The day the Kildoney men took on the might of the Crown

Today is the 70th anniversary of a famous occasion in the history of Ballyshannon, and in the history of fishing in this county.

On 31st July, 1933, the longest-running legal case in the history of the court system came to an end - and won the right of local people to fish the Erne. Paddy Donagher, grandson of one of the men involved, Alex Duncan, has a look at the case and its background.

In a thatched house in Kildoney, Ballyshannon, during the mid 1920’s, a very brave decision was made by local fishermen, who agreed to take on the establishment relating to their fishing rights and the rights of the Irish people to fish the Erne River. They strongly believed was their God-given right.
The following is a brief history of the three periods that relate to the River Erne: (1) The Gaelic Period up to 1603; (2) The English or Private Ownership (Landlord System) 1603-1933; (3) The Public Period 1933 onwards.

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. When Abbey Assaroe was set up between 1179 and 1184, the monks got important fishing rights on the Erne from O’Donnell, who was the patron of the Abbey. Fish were plentiful at this time that they were exchanged for Wine from foreign merchants.

For three hundred years the Kings and Queens of England through their landlords enjoyed complete control of fishing rights on the River Erne. Folliot of Ballyshannon held the rights up until about 1718, when speaker of the Irish House of Commons William Connolly - who was also a Ballyshannon man - bought the estate from Folliot. The Moore family had the rights up until 1933.

Three hundred years is a long time to be told that you cannot fish in a river that undoubtedly, and in particular during the Famine years, would have provided more than enough food for the poor souls in the workhouses in the area.

During 1819, there was a yield of one hundred tonnes of salmon from the Erne and in the years up until 1881, between 70 and 90 ton per annum were recorded.

Salmon were exported to all the large cities. Prices achieved were totally prohibitive to local people, with the result that civil unrest took place in particular during the 1830s. Reverend Tredennick, who resided in the Glebe house in Kildoney, invited Scottish fisherman over to operate his fishing boats. A James Hector, one of the Scotch men, was in charge of this operation, which met with stiff resistance from the local people in the area and resulted in many confrontations.

The local fishermen right up until the mid 1920’s continued this resistance. They then got the direction of a brilliant young solicitor, Frank Gallagher, and their cousins Mr James Mc Loone, K.C. and Mr Jack Sweeney (who was later responsible for lodging the documents of appeal against this situation with the Privy Council, thus being the last solicitor in Ireland to have carried out this duty.)
A volunteer crew from Kildoney was organised to fish the Erne. All of these men were good swimmers and they knew what to expect. This date with destiny was the 3rd June, 1925.

The Derry Company’s bailiffs in pursuit of the ‘poachers’ rammed the fishermen’s boat, sinking it. This confrontation signalled the beginning of the longest legal battle in the history of our court system.

During the case, the court not only examined documents of title dating back to letters of patents granted by English Kings and Queens, but even the Brehon Laws and the Magna Carta were invoked.
When the fishermen won their case in the Supreme Court, their opponents decided to appeal to the Privy Council. A special Act was introduced in the Dail overnight ending the right of Appeal from the Supreme Court to the English Privy Council.

The case created an international legal incident, in that it caused the Privy Council to set up a judicial committee to consider if the Irish Government had the power to abrogate the right of appeal to the Privy Council. The committee held that under a statute of Westminster dated 1931, it indeed had such power.

There were great celebrations in Ballyshannon and surrounding areas when the word arrived that the fishermen had won their case. A platform was erected at the Mall Quay, and speeches celebrated the work of solicitor Frank Gallagher and the fishermen. These celebrated by organising a flotilla of well-decorated boats that came up the channel to the Mall Quay in all their splendour, amid the cheering from all the well wishers on both sides of the river.

So the action that was instigated on or about the 15th February 1927 ended with victory on the 31st July 1933, seventy years ago, thus opening the River Erne to public use for the first time in over 300 years.

This case is still referred to as ‘The Kildoney Men’s case”, and those men who were brave enough to sign their names and challenge the night of the British Empire in the form of their landlords, were Francis Coughlin. Patrick Coughlin, John Clancy, John Daly, Michael Daly, Alex Duncan, Richard Davis Jnr, Charles Furey, James Furey, Hugh Gavigan, John Gavigan, John Gavigan Snr, John Goan, Patrick Goan, William Goan, Gerald Gillespie, James Gillespie, John Gillespie, Patrick Gillespie, Gharles Galogley, James Gallogley, Joe Grimes, Bernard Holand, Patrick Haughey, William Hilley, James Keenan, Joseph Keenan, Michael Keenan, Michael Kennedy, William Kennedy, Hugh Mooney, William Morrow (Legs), William Morrow, John Mullhartagh, Michael Mullhartagh, Alex McCafferty, John McCafferty, Red John McCafferty, Patrick McCafferty, Darby McGroarty, Frank McNeely, Tommy McNeely, Tommy McNeely, Michael McPhelim, William Philips and James Scanlon. The above named men came from Ballyshannon, Kildoney, Creeby, St John’s Point and Inver.

To celebrate the 70th Anniversary of this occasion, a ceremony will take place at the Mall Quay at 5pm on Sunday 14th September, and will be followed by a lecture by Frank Hayes relating to the case in Dorrians Hotel on Sunday the 14th September 2003.

Farewell to you Kildoney lads, and them that pull an oar.
a lug-sail set, or haul a net, from the Point to Mullaghmore;
From Killybegs to Bold Slieve League, that ocean mountain steep;
Six hundred yards in air aloft, six hundred in the deep;
From Dooran to the Fairy Bridge, and around by Tullan Strand,
Level and long, and white with waves, where gull and curlew stand,
Head out to sea when on your lee the breakers you discern;
Adieu to the billowy coast, and the Winding Banks of Erne.

From William Allingham’s ‘The Winding Banks of Erne’

Courtesy of the Donegal Democrat
August 2003