Early 20th Century Norwegian Whaling in Co. Mayo, Ireland
At the beginning of the 20th century, whales were prized for both their meat and oils. Norway imposed a ten year ban on whaling in their waters in 1904 due to their own depleted stocks. As a result, Norwegian whalers wished to expand their operations in other areas.
In 1908, attempts were made by two Norwegian businessmen to set up a station on the Shetland Island off the Scottish coast. When this attempt failed, a second one was made on Arranmore in Co. Donegal, Ireland. Opposition from local commercial fishing interests scuppered both bids. However, thanks to a man from Youghal, Co. Cork, a station would be built at Rusheen, on South Inishkea, Co. Mayo. The Norwegians maintained the Arranmore Whaling Co trading name.
The station at Rusheen, was beset with problems, as the company had to contend with some militant islanders. Around 30 local hands were employed on Rusheen. All the men were from South Inishkea as the islanders refused to allow strangers from the mainland to work at the station but also the inhabitants of the neighboring North Island. The foreman and timekeeper, Johnny O’Donnell, was the ‘king’ of the island and enjoyed the distinction of owning the only dwelling on the island with floorboards. The station had its best catch of 102 whales in 1909, with blue whales, fin whales and sperm whales among the haul. The whales’ blubber and oils were exported primarily to Scandinavia and an on-site mill ground down the whale bones to be used as meal. However, by 1912, the number of whales caught dwindled to just 26. By 1914, the company was heavily in debt and on January 4, 1915, the Arranmore Whaling Co. officially ceased to exist.
Another Norwegian, the charming and shrewd business man, Captain Lorentz Bruun, who had a temporary involvement with the Arranmore Whaling Company had obtained a site for a station as early as 1908 on the east side of the Mullet Peninsula in Blacksod Bay. Whaling got underway in the summer of 1910.
The regular staff at the station comprised about 20 Norwegian and 30 Irishmen from 1911 onward who took over from the Norwegians as they developed their skills. Local workers were treated to coffee for the first time. The local men, who would not have had extensive wardrobes, were taken aback that the Norwegians would change into fresh clothes for their evening meal.
Like at Inishkea, when a whale was brought in, it was moored at a buoy until the men were ready to deal with it. It was then towed to the bottom of the slipway by a rowboat. A steel-wire rope dragged the whale up the incline onto the flensing plane. Once in position, the whale was stripped of its blubber ‘blanket’ a job assigned to two Norwegians, but later given to local workers once they had acquired the necessary skills. Once the blubber was peeled off it was divided into more manageable blocks and then fed into a boiler.
The outbreak of World War One was the death knell of whaling in North Mayo. All fishing stopped in August 1914, and the Norwegians left for home. The station was taken over in 1915 by the British Admiralty who used it as a petrol base until 1918. When the war ended, Bruun sought to recommence whaling at Blacksod. He died on Christmas Day 1924, and in his absence, the Blacksod Company had no driving force. The company faltered due to the lack of demand for whale oil and poor management and was dissolved in 1932, bringing to an end Mayo’s short-lived and turbulent association with whaling.
A Photographic Exhibition
Article by Denis Strong, Divisional Manager, National Parks & Wildlife Service, Ireland