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A History of Fishing on the Erne
"The Kildoney Men's Case"

Thanks are due to Mr. Paddy Donagher, compiler of the "Donegal Bay Angling Guide", for permission to reproduce the following excerpts titled "A History of Fishing on the Erne":

The Gaelic Period - up to 1603
The English or Private Ownership Period 1603-1933
The Public Period 1933 onwards

1. The Gaelic Period

The River Erne had a countrywide reputation for salmon. Internationally, O'Donnell, Chieftain of Donegal, was known as the "King of the Fish". This was because of the Erne salmon and the Killybegs fishery. When Abbey Assaroe was set up between 1179 and 1184 the monks got important fishing rights on the Erne which extended right up to Broad Lough on Lower Lough Erne, and at Assaroe Falls, from O'Donnell, who was patron of the Abbey. Fish were so plentiful at this time that they were exchanged for wine from foreign merchants.

2. Private Ownership Period

After 1603 the fishery was divided up between a few people. Quite quickly, Folliott of Ballyshannon bought out everyone so that he had almost sole ownership. The Folliott estate was bought by Connolly in 1718. Connolly was a Ballyshannon man who made good. He was a famous lawyer. His fame was so great that he was able to end a long dispute with Caldwell of Belleek over eel weirs on the river. Caldwell was afraid of Connolly's power as a lawyer and so he let Connolly have his say on the river.

During this time there were cases of tenants being challenged about taking or killing fish on the Abbey River. Many tenants had it written into their leases that they would not interfere with the fish.

R. L. Moore and partners bought the fishery from the Connolly estate about 1867. They developed angling on the river and worked the Falls and the estuary. This system lasted right up to the construction of the power stations, and from this project came the eventual destruction of the river and its salmon population. So ended this period of of this once proud "King of Rivers".

3. Public Period

Action instigated on or about 15th February 1928 against landlordism control of the river was taken by the Attorney General and the following named people. This action is still known as the " Kildoney Men's Case. They were Francis Coughlin, Patrick Coughlin, John Clancy, John Daly, Michael Daly, Alexander Duncan, Richard Davis Jnr., Charles Furey, James Furey, Hugh Gavigan, John Gavigan Snr., John Goan, Patrick Goan, William Goan, Gerald Gillespie, James Gillespie, John Gillespie, Patrick Gillespie, Charles Gillogley, James Gillogley, Joe Grimes, Bernard Holland, Patrick Haughey, William Hilly, James Keenan, Joseph Keenan, Michael Kennedy, William Kennedy, Hugh Mooney, William Morrow (Legs), William Morrow, John Mulhartagh, Michael Mulhartagh, Alex McCafferty, John McCafferty, Red John McCafferty, Patrick McCafferty, Darby McGroarty, Frank McNeely, Tom McNeely, Michael McPhelim, William Phillips, James Scanlon.

Judgement was delivered in favour of the above named gentlemen and the Irish Government on the 31st day of July 1933, thus opening the River Erne to public use.

Mr. Donagher's narrative is particularly valuable in that it gives the names of the 41 people who joined with the Attorney General in the legal battle to restore ownership to the people of Ireland. If not already done, their names are worthy of inscription on a heritage plaque to remind present and future generations of the role they played in an historic case that provides much material for future scholarly research.

The 75th anniversary of the launching of their legal proceedings will take place in 2003.

All their names appear above. One name is missing, that of the Attorney General, whose story may interest both Irish and Canadian readers.

John A. Costello was his name. He was Attorney General from 1926 to 1932. In later years he was elected a member of Dáil Éireann, and served as Taoiseach (Prime Minister) for two periods, 1948-1951 and 1954-1957. Costello was a distinguished lawyer and forceful speaker. And he will always be remembered for passage of the Republic of Ireland Act during his first term as Taoiseach. That was in 1948, twenty years after mounting the challenge to private ownership of the Erne fishery.

The Canadian Connection

Until 1948, under a piece of legislation known as the External Relations Act, the King of England played a peculiar role in what, seemingly, was an independent Ireland.

All ambassadors to Ireland were accredited to the Court of St James's in London. Costello's inter-party government decided to repeal the External Relations Act, and Mr. Costello made the announcement in Canada. The circumstances prompting the announcment to be made in Canada were as follows.

On September 1, 1948, the Taoiseach was a guest of the Canadian Bar Association in Montreal. His speech that day talked of "the inaccuracies and infirmities" attaching to the External Relations Act.

As Prime Minister he was hosted at official dinners over the next few days, both in Monteal and Ottawa. By design, or unintentional oversight, his hosts proposed only a toast to "The King". It was a diplomatic faux pas not to follow with a toast to "The President of Ireland".

It has since been claimed that the Taoiseach took personal umbrage at the slight. Be that as it may, it confirmed the need to free his country from the embarrassment of the External Relations Act, and on September 7, at a press conference held in Ottawa, Canada's capital, Mr. Costello confirmed that the act would be repealed, and in consequence thereof Ireland was dissassociating itself from what was then the British Commonwealth of Nations.

Later that year, the Republic of Ireland Act was passed and Ireland left the British Commonwealth.

The one-time Kildoney fishermen's friendly Attorney General had come a long way in twenty years.

Copies of the Donegal Bay Angling Guide, a project supported by Area Development Management Ltd. and the Combat Poverty Agency through the European Union Special Support Programme for Peace and Reconciliation, may be ordered online through the Donegal Bay web site.

An aerial view of the Erne estuary appears on the cover.

Footnote: From my experience as newspaper reporter and later official Dáil reporter I can confirm Mr. Costello's forthright manner of speech. The causes he espoused could scarcely have had a more powerful advocate.

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