Following on from The Colour of Life, my father-in-law Geoff Cronin wrote two more books with stories of life in Waterford and Dublin from the 1930s. He collected the stories on his travels, swapping them with others in return for his own and then treating us to the results of the exchange. Geoff also added some jokes overheard just for the Craic…Over the next few weeks I will be sharing selected stories from Milestones Along the Way.
The Keem Bay Shark
Visiting Achill Island some years ago, my wife and I parked near the first obvious beach to be seen. It was our first visit to the island and as the day was nice and sunny, we enjoyed the beach for a couple of hours. It had been a long drive from the east coast and we savoured the rest. Presently we retired to the local hostelry and had a leisurely meal, which was excellent. Later, we toured the island and saw the remains of the village deserted since mass emigration during the famine, and we booked into a local B&B. By this time it was near ten o’clock in the evening, and families were still out on the beach and we thought this a bit odd. Of course we had completely overlooked the fact that in Achill, being on the most westerly part of the country, there was an extra forty minutes of daylight.
We had heard that Amethysts were to be found on the island and there were some large specimens displayed in the windows of guesthouses along the road, so we decided that since there was some daylight left, we would do a quick search in some promising sites. Our gem hunting was brought to a close at dusk when clouds of midges descended on us and we had to beat a hasty retreat. However, we did find two small specimens and I have them at home to this day.
On our way to our place of rest, we dropped into the local hotel for a nightcap. Very few people were there and it was now eleven o’clock, but gradually it began to fill and by eleven forty-five the place was packed and a singsong had started. I remembered that Achill was classified as a depressed area and as such it was granted an extra hour by the licensing authorities, which meant that the pub was open until twelve thirty. Well, the singsong had gathered momentum, and there was no shortage of talent and a right royal party was going on when I looked at my watch and it said one fifteen! I made my way to the bar and spotted the landlady. I pointed to my watch and said “What are the chances of a police raid at this hour?”
She smiled indulgently and said, “Ah no sir, they wouldn’t raid us unless a row broke out and that’s very unlikely.”
Anxious for reassurance, I asked why would the police not raid the place and again she smiled and said, “It’s a long winter, sir!” I was puzzled by this answer and decided to check with one of the locals, who told me that this was the only pub on that side of the island, and if the police wanted a place to get a drink in the small hours of night duty, then a cordial relationship with the local hostelry was essential – ’nuff said!
Keem Bay, Achill Island.
Many years later I visited Achill again in the company of two friends, one of them an American named David who had never seen anything like Achill Island. On arrival we drove through the village and on up a long hill which culminated in a car park overlooking Keem Bay, one of the island’s showpieces. From the car park there was a drop of some 500 feet to the small beach, and there were two small boats fishing in the narrow mouth of the bay. Well, the day was warm and the bay was inviting, so we decided that a swim was in order and we made our way down to the small cove below. On the way down, I noticed a man on top of the hill which enclosed one side of the bay, and he was scanning the sea below, for what, I did not know! Now the water here is not just cold, it’s very very cold and it took us a while to get in, as this was the Atlantic!
Eventually, we were in and swimming about, when the man on the hill was shouting to the boatmen, and gesticulating wildly. Whereupon the two boats made for the shore and were disembarking as we emerged from our swim.
We approached the fishermen to inquire what all the fuss was about and they told us that a shark had entered the bay, and usually when that happened, they would drop a strong net across the mouth of the bay and then they would harpoon the shark when they got him in shallow water.
“So, where exactly was the shark?” asked David, and the man said “I’ll show ye now, d’ye see the way there’s three waves comin’ onto the shore? Well, you were swimmin’ in the second wave, and the shark was lying behind the third wave.”
David’s face turned ashen. “How big was he?” he asked.
“About thirty foot”, came the reply, “but ’tis alright ’cos he’s gone off now and we missed him. Of course” he said, “unless you got a swipe of his tail and then you could end up with a short leg!”
Then I asked what would they do with the shark if they caught him. “Cut him open and take out his liver, and then dump him out in the deep.”
“But”, I said, “it could hardly be worth killing such a magnificent animal just for his liver!”
“Well, you see sir”, he explained, “that shark’s liver would weigh up to 2,500 lbs and there’s a big demand for it ’cos they can extract the oil from it and that’s why its valuable.”
As a result of this encounter David decided he would not swim in Keen Bay again, and we all agreed.
Note: The average basking shark can weigh between 4.5 and 5.2 metric tons and its liver can be up to 25% of its body mass. The average liver therefore can weigh between 2,500 and 3,000 lbs!
Basking sharks are frequently seen off the west coast of Ireland as they follow the plankton in the Gulf Stream. Keem bay had a booming shark business in the 1950s and records show that at that time over 1,000 sharks a year were being caught.
2020 today under EU regulations Basking Sharks are protected and tourists now visit Achill Island to catch sight of these magnificent creatures.
©Geoff Cronin 2008
Geoff Cronin 1923 – 2017
About Geoff Cronin
I was born at tea time at number 12 John Street, Waterford on September 23rd 1923. My father was Richard Cronin and my mother was Claire Spencer of John Street Waterford. They were married in St John’s Church in 1919.
Things are moving so fast in this day and age – and people are so absorbed, and necessarily so, with here and now – that things of the past tend to get buried deeper and deeper. Also, people’s memories seem to be shorter now and they cannot remember the little things – day to day pictures which make up the larger canvas of life.
It seems to me that soon there may be little or no detailed knowledge of what life was really like in the 1930s in a town – sorry, I should have said City, in accordance with its ancient charter – like Waterford. So I shall attempt to provide some of these little cameos as much for the fun of telling as for the benefit of posterity.
I hope you have enjoyed Geoff’s stories and as always your feedback would be most welcome – Thanks Sally.