Arklow Harbour in county Wicklow on the east coast of Ireland was founded in the ninth century after the Danish Vikings had landed. The Irish name for this town is Inbhear Mór which translates to wide or large estuary. A distinct feature of this town was the fishing tradition, as is demonstrated by Jim Rees in his article ‘The Forgotten ‘Fishery’ of Arklow’. Rees provides an excellent historical analysis of the ancient fishing tradition here which can be traced back to Patrician and Medieval documents. He also discusses how the fishery had emerged as a distinct community within the town itself. His emphasis on the separateness which had surfaced as a result of this distinction between the town and the community is of particular interest as it denotes the way in which the area was not a homogenous entity. There were multitudes of religious and political interests in the fishery at Arklow which were evident during times of conflict such as the 1798 Rebellion, disagreements on land tenancies, and calls for Home Rule. This article, however, seeks to look at some primary source documents in order to get a sense of Arklow as it existed during this time when the fishery was thriving.
The first source which is worth some observation is William Chapman’s publication titled Report on the improvement of the harbour Arklow and the practicability of a navigation from thence by the vales of the various branches of the Ovoca (1792). This source reveals the issues concerning the harbour at Arklow and the need for its development. He effectively conveys in this source the way in which the development of Arklow harbour would be an excellent preventative measure as ‘a means of saving many from shipwreck and affording shelter to a greater number’ . In this way, a landing port for larger vessels between Dublin and Waterford would bring economic prosperity to the area as it would create employment, enhance industry and would also benefit landed proprietors. After the publication of this report, the Hibernian Mining Company received the rights from Parliament a year later to develop the port which in turn, led to the employment of 1,300 men.
In 1888, William Henry Hurlbert travelled to Ireland and published a diary-entry style travel log entitled Ireland Under Coercion:The Diary of an American. In this he documents his observations on the state of Ireland in order to ‘get an actual touch and living sense of the social conditions amid and against which they are working in Ireland’. In chapter thirteen of the second volume he details his experience in Arklow, which he passed through on his way from Dublin to Coolgreany in county Wexford. His account provides great insight into what the region was like in the late nineteenth century. Hurlbert states that the fishing port of Arklow was ‘populous with small ragamuffins’ around the walls of the station. He also provides some historical background for Arklow stating that this area was one of the ‘earliest settlements of the Anglo-Normans in Ireland under Henry II’ which ‘once rejoiced in a castle and a monastery both now obliterated’. He continues to discuss the nature of industry in Arklow by asserting that the town ‘lives by fishing, and by shipping copper and lead ore to South Wales’. In the close of his description of this port-town, he states that the ‘houses are rather neat and well kept; but the street was full of little ragged, merry mendicants’. This source, which was written during a period of immense land agitation between Irish landlords and tenants, is overwhelmingly pro-landlord and antagonistic towards the Irish land movement, but is a useful source when investigating the appearance of many Irish towns. It is interesting to note that even though his intention was to document the situation regarding evictions and British coercion of Irish tenants, he effectively conveyed the value of the fishing tradition in Arklow and gave a sense of the poverty here through the use of phrases like ragamuffins and mendicants.
Primary sources such as these are an invaluable tool when trying to get a sense of a place or a community during a particular time. Hurlbert’s descriptions give us an outsider perspective of Arklow town. Chapman’s publication also does this and gives us an impression of the potential that this town had to further its industry, as was in full effect by the time Hurlbert had published his travel log in 1888.