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Fonty

 





FONTY:
THE STORY OF A LOUGH ERNE FISHERMAN
 
Fonty Fonty [short for Alphonsus] Cullion was born on Boa Island in February 1914 and there were 15 children in his family. One of the younger children could not pronounce his name properly and so he was called Fonty as a result.

The family first lived in a house near where Kerrigans now live on the Island but moved to a house near the shore in an area known as Rosscark. He remembers every child on Boa Island, whether boy or girl, wearing a petticoat growing up as this was the usual dress for a child. Every child wore this until they were about 10 or 11. Potatoes and fish were the main food of the Islanders and the children from they were small had to work. They were out in boats, or netting perch fry as bait for eels or digging worms as bait or working at turf or saving hay or milking cows or generally helping about the farm or house. Fonty remembers cows' heads being bought for a shilling and cooked to provide a fine meal for the family. Often nets were dragged to catch fish to feed the family or raise money. One end of the net was held on the shore and the other taken out into the lake and back to the shore in a semicircle. The net was then hauled in and the fish eaten by the family or sold throughout the countryside.

Bream, especially in warm weather, gathered in shoals and were easy to net and big fish of 5 or 6 pound weight were sold from a barrow for 1 penny each. Bream and trout were often dried and salted for winter use. They were stored in barrels until they were needed. Pike was commonly eaten while trout were sold. Perch were also caught but were not well liked on account of their bony structure and trout was the most valued fish. Everybody on the island went barefoot from about Easter until Halloween and everybody from the smallest boy and girl upward could handle a boat.

When the eel-fishing season arrived in May preparation for the night's fishing began about five in the evening. Food for the night was prepared and either a supply of worms was obtained or bag nets were used to collect perch fry to use as bait. Their boat would set off on the lake to set a long line with perhaps 600 hooks on it to catch eels. The line was anchored and the laborious task of setting the lines began. Regardless of cold or rain or choppy water the line was set and sank to the bottom of the lough to await the night-feeding eels. Other boats were often in the vicinity and when they had set their lines they would all gather on an island or wooded peninsula such as the Eagle Point and light a big fire. There they would eat their food, boil eggs and cook fish and gossip away the hours until it was time to gather the lines again. Once again almost regardless of weather the lines were raised and the eels they had caught were put in boxes. The hooks were left in the eels, as they had to be alive when they reached market in Belfast or Dublin. Then there was the long row back to the Island and while the children went to bed the adults went to Pettigo or Kesh to put the eels on the early train. Those going to Pettigo station went to Rossgole Point and borrowed a turf barrow to wheel the boxes of eels to the railway station. Those going to Kesh had a similar journey from Muckross to Kesh railway station.

After a long night out on the lake children often fell asleep in school but the teacher understood and let them sleep. Sometimes at school if the weather was unsettled and hay might be lost a farmer would come to school to ask for children to help with the hay. The children were glad to get out of school and the teacher would let them go. There were no forks and the hay was gathered with their hands. The children enjoyed Easter very much and built Easter houses for themselves near their houses and boiled cans of eggs to eat. Everyone tried to eat as many eggs as they could and bragged about the number they had eaten when they went back to school. When the gulls were nesting in the spring the people of Boa Island gathered huge amounts of eggs for eating. Fonty claims that there is nothing nicer than a can of boiled gulls eggs. Another form of fishing was called cross lining. Two boats towed a line of flies or baits through the water and this was a very effective way of catching fish.

Pettigo was the market town for Boa Island and all fairs were attended there. Sometimes a cattle dealer such as George Morrow of Pettigo would come out to the Island to buy cattle. When he had bought whatever he wanted the cattle were rounded up and driven to the lakeshore and beaten out into the water to swim across to the mainland. All cattle can swim and when they were swimming they only had to be guided where to go. Cots were not common around Boa Island in Fonty's youth and cattle were driven like this to the various islands rather than being taken by boat or cot. The only cot at present on the Island at Lusty Beg Quay was made in fairly recent times from oak from Lusty More Island when Mr. Victor Loane owned it.

Most of the people of the Island dealt with George McCrea of Pettigo for their groceries and hardware and he erected a large shed on the shore at Rossgole Point where the road from Pettigo ended at the lakeshore. This shed was to store goods for Boa Islanders until they could collect them and it was never locked and nobody ever stole from it. This laneway to the main road to Pettigo was inhabited by people who were as familiar to the Islanders as their neighbors on the Island. They passed them on their way to and fro from Pettigo and dropped in some fish in repayment for favours. In times of storm when the Islanders were unable to cross to their homes the people of the Rossgole road often gave lodgings for the night to Boa Islanders. One woman who found herself being host to 6 or 7 people on a stormy night anxiously inquired as she saw her house filling up, "Are there any more of you"?

The Roman Catholics on Boa Island went to mass in Pettigo on Sunday and a small flotilla of boats made the trip. At intervals the priest came on to the Island to attend the sick and to hear confessions. Confessions were generally held in George Scallons. Church of Ireland services were held in the Schoolhouse which is described on maps as a Chapel of Ease and not a school.

The building of the bridges to Boa Island in the 1920's was a time of great prosperity for the Boa Islanders. Everybody was glad of the opportunities of being able to travel easily to the mainland and the making of ditches for the new road through the island gave regular well paid wages for the first time ever to the people. Outsiders could now come to the island easily and it became a great place for dances at the dancing board in Ardshankill. These dances were out of doors and money was collected to build a hall on the common land on Ardshankill. This common land was also the site for cudgel fights long ago. The hall was never as successful as the traditional dances on the dancing board and it is now a ruined tin building.

One Boa Island boating tragedy that Fonty remembers was the drowning of William Gibson. There were three men coming from Pettigo on Christmas Eve night and Fonty's mother and father heard a commotion on the lough. The men were "happy" coming from the town and being slightly incapable overturned their boat and were struggling in the icy water. Fonty's mother and father hurried to the rescue in their own boat and with great difficulty took on board the only two people they could find. They saved Old Willie Snow and Tom McCabe but could not find anyone else. It was a very difficult job trying to get the two men into the boat without letting them upset the boat. If they tried to get in from the side they would pull the boat down and so they had to be hauled in over the stern. Fonty's mother and father were given an award for their brave rescue by the "The Carnegie Hero Fund" which awarded them £5 and Honorary Certificates. Mr. John Column, H.M.L. made the presentation. The lough later had to be dragged to find William Gibson's body. This tragedy happened in 1914. In a rather amazing sequel to this rescue Willie Snow whose life had been saved evicted the Cullion family from their house which he owned one month later. Fonty was philosophical about the matter. His explanation for this was that people who are drowning hear a sort of heavenly music and take hatred to anyone who takes them away from it.

N.B Fonty refused all his life to have his photograph taken. This picture with his wife was the only one he ever allowed. He died soon after.
  

Contributed by John B Cunningham

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