called 'offshore' men. These were the fishermen who followed the fishing out of the area and in order to catch hake or haddock in the North Sea. In the 1950s the principal fishing ports were Portavogie, Ardglass and kilkeel. Valuable fresh water fisheries were situated on the rivers Foyle, Bann and Bush.  The Foyle is believed to be one of the best salmon rivers in Ireland. The river Bann, the largest in Northern Ireland, rises in the Mourne Mountains and flows northwest to Lough (lake) Neagh, the river played an important role in the linen industry.



Cullen, L.M. 1981, The emergence of modern Ireland 1600-1900,
De Courcy Ireland, J. 1981, Irelands Sea fisheries: A history, Glendale Press, Dublin.
Harris, W. 1700, The Ancient and present state of the County of Down,
Lecky, M. 1981, in De Courcy Ireland, J. (ed) Irelands Sea fisheries: A history, Glendale Press, Dublin.
McCaughan, M. 1989, “Dandys, Luggers, Herring and Mackerel”, in McCaughan, M. and Applely, l. (eds) The Irish Sea,


Contact us at:

© Copyright Fiona Jones, Brigitte Marmion, 2006 - 2008, All Rights Reserved.
Last Modified: Monday, November 10, 2008 10:19:17 Eastern Time, USA.