Killybegs Fishing Fleet without ‘the ship from hell’


Expert Fisher

Fishing expert

Travelling along the Wild Atlantic Way there are many ‘side stories’ that grab attention. Such is the case in Killybegs in South Donegal. Killybegs is Ireland’s largest fishing port, the safe sheltered deep water harbour  located in the waters of Donegal Bay.

Two things surprise me…the sheer size of these boats that go hunting fish for our tables, and the sheer number of them in the harbour, that are not at sea. They are big and they are colourful, and presumably in harbour as they may have already taken their quota of a particular species as allowed under European rules, or because the species they fish may not in season. The size of these boats would make you wonder all the same how long the seas can continue to produce the huge quantities of fish that these super vessels can haul in at any one time.

It is good to know that fishermen at sea are much safer than in days gone by, as these vessels are built to withstand heavy seas and are equipped with an impressive amount of electronics, radar, Internet and GPS systems.

Vehicle of Atlantic Dawn Group

Vehicle of Atlantic Dawn Group

Seeing this service vehicle of the Atlantic Dawn Group on the quay, I was reminded of a shameful period in the history of Irish Fishing. Back in the 1990s a Killybegs fisherman Kevin McHugh, aided and abetted by the Bertie Ahern government and funded by Irish  banks, commissioned and purchased the Atlantic Dawn super trawler. At 144 metres long and 14,000 tons it was and remains the largest and most technologically advanced trawler in the world. Feted by politicians on its arrival as ‘one of the proudest moments in Irish history’ this giant could process 400 tons of fish every 24 hours and had storage capacity of 7,000 tons. There was one problem however, it was so big that it did not have nor could it be issued with a fishing licence for European waters. Amid  much political wrangling and dealing, the Atlantic Dawn was registered as a merchant ship to enable it to side step fishing licence rules. With her nets hundreds of metres wide and sonar systems to detect shoals of fish it soon became clear that she would fish the full annual quota allowed in a matter of weeks. And so a deal was drawn up with the government of Mauritania in South Africa to enable her to trawl there and avoid all rules, regulations and legislation put in place to protect fishing stocks. Atlantic Dawn stripped the fishing grounds of Mauritania depriving hundreds of subsistence fishermen of their livelihoods. They dubbed her ‘the ship from hell’. Following a coup in Mauritania she was impounded and banned from fishing in these waters. Following the death of McHugh in 2006, the Atlantic Dawn was sold and renamed the Annelies Ilena. Ironically she was arrested for overfishing and the case was heard in Donegal courts and is ongoing. Many of the ships tied up in Killybegs are owned by the Atlantic Dawn Group.

The smaller fishing boats are dwarfed by their big neighbours.


imageThe pier at Killybegs was upgraded to accommodate these larger vessels and nowadays visiting cruise liners call into Killybegs to allow passengers visit some of the local attractions.

Much of the catch landed here is exported to the continent.

Spanish Truck waiting to load the catch

Spanish Truck waiting to load the catch

At any fishing harbour there is a reminder of how cruel the sea can be and what a dangerous occupation fishing is. This is the Killybegs memorial to those lost in this area.



Filed under Ireland, Irish Countryside, Irish Heritage, Irish History, Living in Ireland

12 responses to “Killybegs Fishing Fleet without ‘the ship from hell’

  1. A sad testament to greed and shortsightedness.

  2. It’s awful when one reads about this kind of scullduggery in the cool light of day. Where do morals and ethics and plain decency fit ?

  3. I missed the Atlantic Dawn story, but why am I not surprised at the depths to which some political leaders will sink. Nothing went into his back pocket of course.

    The memorial to the lost fishermen is stark and chilling.

    Why did the sea not help sustain the population during the Famine?

    • The Atlantic Dawn debacle makes my blood boil. The unfortunate McHugh who owned her died at a very young age of CJD. He left 70+ million in his estate.
      It has never ceased to amaze me why so many people died of hunger when the seas were teeming with fish, as indeed were the rivers, streams and lakes. The treacherous sea conditions with bad weather would have been one reason as they did not have sea going boats to deal with heavy seas. They often sold their fishing boats and equipment too to be able to buy food for families. In Skibbereen it is said that the shells of boats lay around the harbour, stripped of all their ropes and nets which had been traded for food. I could not find any reference to fishing in Killybegs in famine reports, but at my home village of Carrigart it was reported that they ate some fish in the winter but the winter was particularly stormy and wild. It’s an interesting question though. Thanks for dropping by.

  4. Reblogged this on Roaring Kelly Band and commented:
    Passed through Killybegs on way to the stunning cliffs of Sleibh Leigh. Town was named after the conical stone structures that housed early Christian monks in Ireland. This blog reports the fascinating development of unbridled greed in the fishing industry with the super trawler Atlantic Dawn.

    • Go raibh míle maith agat! Slieve League is an amazing place indeed and well worth seeing! You are right about Killybegs being named for the Irish for little monastic cells. It’s a lovely part of Donegal, thank you for dropping by!

  5. First of all, Killybegs is such a fun word. Secondly, like you, I am amazed at how many huge fishing boats go out to sea and bring fish back. It does seem like we must be depleting the ocean. But let’s hope not!

    • I am amused at your reaction to the name Killybegs! I suppose it is a fun sounding word alright! It is derived from the Irish ‘Cealla Beaga’ which means ‘Little Cells’ which comes from the small huts monks used live in. These big trawlers are monitored and subjected to quotas in Europe anyhow, so hopefully the stocks can survive them. Thank you for dropping by!

  6. Andrew Stock

    Thanks. Very interesting, as a retired small boat commercial fisher from western USA

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