This photo shows an eel spear from the National Folklife Collection‘s overflow material, stored in the former “reformatory” at Daingean, on the Grand Canal in Co Offaly. There were many spears there, with different designs from different rivers. This one, to judge from the label underneath it, came from the extraordinarily prolific and observant Dr A E J Went.
If you look at pretty well any Irish river on the 1840s Ordnance Survey map (here’s the Shannon at Killaloe; switch to Historic 6″ if necessary), or indeed on the 1900s map (same URL but switch to Historic 25″), you’ll find evidence of eel weirs. Ireland’s shortest canal was built to allow the eel-boats of Anthony Mackey’s fleet to reach the trains at Banagher.
But the European eel is a “critically endangered species” and all eel fishing has been banned in Ireland. As far as I know, though, the Lough Neagh fishery, in Northern Ireland, continues.
The Electricity Supply Board (ESB) is in charge of the eel fishery on the River Shannon. It has nets and a storage unit (packing station) at Killaloe and, until recently, it also had nets at Clonlara on the headrace supplying the power station at Ardnacrusha; the Clonlara nets have just been removed. This page is about the Clonlara and Killaloe operations, but includes a look at an eel survey conducted for the ESB in 2008, before eel fishing was banned in Ireland. The aim now is to make it easy for eels to reach the sea to reproduce, and that sometimes involves “trap and transport”: catching the eels and moving them past obstacles, whether on their way to the sea or, for the young glass eels, on their way upriver.
The photos on this page are a tribute to what was an important activity on the Shannon. I hope that the European eel stocks can recover.