Illustrations by Alex Testere
Like many stories of Ireland, this one begins in a bar. It was after closing time one quiet night during the mid 1960s in Connemara, and in the corner of the pub, a group of lads talked in low voices while nursing their pints. The publican went about his business, wiping up the bar top and rearranging stools. Soon, the men had empty glasses, but made no moves towards leaving. They were waiting for something. When the headlights of a pick-up truck shone through the window, they scattered out into the night. This is the first oyster poaching memory V (as he wishes to be referred to in this article) can recall. The men in the bar were waiting for a buyer who agreed to meet under the cover of darkness. The product was oysters, dredged from a neglected bed about two miles offshore. A typical poaching expedition took place under the glow of moonlight with three men setting out in a currach, a wooden Irish rowboat. For two to three hours at a time, the men—fishermen, farmers, and laborers by day—collected oysters from the sandy sea floor, filling mesh bags to the brim. Making as little noise as possible, they rowed back to the coastline. At the time the bed was discovered, oysters were plentiful, but buyers brave enough to enter the black market were scarce. “After the lads dredged the oysters, we’d do a pick up at 4 a.m.,” V says, remembering cold winter nights of backing up the trucks to the water’s edge. “We would fill the trucks to the top—as much as the lorry could take. Those trucks carry 7 or 8 tons! Thousands of oysters.” I imagined the trucks, filled to capacity, cruising along the winding roads of Connemara at the break of dawn, with the driver keeping one watchful eye on the rear view mirror. “We were getting more brazen every day,” he adds. “We thought we were untouchable.”
This is a story of risk and buried treasure. What would you do if you could see money beneath the surface of the sea, and had nothing to lose by plucking it out? In Connemara, work ethic is valued but economic opportunity can be limited— creativity that sometimes skirts the law puts money in pockets and food in bellies. To survive when Connemara’s tides change, it is important to be inventive. Families often have a hand in several businesses, from undertaking services to running a bed-and-breakfast to pouring pints. Whether that work was legal was never a top priority. Which is how it goes in Ireland, where the law is rarely black and white. Hazy uncertainty shrouds many areas of life, such as what time the pub closes.
Connemara, the largely Irish-speaking area of County Galway, is a rugged mix of stone, bogland, bays with white sand beaches, and narrow roads rolling through stark landscapes that at the right time of day, remind me of the moon. Everywhere you look there’s water—expansive lakes, a trickle of a stream crossing the road, a slice of the coastline, or rain on your windshield. And where there is seawater, there are oysters.
“There isn’t a courthouse in Connaught (one of Ireland’s four provinces) I haven’t been summoned to about oysters,” a publican once told me quietly, alluding to a colorful history of oyster poaching. “I could be a barrister!” In one swift monologue, V revealed details about playing innocent in front of inquisitive judges, being hunted by squad cars, of unexpected alliances with water bailiffs, and one cold night when an unexpected frost almost killed a couple tons of oysters.
So many questions popped into my mind, but the moment to ask them quickly passed and V went back to his business. A year later, I returned to Connemara and set out to track down that oyster poacher and find out more.
V had little interest in joining the men for their nighttime oyster escapades, but he had other ideas for the developing black market. He could offer an intimate knowledge of the landscape to establish under-the-radar sorting areas, trucks for moving ever greater numbers of oysters, and connections for distribution not just to Irish fish markets or restaurants, but also abroad (the French demand for oysters was high). And lastly, but perhaps most important for the mastermind behind an underground oyster network, he could be fearless about it all, legal consequences be damned. From the mid 1960s to the mid 1980s, V’s oyster poaching antics were big business. Restaurants could only buy a small amount; the real money was in fishmongers and exporters, and the absence of competition kept the money flowing. While some small scale oyster poaching was the talk of towns in the west of Ireland every now and again, a flourishing oyster bed with a neglectful owner was a unique situation. Add in a highly sophisticated transportation network that delivered the oysters alive and on time, and buyers were hooked. At first, oysters were sold by count; for each 100 oysters, V threw in an extra 20 for free. A good night of dredging would bring in 300 to 400 oysters. The price was 5—or sometimes 6 or 7—Irish pounds (the currency in Ireland until the euro launch) per 100 oysters. In prime conditions, the men could go out three or four times a week, leaving the oysters in mesh bags under water until a truckload or two accumulated and a buyer was confirmed. 400 oysters per night yielded 20 Irish pounds, and a handful of nights quickly added up to a hundred—approximately $1,000 in today’s currency. “In the 1970s, 20 pounds was an average week’s wages!” V says. “No other sources of income rivalled it.”
On my return to Connemara this August, I found V in the same spot where we’d met a year prior, tending his bar. When I mentioned oysters, there was an immediate glint in his eye. “During the spring tide, when the banks would dry out, we would walk out and pick oysters by hand,” he says, nostalgic for a time gone by. Over the course of a meal and couple pints, the details of the story began to unfold. “Nobody really knew who were the owners or what was the law,” he says. “So, we took our chances.” There was, in fact, an owner—but a faceless one. A government body was the rightful owner, but for decades it had ignored the oyster beds. In this neglect, a valuable resource was left untapped beneath the sea. The prime moment in an oyster’s life for consumption is at two to three years of age. This means that left under the water, the value of the oyster disintegrated. In V’s tales of moonlit poaching, he wasn’t taking money out of someone’s pocket—the wild oysters had been left to rot. “If you didn’t steal them, somebody else would,” he says. “So it might as well be you.” Ireland has a murky history of fishing rights. The island nation has 7,500 kilometers of coastline, plus lakes and rivers for fishing. For freshwater fishing, someone owns the fishing right (and can choose to make an area open to public fishing or charge a fee). Fishing rights can be bought and sold like land, owned by an individual, a group, or even the state itself. Over the years, fishing rights were passed down over generations, fought over in family feuds, or even abandoned as people emigrated. But the sea is different. There is a “public right to fish in the sea,” according to Fisheries Ireland. Yet, because there’s an exception to every rule in Ireland, some fishing rights for the sea do exist. Certain private areas date back to the English confiscation of the Irish lands; others even before the Magna Carta in 1215. But many fishermen in Ireland see fishing as a communal right, an entitlement to being an Irish citizen. Today, Ireland exports seafood to 80 destinations around the globe, including France, Spain, the U.K, Italy, and Nigeria. In 2014, Irish seafood exports totaled €540 million (significant growth from €315 million in 2009). Long after V’s oyster poaching heyday of the 1960s to the 1980s, seafood is still a lifeline.
A local greets V and asks what we’re talking about. “Oysters,” he says. “Sure, what would you know about oysters?” the woman asks with a wink. “Nothing!” V replies, a smirk on his face. After a few words exchanged with his neighbor in Irish, V’s first language, he leans down on the bar. “We had two main concerns,” he continues. “The water bailiffs and the guards (policemen).” It was the job of water bailiffs to keep watch along the coastline and investigate any suspicious behavior. They worked from huts alongside the water’s edge, still visible in Connemara today. It was these watchful eyes that required rowing out to the oyster beds; a motorized boat would draw attention. “The trucks were sometimes stopped,” he adds. “But if a guard pulled up, and you had 5 tons of oysters, what was he going to do with them? Oysters themselves weren’t illegal.” Yet V still found himself in trouble with the law from time to time. “Undersized was a big concern,” he tells me. “It was illegal to sell undersized oysters.” Over the years V faced charges of stealing oysters, possession of undersized oysters, and lack of license to deal or distribute them. After one case, he was charged a hefty fine of 300 pounds. But buyers were aware of this risk, and, reluctant to lose out on their product, volunteered to pay the fines, often to V in advance as insurance (with a tacked-on service fee for V of course). That meant checks as high as 700 pounds, “half a year’s wages in 1973!” he says.
With a bountiful supply and enthusiastic buyers, it seemed like the good times would go on indefinitely. But no treasure lasts forever. The faceless owner sold their fishing rights, and a co-op took over. The co-op charged subscriptions; fishermen who had been dredging the oysters illegally for decades could continue legally with the cost of a subscription. Any of the danger of the water bailiffs, the guards, and dredging by moonlight was eliminated.
Theft is one thing, but theft from rightful owners with faces and families to support was another. In this small rural community, no one wanted to steal from a neighbor who had paid a subscription for the legal right to dredge oysters. The changes were swift, and the poaching business dried up virtually overnight.
It also didn’t help that the market had changed over the years: fish farms were flourishing, and supplanted private fisherman as the main supply to restaurants. A modern era of Irish seafood was beginning, and the treasure beneath the surface sunk out of reach.
At the end of my visit, walking out the door of the pub, I asked V a final question: Did he have any oyster poaching competition?
He smiles while gathering empty pint glasses and says, “I was the main culprit.”