Northern Ireland occupies a position of rare advantage in relation to the fertile fishing grounds of the North Atlantic. All around the coast, opportunities existed many different types of fishery pursuit, including land-based operations involving the capture of crabs and lobsters; land and sea fisheries for shellfish and molluscs, particularly oysters and mussels; seasonal pelagic fishing for migratory species such as herring and mackerel.
During the 18th and 19th centuries the commercial Irish Sea herring fishing was a key sector of the economy. It was during this period that Ardglass in County Down rose to prominence as a fishing station, a reputation that it still maintains today. However, fishing was important all along the County Down coast and fishing communities can be found today at Kilkeel, Annalong and Portavogie. In the North West salmon fishing in Lough Foyle was common and herring fishing on a smaller scale.
Fishing tended to be seasonal with the herring harvest taking place in early summer. Large local boats went out before the foreign drifters arrived and the main season began. These large boats - the Nobbies of Portavogie and the Nickies of Kilkeel and Annalong - also hunted for herring in other parts of Ireland with some travelling as far south as Kinsale to chase mackerel to be cured and sold in America.
For every one job in the boats, there were around four back on land. Baiting of lines and net repairing were normally done by members of the fishermen's families. The fish was processed by women known as gutting girls. The fishing also drove the curing industry which became established in NI when Scottish curers followed the richness of the herring harvest to Ireland.
The herring fisheries were enormously valuable to local people in commercial terms. But the great mix of people that were involved in them from Ireland and beyond was significant in more intimate ways as the number of romances and marriages between locals and visitors multiplied over the years.