David Donegan

An excerpt from Dingle People; Farmers, Fishermen, Families & Friends.

My great-grandfather James Donegan was born in Causeway in 1839. He married Mary O’Connor in 1865. Their son David was an accomplished ploughman and he came to west Kerry to work on the Watson estate in Ballymoreigh, he also worked on the Burnham Estate. David was married to Honora Rahilly from Ab-beydorney, and of their eleven children, my father (Davy) was the only one who didn’t die in infancy or emigrate. He was a very gentle man and worked in the creamery in Dingle.

On my mother’s side, my great grandparents, Daniel Dowd and Mary Murphy, married in Chapel Lane in Dingle in 1853. They left Ireland soon afterwards in search of a better life in America. Daniel served as a soldier in the Union Army during the American Civil War but died in captivity in the notorious Anderson-ville Prison during the conflict. My great grandmother returned to Dingle with her two young children, Edward and my grandmother Biddy, who was only an infant at the time. Biddy married a fisherman, Patrick Johnson, and their daughter Hannah Johnson and my father Davy Donegan reared a family of three children; Myself, my brother Raymond and sister Stella.
I was born on 14 September 1933. I attended the local school and my classmates included Francie Guiheen, John Moran (Ballinboula), Michael Sheehy (Station Row), Der Connor (Green Street), Michael O’Connor (Knocknahow) and Kevin Lynch (The Wood). I trawled my way through the education system. Like many other lads I was subjected to whacks and clatters which were often beyond the call of duty and grossly unjust. I always had an enquiring mind and loved to study history, geography and especially English literature and poetry. I can still recite Grey’s Elegy, The Wreck of the Hesperus, The Village Blacksmith and many of Shakespeare’s sonnets.
As youths, the aroma of fresh sea air was a constant reminder of our natural her-itage. Our house was located within a salmon’s leap of the shore line and I was enchanted by the lore of the sea. We enjoyed an idyllic childhood without bother or care.
Immediately after school, I raced to the boat slip at the quayside with my brother Raymond, Leo Brosnan and Michael Flannery. When the weather was favourable, we’d row a punt across the harbour towards the South Shore. As we approached the sandbags, we set long lines of spillers. These consisted of a set of thirty baited hooks which were sunk in the sand with lead weights and marked with a colourful float. Occasionally, we caught a box of thorny ray and secured a pound note from Timmy Griffin’s fish store. The quayside was a hive of activity and we regarded it as our haven. We were devil-may-care and daring and on occasions one of us slipped overboard, but we were always fortunate to fall in at shallow areas or to catch an oar, a rope or a trailing hand.
Almost without warning it was my final year at school. I was making steady de-velopment and was hoping to achieve a creditable Leaving Certificate. One day without warning I was subjected to a cruel attack from Br de Barra. I decided enough was enough and, ignoring my parent’s appeals to continue my education, I left school and headed north to Killybegs to go fishing with cousin Martin Moore on board the Mulroy Bay. Within a month, Martin made me redundant, but promised to re-employ me when I had completed my last term in the monastery.
I returned to the books and re-markably the first question the brother asked me on my return was “A mhac Ui Dhonnagháin an bhfachais aon deilf ar do chúrsaí mhara?” Had I noticed any dol-phin during my sea faring? I often wonder did he have a premoni-tion about my future! After exams were completed, I secured tempo-rary employment with the county council as a general dogsbody. My main job was to clear the roads, and sweep the footpaths, which was a horrible job especially after fair days. All the immediate area around The Small Bridge was covered with animal droppings and it was my duty to have the place sparkling clean. Easier said than done, I can assure you! Another one of my responsibilities was to paint the walls and outhouses around the hospital. Later that summer, I participated in the Dingle Regatta. A large crowd attended from the western parishes. Noel Brosnan and I tasted victory in the two-oar punt race. We beat my brother Raymond and Michael Flannery. I was extremely fit and enjoyed more success as the solo winner in the sculling race. I was presented with thirty shil-lings and a perpetual trophy.
The fishing industry was never without its jovial side and the old fishermen were very witty, though lacking formal education. The cabins of the old boats had on one side a holy statue and a cheap German alarm clock was fitted on the opposite side, which you could hear ticking in Macroom. I fished on the Pride of Ventry for two years with skipper Paudie Curran and Paddy Egan. My job was looking after the engine. One foggy morning we steamed for The Bosh (Southside of Blaskets). The fog grew thicker and thicker when Paudie summoned me from the cabin with a command which has always stuck in my memory “Stand by your engine Dave!”
One evening while sitting at the gas shed, I overheard that the Limerick Ship-ping Company were recruiting able seamen. The following week I was a crew member aboard The Kylemore which was serving the port of Liverpool. On the outward journey, our cargo consisted of animal hides, condensed milk and Limer-ick bacon. The returning cargo included light machinery, ploughs, harrows, large boilers, ladders, troughs and gates. My duties were to open hatches, tighten wa-ter valves, hoist the derrick, painting, securing ropes for anchorage and general maintenance.
Most of the trips were uneventful, however, I always recall a journey when a strong force eight was blowing. We had to steer north of the Blasket Islands. It was Christmas Eve and the crew were anxious to be home with their families. However, we had to submit to the forces of nature and take safe anchorage at Scattery Island in the Shannon Estuary. My main concern was that I would miss the Wren’s Day in Dingle. We finally docked on Christmas evening and I was for-tunate to catch the north Kerry train to Tralee. I hitched a lift to Annascaul where a group of Dingle lads were attending the Christmas night dance. The following day I joined the Quay Wren with Michael Flannery, Leo Brosnan, and George Flaherty (The Colony) who was the captain. The O’Leary brothers (Green Street) and Michael McNamara provided the music. Jim Cronesberry blasted out the rhythm on the big bass drum. We even hired a local side drummer whose fee was thirty-bob, two tins of bully beef and a taoscán of whiskey.
The New Year brought forth new hope. I replied to an advertisement for the po-sition of customs officer. The exam was held in Limerick and I was called for an interview in Dublin. After my experiences as a fisherman and able seaman I was quietly hopeful, but certainly not overconfident. I headed to the capital city in a sombre mood. Sonny Long (Strand Street) gave me a lift to the train station in Killarney. He gave me good words of encouragement and lifted my spirits “Occa-sionally, address the board as Sir, but not too often … look interested and knowledgeable but don’t be over enthusiastic …” I took heed of his thoughtful advice and was both delighted and surprised to achieve first place in the interview. It was 1957 and I set out on a new voyage in my life. Incredibly, the first ship I was in-structed to inspect as a customs officer was the Kylemore in the port of Limerick. I served in airports and seaports including Limerick, Galway and Arklow. While in Wicklow, I met my wife to be, Mary Fitzgerald from Waterville.
The fertiliser factory in Arklow was in full production at the time. The ships were queuing to disembark their cargoes of rock phosphate. I preferred working with cargo ships more than the passenger ferry. It became tiresome asking people “Do you have any goods liable to restriction or duty?” Unlike present times where the scourge of illegal narcotics is a blight on society, our main duty was to prevent the smuggling of cigarettes, whiskey or the odd turkey or goose from England, which contravened the foot and mouth regulations.
Mary and I got married in 1965, by which time I was stationed in Cork. We reared our family; David, Maeve, Barbara, Maurice and Jimmy in the Rebel County, between Cobh, Cork City and latterly Castletownbere. I never lost touch with the sea and in the mid 1970’s I had a new twenty-nine foot boat built in Castlecove called The Maeve. I fished lobster pots out of Cork whenever I had a bit of spare time; at weekends and after work. I also came back to Dingle several times a year. After thirty year’s service as a customs officer, I retired in 1986. It was always my plan to return to my native shore. We resettled in Dingle and so commenced a new chapter in our lives. I felt that I could earn a reasonable living as an inshore fisherman now that my time was my own. My son Jimmy and Pat Moriarty (Holy Ground) completed the crew. We had lobster pots set from Inch to the waterfall at Slea Head depending on winds, tides or just good fortune. On other occasions, we went line fishing or jigging for cod, pollock and mackerel. But the wheels of for-tune are constantly turning and suddenly without invitation or expectation Fungie announced his arrival with a series of splashes outside the Towereen Bawn. The new industry of eco-tourism had commenced and I was in the ideal position with a decent boat to harness the unexpected bounty. I refitted The Maeve and I can proudly say that mine was the first dolphin boat to secure a licence in 1987. Fun-gie was in a constant state of motion and mirth and flipped effortlessly across my bow with reckless abandon. Ten years sped past … I enjoyed sharing my lore and conversing with the tourists. It was my earnest aim to be courteous, informative and to offer good value to the patrons. Towards the end of the 1997 season, I be-gan to experience unusual sensations and symptoms in my health. After a series of tests, I was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease. It was a jolt out of the blue, mind boggling and an immense challenge. I decided to confront my illness un-conditionally. I found an inner strength and was determined to live the remainder of my life to its fullest potential! The last fifteen years of my life haven’t been without low tides but I draw on the support of my family and friends to maintain composure and mental resolve.
Most mornings I adjourn to my humble library and invigorate my mind with accounts of epic naval battles such as the Battle of Jutland (the largest engage-ment of World War One), Pearl Harbour, the German U-Boat campaign and the Normandy Landings, or delve into the poetry and literature section. I still retain my old school books since 1955 and I enjoy reading Moore’s Melodies and other stories from bygone years. Each week, I strike out for the Carnegie Library and select a historical tome. I also ramble to the quayside and keep tabs on the trawl-ers and their store of fish. On Saturdays, I head to the Marina Inn and sit in the company of a younger generation of seafarers and trawl the bay, haul the nets and clear the prop!
I’ve been tacking the wind for almost eighty years and I’m still resolute and un-bowed. One of my favourite poems which I like to recite is Barbara Frietchie, which recalls an episode from the American Civil War. Stonewall Jackson’s cause seemed hopeless against the superior numbers of the Union Army in the Battle of the First Bull Run in 1861 but his willpower and encouragement won the day. I’m still fighting the battle and refuse to lower the banner. Last Christmas was a joyous family occasion and I felt as energetic as a horse mackerel. The following day I had the honour of leading The Quay Wren with sword in hand. We were col-lecting for the RNLI (Royal National Lifeboat Institution), a charity dearly close to my heart. Well, there’s a nasty squall of wind blowing from the south west and the sea spray is dancing a jig of delight. I’ll navigate my way leeward towards the shelter of town and meditate on the mysteries of life. Always standing by my engine!