How are your sea legs?” Irish Country Living whispers to photographer Donal O’Leary as we clamber on to the 12-seater rib that is about to take us on a tour of Castletownbere Harbour.
It’s not that often that you will find the pair of us on the water – in this case, in Ireland’s largest white fishing port. But a relative newcomer to the local tourism scene, Dursey Boat Trips is aiming to give visitors an authentic insight into life on the Beara Peninsula; from its scenery and history to the ebb and flow of its fishing industry.
For instance, we quickly discover on our tour that the harbour is also home to a ghostly Gothic-style mansion, Puxley Manor. It was built from the fortunes of the copper mining industry in nearby Allihies, but was burnt out by the IRA in the 1920s in a reprisal attack.
Plans to redevelop it as a luxury hotel have stalled – which probably suits the seals sunning themselves in the rhododendron-fringed cove below just fine. On one rock alone, we count 14 of them.
As we bounce along the water over the 90-minute sea safari, we hear stories of rescues, shipwrecks and sailors buried at sea, sail past local landmarks like the Ardnakinna lighthouse and the Pipers Rocks, learn about mussel farming and other aquaculture in the bay and even get time for a quick coffee on Bere Island.
The harbour tour is one of two trips offered by the company. The other brings visitors around Dursey Island and up close and personal with the iconic Bull Rock and Cow Rock, which have their own stories of hardship and hope to tell.
“We want to give people the experience of how life was – and how life is – on the Beara Peninsula,” says Paul O’Shea, co-founder of Dursey Boat Trips.
“The pride that we have in our own place; it’s really uplifting to see that you’ve imparted the local story to our guests.”
While a mechanic by trade – running Berehaven Motorworks in Castletownbere – Paul grew up on a farm in Garnish, where fishing was a vital part of the family income.
“My father fished for three months every year and they fished for mackerel down at Garnish pier,” he explains.
“It brought roughly about £3,000 into every household before Christmas. It made a huge difference to the parish … it meant you could replace the horse with a small tractor, farmers could build hay sheds, fellas who were dairy farming could buy a milking machine.”
As he talks about his childhood, Paul recalls how ingrained the concept of “meitheal” was in their tight-knit community.
“We grew up with the idea that no fella should be left behind,” he says. “That everybody should move forward together.”
Paul practiced what he preached; whether it was getting involved in the local Beara charity cycle or the re-development of the community centre. But having watched the peninsula drain of people as so many of its “good young people moved off to Australia” during the last recession, he saw the need to diversify in the region.
“You could nearly see it that fishing was going to take a bit of a hammering and farming wasn’t really very viable,” he says. “But the one asset that we did have was that we had a beautiful scenic area here in Beara. It’s a blank sheet of canvas really.”
One young person who has stayed in Beara is Dursey Boat Trips co-founder, Jason Sheehan (he admits to being in his mid-30s, but jokingly declines to be more specific).
Fishing is in his blood.
“I’m definitely fourth generation. Who knows before that?” says Jason, who went on his first trip to sea with his father when he was seven and has been full-time in the family business, Sheehan Fishing Co, since gaining his skipper’s licence at 19.
He also runs the local chandlery business – supplying the likes of fishing nets and ropes – and is chair of the Castletownbere fishermen’s co-op.
While his father fished mostly for white fish like whiting, haddock and cod, Jason and his crew concentrate mostly on prawns for the Italian and Spanish markets. These trips can last up to 16 days out at sea as far as the Porcupine Bank, 200 miles west of Ireland.
“When you’re out there in calm weather, fishing is good and the crew are getting along. To be honest with you, it’s paradise,” says Jason of the fishing lifestyle. “But it has its challenges. There’s no doubt about it.”
Those challenges – from quota cuts to red tape – could fill another article, but the latest, according to Jason, is the fallout from Brexit. With Ireland losing significant quota as a result of the EU-UK trade and cooperation agreement, there is now a decommissioning scheme offering compensation to fishermen to exit the industry.
Last year, the Sheehans had five trawlers at sea. They have decided to decommission two.
“In Castletownbere now at the minute, there might be 30 boats full-time. There’s definitely 12 of them taking decommissioning,” says Jason.
“If you take those 12 boats, they were each probably doing [grossing] €1m a year, €1.2m, €1.5m; so you’re taking €15 million out of Castletown.”
And Jason believes that the knock-on impact on Castletownbere and its hinterland will be “massive”.
“The net mending factories, the fabricating factories, the supermarket, the hardware shops,” he lists. “There was no decommissioning money for them. You know what I mean?”
Need to diversify
Like Paul, Jason could see first-hand the need for diversification in the town.
Having become friendly through hill-walking, the pair hatched the concept of Dursey Boat Trips one night in Castletownbere’s famous McCarthy’s Bar. The idea was to provide a new experience to visitors who were already travelling to see Ireland’s only cable car, connecting the mainland to Dursey Island.
“Dursey cable car had a footfall the previous year of over 70,000 down to see it and only 21,000 or 22,000 got to go across [due to cable car capacity],” explains Jason. “So, we said we’d give them something else to do.”
Investing their own funds, Paul and Jason bought a six-seater boat in May 2019, estimating that it took about €20,000 to get going that June. They’d had a stroke of luck early on, however, when a reporter from The Examiner, Dan McCarthy, reported on the fledgling venture. Paul recalls getting a call from Dan shortly after publication.
“He said: ‘Paul, did you ever see the film, Jaws?’ I said: ‘I did.’ He said: ‘Do you remember the line: ‘You’re going to need a bigger boat?’ I said: ‘Really?’ He said: ‘Absolutely – your photographs have been viewed 18,000 times online.”
And indeed, the next year, the six-seater was replaced by two nine-seaters. The following year saw them replaced by two 12-seaters. Currently they have three 12-seaters, with fairly significant personal investment along the way; for instance, a pair of Suzuki outboard engines with an innovative micro-plastic collection system set them back close to €70,000.
Having carried 440 visitors in their first summer and created three jobs, they are aiming to carry over 4,000 this year, with 17 part-time employees. These include both retired and active fishermen as guides, who bring both authenticity and skill to the job.
“Our number one priority at all times is safety at sea, so in order to make good decisions, you must have someone with experience,” says Paul, who gives equal credit to the team on-shore, such as Denise Power, who looks after their administration, their own wives Marie and Alice who help with logistics and the wider community, such as local photographer Ann Marie Cronin, who has helped capture stunning imagery to promote the trips.
With regards to supports for their business, Paul and Jason did receive grant aid from Bord Iascaigh Mhara (BIM) towards safety gear such as life jackets and flares, while they also credit people like Kieran Goulding and Eoghan O’Toole from the Marine Survey Office for their advice in helping to secure insurance for the venture.
However, there have been frustrations. For instance, while there is a Brexit Blue Economy Enterprise Development Scheme for businesses engaged in the blue economy – including those in coastal tourism – they were extremely disappointed that they did not qualify for a grant for their more eco-friendly Suzuki engines.
In terms of other challenges, they feel that the lack of a big hotel in the immediate vicinity is another blockade to people staying longer in the area and building a tourism industry like other fishing towns such as Dingle.
“We have very good guesthouses,” says Jason. “But it’s not enough – 40 or 50 rooms for a town like Castletownbere – you can’t build anything off that.
“To do any more, you need a hotel with 50 rooms that will take a wedding, that there’s a spin-off … hopefully that will come at some stage.”
Both Jason and Paul believe that there is so much more that can be done at their end of Beara.
“The history, the scenery, the photographic opportunities,” lists Paul. “This is a peninsula full of opportunity.”
In the meantime, however, they will continue to make their own waves.
“A rising tide will lift all boats,” concludes Jason.
The Bull Rock trip with Dursey Boat Trips costs €60 for adults/€30 for children aged 6-12, while the Castletownbere Harbour tour costs €50. For further information, visit durseyboattrips.com