Patrick W. Hayes. Ireland’s Sea Fisheries, 1400-1600: Economics, Environment and Ecology. Suffolk: Boydell & Brewer, December 2023.
The research for this book was part of a larger project intended to produce an interconnected history of fisheries across the North Atlantic Ocean. At the project’s outset, I was concerned that my work on Ireland’s fisheries might not fit into this broader regional story. Despite being an island nation, Ireland does not have a seafaring tradition nor a developed culture of eating seafood. This is reflected in the historiography; little has been written about Ireland’s sea fisheries before the modern period, and many existing studies have been anecdotal and only hinted at the potential importance of marine fisheries to early modern Ireland.
This book reveals that Ireland was deeply connected to the rest of Europe and formed an integral part of the wider story of North Atlantic fisheries in the early modern period.
Now that this work is complete, I am happy to say that my worries were unfounded. This book reveals that Ireland was deeply connected to the rest of Europe and formed an integral part of the wider story of North Atlantic fisheries in the early modern period. In the fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries, visiting fishers from Spain, France, and Scotland came to the Irish shore yearly to make catches and were a pivotal part of the fishing industry. The Gaelic Irish, who controlled much of the shoreline, welcomed these visitors, and developed complex systems to facilitate and tax them. For over a century, this symbiotic relationship continued without significant disruption, and combined with a favourable climate and a period of relative peace, fisheries grew to become one of Ireland’s largest industries and fish its most important export product.
However, this situation did not last and much of my book is concerned with tracing this rise and subsequent fall. As the sixteenth century progressed, Ireland’s fisheries were increasingly impacted by European imperialism. On the one hand, English colonial enterprises directly impacted fisheries in Ireland. Like their continental counterparts, English fishers had visited Irish waters for centuries, with some going to Gaelic-controlled shores and others visiting places like Carlingford, which had long-established English towns. But in the sixteenth century, things changed; the English increasingly saw Irish waters as their domain and imposed laws to ban visiting fishers. Fishing resources also drew colonists, who seized control of key fishing areas and denied access to locals.
These changes are evident on a map of Baltimore drawn around 1620. Once a focal point of Gaelic Irish authority and a crucial port for visiting fishers, the town was an English colony by 1620. The fishing scenes depicted on the map are similar to those that occurred here in previous centuries, but by the seventeenth century, visiting fishers were not welcome, and the Gaelic Irish had been driven out. Similar stories occurred all around the Irish coast. While fisheries in Ireland had once been defined by diversity and cooperation, they came to be controlled almost entirely by colonists by the end of the sixteenth century.
The expansion of European environmental imperialism across the North Atlantic also profoundly impacted fisheries in Ireland. The arrival and exploitation of European fishers in the Northwest Atlantic deeply impacted the people and environment of the region, but it also had a cascading impact across the North Atlantic. From 1497 onwards fishers who had previously visited Irish waters increasingly travelled across the Atlantic to catch cod in the superabundant waters off the island the Europeans called Newfoundland. Some of these fishers had developed the skills they needed for such distant voyages by travelling seasonally to Ireland. Across Europe, fish from Newfoundland outcompeted domestically caught fish at market, changing the nature of fisheries for centuries.
The story of early modern Irish fisheries shows that cooperation between diverse fishing fleets and locals brought fisheries to their highest point, while violence, competition and conquest contributed to collapse.
In a modern world where ocean conditions are changing at unprecedented rates and conflict and competition for marine resources is increasing, there may be lessons to be learned from fisheries in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. Rhetoric around “taking back control” of marine resources can have a powerful influence on national politics, and in many parts of the world, coastal communities are attempting to reassert traditional and local practices that were disrupted by colonialism. The story of early modern Irish fisheries shows that cooperation between diverse fishing fleets and locals brought fisheries to their highest point, while violence, competition and conquest contributed to collapse.