By The Hill of Carbally: Cockles in Waterford, a social history

With the splendid sunshine in recent times, I spent some time home in Waterford. This past Saturday afternoon was spent on the Back Strand of Tramore, when the tide was lowest, digging in the muddy bed of the strand for cockles. Cockles, along with dillisk and periwinkles are plentiful around the south-east coast during the summertime. I’ve mentioned dillisk before in another post, but going cockle picking made me think about those (more often than not) women who made their living in Waterford picking cockles, boiling them and selling them in Michael Street and Peter Street in the city centre. They may not have songs written for them, these real-life Molly Malones, but this blog post I hope will give some insight into the place of seafood like cockles in Waterford life in the first half of the twentieth century.

A quick look at the online census returns in Ireland reveals that as far back as 1901, there were women who  considered their principle occupation  to be cockle pickers or sellers – a mother and daughter who worked together being just two such women, who lived in the lanes of Waterford. The 1911 census reveals more women, in fact all of them women, who worked as cockle pickers and sellers – in all there were twenty in Waterford county who listed this as their occupation.  Many of these women were either single or widowed, though some were married, doing this work to supplement the income of their husbands incomes.

This was hard, back-breaking, to say nothing of dangerous work, and usually for poor pay. In 1911, a poor relief case was brought before Dungarvan Union of a Mrs. Tobin, a cockle picker, who because she had only one child could not under the strictures of the law, which the guardians weren’t keen to bend, be granted poor relief. This, despite the fact that a Mr Byrne, one of the Poor Law Guardians acknowledging that “it was a very deserving [case].” He said that “she was a very industrious woman…on a winter’s day it was a pity to see her coming from the Cunnigar streaming with water with her bag on her back.”

The lot of cockle pickers around Waterford doesn’t appear to have much improved in Free State Ireland either, if some newspaper reports in the middle of the 1920s are anything to go by. Under the Towns Improvement Act in 1926, the fish market in the city was moved from Michael Street to Peter Street, and several women were brought before the local courts during the transitionary period for, in the phrasing of the courts, “exposing for sale cockles so as to create an impediment or annoyance to free passage”. The case of one particular woman, reported in the Munster Express on 20 August 1926 is instructive enough about the place of these women. A case was brought that a cockle seller, Kathleen Dwyer had created an impediment or annoyance on Peter Street. She described to the court her set up – two porter boxes, one for her cockles, and one she used as a seat. Asked by the prosecution if she thought she caused an obstruction, he also inferred that she was a heavy woman and this would add to her ability to obstruct saying she was “a substantial size of a woman”. She replied baldly that “nobody interferes with me.”

A witness for the defence, a lady by the name of Ellen O’Brien, 64, noted that Peter Street had always been a cockle market, and that she had been doing that work there for 50 years (stretching back to the mid-1870s) and that her parents and grandparents had done likewise. O’Brien argued that they should not be moved  to the fish market on the street since no one would buy cockles in the newly established fish market, they always having traded seperately. The issue didn’t seem to have been resolved since only a fortnight later, Dwyer, O’Brien and twelve others were summonsed to court for sale of cockles on the public street.

These same women would be prosecuted for this same offence again and again right through to November, when they were given a three-month amnesty by the Town Clerk and Judge to see if they would “behave themselves”. In February of 1927, the cases were revived but adjourned again with a different judge in the chair who acknowledged he knew nothing of the cases, and seemed uninterested in hearing them all again in full. The defending solicitor attempted to elicit sympathy for the cockle sellers cause by pointing out their poverty and the hard work of travelling sixteen-mile round trips to Tramore to pick the cockles they would sell.

At the end of the 1930s, when one cockle seller died at the age of 73, Statia Walsh, there was astonishment at the discovery of some £1,700 found in all the nooks and crannies of her house – the woman it was noted made “her living dealing in poultry and in the sale of cockles, which she gathered on the Back Strand, Tramore.” She was apparently also regarded locally “as being of somewhat eccentric habits”. Eccentric habits, perhaps, but thrifty nonetheless.

The cockle selling, picking and eating habits in Waterford took a dive in this period as there were many public health warnings issued about contamination of the shellfish, linked to typhoid outbreaks, caused by the poor sanitary conditions of the water around the Back Strand due to run off from houses in the Riverstown area. The Munster Express wanted to know what it would take before the Health Board would insist on improving the sanitary conditions of many of the wooden Riverstown houses that were thought to be the cause of the issue. In the summer of 1939, an official warning from the Town Clerk was printed in the local press to warn people to boil the cockles sufficiently so as to ensure that they would not suffer any infections or disease.

By 1940, guidelines were issued on the subject by the Corporation and the Minsister for Local Government and Public Health, effective May 1st of that year. Under the new Public Health (Waterford Shellfish Laying) Regulations, 1940, people were liable to prosecution and a fine of £100 if they wilfully sold or distributed cockles and other shellfish which had not been either

(a) relayed and thoroughly washed in sterilised sea water by a method for a period and in an apparatus approved by the County Medical Officer of Health, or;

(b) relayed during a continuous period of not less than ten days in clean water of a suitable salinity in a site approved by the County Medical Officer of Health

The measures also put an end, for a while at least, to public harvesting of cockles from the Back Strand. Even after the introduction of these measures the bad name gained by Tramore cockles during this period still extended to those who gathered theirs in the Passage and Woodstown area of the county, and notice was made in the local press that those sellers from that end got their cockles from elsewhere and public needn’t have any worries.

Despite these changes, the introduction of such regulations and rules, the local press continued to abound in the 40s and 50s with stories  of cockle picking: of near fatalities as inexperienced cockle pickers on holiday spent too much time at the Back Strand and narrowly averted the rising currents; of women, casual street traders, prosecuted for selling their wares after hours of picking; of casual pickers making a few bob on the sly during the summer months. More than just warming the cockles of your heart, it brings to life again a world depicted in this short poem about Carbally Hill, in the pages of the Munster Express on 6 February 1959, where:

…flows the Saleen tide

On whose banks  I have oft cockles picked

With boyish heart and glee

And played quare pranks and carefree tricks

On the Hill of Carbally

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