Irish Involvement in the Fishery

The Irish played an important role in both the migratory and resident fisheries at Newfoundland and Labrador. By the late-17th century, merchants in southeast Ireland were regularly exporting pork, beef, butter, and other provisions overseas to help supply English workers engaged in the transatlantic fishery. Eventually, Irish labourers also migrated to the colony each spring to take advantage of employment opportunities there. Most worked as servants for planters or merchants and stayed on the island for one or two summers before returning home in the fall. Although the migratory fishery remained a largely English-directed industry throughout the 18th century, it increasingly relied on Irish labour to catch and cure fish.

Map of Ireland, 1940
Map of Ireland, 1940
The Irish played an important role in the migratory and resident fisheries at Newfoundland and Labrador. By the late-17th century, merchants in southeast Ireland were regularly exporting pork, beef, butter, and other provisions overseas to help supply English workers engaged in the transatlantic fishery.
From Sean O'Faolain, An Irish Journey (London: Longmans, Green and Co., 1940) vi.

The resident fishery also depended heavily on Irish labour after it displaced the migratory fishery in the early 19th century. Roughly half the island's population was of Irish origin by the mid-1800s and most worked for at least part of the year in the fishery, catching and curing cod for sale overseas. Irish merchants also established premises at St. John's, Placentia, and elsewhere on the island as the resident fishery grew in importance. Their firms did business with hundreds of fish workers, many of whom were also of Irish origin.

The Irish and the Migratory Fishery

The migratory fishery began in the early-16th century and lasted for more than 300 years before finally giving way to a resident industry in the early 1800s. It was a seasonal enterprise and therefore required most of its workers to live in Newfoundland and Labrador on a temporary basis only, usually during the spring and summer when cod were plentiful in inshore and offshore waters. France, Spain, and Portugal participated in the early migratory fishery, but it was England that eventually dominated the industry, each year dispatching shiploads of fishers from its West Country ports.

Ireland remained largely uninvolved with the migratory fishery until the late-17th century, when it began exporting foodstuffs overseas to supply English fishers at Newfoundland and Labrador. After about 1675, English vessels en route to the fishery began stopping at Irish ports each spring to load salt pork and beef, cheese, butter, and other provisions. Most visited Waterford and other ports in southeast Ireland, which were near transatlantic shipping lanes.

By the early-18th century, English sea captains and shipowners also began to recruit Irish labourers to travel overseas and work in the fishery. Most were unmarried and relatively poor young men willing to stay for at least one season in Newfoundland to work as servants for planters, bye-boat keepers, or merchants. Although many came from agricultural backgrounds and had no experience in the fishery, English planters and merchants valued them as a source of cheap and readily available labour.

A shortage of English fish workers in the early 1700s created a further demand for Irish labour. Britain was at war with France from 1702 to 1713 and many English fishers joined the navy and other military forces. To fill personnel requests from merchants and planters engaged in the fishery, ship captains recruited Irish labourers while loading provisions in southeast Ireland. By the time hostilities ended in 1728, the migratory fishery had entered a downturn which deterred many English workers from going to Newfoundland. This was not the case in Ireland, where the population was largely unaware of difficulties within the fishery and captains could recruit workers with relative ease.

Vessels carrying Irish workers typically departed ports in southeastern Ireland in early April and arrived at Newfoundland in May. Workers dispersed along the English Shore, which extended from Bonavista to Trepassey; the island's south and north shores were part of the French migratory fishery. This changed after the signing of the Treaty of Utrecht in 1713, which granted England sovereignty over the entire island of Newfoundland, but allowed France to retain fishing rights on the north shore, between Pointe Riche and Cape Bonavista.

The English Shore to 1713
The English Shore to 1713
Irish migrants to Newfoundland dispersed along the English Shore, which extended from Bonavista to Trepassey.
Illustration by Duleepa Wijayawardhana. ©1999 Newfoundland and Labrador Heritage Web Site.

The English fishery expanded into southern areas of the Avalon Peninsula after 1713, where it largely relied on Irish labour to catch and cure fish. In the coming years, it became common for Irish migrants to work on the southeast Avalon Peninsula, at Placentia, St. John's, and points in between. Smaller numbers also worked at Conception Bay and along Newfoundland's northeast coast. English fishers lived for the most part at St. John's and coastal areas to the north.

Most Irish workers remained overseas for one or two fishing seasons before returning home in the fall. Those working two seasons lived on the island during the winter to cut timber and guard fishing gear after the bulk of fish workers returned to Europe in October. However, increasing numbers of Irish fishers also settled on the island permanently throughout the 18th century. Many married Irish women who migrated to Newfoundland to work as domestic servants for planters and merchants.

During the fishing season, which typically ran from June through August, workers spent most of their waking hours catching or curing cod. Members of the boat crew rowed to inshore waters early each morning and fished for cod using handlines and baited hooks. They returned to land when their boats were full so members of the shore crew could clean, split, salt, and dry the fish. Most Irish migrants worked either as fishers or shoremen; some of the youngest and most unskilled also worked as general labourers.

Irish merchants and planters were also present on the island by the end of the 18th century. In the 1750s, for example, Irish immigrant Richard Welsh opened a successful merchant firm at Placentia that operated for more than a century. Like other Irish merchants and planters, Welsh annually imported labourers from southeast Ireland, many of whom settled on the southeast Avalon after the migratory fishery gave way to a resident operation in the 1800s.

The Irish and the Resident Fishery

The early-19th century brought sudden economic prosperity to the Newfoundland and Labrador fishery, which helped transform the industry from a migratory to a resident operation. The Napoleonic Wars (1803-1815) gave the colony an almost complete monopoly over the international fish trade and attracted growing numbers of immigrants from the British Isles. Between 30,000 and 35,000 Irish arrived on the island during the first three decades of the 19th century and most settled on the Avalon Peninsula's east and south coasts.

Irish labour was an important part of the resident fishery and many settlers made a living catching and curing cod for sale overseas. Instead of the large-scale fishing operations of the migratory fishery, which involved sizeable boat and shore crews, the resident fishery depended primarily on family labour and was underpinned by relatively small household operations. The roles of Irish women and children expanded within the resident fishery as they assumed much of the work formerly done by members of the shore crew. Fathers, uncles, and older boys harvested cod in small open boats and also helped to cure the fish. As in the migratory fishery, fishing people traded their catch to merchants for food and supplies, or for credit in merchants' stores.

Unlike in previous decades, most merchants engaged in the fishery were now based at Newfoundland and Labrador instead of the British Isles. Many were of Irish origin, including John Rorke at Carbonear, Michael Tobin at St. Mary's, and Patrick Morris, Robert Kent, James MacBraire, and Lawrence O'Brien at St. John's. It was not uncommon for Irish merchants to import migrants from Ireland to work in the fishery, which further increased Irish involvement in the fishery and settlement of the colony. Many Irish also engaged in the Labrador, bank, and seal fisheries that grew in importance in the 19th century.

Alongside English labour, Irish fishers, shore workers, and merchants played a significant role in the development and prosecution of the Newfoundland and Labrador fisheries from the 18th through 19th centuries. Many of the province's fish workers can today trace their ancestry back to the 1780-1840 Irish migrations.

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