So too is the case of smaller bottles destined to hold the more fragile of our prey. The rope lies coiled at our feet, and we are being rowed away to our dredging ground a mile or so nearer to the mouth of the harbour. Opposite us rises the tall form of Mweelrea and its big brother peaks, all with thin scarfs of mist streaming lightly away from their topmost crags. Other and denser clouds are slowly issuing out of the great chasm which yawns half way up the slope, and away, far down at the end of the bay, a great solid-looking white bar stretches across the mountains above Aasleagh, touching the shoulders of the Devil's Mother, and losing itself amongst the intricacy of peaks and lower summits beyond. Yetthe day is fine, the offing though grey is clear, and as we steer out further and further into the centre of the harbour, one by one the long grey line of the Twelve Pins, hitherto invisible, rises into sight, their glistening cliffs of quartzite undimmed by the smallest symptom of mist or haze. From this point the circle of mountains is for the moment complete; the Mweelrea group leading to those beyond Doolough; these in their turn to those above Aasleagh, whence, viâ Maum-Turk and the hills of Joyce country, we arrive at the Twelve Pins; a narrow space, barely three quarters of a mile across, being left for the entrance into the harbour. Upon the nearer slope a broad rusty-black circle shows where the heather has lately been fired. Close to the edge of this lies a small group of shielings, a couple of ash trees rising in their midst. There are twenty houses perhaps or more in the group, but evidently only one occupied,--a single thin blue whiff of smoke rising in the still air and floating slowly out to seaward.

But our dredging ground is reached ; a mile or so short at the entrance of the harbour, and close under the shelter of Mweelrea, which, by the way, has now lost all semblance to a mountain, a few hundred yards of steep bank, shaggy with heather, and riddled with fissures, being all that is visible above the edge of the shore. Here then the order is given to halt; our men rest, well content, upon their oars; the boat, abandoned to its own devices, bobs restlessly up and down, the small waves lifting its bows before hurrying on to fling themselves against the seaweed lolling brown and tangled from the rocks beyond.

Bringing the dredge up to the level of the boat edge, we look first carefully to our rope-coils previously to lowering it overboard. Nothing in dredging is so fatal as too scant a supply of rope. If not three times, or nearly three times, as long as the distance between surface and bottom, the dredge, on being lowered, instead of scraping, gives a series of hops, coming up consequently nearly as empty as it went down. To-day, however, all precautions have been taken ; seventy or eighty yards of rope lie coiled at the stern. Lower away! The dredge sinks, rapidly changing to a delicate peagreen as the water closes over it; then vanishes—the rope running rapidly out between our hands the while. Fortunately, with a wellconstructed Ball's dredge there is no danger of its turning over, or rather it is not of the smallest consequence which side comes uppermost, since, unlike those used by the oyster dredgers, both lips are flattened, so that however it falls it is safe to scrape. The meshes of the net dwindle too as they approach the point, consequently, any object, no matter how small, is certain to be picked up and brought to the surface. Gradually the tension slackens, showing that the dredge has reached the bottom. We continue to pay out another dozen or two of rope; then, with a twist round the thwarts, the line is made fast, the men take to their oars, and we row slowly away towards the entrance, the rope being all the while carefully looked to in case of the dredge showing any inclination to foul.

With a contrary tide it is sometimes hard work, even for a couple of men, to pull against a dredge, especially, of course, where the bottom is unusually rough or muddy. In sailing, on the other hand, there is always this danger, that should the dredge stick fast it is hardly possible to put about in time to hinder its being carried away. The golden rule is to go slowly; in sailing especially it is hardly possible to go too slowly. Also it is not a bad plan, especially over rough ground, to have a float or piece of wood fastened to the end of the rope so as to be able to fling the whole thing overboard at the first intimation of mischief. Unfortunately, however, this seldom comes in time, especially if we have any way on, as then the pull of the rope is always so strong that an extra strain is at first hardly noticed, and probably the first hint you get is when the rope parts close under the stern, or a total cessation of strain causes you hastily to draw it up—when there is found to be no dredge at the other end !

In every rule of this kind much of course depends upon the nature of the bottom. Where sands spread unbroken for hundreds of miles and the soundings are known to an inch, greater liberties may be taken ; but on a coast as cross-grained as this, where every storm more or less alters the bottom, it is as well to stick to the oars unless we are prepared either to give the land a wide berth, or else to have a relay of dredges ready in case of accidents.

Meanwhile we have run our quarter of a mile, and may begin to haul in, one of the men remaining at the oars so as to hinder the boat from slipping backwards. Rapidly the wet coils accumulate under our hands; up and up steadily, but as yet no sign of our dredge. At last far down a pale green mass appears, rapidly approaching nearer. This is the exciting moment! What if at the very last the rope gives way, and the freight is returned to the bottom just as it seemed within our grasp ? Instinctively arms are bared and hands outstretched to help it over the edge. Another moment, and it is safe on board. A piece of wood, specially brought for the purpose, is laid between a couple of thwarts; on to this the contents of the dredge are poured; the dredge itself is returned to the bottom; and two pairs of hands are soon busily engaged in turning over the motley variegated heap, which writhes, and crawls, and twists, and wriggles, half on the board and half at the bottom of the boat.

And now, what have we got to reward us after our trouble ? As I said just now, dredging is decidedly a capricious, not to say skittish pursuit, and the chances of a good or bad haul are hard to prognosticate beforehand. Here, for instance, in the Killary, a star-fish, known as the Thread-rayed Brittle-star (Ophiocoma filiformis), and usually accounted a rarity, is in some places so common that the dredge comes up literally choked with it at every haul, while elsewhere you may scrape and scrape for hours, yet never meet with so much as a single individual. This being one of the spots it affects, we may be pretty sure that it will form at least two-thirds of our cargo.

As for its appearance, let the reader picture to himself a small pentagonal piece of leather, to which five rather long and very ravelled pieces of twine have been attached, and further, let him endow each of these pieces of twine with a separate writhing, wriggling, restless life of its own, and he will have a notion, and a fairly approximate notion, of what our star-fish is like. As to its brittleness, all I need say is that out of a dredge-load, consisting of perhaps thousands of individuals, I have sometimes failed to secure as much as a single perfect specimen : since before even the dredge reaches the surface the whole mass has become mere disjecta membra of rayless disks and diskless rays. The best, indeed the only chance of securing specimens is to have a bucket of fresh water at hand, and at once drop your captures into it, the effect of the fresh water being to kill them so instantaneously as to allow no time for their breaking themselves into pieces.

But these brittle stars are not our only captures. Here, for instance, are a couple of sun-stars, as gorgeous as orange-disks, lemon-coloured bands, and an array of great red rays can make them. Smaller star-fish too; some with thin pointed rays, others like animated pieces of parchment with apparently no rays at all. Seaurchins also, and white soft satiny-looking holothuria. As for the representatives of other orders, they are quite too numerous to do more than glance at. Here are sea-mice, brown and bristly; serpula, grey and stony; hermit crabs, spider crabs, broad-claw crabs, all sorts of crabs. Fish too of various kinds. Young flat fish looking up at us with eyes which have not yet attained to the full-grown squint, but are in process of working round (or as some will have it through) from the front where originally they were, to the side where eventually they are to be; pipe-fish wriggling their way, worm-fashion, in and out the motley heap; a small sucker promptly seized upon as a prize, being only to be met with here and, it is said, on the Cornish coast ; ascidians, annelids, and sea anemones; shells

[ocr errors]

of many sorts and sizes; besides whole forests of delicate branching hydroids, which by the uninitiated are invariably set down as seaweeds, but which, none the less, are animals, or rather communities of animals, all linked together, and each contributing to the benefit of the whole-a notable example truly of the merits of co-operation.

But, see! we have already passed Inishbarna, with its solitary fisherman's hut, and are out now in the open bay. Here the current is considerably stronger, and there is a good deal of broken water, so that it is as well to haul in the dredge, and get clear of the rocks before letting it down for another scrape. To our left lies the little bay or creek known as the lesser Killary; a few patches of wood, scanty, but comforting amid the general bleakness, mantling the hill-side beyond. Yet a little further to the left stands a church, half bid in ivy, and near it (invisible, however, from our present stand-point), a well-a very ancient and a very famous well, commemorating probably the precise spot where Saint Roc rested after that most memorable struggle with the Evil One which resulted, according to tradition, in the making of the pass above-the marks of the saint's shoulders and of his antagonist's hoofs being still plainly visible upon the rocks. Beyond, the eye travels along a broad white arc of silvery sand, past a couple of villages; past more bare rocks over which the surf is playing leapfrog, until it is arrested by the outstretched point of Renvyle, which for the present cuts off further view in this direction.

At this state of the tide the navigation is somewhat intricate, dark points of rock, muffled in seaweed, but none the less sharp or perilous for that, peering up in all sorts of unexpected directions. Off one of these a seal slips quietly into the water just as he calculates that we are getting within range. There are no guns in the boat, but that we could hardly expect him to know, and in any case he would think it as well probably to be on the safe side. Only two seals, the large grey (Halicharius gryphus), and the common spotted seal (Phoca vitulina), occur on this coast, and of these the former, though not rare, is seldom seen, as it prefers the most distant rocks and skerries, and even there is exceedingly difficult to approach. Both species are said to have been formerly used as food, being allowed (like sea gulls and cormorants) to pass muster as fish, and to be eaten consequently on fast day-a piece of lax observance dating as far back as the days of Giraldus Cambrensis, who speaks of it with the utmost reprobation. If a sin, it certainly was one which to our eyes carried its own punishment along with it!

That this practice of eating seals was not confined to the Irish coasts is evident from Martin's Description of the Western Isiands, published in the early part of last century. The natives,' he says, • salt the seals with the ashes of burned sea-ware, and say they are good food. The vulgar eat them commonly in the spring-time, with a long pointed stick instead of a fork, to prevent the strong smell

[ocr errors]

which their hands would otherwise have for several hours after.' Why any one capable of so heroic a sacrifice of comfort to refinement should be called vulgar is not explained, but as far as the eating of seals goes the evidence seems clear. In the Book of Lismore, quoted by Mr. Hardiman in his notes to the Hiar Connaught, a story is told of St. Bridget which illustrates this custom :

Once on a certain time there came visitors to St. Bridget. And they were poble and devout, being the seven bishops of Tulla in the East of Leinster. Then Bridget commanded a certain man of her people to go to the sea, and fish for her visitors; and the man went forth carrying his seal-spear, and he met a seal. Ile struck the seal-spear into it, and tied the rope fast to his arm. The seal dragged the man after him over the sea to the shore of Britain, where it left him upon a rock, after that it had broken the rope. Nevertheless the seal returned with the spear sticking in him, until he was cast by the sea on the part of the shore nearest to Bridget : and the British men gave a curagh to the fisherman, and he came over the sea, and found his seal on the strand of Leinster, and he carried it to Bridget's visitors.

But our seals and seal-rocks are now a good way behind, and we are rapidly approaching a group of islands whose rounded wave-like outlines hardly seem to rise above the surface of the sea. This, then, is the place for another scrape. Both wind and tide are now in our favour ; so, dropping the dredge overboard, we draw in the oars, and slip quietly down in the direction of the islands, the long swell following and driving us forward at the rate of a mile, or perhaps a mile and a half an hour-quite as rapid a progression as any dredger needs.

All along the edge of the islands may be seen a number of black heaps, which at this distance, but for their colour, might pass muster as haycocks. Cocks they are, not however of hay, but seaweed, collected in the spring-time, and destined eventually to be converted into either kelp or manure. A few years ago far more seaweed was collected than at present, every little point and island being thickly bedotted with its black heaps. Unfortunately, the kelp trade has of late been languishing, the prices have gone down, and there seems only too much reason to fear that a short time will see it vanish altogether.

The manufacture of kelp along these shores has in fact been marked with vicissitudes from the very commencement. Up to sixty or seventy years ago it was chiefly made of the black’weeds, those, namely, which grow within tide-marks, and being then largely used in the manufacture of soda, was in considerable demand, the prices ranging as high, it is said, as ten and twelve pounds a ton. Arthur Young, writing in 1778, tells us that as much as 3,000 tons were in that year exported from Galway alone. The shore,' he says, 'is let with the land against it, and is what the people pay their rents by. The seaweed was in fact then regarded as the most valuable part of a property adjoining the coast, and the amount demanded for the right of cutting it strikes us as curiously disproportionate to the other rents paid at that time Unfortunately it was an industry solely dependent for its exist ence

« VorigeDoorgaan »