On a recent Thursday, Peter Lynch sat in the modest cabin of Atlantic Freedom, in blue-and-yellow waterproof overalls over a navy polo shirt. The front of his cap reads “Save Our Irish Fishing Fleet”.
In front of him, there are monitors, keyboards, knobs and gauges. The radio is tuned to RTÉ Radio 1, and a Dublin GAA air freshener dangles from above.
On a screen in front of the autopilot console, a map is marked with yellow lines, showing where Lynch’s fishing equipment is anchored in the Irish Sea. A triangle on the map shows the vessel’s current location as it heads towards a line.
Lynch is still feeling out where best to put his gear after recently opting to move it south, he says.
“I was further out, and all the other boats were all in around before me,” he says. “We’re just trying to get going again, find our way.”
Intermittently, transmissions from the Dublin and Belfast coast guards interrupt the hum of the engine with the weather forecast, or navigation warnings.
Today, Lynch is aiming to collect 10 or 12 ropes of pots of whelk, Lynch says. The pots are yellow plastic boxes with netting, tied to ropes, marked with buoys and sunk on an anchor. Roughly, one rope has 42 pots in all.
He put them out a few days ago, spreading them across the waters north of Howth and below Lambay Island.
At 9:30am, the Atlantic Freedom is roughly five nautical miles from Howth harbour. The sky is overcast and moisture clings to the air.
Lynch, turning a dial, slows the boat as it draws towards the next line of pots, the engine cutting to a trundle. “Now, here’s the next candidate,” he says.
The first catch of the morning was decent, he says. But he’s not expecting much in this string.
Stepping out onto the deck, he gets in position, waiting to hoist the first pot of the string onto the boat.
Lynch always wanted to try his hand at pot fishing, he says. “Maybe it’s ’cause my da started out at that when he was young in west Cork.”
Since 1995, when he completed his Leaving Cert, Lynch, now 43, has worked full-time as a fisherman.
After those summer exams, he joined some trawlers near Rockall, the islet in the north Atlantic infamous for ownership disputes. Later, he worked on a prawn boat that sailed out of Clogherhead in County Louth.
He considered a different path, signing up to a construction studies course – but left after two weeks, he says. “I could have been a millionaire. I could be bankrupt now, as well.”
By late October 1995, he’d returned to his native Howth. He spent the next two decades trawling whitefish, first with his father and brothers, and after his father retired, still with his brothers.
Until January 2015, when he sailed the Atlantic Freedom back from Baltimore in County Cork, and left his brother’s trawler to set up his own operation, catching crab and lobster and whelk.
It was a big change, the move from trawling to pot fishing, he says, and taking charge of his own boat too.
It took a lot of learning, says Lynch, but that’s the fun bit too. “It’s exciting when you get going at it, try and find your own way at it.”
Earlier that day, at a little after 7am, the crew of Atlantic Freedom had been out on deck and prepping for the day ahead.
Howth harbour was peaceful. The sun, which had risen an hour earlier, coloured the glassy seawater and the air smelt of yesterday’s catch.
In waterproof overalls, James Brereton, 47, and David Healy, 24, prepare the bait. The crates of brown crab are ready to go.
Both crewmates now turn their attention to a box of fresh dogfish. With crude iron saws, they carve it into chucks, entrails dripping onto the deck.
“Best part of the morning,” says Brereton, grinning.
Healy, from Howth, started working on Lynch’s boat at the beginning of the summer.
“My grandad, my uncles are all … they all fished.”
Not many his age work on fishing boats, Healy says, as he saws at the dogfish. But he enjoys the work, he says, and sometimes the weather. “When it’s like this, it’s nice.”
Lynch was young – five, he says, or maybe six – when he started to go out on the boat with his father, John.
It was during the summer holidays, he says. “We were only in the way half the time I’d say, at that age.”
He looks straight ahead, out of the boat’s cabin. “They were the best days,” he says.
Lynch’s father was working on trawlers when he landed in Howth in 1956 and there met his future wife, Lynch’s mother, Cora.
Lynch’s paternal grandfather was also a fisherman. He fished out of Castletownbere, County Cork, worked for the Commissioners of Irish Lights, and also spent time on trawlers near Milford Haven in Wales.
But he and his siblings never felt a pressure to conform to a family tradition, he says. It wasn’t that they were pushed, he says. “We just enjoyed it.”
John, Lynch’s older brother, owns the Eblana, a whitefish trawler. Brendan, younger than Lynch, skippers the Eblana and works alongside John.
For a decade, they all worked together on the Eblana, which is moored beside Atlantic Freedom in the harbour. They worked on other boats together before that.
Lynch’s own three children – aged between one and seven – will decide for themselves. “I wouldn’t force them,” says Lynch.
After Lynch pulls her from the harbour, it takes about 35 minutes for Atlantic Freedom to reach the crew’s first string of pots.
All on board have a role in the choreography of collecting the pots, emptying the catch, and refilling the pots with bait.
Lynch activates a winch, which pulls up the anchor and buoy. He hoists up the first pot, and passes it over.
Brereton empties the pot into a cylindrical whelk grader, which sorts the catch by size as it rotates. Below the grader, boxes fill with the sea snails.
Healy completes the relay, taking the pot from Brereton and refilling it with whelk food – a couple of crabs and a chunk of dogfish. He stacks it neatly on the other side of the deck, ready to be put out to fish again.
On it goes until they reach the end of the string, 42 pots later.
Lynch sells the whelk to Sofrimar, he says, a processor that ships Irish seafood all over the world. He usually gets about €50 a box.
The yield from this haul is three boxes full of whelk. “That’s not bad, that’s alright now,” he says, in the cabin.
Compared to when he started fishing, after the financial crash, payment for whelk has gone down, Brereton says, later that afternoon.
“The price of whelk at the moment is on the floor,” he says.
There was a time when Lynch could get €2.40 per kilo of whelk, but since Brexit, it’s been on a downward spiral, he says.
Now he gets €1.50 per kilo. “It’s the bare minimum. Anything lower now, [it] wouldn’t be viable,” he says, some time later over the phone.
The crew sail on. They have to be careful not to interfere with other crews’ pots, they say.
Visibility is poor. They might set them in the same spots.
Although nobody does that on purpose around here, Lynch says. “It’s generally all right around here, most of the time.”
There’s competition though. “It’s absolutely everyone for themselves,” he says. “Sure that’s the fun bit, isn’t it?”
The day’s wage for share fishermen is dependent entirely on what you catch. “There’s nothing better than going in, you know you’ve done a good day,” Lynch says.
“The lure of it is the never knowing,” he says. “You never know what you’re going to get.”
Brereton says that’s the reason he enjoys fishing over, say, working on building sites. “I need to be challenged, all the time.”
“There’s always that anticipation of what’s going to be in the pots, you know,” he says, standing in the doorway of the cabin, taking a breather in between strings.
Lynch wanted to own his own boat for as long as he can remember, he said, earlier that day.
He is proud of it too, he says. “It’s like owning your own home, isn’t it? Your own business, I suppose.”
But he’s not necessarily tied to pot fishing and Atlantic Freedom, he says.
He thought he would be trawling forever, after all. “And I ended up not trawling forever, so maybe I’ll be back trawling,” he says, “maybe I’ll sell this and go back.”
Trawling would give him a chance to work with family again. “I miss fishing with my brothers, because we got on well,” he says.
By 3.30pm, they’ve harvested 10 strings of pots. Lynch turns the boat homeward.
“Taking the scenic route in this evening,” he says.
The boat passes the west side of Ireland’s Eye, carrying with it 15 boxes of whelk back to Howth harbour.
We've been covering stories like this since 2015, addressing the important issues in Ireland's capital. The work we do isn't possible without our subscribers. We're a reader funded cooperative. We are not funded or influenced by advertising.
For as little as the price of a pint every month, you can support local journalism in your city.