Saturday 20 January 2018

Village engulfed in sorrow as treacherous sea takes more lives

Nicola Anderson

Nicola Anderson

TWO friends met with Lynda Bolger, sister of the three dead fishermen, on the quayside, tightly enveloping her with a wordless hug.

The words, when they did come, were gentle and helpless in the face of such insurmountable grief.

"Try to bear it," said the friends quietly. It was all that could be said.

Death on a multiple scale seemed incongruous in this quaintly picturesque seaside town, overlooked by tumbling green cliffs and with its sweeping fiord-like estuary of the River Suir.

Swallows swooped on the quiet sunny streets, disrupted only by the steady rumble of traffic coming off the ferry linking Passage East with Ballyhack, Co Wexford, clearly visible just across the way.

But Passage is all too well acquainted with grief and the stoic reaction of its community to the deaths of the three Bolger brothers is one of utter sorrow and devastation – though no shock.

Instead, a weary resignation has descended because the treacherous sea has once again snatched loved ones from their midst.

A flickering candle, a book of condolences and an antique table laden with sandwiches, tea and cake were all set out in the community centre.

A small stack of bereavement literature was at hand in a small room off the hall.

Local people conferred with arrangements about the funeral, offering the use of beds and mattresses for visiting friends and relations.

In this all-too-familiar territory, they knew what had to be done.

Passage East has always been of the sea.

Older local fishermen well recall the days when close to 500 people were directly employed by the fishing industry here, with 30 or 40 boats clustered in the harbour.

In winter, they caught cod, and in the summer, they fished for salmon, mackerel, herring and lobster, with shrimp in the autumn.

Today's community centre was originally built in the 1920s as a smoke house, where 50 people – mostly women – worked in three shifts, preparing the locally caught herrings. They were then exported and sold at Billingsgate market in London and in Amsterdam.

Passage East boasted two coal yards, two full-time customs officers and a barracks where three guards were stationed.

Four shops catered for all the town's needs.

Now there are no shops and many houses lie mournfully empty. Three pubs and a Chinese takeaway are all that is left of the non-fishing trade.

Passage East has been declining steadily since the mid-70s and the ban on salmon fishing and restrictive quotas have put paid to a livelihood that put food on the table for generations. Lobsters are the only lucrative thing left to catch in the waters here.

Fisherman Stephen Mullally, a local man now based in Dingle, Co Kerry, and fishing since he was 15, said, nowadays, fishermen in Passage were just "scraping" a living.

"When they stopped the salmon, they stopped a lot of families making a wage," he said.

Fishing was a risky way of making a living, he acknowledged, but these men had little choice.

"You just have to do it – and that's it, you know," he shrugged.

The families of fishermen are just as keenly aware of the potential dangers, with wives, fathers and mothers following the weather forecast just as avidly as the men themselves.

And though it seems safer, lobster potting is even more treacherous than going out to deeper waters since the crashing waves closer to shore are more likely to capsize a smaller vessel, explains Joe Whitty, who was the one who raised the alarm when his three nephews failed to come home.

He believes his nephews would not have died if the fishing industry was thriving today as it had done in the past.

"Back then, the boats used to fish 100 yards apart – everyone knew what the others were up to and would come to help.

"Now it's a far lonelier trade – there are fewer boats and nobody to come to help you out if you get into trouble.

"That's what happened here," he said sadly.

Irish Independent

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