Sunday 18 February 2018

Townsfolk who have salt water in their blood

In the latest part of our Summer Towns series, Kathy Donaghy visits Killybegs, the country's largest fishing port, which has seen its fortunes rise and fall like boats on the tide. With the Wild Atlantic Way now putting the Donegal town on tourists' radar, things are ­definitely on the up. Photos by Brian ­McDaid

Retired fisherman Brian McGilloway in Killybegs. Photo: Brian McDaid
Retired fisherman Brian McGilloway in Killybegs. Photo: Brian McDaid
Councillor Niamh Kennedy looking out to the pier in Killybegs. Photo: Brian McDaid
Tony O'Callaghan at the memorial dedicated to Killybegs fisherman who lost this lives at sea. Photo: Brian McDaid
Mairead Anderson awaits a delivery of locally caught fish for her Seafood Shack takeaway in Killybegs. Photo: Brian McDaid

Just 10km from Killybegs is the picturesque village of Kilcar, which is staging its annual Kilcar Fleadh until tomorrow, having boasted a week of Irish music, song and dance as well as heritage days. For more details, visit

In Killybegs, people say that if they couldn't smell the sea or taste its salt, they wouldn't know who they were any more - and it's true that the sea, fishing and all its affiliated activities infuse every part of this town and its people.

Cutting through the sweep of the Bluestack Mountains through the Barnesmore Gap and into Donegal town, you head west for Killybegs with its views out to Donegal Bay and the wider Atlantic Ocean.

You instantly recognise that this is a fishing town, even before you reach it. Fish-processing factories line the road into the town - this is Ireland's answer to John Steinbeck's Cannery Row. The massive fishing trawlers tied up in the harbour in the distance confirm its status as the country's biggest fishing port.

On a blustery summer day, sit long enough on the harbour wall and you'll be licking the salt off your lips. The locals are right - the sea influences everything here. Some of the big local employers like Mooney Boats, marine-equipment specialists SeaQuest Systems, and Sinbad Marine Services are here because of the town's history as a fishing town. Expertise around all aspects of boating and marine engineering built up over the years, and Mooney's is still the biggest boat yard in the country.

Then there's the fishing itself - the big fishermen are represented by the Killybegs Fishermen's Organisation (KFO), its HQ sitsa looking out over the brand new marina. Quotas, EU regulations and the fact this is currently out of season for their fish species mean the massive trawlers were tied up on the day of my visit, their painted hulls gleaming in the sunshine.

But the KFO says that while much has been written about the death of the fishing industry, things in Killybegs are far from doom and gloom.

The organisation's CEO Sean O'Donoghue says that while there are constraints around quotas and regulations, 60pc of the all fish landed in this country in terms of tonnage is landed in Killybegs. And he says there's more money being generated in the town today than there was in the 1980s, a decade most closely associated with the heyday of the fishing industry.

At the Bay View Hotel, owned by Henry Coleman, father of Ireland's soccer captain Séamus Coleman, locals pop in for morning tea and scones. Here Tony O'Callaghan, historical tour guide and expert on everything Killybegs, explains that while the town has seen its fortunes wax and wane, its population of 1,200 people is probably the most optimistic in the entire country. But this optimism may be tested as Brexit negotiations decide if Irish trawlers are allowed to fish in what will become British waters once Britain fully leaves the EU.

Problem solvers

But Tony says people in Killybegs are simply not the worrying kind. "We are a town full of people who have found solutions to problems. It's not a town full of criers. We had the recession the same as everywhere else but we had gone through it all before," he says.

Despite the fact that your eyes are immediately drawn to the trawlers idling in the harbour, the outward signs of positive changes in Killybegs are evident in the number of new eateries and gift shops popping up.

Overlooking the harbour, Mairéad Anderson puts on her apron and gets ready for the lunchtime trade. With calamari and scampi on the chalkboard menu, a queue is already forming. The smells wafting from the van draw people close. Mairéad, who came to what was then the Cert cookery and tourism college in the town in the mid 1990s, decided to stay after she fell in love with Garry Anderson. The couple married in 2004 and have two children Jamie (10) and Bethany (7).

Originally from Claregalway, Mairéad opened her Seafood Shack mobile takeaway outlet just a few weeks ago. With views out over Donegal Bay, the fish could practically jump from the water's edge into her deep-fat fryer. And she's determined to make the most of her location, selling the freshest of seafood from the pier.

"I love Killybegs - I wouldn't live anywhere else. I love the quietness of it and I'm always telling people to come back. I certainly don't have to worry about traffic getting to work," she says. "It's a fantastic community here and people are really excited to see a new business opening up. Like every rural town, Killybegs felt the recession and a lot of young people left to go to Australia. But I'm surprised by how busy it is. It's been phenomenal," says Mairéad.

Sitting on the wall overlooking the harbour, Eugene McHugh patiently waits his turn to order his fish and chips. He served his apprenticeship as a boat builder and trained as a diver because part of his job was to do repairs underwater. It was a job he loved but it also cost the life of his friend Sonny Daly, who was killed by the propeller of a boat in 1981.

Eugene says he did many jobs over the years working in salvage yards and even as a butcher for a time. For the last 13 years he's worked as a picture framer, which came about as a result of his hobby as a budding photographer.

Eugene raised his two daughters in Killybegs, one still lives only a few miles away in Kilcar while his other lives in Dublin. He says he's seen the fortunes of Killybegs rise and fall over the years. "It was a very busy town with a cosmopolitan population in the 1970s, 80s and early 90s. The reason was fishing. It was labour-intensive - every boat had a minimum crew of five, the larger boats had a crew of 10.

"The town attracted a lot of young men between 16 and 25 who left home and arrived in Killybegs looking for work. You didn't need a CV or a passport. You only needed two hands. Many people got on well and became successful fishermen. Some were fished out of the tide," he says.

"Killybegs is not so cosmopolitan today. In 1982, I looked out over what we call the diamond and I counted 13 different nationalities - six were from 'Iron Curtain' countries. Nowadays you see visitors - but they come, they look around and they move on. I've seen generations emigrating and not coming back," adds Eugene. "I love Killybegs - I always did. If most of the indigenous people could neither see nor smell the salt water, we wouldn't know what to do with ourselves. It's in our blood. People say fishermen have a certain amount of salt in their blood and it's true of people here," he says.

There's no doubting the number of people visiting the town is increasing. Tourists with backpacks walk around marvelling at the size of the boats in the harbour and stop for coffee and lunch in Nikki's Coffee and Gift Shop and Ahoy Café, two spanking new eateries.

More visitors are promised and recently cruise ships have begun docking in the harbour. Anne Dorrian of Killybegs Information Centre says they already have bookings for cruise ships for 2019. While the arrival of the ships and the business it will generate is in its infancy, she points out that 2,000 cruise-ship passengers arriving in the town at one time will be a game-changer.

Tourism footprint

According to Michael O'Donnell, the Wild Atlantic Way has opened up this part of Donegal for many visitors. "Everyone is seeing improvements - we want to build on that now," says Michael, who is director of the family business, Island Seafoods, which was set up in 1986.

The business, set up to process fish off the boats, has now evolved into one which not only bulk processes fish, but also creates its own range of seafood for the supermarkets. Smoked mackerel infused with ginger, chilli and lime is just one of its range sold under the Atlantic Treasures label. This was something that Michael worked on when he joined the business in 2000 - adding value to the fresh produce they already had. The company now employs up to 35 people and Michael is keen to create more jobs.

"Killybegs has seen good times and bad times, now it's on the up again. You can see it with the Wild Atlantic Way. Killybegs was so dependent on the fishing industry that it never looked around to see what tourism could do. But we are on the doorstep of the Slieve League peninsula and people are coming and staying. We don't just want to be seen as the doorstep - we want to have our own footprint on tourism," says Michael.

On the edge of town stands a stone and granite memorial with the names of all those lost at sea. It is a constant reminder of how precarious the ocean can be. There are so many names on it, there is hardly any room for more to be engraved.

In their deep and sheltered harbour, townspeople hope that while their fishing traditions continue, that Killybegs will also become a port of welcomes for the thousands of visitors that wend their way along this part of the Wild Atlantic Way.

For tourism and visitor information visit killybegs.ie

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