The Oyster Pirates

By John C. McTernan

The cultivation of oysters at various locations along the Sligo coast, and particularly in the Ballisodare estuary, can be traced back to pre-historic times. There is evidence to suggest that our distant ancestors operated an oyster fishery in the vicinity of Culleenamore a few thousand years ago.

Towards the close of the 18th century and the opening decades of the 19th, flourishing oyster fisheries were being operated at the Lower Rosses by the Coopers of Markree; at Ballyweelin by the Wynnes of Hazelwood; at Oyster Island by the Martins of Cleveragh - leased for long periods to the brothers, Laurence and Mathew Walsh of Breeogue and Glen Lodge; and at Culleenamore, where the old Nicholson beds were operated, for a time, by Messrs Mossman and White. In the late 19th century there were twenty-one licensed beds in operation - ten in Ballisodare Bay; five in Sligo estuary and two in Drumcliffe, with smaller beds at Moneygold and Milkhaven.

In 1855 the 'Sligo Journal' referred to the large and valuable beds of oysters in the vicinity which yielded a profitable return to their proprietors. The value of oysters is becoming enhanced year after year in the London and other markets. However, over the succeeding years indiscriminate dredgings or illegal trawlings of the beds resulted in a serious depletion of the stocks and the fisheries generally became badly run down. The regular plunderings of oyster beds became a matter of much concern and reached a climax in 1864 when lawless plunderers descended upon Martin's beds at Oyster Island, then operated by Mrs. Sherlock, and John Wynne's fishery at Ballyweelin. Over 400 pounds worth of stocks were carried off in the raids. A few weeks later, on November 12th, the Lissadell beds, which were in the ownership of Sir Robert Gore-Booth and whose oysters enjoyed an established reputation both at home and abroad, became the target of a daring plunder. The story of that invasion was related in detail in the Sligo Chronicle, November 19th, 1864:

During two or three days of the past week the neighbourhood of Lissadell has been the scene of intense and most extraordinary excitement. Its quiet shores, its lovely woodlands, its retired roadways have been disturbed from their usual tranquility, by an invasion as curious in its way - as amusing in its audacious effrontery, and as comic in its sea-fights as that beautiful line of coast has for a long time witnessed. There is a piece of ground over which the tide flows some ten feet at high water, and about four or five feet at low water, and which stretches away from Lissadell to Finned Point. It embraces on the whole about fifty-five statute acres, and forms a little estuary of the sea. Navigation here there is none; a stray collier may once in the year deliver her cargo in the adjoining locality, but beyond this and the sheet or sail of the yacht and fishing boat, nothing ever ruffles it waves. Within the margin of this fifty-five acreage, Sir Robert Gore Booth has created a most valuable oyster bed - indeed, we are told, one of the finest in Ireland. He possesses it not only by prescriptive right, but also by Charter - one of the few instances on record of a special grant from the Crown. It is needless to state that the very fact of the importance of the fishery - the confidence that a dredge could not be used without a rich harvest - the knowledge that the rights of property had been successfully baffled and temporarily set aside at Ballyweelin - induced the oyster pirates to make a grand attack on the beds of Lissadell. How they were repulsed, defeated, and ignominiously driven from the field of their robbery we shall tell.

About ten o'clock on Monday, the first serious foray was made. On the previous Saturday, four boats honoured the locality with a visit, and carried off oysters to the value of about 15 pounds, but little attention was paid to this preliminary theft. On Monday, however, matters early assumed a more serious aspect. At ten o'clock a fleet of boats made their appearance on the horizon, the majority of the pirates hailing from Coney Island, Rosses Point, Ballisodare, and the adjoining lines of coast. In fact, along the whole of these districts the news seemed to have spread abroad - that oysters were to be obtained by the simple process of dredging, and that private rights were out of all consideration. The tide was then about 'half made', and from the window of his residence Sir Robert Gore-Booth quietly witnessed the approach of the pirates. In a long line some twenty-one boats approached, fully prepared with all the dredging operations. Ample preparation had, however, been made to give them a warm reception. The tenantry easily rallied around the landlord, with commendable spirit, to protect his interests. Mr Martin, the energetic land steward of the estate, whose vigour and determination throughout the whole of these proceedings was of the most praiseworthy character, at once dispatched eight of Sir Robert's carts to Cloonagh for boats, and the adjoining tenantry sent nine of these vehicles for a similar purpose. At eleven o'clock there was a splendid marshalling of the 'clans.' when the boats from Cloonagh and other places arrived they were speedily manned by stout and able arms. The enemy, in the meantime, were engaged at dredging. In order to avoid hostilities, Mr Martin, as a sort of Admiral of the fleet, advanced before the vanguard of his flotilla and tried the effect of remonstrance with the pirates. He told them of the illegality of these proceedings, and of the foul wrong they were committing. Is this the way you are going to treat us, said one of the robbers, when the reply was Yes, of course it is; and if you attempt to put a dredge into Sir Robert's beds we will endeavour to prevent you. What the means adopted for prevention was, may be easily conceived, when we state that the Lissadell tenantry were armed with scythes neatly tied upon long poles, innumerable bill-hooks of the most handy description, five dozen of most beautiful black-thorns, that would have done credit to Donnybrook in its palmiest days, and some guns charged with buck-shot! In the presence of this formidable force the pirates saw the game was up, and turning to their oars made off with the utmost dispatch.

The proceedings of Monday were, however, trifling in importance when compared with those of Tuesday. An intimation had been made to the authorities of the outrages going on, and, at length, some action was taken to crush these patent robberies. It was, however, more of a watchful than a preventative character. About eleven o'clock on Tuesday, Mr Howley., R.M., appeared on the ground, and, in consequence of instructions, a large body of constabulary, was also in attendance.

Almost the whole staff of police from Cliffoney, Grange, Drumcliffe, Sligo, Rosses Point, Strandhill, and other stations, made their appearance, under the command of Sub-Inspector Bernard and Head-Constable Lindley. In addition to this force, a large number of the Coastguards were also on the spot with three boats. This was about eleven o'clock on Tuesday, when the strand at Lissadell presented a most exciting and picturesque appearance. At first, there was only about fifty persons on the shore, but, as the shout arose on the air that the pirates were coming, the tenantry streamed down the hill, in order to repel the invasion. It was amusing to witness the excitement which prevailed- the rush for oars, the struggling for boats, the strong and hearty shouts for vengeance against any one who should touch Sir Robert's beds were loud and great.

The weapons of the previous day were observable in abundance, and under the command of Mr Martin and Mr Rogers - the former armed with a neat double-barrel, and the latter with a stout blackthorn, the Booth tenantry awaited the approach of their antagonists.

Suspense was not of long duration. Away across at Rosses Bank, boat after boat made its appearance. till some twenty were to be seen in the offing, and making steadily for the Lissadell beds. The commotion that followed upon the strand was indescribable, and nothing but the presence of Sir Robert Gore-Booth, Captain Wynne, Mr Martin, and Mr Rogers prevented the multitude from at once taking the law into their own hands. At a signal, thirty-four boats, manned by the tenantry, were thrust into the water. Now arrived the moment for an engagement, but there was none. With their crews excited and furious, Sir Robert's boats dashed to the front of the bed, forming a sort of cordon for its protection. There then followed the usual boisterous excitement. Captain Wynne, who, in company with Mr Martin, headed the Lissadell fleet, inquired of the leader of the pirates what he intended to do? The reply was, we intend to dredge for oysters, when Captain Wynne said, Well, if you are determined to do that, we are equally determined to keep you off the Lissadell beds. The determined position taken up had at once the desired effect. There was only a single attempt made to put down a dredge, and even that did not succeed. At this stage the pirates became greatly excited, and challenged their antagonists to meet them man for man on Rosses Bank. The reply was that the tenantry had come there to preserve and not to break the peace - besides the large body of constabulary in attendance, some of whom were in boats, put such a struggle out of the question. For upwards of two hours the parties were thus face to face, the pirates asserting they had law for their conduct, and Captain Wynne, in reply, stating that he did not care what law they had he would prevent them from trespassing on Sir Robert's bed. This drew forth loud cries of Hurrah, for Sebastopol - an allusion to the Captain's gallant conduct during the Crimean expedition. Preparations had at this time been made for bringing the ludicrous scene to an end. Informations had been sworn before Mr C. G. Jones, J. P., against five of the ringleaders of the expedition - four persons, named Flanagan, Morgan Ferrall, Charles Brierly, and Peter Logan. The warrants were handed over for execution to Sub-Inspector Bernard, and that officer made very little ceremony in their execution. With a large party of constabulary he proceeded in boats to Rosses Bank, and the arrests were made without the slightest attempt at resistance.

This proceeding had a most valuable effect on the conduct of the rest of the pirates. When they saw their five companions handcuffed and marched oft to jail, they immediately repaired to their boats and made preparations for returning home. There was a sixth warrant issued, and Mr Martin and the constabulary had a long chase after the party named in it. The fellow made for Dorran's Island, and finally escaped from his pursuers by fording a small stream at the latter place. One by one the boats of the expedition left the locality, but it was an advanced hour of the evening before Sir Robert's tenantry returned to their homes. Indeed, the shore of Lissadell was a scene of strange excitement for several hours after the departure of the pirates.

On Wednesday the tenantry again mustered in large numbers, for the purpose of repelling any attack that might be made on the beds. Mr Howley, R.M., was early in attendance, accompanied by a large body of constabulary and coast guards, and Sir Robert Gore Booth, M.P., Captain Wynne, Mr J.H.C. Wynne, Mr C.G. Jones, and others were also present on the strand. Many an eye was turned seawards in the expectation that the piratical dredgers would make their appearance. Boats were made ready for launching in a moment's notice - the bill-hooks, scythes, and black-thorns were near at hand, but all these preparations, as the result showed, were unnecessary.

The lesson of the previous day had its due effect.