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by Tom Kenny

The Village of Claddagh was a unique collection of thatched cottages arranged in a very random fashion, a place apart, occupied by a few thousand souls. They had their own customs, spoke mainly in Irish, intermarried each other, elected their own king and had a code of laws unique to the village. Virtually the entire male population was involved in fishing, but when they landed their catch, the women took over and they were the ones who went out and sold the product.

Many of these women had their own regular beat as they would go from door to door selling. Some would have their own private customers that they supplied but for others, the fish market was where they congregated and sold their fish.  In earlier times, it was located in Bridge Street where there was a crane used for weighing the fish but, to say the least, conditions were primitive there.

Maria Edgewoth described the scene in 1833, “At every turn it was disagreeable to have FISH bawled in one’s face. The fish market was freshly supplied and Galway is famous for its John Dorys. ‘A John Dory maa’m for eighteen pence’, a shilling and sixpence! A John Dory could not be had for guineas in London … but still it was not pleasant to have so many John Dorys flapped in one’s face”.

At that time, there was only one bridge across the river, the West Bridge, known today as O’Brien’s Bridge. This meant a long roundabout trek for the Claddagh women who had to haul their heavy loads of fish in skibs, creels or cishs. They began to complain loudly and as the market was as important to the town as it was to the fisherwomen, their complaints were listened to, and a wooden bridge was built where the Wolfe Tone Bridge is today. It was a rickety affair, quite dangerous but it immediately made the area we know as the Fishmarket today accessible and the Claddagh women quickly made it their own.

This market was weather dependent. It may have looked romantic, but for the women selling their fish was vital, it was how they supported their families and it cannot have been much fun in a storm or in rain. When it was busy, it was bustling, crowded and lively, women trying to outdo each other calling out their wares. Haggling was the order of the day.  As Julius Rodenberg wrote in 1860, “The younger women with their cloaks around their heads looked piquant enough, their faces had not unfrequently the sweetest expression of passion, and their lips pouted charmingly. The older fishwives, on the other hand, who sat near the casks and smoked damp tobacco in short clay pipes, had something witchlike and menacing about them”. (This was probably because Julius was not buying anything).

Our first photograph was taken c.1870 and shows a quiet day for selling fish. The buildings we see in the background belonged (from the left) to Mrs. Hill; Mrs. Carrick; Mrs. Halloran, Mrs. Gorham; Stephen Joe Joyce who ran Ruane’s  fish packing factory in Spanish Parade; John Connolly’s Pub (the one with the porch which later became peter Greene’s). In the corner was Mrs. Lynskey, a rope and twine manufacturer; then Tim Shea’s which later became Tierney’s Grocery later again Kellys’ Shop. Finally there was the little house which belonged to Anna Marie Dillon from Nun’s Island, next to the arch. The high stores behind the arch, on Lower Merchant’s Road, belonged to Tom Keane and were used for storing carrageen moss. Johnny Beatty had a forge just behind the arch.

Our second image was taken c.1900 and shows what must have been a colourful scene, a variety of clothing and headgear, a fascinating moving tapestry of blue cloaks, red petticoats, different patterned shawls, práiscíns, cáibíns, báiníns, top hats, bowler hats, soft hats and baskets of various shapes and sizes. The boys all wore caps and were barefoot. 

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