Coastal Communities

Strength of Character

During my research I became fascinated by the lives of earlier women living in coastal communities. Fortunately, there are authors, predominantly female, who have written extensively about women in coastal places in both historical and contemporary contexts. The literature, in terms of the past, reveals that these women remained steadfast to their way of life; managing house and children, theses hardworking women also performed tasks for their fisher-spouses mending nets, gutting fish and selling the catch.

Darlene Abreu-Ferreira (2012) tells us that women were known to have held key trading positions in 17th-century Portugal. They were active fish traders and agents who didn’t necessarily depend on the male population; they had a strong sense of independence.

Although many women from European coastal regions gained independence through fish work, the fish wives of Amsterdam stood out from their European counterparts as they enjoyed a certain wealth. Denise Van der Heuvel (2012) informs us that the fish wives assisted their husbands in selling the catch at various markets. They also held their own stalls independent of their spouses and succeeded in juggling motherhood and work.

In other countries, such as France, some women fished in small boats or accompanied their husbands; and in Ireland many went kelp fishing which necessitated a great deal of physical strength and stamina.

At a time when travel was regarded with suspicion and trepidation, people were reluctant to journey much further than their local hinterland. However, in 19th-century UK during the herring fishery, women in coastal communities left their homes to work gutting and filleting fish. These dirty and tedious chores most men were unwilling to do. That said, the jobs provided young girls and women with a sense of freedom and independence that was rarely experienced by their inland cousins.

Traversing the Atlantic Ocean to 18th-century Newfoundland women processed fish and replaced the traditional male ‘shore crews’. Willeen Keough (2012) recounts how they gutted, washed and salted fish; and not unlike their European counterparts, they too juggled physical labour of the fishery with childcare and household responsibilities. They were known to be full-time participants in the family business in which they held equal share. And to be fair, the wider fishing communities acknowledged the value of their work, regarding them as vital, skilled workers on the fishery.

Unfortunately, due to profound changes within society, the patriarchal characteristic of the ‘civilised’ population steered its course into coastal communities and, as a result, into the fishing industry. The discourses of the time were turned towards the male ‘breadwinner’. Nevertheless, the majority of fishing families remained resilient to these changes by establishing joint maritime households, the type that I observed during my fieldwork in both Ireland and Brittany (France).

There was a large quantity of women involved in maritime trade. These women should be remembered for their strength of character and for their input into the local economies in which they engaged regardless of marital status. These independent women developed their own life courses. They managed and organised their work both within and outside the home that very much resonates with the lives of contemporary women. Assertive for their era, these women should be regarded as role models to empower subsequent generations. They have left a great legacy that could inspire present-day women.

The Regatta: A Cultural and Social Encounter

While I prefer exploring places off-season for their authenticity, summer can have its benefits as it reveals the connection locals establish with visitors. Coastal towns in summer are vibrant. There is always some kind of festival going on; the connection with the sea is significant to developing and enhancing these places and key to attracting tourists. Regatta… a word that evokes the coast, the sea, sailing boats… In Castletownbere, West Cork, the ‘Regatta’ takes place annually, on the first Monday of August – a Bank Holiday in Ireland. Let me take you on a trip down memory lane… It’s not sure when this event first emerged but many retired locals tell me that it is reminiscent of their childhood. I found newspaper articles referring to the ‘Regatta’ dating back to 1912.

A few people to whom I spoke recall a time when there were gig races only prior to the event becoming part of the wider Festival of the Sea. A lot of fishermen used to be involved; my dad recalls there being a specific fishermen’s gig.  

Back to today’s event… there are both senior and junior, ladies and men’s gig races taking place over the course of the day. At intervals there are pillow fights, swimming races, greasy pole among other fun events. The festival not only attracts tourists but also a large number of the Castletownbere diaspora. The Regatta reveals a sense of ‘togetherness’. Fundamentally, this festival is about these people and for these people − permanent residents and visiting members of the Castletownbere diaspora − as a celebration of their maritime culture. People’s attachment to their heritage is revealed through their regular return visits to their native place.

It is a time and a place for all locals to meet and transmit the local heritage to future generations. As many people do not meet with one another outside of this festival due to professional and personal commitments in addition to geographical circumstances it is through the act of socialising during this festival that heritage and identity of the fishing community in Castletownbere is maintained. The festival is important to fishing culture as an agent that strengthens the ties between an increasingly dispersed ‘community’. It is interesting to observe these events take place. As crowds watch the ‘unfolding’ of different events some gasp in awe at the tenacity of certain competitors. The sheer resolve of the contestants offer a ‘theatrical performance’ to the spectators.

People invest emotionally in these events. Events like these reveal a collective sense of attachment to the pier as a place for social gatherings. When the last gig race is patiently awaited you can sense the excitement mounting. The atmosphere is electric, almost emotional, especially when Castletownbere teams are involved in the final effort to cross the line. So why not come visit us and experience for yourself the Regatta, a day-long celebration of maritime culture which is part and parcel of the wider Festival of the Sea.

Les Estivales

What I appreciate about France is the mosaic of associations; the French tend to be creative when it comes to the ‘collective’. From summer estvales to Christmas markets, France has a lot to offer… Here I would like to tell you about one place in particular – Le Guilvinec – in south Finistère, Brittany.

Les Estivales – summer festivities take place every year. They are a creative expression of the local people and place. Every Friday evening, during the month of August, different associations organise their own event around food and music. One particular Friday night I helped out the Twinning committee. People queue to choose and pay for their ‘menu’; in receipt of a ticket they then head to another queue for the ‘grub’.

Large wooden benches and tables are lined up in the car park near the pier. As locals and visitors alike settle themselves they begin their tasty meal, usually seafood chowder, mussels and French fries, followed by the incontournable – not-to-be-missed – Far Breton, a traditional Breton flan habitually made with prunes. Conversations between old friends and new acquaintances start in earnest; some of whom exchange mobile numbers et voilà, new friendships blossom.

There is a great crowd. I listen to the buzzing sound generated by the multitude of conversations floating through the atmosphere. The music commences; a mix of Breton traditional and contemporary. It really gets the crowd going. Young and not-so-young gather on the ‘dance floor’ – the car park tarmac but it does the job! Fingers are linked, arms are raised and feet begin to move to the beat, a Breton beat. The novices are guided by the experienced. While I enjoy dancing I just want to watch and soak it up. It’s enchanting; I’m mesmerised.

June had been extremely hot; July and August were cooler, with a misty day here and there, thrown in for good measure! As the evening draws to a close, the crowd disperses. Tables and benches are folded and stacked and put away until the next time. My host and I arrive home after midnight. Both body and mind are ready for a good night’s sleep. We bid one another ‘goodnight’; and I awaken the following morning to the sound of the Church bells chiming, it’s 8 o’clock!

Le Guilvinec has a lot to offer in terms of quaint seafood restaurants, a delightful beach and coastal promenade, and a maritime visitor centre called ‘Haliotika’. This visitor centre is worth the trip; plenty of things to see and do – go check out the website: https://www.haliotika.com/

Storm Lorenzo has gate-crashed…

Starring as a hurricane in the Caribbean, Storm Lorenzo has arrived on Irish coasts even though he was not invited! Following the same trajectory as Storm Ophelia two years ago, he has swept its way across the north Atlantic hitting the Azores on Wednesday. Moving slowly north east, it had been downgraded to an extra-tropical storm upon arrival to Ireland’s shores early this morning.

Winds picked up during Wednesday night; status orange warning has been issued for the western and south-western counties. Our emergency services are on stand-by. The country braces itself for yet another storm. The last number of years has observed an increase in the frequency and intensity of extreme weather conditions worldwide. Ireland has not escaped…

As I settle myself cosily, I watch the waves surge upon the rocks and the shoreline below. The frothy splashes remind me of a cappuccino; it’s time for coffee. I switch on the espresso machine… mmm the smell of coffee brewing pulls me away from the window. Coffee in hand I settle down to writing.

There are, no doubt, many of you who have experienced tough weather conditions. However, here in Ireland we have never been used to extreme conditions; summers never too hot, winters never too cold. Yes, plenty of rain and mist in winter, but, generally we’ve been accustomed to a predominantly mild, stable climate. Due to global climate change the Atlantic is warming up; such hurricanes that previously headed into the Caribbean and eastern coastlines of the United States are now finding their way to the east of the Atlantic towards Europe. This change in trajectory is said to become a more common occurrence.

The last few years, perhaps even seven or eight, there has been a change. Of course, we’ve had the odd storm but they were far from being frequent. My husband has spent the past few Festive Seasons in France with his immediate family and I have spent it with mine. Each time, prior to going away, winds and rain would intensify “will the flight be delayed?” or “will the flight actually take-off?” I’d leave my husband at the airport, somewhat reluctantly, and head-off on my two-hour drive to my parents’. The winds were so strong that they would shake the car and rain so heavy that I’d have to use the windscreen wipers at the fastest speed position. I could feel the car being moved by the wind. It was always a sigh of relief to arrive at my destination; and once I heard from my husband, well, I could relax!

It’s supposed to get worse tonight; I do hope we don’t have a power outage! Last storm there were parts of the country, including where we live, without electricity for over a week due to fallen trees. À suivre…

Sorry I’m late with this post; wanted to post it last Thursday evening! Something unexpected came up and had to go… hope you enjoy reading it even if a little late! P.S. The north-western part of the country was the most affected; they experienced gale-force winds and a lot of rain and many places got flooded. At least yesterday and today are dry with sunny spells.

A Day Trip To Clonakilty, West Cork

A few weeks ago my sister and I were spending a long weekend at our parents’. It had been a very long while since my sister had been to Clonakilty, a quaint town in West Cork. We travelled there one very wet Saturday morning just after breakfast, at about 9 am. We had no agenda, just the idea to soak it up! As I’ve previously mentioned in another post my husband and I lived in Courtmacsherry for a number of years, a ten-minute drive from ‘Clon’ – as it is known to locals – so I acted as her personal guide for the day!

In less than two hours we arrived, found a parking space in the local Catholic Church yard. He rain has subsided. We went to the Olive Branch first; a health food emporium established in 2004 and a remarkable place for healthy foodies. It also offers a great range of skin care products. The staff is only too delighted to be of service. Check out their website: https://theolivebranch.ie/.

From there we had decided to stroll though the main street, but, as we move to the door a deluge has started. So we wait… and wait… We make a dash for the car which isn’t too far; but far enough when there’s a downpour! We grab two umbrellas from the car and I decide to exchange my canvas footwear – yes I agree a rather impractical move this morning – for ankle rain boots, ah! much better, my feet are grateful for the dry comfort.

Return to the main street, people are dashing in and out of shops. Despite the rain the locals appear to be positively pleasant. By now we are feeling peckish and are enticed into the Arís Café and Wine Bar. The place is bustling with an energetic atmosphere – plenty of locals with a dash of visitors. A young waiter accompanies us to our table upstairs. We sit by the window with view on Asna square. It’s 11h30 so we opt for coffee and scones; we pile on the better and jam mmm! We delight in soaking up the atmosphere that reveals itself as friendly. They have an appealing selection of mouth-watering cakes and pastries as well as an inviting lunch menu. We both encourage you to stop by for a bite – you won’t regret it. Check out the website: https://www.ariscafe.com/.

With our stomachs satisfied we head out into the damp street. Despite the heavy showers is a vibrant feel to the town. We explore the main street; stopping and starting as we go. The Clonakilty Bookstore is a lovely place to while away a small half hour – but don’t forget to buy a book! It shelves some unusual and interesting books about West Cork and Ireland in general. There are two other book shops but we didn’t have the time to pop in there.

There are oodles of restaurants and cafes; craft shops and boutiques dotted about the town. As we are stuck for time we thought a picnic – in the car – was the best option; I wanted to bring my sister to Inchydoney Beach. We went to Lettercollum to get food-to-go with a healthy twist. They have an organic garden in Timoleague – a village located between Clonaklity and Coutmacsherry. We both decide on the roasted vegetable feta savoury tart. There is a small seating area that caters for 3/4 people, already taken! But I’d recommend you trying the food; it’s scrumptious. Visit their website: http://www.lettercollum.ie/. The place is packed so we set off to Inchydoney Beach. It’s about a ten-minute drive from the town.

We find a parking spot overlooking the beach. We indulge on our savoury tarts, ‘oohing and aahing’! The mist is rolling in over the bay from the Atlantic but that does not deter people from taking a walk, surfing or indeed swimming – without any wetsuit in tow!

It’s two o’clock; time to head home to Castletownbere. My sister is enthralled by ‘Clon’. The place is friendly, dynamic and has an altogether positive vibe. There is much more to be discovered so please do check out: https://www.clonakilty.ie/ for more information.