Whaling in Ireland

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“Stranded whales were, of course, very important in medieval times. In July, 1295, for example, there is on record the pleadings of a case in County Kerry in which Robert de Clohulle was charged with having appropriated a whale to his own use “in prejudice of the Crown” (Cal. Just. Rolls Ire., 1295-1303, pp 29, 54-5). In reply Robert refuted the charge stating that by ancient custom in Ireland “such great whales are reported wreck of the sea”, a right which his father had before him. Later the same year, in September 1295, William Macronan is reported as having made a fine for “a certain great whale” of two cows and 10 shillings, showing the importance of a stranded whale. (same ref).

Many years later, in 1631, the charter of the City of Waterford gave to the Mayor “inter alia”, “the fishery of salmon and other fish of every kind, although hitherto called royal (whales and sturgeons excepted)” (cal. Pat. Rolls. Chas. I, 583-584). In other words whales and sturgeons were reserved to the Crown because of their importance. In 1623 one of the advantages of Ireland wassaid to be the “royalties” of whale and sturgeon often taken. (Advertisements for Ireland, ed. George O’Brien, Dublin, 1923, 16).

In medieval times ships were not really capable of being used for whaling but stranded whales were important because they provided oil for lighting and many other purposes, at a time when oils and fats could only be obtained from a limited number of animal resources. A single whale would also provide, “inter alia”, a large amount of oil at on and the same time. It is, therefore, not surprising that when whales came ashore, particularly in arms of the sea, fishermen did everything possible to slaughter the creatures or recover the oil (blubber) from those stranded and dead. We know that the proprietors of many estates had the rights of whales washed ashore and cherished these rights greatly. Tuckey (F. H. Tuckey, ‘The county and city of Cork Remembrances, Cork, 1837, 236) tells us that a whale above 40 feet in length which swam two miles up the Bandon River above Kinsale was pursued by the fishermen, who struck it several times with harpoons to no effect, as it succeeded in getting out of the harbour.” Even as late as November 1965, a school of pilot whales, which came with the rising tide into the narrow part of Brandon Bay in County Kerry, was eventually cut up and (Irish Nat J., xv, 163-166)sold to a firm interested, ‘inter alia’, in mink farming.

Active hunting or fishing for whales has seldom been carried out in Irish waters. In the year 1736 a Lieutenant Samuel Chaplain or Chaplin quartered at Gibralter who had been formerly employed in the Greenland whale fishery was informed by a Captain Nesbit, a colleague that whales abounded in the Spring of each year off the north-west coast of Ireland, particularly i the Counties Sligo and Donegal (U.J.A., xiv (1908), 16-18). Chaplain resigned his commission and went to Ireland with a view to fishing for whales. He petitioned the Irish House of Commons in November 1737 for aid to carry on whale fishing (I.H.C., iv, 242). In his petition Chaplain stated he had established a settlement on St. John’s Point on Donegal Bay and he had struck several whales but ‘only got the benefit of one’. He had cured the bone and had obtained a quantity of oil. In support of his petition Chaplain suggested that the whale fishery would be “of great advantage to the nation by establishing a commodity of bone and oil for exportation as well as the consumption of this nation and instructing a great number of able sailors, who may be employed in other seasons to fish for pilchards, cod, ling and herrings in the same vessels”. The matter was referred to a Committee which recommended on 14 December 1737 that Chaplain deserved encouragement and that it would be beneficial to give premiums on oil and fins of whales taken on Irish coasts in order to encourage the whale fishery.

Chaplain petitioned Parliament again on 6 November 1739 for assistance (I.H.C., iv, 300). On 10 November 1739, Mr. Henry Hamilton reported for the Committee appointed to consider Chaplain’s petition in favour of the petitioned and recommended a grant of £500(I.H.C., iv, 302 and App cxii-cxix). The actual report of the Committee is interesting in that the actual evidence of some of the persons involved in the fishery is given. A man named Edmund MacGaghan, who had been employed as a batman, stated that he had seen Chaplain strike several whales but only one fish was taken last season, a creature of about 42 feet in length which produced 14 tons of blubber and a large quantity of bone. Evidence was given that Chaplain had employed four boats, each with six men per boat. Samual Bryan stated that he had bought whale bone from Chaplain for which he had paid £20. The bone was well cured and cut and “better than any he had bought from Holland”. Bryan paid £1. 2. 0 per dozen per bone, selling for £1. 10. 0. The House of Commons approved of the Committee’s resolution on 13 November 1739. (I.H.C., iv, 304).

Apparently Chaplain was not particularly successful, only catching two whales in a matter of eight years (U.J.A., xiv (1908), 16-18) ; and seems to have died before he could obtain his grant of £500. It is said that Chaplain’s brother continued the fishery later, also with little success.

The next important attempt at whale fishing was made by Thomas Nesbit of Kilmacrenan, Co. Donegal in association with his brother Andrew, Paul and James Benson and Scheson Irwin. Arthur Young in his well known book on his tour in Ireland (A Tour in Ireland, Dublin, 1780, 251) mentions that Nesbit went to London and purchased a vessel of 140 tons and engaged a number of persons as harpooners. The experience of these people is set out in their petition to the Irish House of Commons on 9 November 1793 (I.H.C., vii, 200). This is worth quoting verbatim as follows:
“That the petitioners having found from long observation that a certain season of the year the sea upon the north west coast of this kingdom abounds with valuable whales, in the year 1759 formed themselves into a company for carrying on a whale fishery upon the said coast under the inspection and management of the petitioner Thomas Nesbitt. That the petitioner Thomas in order to carry their scheme into execution went to London and there purchased a ship and had her fitted up for the purpose and have five boats made of a new construction. That in the spring in the year 1760 harpooners and other experienced persons in fishing for whales, cutting up were put on board said ship with lines, guns, harpoons, lances, casks and every other article fit for carrying on said fishery and said ship so fitted out soon after arriving upon said coast. That the petitioner Thomas having provided a sufficient number of boatmen gave directions to proceed upon the said fishery and great numbers of whales having appeared and frequent opportunities of striking them occurred but either through the ignorance or affected design of those employed, every such opportunity was lost and the petitioners in that year were unsuccessful save in one attempt only made by the petitioner Thomas whereby he killed one whale. That no apparatus for rendering or reducing to oil the blubber or manufacturing the bones of whales being in the kingdom the petitioner Thomas sent the said ship with the blubber and bone of said whale to London whereby he apprehended that some alteration and addition were necessary to be made in and to this said ship.”

The petition then went on to give details of the 1761 season which, however, proved to be unsuccessful, not a single whale being taken. The total expense of the venture up to the end of 1761 was £3,000. In 1762 the company killed three whales, “two of which were large and one a amll one, being young”. Two whales were killed in 1763 but the promoters were greatly discouraged because of the great expense incurred. One of the difficulties the petition to the Commons stressed was the lack of proper facilities to render the blubber in Ireland at that time.

A Committee was appointed to examine the proposal on 9 November 1763 and on 15 November this committee reported that the petitioners had fully proved their case and in view of the calue of the whale fishery to the country recommended a grant of the sum of £2,000 to assist in erecting warehouses, etc. , to enable the petitioners “to extend and carry on the said fishery with effect” (I.H.C., vii, 225).

The Report was adopted by the House by 70 votes to 57 and sent to the Committee of supply which resolved subsequently to make a grant of £1,500 (I.H.C., vii, 235).

Nesbit apparently devised a gun harpoon which was said to be very effective. It is clear, however, that Nesbit’s attempt to establish a whale fishery was unsuccessful, despite the grant of £1,000 which was ultimately given to him (I.H.C., viii, 187). Nesbit was nearly killed during his whaling activities, as recounted by both McParland and Wakefield (James McParland, ‘Statistical Survey of the Co. Donegal’, Dublin, 1802, 73 ; Edward Wakefield, ‘An Account of Ireland,’ London, 1812, ii, 125-6). Apparently it was this accident which resulted in abandonment of the whale fishery.

A Bill was eventually introduced in February 1778 to give encouragement to the whale fishery as carried on from Ireland and was given royal assent on 5 July 1778 (I.H.C., ix, 418, 431, 434, 436, 485-6, 488, 491, 496 and 508), but this was ineffective. The object of this legislation was to provide a subsidy for the operation of the whale fishery from Irish ports and the landing and processing of the blubber, bone, etc., ashore in Ireland. The merchants operating under the name of the Greenland Fishing company of Londonderry petitioned the Parliament on 19 February 1787 for similar assistance to that given to the fishery based further south (I.H.C., xii, 203).

From the end of the 18th century until the early years of this century no active whaling was pursued around Ireland, but in 1908 the Arranmore Whaling Company established a shore factory on the south Iniskea Island (Rep. Sea & inland fish., (1908) vii) and was at work before the Whale Fisheries (Ireland) Act and as a result of its activities 76 whales of 5 species were killed in 1908. A license was issued to a second company, the Blacksod Whaling Company, Ltd., for a station to be erected at Ardelly Point, Co. Mayo. Ardelly Point is situated in Blacksod Bay.

The following year between May and September, 1909 the whaling station on the south Iniskea Island took 100 whales, from which 2,900 barrels of oil, 53 tons of “guano”, 120 tons of bone-meal, 124 tons of cattle food and 14 ½ tons of whale bone were obtained (Rep. Sea & inland fish, (1909), vii). Thirty men were employed on the whalers and 65 men, of whom more than half were Irish, at the factory. The foreigners were mainly Norwegians. Up to this time, apparently two whalers were in use.

In 1910, both the Iniskea and Blacksod stations were operated, three whalers working from the former and two from the latter. Sixty five whales were landed at Iniskea and 55 at Blacksod, the total production being 3,365 barrels of oil, 364 tons of guano manure, 8 tons of whale bone, about 200 tons of cattle food and 100 tons o bone meal (Rep sea & inland fish. (1910), x-xi). About 60 hands were employed at the two factories.

Prior to the opening in 1911 the license held by the Arranmore Whaling Co., was transferred to a new Company of the same name. The earlier company went into liquidation on 22 November, 1912. In 1911 the two companies operated from Iniskea and Blacksod taking 68 and 63 whales, respectively, producing 4,377 barrels of oil, 13 tons of whale bone and 2,716 tons of manure. Between 80 and 90 local hands were employed in the two factories (Rep. Sea and Inland fish.(1911), xxii) . Details of the whales taken at the Blacksod station and the mode of operation of the station were published in the report of the British Associatiojn for the year 1912 (London, 1913, 145-186). Three whalers were operated from Iniskea and two from the Blacksod station.

The Rev. W. Spotswood Green, Chief Inspector of Irish Fisheries, during a visit to the Iniskea station in 1911 took a number of photographs (now preserved in the National Museum Dublin (three of which were reproduced in the Journal).

In the season 1912 two whalers were operated from both stations and between 60 and 70 hands were employed at the factories. Twenty six whales were landed at Iniskea and 34 at Blacksod (Rep. Sea & inland fish. (1912), xxiii). The total production of oil was 2,357 barrels, of whale bone 2 ¾ tons, together with 2,562 bags of manure. The Arranmore Whaling company had labour troubles on Iniskea, which adversely affected output.

Two whalers operated from each station in 1913 and they took 49 and 65 whales from the Iniskea and Blacksod stations respectively. A total of 3,900 barrels of oil were produced, with 4 tons of whale bone and 4,200 bags of manure. Between 60 and 70 local hands were employed at the two factories.

Whale fishing operations were abandoned at the Iniskea station were 1914 as the company discontinued business and went out of existence. The license held by the company was cancelled by the Department. Operations were carried on at Ardelly Point and 89 whales were landed. These produced 3,304 barrels of oil, 226 tons of manure and 184 cwts of whale bone. Thirty-six men were employed at the factory.

Whaling was discontinues on the outbreak of the First World War and was not resumed until 1920 when 125 whales were landed at Ardelly Point, providing 3,995 barrels of oil, 298 tons of manure and about 12 tons of whale bone. One hundred men were employed at the factory from the middle of May to the middle of September. Operations in 1920 were carried out from chartered (hired) vessels, instead of vessels owned by the company as had been the case before the war.

Owing to the poor demand for whale products and oil, some of which had not been sold by June, no whaling was carried out in 1921. Operations were resumed in 1922, but details of the catch are not available. Apparently the company was being financed by Norwegian Bankers. Afterwards the bankers refused to finance these activities.

Whaling was never an important industry for any long duration in Ireland.”

Extract from an article published in The Journal of the Royal Society of Antiquaries in Ireland, v. 98, Pt1, 1968. Article by Arthur E. J. West.

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