Publish date:


A license law has Ireland's trout fishermen up in arms

Lough Corrib, which covers 44,000 acres in the west of Ireland, is classic trout water known to fly-fishermen the world over. On most June weekends, as the mayfly season winds down, more than 1,000 boats are out on it. On this morning, though, the boats are all pulled up on shore. As you scan the lake, all you see are terns hawking for flies and the gray lake waves breaking on gray County Galway rocks. Then something odd in the shallows catches your eye: Set on a pole is a big white board on which somebody has scrawled the word SCAB in black paint.

Corrib has become the focal point of the Great Irish Fishing Strike. At issue is a law that went into effect on Jan. 1 requiring anglers, for the first time ever in Ireland, to buy a license to fish for trout. The legislation received little attention—until, that is, the first mild days of February, when the trout started perking up and the season officially opened. Whereupon the lads, not only on Corrib but all over the country as well, decided that having to spend about $24 each year to buy a trout license was a wicked infringement of a basic liberty, even though a license to fish for salmon has been required for decades.

At first the response was straightforward. The boys just got in their boats and fished licenseless, and woe to the warden who dared disturb them. Michael Kennedy, the chairman of the Western Regional Fisheries Board, remembers that early stage of the budding row. "I said there'd be war and that the cockpit of the war would be the Corrib," says Kennedy. "And my wardens, when they went to make arrests, got assaulted with iron bars. I got calls that said, 'Watch your back, Kennedy you——. Get the hell out before you're bombed out.' "

But in the face of a maximum $3,000 fine and even a jail sentence, the direct confrontations ended swiftly. Instead, the protesters decided to try to shut down trout fishing throughout Ireland. All over the country, sport fishermen posted signs and organized demonstrations in an effort to keep anglers off the lakes. As Kennedy had predicted, the strikers concentrated on Lough Corrib, the queen of Ireland's trout lakes.

Last weekend, if you had driven northwest out of Galway city along the Corrib shore, you would have seen notices nailed to almost every tree. They read NO FISHING! and LICENCED ANGLERS NOT WELCOME! and even NE FANGEN BITTE! for the benefit of German tourists. The longer you drove and the more people you met, the more you would have realized that you had entered a bitterly divided community.

As in the picture-postcard village of Oughterard, close to which Lai Faherty has his fishing lodge, the one he has built up over 20 years. Faherty, 49, is a rangy fellow with a look of Jimmy Stewart-sincerity about him, and he is clearly nobody's stereotype of a strikebreaker. But his is the only place on the Corrib where you can still rent a boat and a motor, though you can't hire boatmen, as fishing guides are called in Ireland. They're all on strike.

"Hey, you should have been here yesterday," Faherty said. "I got visited by the Flying Flotilla!" Faherty had 11 anglers out in 6 boats when 20 boats encircled them. "As a parting shot," he said, "they encircled my dock and came ashore on my field, holding up the NO FISHING signs. It wasn't funny."

For Mary, Faherty's wife, the refusal to pay for a fishing license indicates a lack of pride on the part of her countrymen—a desire to have the state do all the work, provide all the funding for Ireland's trout fisheries. "We have a good country here," she says. "But go into any shop, into any pub. People are still wrapped up in the past, in the Captain Boycott era. Go into the church itself, even, and you'll hear the priest shouting against the government. They had what they called an Anglers' Mass here on February 14th. They were told, 'Don't give up your right to fish!' You'd think, the way they talk, the government had created some kind of monster with its licenses.

"Lal is the only man"—Mary emphasizes the last word—"operating boats on the whole of the Corrib. Harry said he would support us, but he didn't. I think our little business is shattered."

So, maybe, is Harry Hodgson's, a few miles down the lake, even though he has acceded to the requests of the militant anglers to shut down his trout-fishing operation. "I have to live here," he says in the lakeside house that has been in his family for five generations. "It has been requested of me that none of my guests goes out fishing. And I think it is a very good idea, probably, to go along with this request. I don't want to do what Lai is doing."

Harry's wife, June, however, has criticized the strike and the tactics of intimidation in letters to the local newspaper. But her protests have left her uneasy. "I've been afraid to send my children to school," she says. "Terrified to answer the phone."

Tracking down the source of the intimidation is not easy, even when you head up the lake to Cornamona and meet the protesters on their home ground, which in this case is the back room of O'Malley's Bar and Lounge. "Trout fishing is liberty," says Ignatius Burke, the chairman of the Corrib Boatmen's Association. "The money doesn't matter. But by buying a license we'd be ceding total control to the state. Don't you see that the lake is the same as a public park or a museum or an art gallery? It is hard to part with something you have had for generations. It's ours to hold on to for as long as we can."

As for intimidation, Burke says, wasn't it the authorities who were doing the intimidating? "Five wardens and two cops searched my boat in March," he said, "but there were no rods in it." Burke maintains that his group does not use intimidation but that it does rely on what it calls peer pressure.

"We can't stop people fishing," he said. "All we can say is, "We'd appreciate it if you didn't fish.' "

In the long run, the distinction matters little to those who are being hurt economically. Many of the striking boatmen have other jobs to go to in Galway city. Left to suffer most are the area's small shopkeepers, the bed-and-breakfast providers and others who depend on tourism. The Irish Tourist Board was given no warning of the license law and had made much in its promotional literature of Ireland's free trout fishing. The strike could cost Ireland as much as $14.5 million in lost revenue should it last the season, which ends in August.

There is no sign of a settlement, although hopes were briefly lifted last month when Prime Minister Charles Haughey and the Archbishop of Tuam, Dr. Joseph Cassidy, were thought to have reached a workable solution. But, alas, a few days later Haughey announced that nothing had changed—the new law will continue to be enforced. "Light at the end of the tunnel?" says Burke. "I don't believe there's any tunnel at all."



Signs of the times at Lough Corrib: Normally in June the lake is filled with trout anglers.



A floating protest; foes of the law at O'Malley's; Faherty, who is bucking the strike.