Thursday 23 May 2019

All aboard for a sea voyage to the past

Reporter David Medcalf stepped into times past when he went upstairs to the maritime museum to meet historian Jim Rees and museum chairman Dan O'Neill for a fascinating history lesson

Jim Rees at the Maritime museum
Jim Rees at the Maritime museum
Dan O'Neill

The main shopping mall in Arklow is a triumph of modern retailing, with its dizzying array of stores, restaurants and cinema.

The Bridgewater centre on the north bank of the Avoca River is also home to a wonderfully presented reminder of the town's past.

The maritime museum, upstairs over a cafe is often unnoticed by many of the members of the public heading for the shops.

Yet it offers a brilliant reminder of times when seafaring rather than shopping was the mainstay of the local economy.

This is the perfect place for tourists and locals alike to pass an absorbing hour or so, especially on days when the weather is not made for a walk on the beach.

For centuries, Arklow contributed much of the manpower for Ireland's fishing fleet which patrolled the waters from northern Scotland to the Bay of Biscay.

And as museum chairman Dan O'Neill can personally testify, Arklow folk were also well represented among the crews of the merchant marine all around the world. Boat building was a considerable business too, a tradition handed down to toady's yacht manufacturers.

Reminders of all this salty heritage are gathered in the museum at the Bridgewater which offers an amazing selection of shipping memorabilia, everything from the proverbial needle to a selection of anchors.

The notion of gathering up such a collection was first mooted in the late 1960s at a time when the connection to the sea was beginning to loosen. The potteries and fertiliser plant offered steadier wages without having to brave the perils of the open sea.

Against this background, some far-sighted educators and enthusiasts realised that the heritage could be lost unless steps were taken to protect and preserve mementos of the sea-going past.

As it became easier to make a living ashore than to risk life on the waves, such items were often seen by householders as junk, reminders of the poverty of the bygone.

The move to set up a museum celebrating heritage began with an exhibition in 1970 and gained momentum from there, with figures such as teacher Brother Lynch from the CBS, Mark Sinnott, Nick Tancred and Jack Tyrrell to the fore.

The event was successful in striking a chord of nostalgia and historic scholarship, prompting a second exhibition on in March of 1973.

As the watchword 'too good to throw away' was adopted, it became clear that something more permanent was required.

The old Technical School on St Mary's Road provided the initial location for the museum which was formally opened in the spring of 1976.

'It was so important to get that premises,' ponders Jim Rees, the principal historian at the museum in its new location at the shopping centre. 'People would not loan or donate items until there were fixed premises.

For decades, the late Mark Sinnott was the nearest thing to a curator that the new institution had, coordinating the efforts of community enterprise workers and committee members.

Jim has taken over the role, with the keen blend of passion and academic discipline which he brings to his chosen specialist topic.

Many of the items on show are the same as those that were exhibited four decades ago, contributed by families to whom they mean a great deal.

But new artefacts are always being added, with a kerbstone from Bridge Street, engraved with a picture of a schooner, among the latest acquisitions.

As he helps to make an attractive museum web-site, Jim is also looking for some way of displaying the light from a lightship which remains mothballed in a county council yard.

The historian laughs that the local authority staff are growing tomatoes in under the distinctive glass lens even as he plots an end to this informal greenhouse.

Similarly, he would love to get his hands on the 15th century (or thereabouts) wooden ferryboat, one of the vessels which helped to give Ferrybank its name, at present being stored by the National Museum.

He comments that, though the town of Wicklow had a finer natural harbour, it was always Arklow that had the tradition of producing mariners.

Families such as the Sinnotts, Hagans and O'Neills, to name just three, sent countless sons to sea - literally countless.

Official censuses were normally taken after the trawlers had left to pursue the mackerel in the Atlantic.

If on land at all on census night, they were more likely to show up at Kinsale in Cork rather than at home. This was surely the case on March 31, 1901, when just 67 heads of household in the town were listed as fishermen, when the number should have been in the hundreds.

Traditionally the fleet set sail after St Patrick's Day and, with no fish market in Arklow, they landed their catches elsewhere.

Museum chairman Dan O'Neill certainly knew what it was like to be more often away than at home, thanks to his work as a ship's captain.

The job from which he is now retired took him all around the world and back, at the helm of craft such as the giant 'Texaco Great Britain' - all 250,000 tonnes of her.

Like many of his male peers he went to sea at the age of 13, his first job being under the command of Bill Hagan aboard a modest fishing vessel called 'St Michael' - a far cry from the massive oil tankers and cargo ships to which he later graduated.

Jim Rees confesses that he has not clocked up anything like the sea miles that Dan has logged over his life time.

Jim was born in the area of town called The Fishery, near the harbour in 1954, a member of a family that had crewed or owned various craft over the generations.

Then the family moved to Liverpool where he grew up admiring the luxury liners that came to call to the famous English port.

However, he proved to be a landlubber, his first job being in the motor tax office at Birkenhead before returning to Arklow as a young man.

It was as an historian that he retained his links with matters maritime charting the demise of sail and chronicling the lives of the seafarers

Such subjects have provided the themes for his seven books and a couple of smaller publications as well as regular contributions to the 'Ireland's Own' magazine.

While passing much of his working life ashore on factory payrolls, has built up formidable historical knowledge, rubbing shoulders with heavyweight academics.

The Open University allowed him to sanctify his undoubted expertise with a degree and his studies inevitably included an examination of the fishermen of Arklow.

He has spent many hours pursuing his interests in Dublin at the National Library but remains convinced that much valuable history is passed on by word of mouth.

Jim's well informed interest in the collection is a great asset to the museum which made the move from the old school, with its selection of smaller rooms to the more open plan style of the new shopping centre in 2009.

As they keep an eye on the tourists who have dripped in, he and Dan discuss how great Arklow might have been if blessed with deep sea access.

The Vikings managed to dodge the sand banks in their shallow draft boats as they launched raiding parties up the Avoca during the Dark Ages.

But the silting caused by twists in the river later defied the best efforts of the Hibernian Mining Company and of public bodies.

The pair also recall the disasters, such as the storm of 1886 which wrecked half the fishing fleet or the freak waves of 1910 which claimed several lives

Not all of those who drowned lost their lives so close to home as the Arklow gansey demonstrates. One of the most fascinating items in in the collection, the knitted stitching of the gansey was distinctive.

Whenever the body of some unfortunate was washed up on the beach as far away as the Shetlands or Kerry wearing the tight-fitting garment, it was known that the sad remains should be dispatched to Arklow.

The example on display was made by the late Sue Byrne of Laffin's Lane, inheritor of a crafty tradition which pre-dated the more famous Aran sweater.

Other items of interest include figure heads, including the sturdy carved likeness of the 'Harbour King', ships in bottles, blocks and tackles, a buoy made from a pig's bladder, photographs and documents.

All very much worth a visit.

Wicklow People