Blog: After Banshees of Inisherin: Island fisheries ebb with the Brexit tides – Irish Examiner

When the official trailer for the Banshees of Inisherin was released, one of the many stunning shots of both the Aran islands and Achill was at the back of Inis Mór where the Conneely fishing family have their home.

The cottage where Colin Farrell’s Pádraic and Kerry Condon’s Siobhán lived with Jennie the donkey was constructed up at Gort na Capall, close to the island’s cliffs and not far from Poll na bPéist.

The cottage was built from scratch and then dismantled, the Conneelys recall. Such has been the reaction to the film that this year’s tourist season on Inis Mór is expected to be more feverish than ever, and the Conneelys are delighted with Martin McDonagh’s success.

However, their own future, and that of remaining fishing families, on Inis Mór is far less certain.

In a few weeks’ time, John Conneely will deliver two fishing vessels to yards where they will be broken up, piece by piece. A Government scrappage scheme will take out half of the remaining Aran island fishing fleet.

One of Conneely’s two vessels, the 17-metre Connacht Ranger, has been in the family for over half a century. It was one of a fleet of timber boats built at boatyards then run by the State’s sea fisheries board, Bord Iascaigh Mhara (BIM).

Now the same State board – which had been tasked with building up a much-neglected industry half a century ago – is now responsible for the scheme to slim it back down.

Initiated last year, the scrappage scheme was drawn up to a seafood task force to pay up to 60 skipper owners compensation for destroying their vessels – due largely to the loss of quota caused by Brexit.

A total of 42 owners have accepted offers, out of 57 letters issued by BIM. The funding comes from an EU pot which doesn’t involve a penny from the taxpayer.  It’s not clear that all 42 of these will lead to all boats being scrapped.

The Brexit Adjustment Reserve, as Brussels calls the compensation fund, amounts to almost 1 billion euro and must be spent within two years. However, only a small percentage of this has been allocated for the fishing vessel scrappage scheme, in spite of the major impact of Brexit on coastal communities.

John Conneely and his wife Mary-Frances Beatty, - facing an uncertain future after Brexit

John Conneely and his wife Mary-Frances Beatty, – facing an uncertain future after Brexit


John Conneely, who is a fourth generation skipper, took up fishing with his father, Gregory, and sister Clíona at the age of 16. The late Gregory Conneely was something of a legend, having survived a serious deck injury at an early stage in his career.

Back in 1968, Gregory was at home on Inis Mór with his wife, Maggie – who was about to deliver their first child – when he had a premonition that something was wrong. Sure enough, his first vessel, the Ard Aengus, had run up on rocks.

Gregory launched his brother’s boat, the Ard Colum, with several young fit men from the island. In a terrific feat of seamanship, they saved crew from the Ard Aengus before the vessel broke up in heavy seas.

John Conneely was 21 when he became skipper in 1998, and loved nothing better than catching glimpses of the west Irish coast from a deck, and witnessing sunrises and sunsets at sea.

However, though he still loves his job, he says fishing has become harder, due to difficulties recruiting crew in an industry far less attractive to young people, along with decreasing quotas, and the increasing cost of fuel.

After the family’s vessel Maggie C was arrested back in 2006, his father Gregory advised him to “get out”. Gregory could see how difficult it was to operate within the Common Fisheries Policy (CFP). That policy initiated in 1983 had given Ireland just 4% of quota, with 16% of waters back then.

In May 2015, Conneely was acquitted of breaching EU fishing regulations in a case held almost 10 years after the initial detention.

“I didn’t want to listen to my father then – fishing was all I wanted to do, just as he had,” Conneely says.

“But now I would not like my young son Gregory (almost three years old) to go into this industry, as I don’t see a viable future,” he says.

Loss of access to British waters after it withdrew from the EU was a final hammer blow to an Irish offshore fleet already working in often hostile conditions within these narrowing margins.

The Conquest - one of two Aran Island fishing vessels set for decommission

The Conquest – one of two Aran Island fishing vessels set for decommission


As John’s wife, Mary-Frances Beatty explains, the many challenges and the increasing bureaucracy makes it very difficult for family businesses to survive.

“I’ve worked in the State and private sector, and have never encountered anything like the complexity of running a fishing business,” she says.

The push for offshore wind to meet climate targets has also generated a lot of fear within the fishing industry, as grounds selected by developers tend to overlap with vital fishing areas.

BIM’s new chief executive Caroline Bocquel warned offshore renewable energy (ORE) developers at a recent conference that they must ensure “minimal impact” with commercial fishing.

She also emphasised that communication by developers – which was poor in some cases – must be embedded into the consenting regime.

“We feel we are just being brushed away by offshore wind developers,” Conneely said. “They could learn from us. One storm was so strong in 2013 that it blew boulders from the top of the cliffs here inland. In that sort of weather, no structure can survive out there,” he says.

John Conneely says he is fortunate in that he has some family land and can take up farming. He believes poor management by the State has led to a situation where those who remain in the industry will find it difficult to make a decent living.

There was a time when Aran island vessels using the better harbour of Ros-a-Mhíl in south Connemara would have to queue for several hours to land fish.

However, landings by Irish vessels are becoming increasingly infrequent. Landings of foreign vessels into Irish fishing harbours increased by 48% over the past decade, while there has been a “big drop” in the amount of fish landed by Irish vessels.

Aran Island skippers were among those who agreed to conservation measures for the Porcupine Bank prawn fishery, to the south-west, but now Irish vessels have to tie up early due to the small quota, while French, Spanish, Northern Irish and other vessels continue to fish there.

Conneely believes the Government would have been better off using the BAR funding to purchase excess quota from France than to be breaking up vessels.

The EU has stipulated the vessels must be destroyed, rather than recycled. Even that, he says, seems “a terrible waste”.

What is the scheme?

Ireland’s €75 million euro fleet decommissioning scheme is being funded by the EU from the Brexit Adjustment Reserve (BAR) – the compensation fund worth almost 1 billion euro which Brussels drew up for Ireland to soften the Brexit blow.

Minister for Marine Charlie McConalogue has defended the fact that only a percentage of this BAR fund is being given to the marine sector – a sector of the Irish economy which may be small, but which is proportionately the hardest hit by Brexit.

Speaking to this reporter at the recent Skipper Expo in Limerick, McConalogue said he had announced 267 million euro to date for the fishing sector, to ensure the potential of the sector was “maximised, that it is innovative, that it is dynamic”.

He said there would be investment in processing, in piers and harbours, in boats “and making it attractive for young people is a really important part of that as well”.

Asked if he was still “fighting tooth and nail” for more quota – as he had pledged after the Brexit Trade and Co-operation Agreement resulted in a severe hit to the Irish prawn and mackerel fleets in particular – McConalogue said he was continuing to do so “every month, and every time we engage swords on it”.

One of the fishing industry organisations has proposed that tonnage from vessels which are scrapped should be put into a State “bank” to ensure an entry in the future for people of young Gregory Conneely’s generation.

McConalogue has declined to be drawn on this proposal, beyond stating that fishing industry organisations had “agreed on the structure” of the decommissioning scheme.

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