It was quiet in Howth last Friday. Trawlers lined the harbour wall as gulls peck fish bits off abandoned nets. The weather was mild, the village subdued.
For now, all is calm.
Yet from this Friday, from 18 to 20 March, the crowds will come for the Dublin Bay Prawn Festival.
Dublin Bay-ish Prawns
The Dublin Bay prawn, or Norway lobster as it’s sometimes known, has been fished off Howth for generations. It has a luminous orange shell and juicy flesh and has become a prime catch for local fishermen.
Sean Doran is one of them.
As proprietor of Octopussy restaurant and its adjacent fishmongers, Dorans, his family have been trawling the waters of the Irish Sea for decades.
Their own vessel, the Celtic Fisher, launches regularly from Howth harbour in search of the Dublin Bay prawn. And, over the last six years, he’s seen the humble creature billed as the main event in an increasingly popular event.
The first year of the festival, Doran reckons, saw around 6,000 people attend. Last year that number almost quadrupled.
The prawns from the Dublin Bay Prawn Festival aren’t actually from Dublin Bay, says Doran. The name is just a throw-back to the nineteenth century.
Nowadays, “the prawn will be caught anywhere from Gibraltar to the north tip of Norway and through the Irish Sea”, he says.
“Dublin Bay prawn is a local name going back to Victorian times when the boats used to anchor in Dublin Bay and the local fishermen would sell the prawns to the boats as they were waiting to go in and out of the port,” he says.
Along the pier, John Hayes is mending nets beside where his ship, the Nausica, is moored.
Hayes has been catching prawns for 40 years, and he’s quick to note that Dublin Bay isn’t the place to prawn-hunt. Even if there were prawns in the bay, he says, “you wouldn’t be allowed catch them . . . they’d be all full of pollution.”
The Nausica’s six-man crew trawl far off shore and sail out to the Irish Sea. Out there, prawns can be tough creatures to track.
“It’s knowing where they’re going to be at certain times of the year,” he says. “The different tides and what stage they’re at determine where you’re going to be fishing.”
Prawns are fair game nearly all year round, but they breed fast and, with modern fishing-net designs, their numbers quickly replenish, says Hayes.
In the 1980s, Doran, Hayes, and other Howth fishermen adopted the use of a “square-mesh net”, which allows smaller creatures, baby shrimp, to escape back to the depths.
Plus, unlike the Dublin Bay prawns, the trawlers are powerless against heavy tides.
“The prawns don’t like to fight the heavy current so they burrow quite deep into the sand,” says Doran. “During the heavy tides the fishermen don’t bother going to sea because they can’t catch them.”
Plenty to Pick At
The event is now in its seventh year, and while 23,000 people turned out for the festival last year, the organisers reckon this year could see that figure double.
They have teamed up with the St Patrick’s Festival, and hope to draw people to leave the city centre and head to the seaside village.
“Over the last couple of years Fingal Tourism and Howth Tourism kind of looked at what Howth is as a brand,” says event organiser Elaine O’ Sullivan.
“So the brand we were trying to put out there was the Dublin coastal village and we’d discussed over the years how the Dublin Bay prawn was synonymous with Howth.”
Within the main food tent this year, 16 different local restaurants will offer different dishes all with a common ingredient: the Dublin Bay prawn. That will include paella, prawn curry, shrimp linguine and BBQ prawns, all cooked fresh.
For those who don’t like the local langoustine, the classic fish and chips remains a staple of the event, or you can opt for a plate of calamari and the village’s famous chowder. There will also be DJs, bands, bay cruises, cookery demonstrations and craft stalls.