Monday 19 August 2019

Mickie's knowledge of salmon makes for a smoking product

Ballyhack’s Mickie Walsh is famous for his salmon products. Reporter David Looby went fishing for information

Mickie Walsh in Ballyhack
Mickie Walsh in Ballyhack

Sitting at his kitchen table in his house overlooking Arthurstown Bay, the owner of world-renowned Ballyhack artisan smoked salmon Michael (Mickie) Walsh says he has never worked harder and never felt more invested in the fishing industry.

This coming from a man who led the South & East Fishermen's Organisation, who owned the doomed Pere Charles vessel on which five men lost their lives and a man who fished for 100 hours a week, you are not going to disagree with him.

Mickie, 48, has been fishing since he was eight. The son of the late Muck Walsh and Breda (née Burke), he grew up in Ballyhack in a family of six children.

With his mop of black hair and personable manner, Mickie knows how to sell and his passion for the sea and fishing is infectious.

'The sea is all I know. I couldn't see me having anything to do with anything other than fish because it's all I know and all I'm interested in. We all fished. Everyone belonging to me as far back as time goes - as far back as we can look - was fishing. I fished in the river here for salmon with family, with whoever wanted a young lad to go out on the boat with them. All the young lads fished as it was either fishing or farming and fishing was our thing. We loved it.'

He was making a few bob out of it at a very young age. 'There was a serious amount of salmon in the river at that time. Most of the fish was sold in the Byrne's of Ballyhack who were agents for salmon. They were the main supplier at the time. They sold out of their shop. I have memories of fish leaving the quay in Ballyhack in timbre boxes for Passage East. There were over thirty vessels fishing out of the part. I had no interest whatsoever in school and most of the lads knew they'd be going fishing and that was it, I fished in a good few boats.'

Aged 14 Mickie left school and went deep sea fishing.

'I went to Ring to work and to Helvick when I was 16. There were eight to ten of us. There was a bonanza of salmon there. At that time there was no mobile phones. I'd ring my mother every three, four, five months. You don't realise the significance of that until you have kids yourself.

I spent about three years there so I was in Ring until I was 18 and half. I came home and fished here for around a year. Beam trawling was taking off here and Brendan McGrath has a couple of steam boats. We were on bigger boats out off of Hook Head. There was a good living to be got in fishing at that time. We had a few adventures for a few years.'

He decided to push the boat out and moved to Cornwall, after an unsuccessful punt at building work in Cardiff which lasted all of one day.

'I went to Cornwall to fish when I was 18. When I went to Cornwall I spent 80 per cent of the time fishing off of the Irish coast, I left here on a Friday or a Saturday and I got a job the following Tuesday and our first port of call was Dunmore East and I was up talking to my mother nine days later, I spent five years over there and I got married there to my first wife. I loved it. Life was really easy so it was good fun.'

When he came back his eldest boy Paddy was just about to be born.

'I was about 26. Salmon were the most talked about thing in the river. People came from all over to fish here. The season then was from February till the middle of August. Then they shortened it from April until the middle of July and then they brought it back to a four day week until they finally closed it. The place was buzzing back then, the pubs were thriving. The village was thriving. Most of the young lads were fishing with someone.

'When I came home to Ireland I hadn't skippered any boats. Everyone wants to catch their own fish and to go to the top. I went to Greencastle in Donegal to get my license. I did my ticket and passed it and I went to fish in Kinsale for a year.'

Mickie returned home and fished in the first boat he bought in 1995, the Kerogan, an old French cast off.

'I fished that for a few years. We were working hard and fishing hard. We were doing serious going at that time. The quotas were bigger than they are now and the fleets didn't have the efficiencies. At that time there hadn't been a boat built in Ireland since the 70s.'

He fished her for most of that year until his wife Caroline got sick. 'She got cancer and died. Paddy was only three years old and Joe was only three months old. That was probably the biggest setback in my entire life. A young man with a young family. I got lads to skipper the boats at times of the year. I'd be ashore. I fished in the late winter, early spring. We would get 50 to 60 per cent of our turnover during those three months.'

Mickie bought a boat, the Padraig Seosamh in 1999. 'At that stage the whole fishery scene was changing completely. The south east corner was dying on its feet. We had the older boats. We had most of the resources in the country down here in this corner, but it was being utilized by the other areas so a bunch of us sat down and said we need to sort this out.'

The South & East Fishermen's Organisation was founded following these meetings.

'I went at that for a time ad hoc. I was very nervous when I started it first. I had never actually done anything representing people on an industry level. Yeah you'd be talking on the quay. Initially our biggest thing was getting recognition but the nature of the fishing industry is that it was a dog eat dog industry.

'If there is three people sharing up a cake they didn't want a fourth, so there was a good bit of determination from ourselves to keep going and to keep knocking on the door.'

Eventually, after a year, Mickie and the fishermen got recognition. They offered the Ballyhack man the top job.

'I was doing a little bit of fishing. I was on the go all of the time. There were just so many fires in the industry and new surveyors coming out. Quotas were dying. They were talking about banning different types of fish and changing gear types. Really you had to be at the races to have your shout in so I was constantly on the go whether it was Dublin or Brussels. I was very passionate about it having come from a fishing background on the coast and about the small fishermen and their future.'

He remained in the role until the Pete Charles sank in 2007. Describing the tragedy which made headlines for weeks that winter across the nation as a massive blow, Mickie said he was speaking with the skipper Ger Bohan minutes before the trawler went down.

'The Rising Sun was the year before, ironically enough I had been involved at a representative level with that. I was involved with the searches as well, but little did I know that within 14 months of that I would be in the limelight myself with my own boat. I owned the boat. I had invested serious money in the boat. I brought the boat down ironically enough on Hallowe'en night in 2005 out of Dundalk. She was licensed in January 2006 and she sank on January 10, 2007.'

Mickie said he had her over 12 years so he had only begun to start making the repayments on the vessel.

'It was a serious borrow. I was here when I got the news. I had been talking to the skipper a few minutes before. I don't know what happened but whatever happened, happened really quick as within the space of two phone calls within 15 minutes of each other he was there and he was gone. I'll have to wait until I meet my own maker to find out what happened. I knew at the time when I couldn't get him on the phone. He was pair fishing with another boat and it was fairly close and they had lost sight of them so it wasn't a good sign,'

Mickie was the main breadwinner in a house of six children between his ex partner and himself. 'I didn't even realize the significance at the time of how much the business was gone. I had insurance on the boat but they changed the laws the year before so you could only insure the purchase amount. At one time you could insure the borrowed amount but with the change you could only insure the purchase amount. I had put money in from the sale of another boat so there was a shortfall of €250,000.'

At the time money was the last thing on his mind. 'After the boats there was 21 or 22 days of a search, the only thing I was focused on was the lads. I was out with boats, I was up and down to Dunmore from the break of day till night. I knew all the lads well. I had fished with three of the, on numerous occasions and I fished with the skipper as his skipper, on the deck with him and as vice skipper and I knew Paddy's girlfriend.

'When the boat sank I basically lost everything overnight. Even though I had a fishing license which was worth a good bit of money at the time but in 2007 the economy turned and you couldn't give the license away, so I went from being on an OK position with the bank as I had collateral that had value to having less collateral than I owed the bank so they started panicking. By the time the license was sold I had run up €100,000 in interest. They sold it for whatever they got out of it but I got feck all.'

Mickie was 38 and having worked 'flat out' for 24 years up to that he found himself further back than when he started out because he had a debt and no means to pay it. 'I had a very good track record with the banks over the years. When I did pick myself up, I was in a bad place for a while, but when I finally came out of it I decided to go back into it (fishing) - believe it or not - as that was what I knew. I went to Scotland and found a boat I liked. I would have had the same repayments as the Pere Charles and I could have picked up where I left off. I know that sounds crude because there is no price on five men losing their life. It's splitting the issues. That's the worst thing that could have possibly ever happened. Five men with no families. Mothers, wives with no sons, that's as bad as it gets. On a personal point of view I couldn't have had worse timing in the history of Ireland,'

Mickie had no option but to forget about buying a boat and license for a while. Instead he went back in the producer organisation having taken a year out.

'I worked for them for two and a half more years. At that stage I was wore out from it. It was hard to make progress. I wanted a change and had served my time. It needed new faces.'

He decided to buy a van and start selling fish.

'I could have gone skippering boats for somebody else. But I was 38 and was going to be starting again at the bottom and a lot of things had changed and I had young lads here who had been used to me being at home but whatever I was going to do I knew it was in fish so I bought a little fish van and called her Fish Ahoy. I was in New Ross, in Campile. I used to drive around to people's houses selling from door to door. Then I started travelling with the vans all around the county, out six days a week but it wasn't a paying proposition as there are so many people who don't eat seafood.'

At that time he could sell fish direct for less money than the supermarkets which were selling fish for phenomenal money.

'We knew we had freshness and I felt if we put in the time and had six vans on the road. But I was setting up a business at a time when the country was crashing down around my feet. I overstretched myself to the point I was working 18 hours a day six days a week, putting up 1200 miles a week. If I had set up the same business anywhere else I would be retired now. We are just not a fish eating race of people. It took me a long time to find that out. I believed you could convert people to fish but you can't. If you pay some people they won't eat it. The money in people's pockets was tight and they started shopping more in Aldi and Lidl. We were struggling and it was really hand to mouth more than I ever knew.'

He started smoking salmon just for his family initially. 'I was giving it a go. I got the smoker in 2011, 2012, I was foostering around with it and people said that's nice and I though jeez maybe I have a product here.'

The smoker he got was 80 years old. 'I liked smoking myself and being out there having the product. My unique selling point was that the salmon was sold unsliced so you get the maximum amount of flavour and the best texture when you slice it at home.'

He had a fish factory in his yard so he turned it into a smoke-house, sourcing the salmon from Scotland, sometimes Norway.

'I looked for ratification. It cost me a lot more money than I thought because I already had a smoker and knew how to smoke. I started throwing money at the smokehouse.'

In late 2013 he got ratification but by the end of 2014 he still wasn't selling much salmon.

'I wasn't in a position to go into supermarkets because I didn't have vac packers. It was very small scale and artisan, the biggest problem was cash flow. You couldn't take on a lot of business because if they weren't paying you for 60 days. There always seemed to be another bridge to cross, packaging, or some regulation.'

In 2016 he decided to put the wild smoked salmon product into the Irish Quality Food & Drinks Awards. On the awards night Mickie was in Killaloe selling fish. He woke up to hundreds of missed calls from a friend telling him he had won the top award.

'I had the premium smoked salmon in the country. We knew the people knew we had a product now. Neven Maguire was one of the chefs, among other top chefs. I still had big problems with cash flow.'

A people's choice award followed and growing in confidence about his product Mickie went to the banks for a loan in spring 2017. 'Only cash would assuage the banks. We had beaten Dunnes Stores, Tesco, the whole lot of them. We won the small business people's choice award. It was wild salmon, but in my ignorance I didn't realize you had to provide the product you had won the award for. I went in with the wild salmon as a matter of passion because I grew up with it but I couldn't source it for more than six weeks of the year.'

That autumn he entered his Irish organic salmon and farmed salmon in the British Great Taste Awards. 'We won a two star award for the organic and then they rang me to say we won a three star for the farmed salmon and then we were nominated for a Golden Fork award. The salmon was served to some of the UKs top chefs at the banquet. Out of 12,500 products we got down to the last 15 out of that and got listed in Britain's top 50 foods as well.'

Mickie didn't realise the significance of what was happening his fledgling business. 'We felt like we'd made it. I was nervous about the product coming out but it really went down well. We still had to sell the product but we didn't have the money to bring the business to the next level. I felt we didn't get at all justifiable recognition in Wexford, we won that year as much, if not more, than any Wexford company ever had.

'A lot of that was probably my own fault. We were chasing our tail.'

He started to market the smoked salmon and an appearance on Ear to the Ground garnered the company got a lot of publicity.

The salmon is stocked in most SuperValu supermarkets and major restaurants.

'Things are starting to happen now. It was a slow burner. I've put so much personal effort in. I've probably worked three times harder in the last ten years than I did before. I love the job. I can see the light at the end of the tunnel.'

He said the competition is always there and the market and customer demand the best product 'so you can never say we have it so we go on'.

Mickie plans to venture into other products.

'We only produce 12,000 tonnes of salmon in Ireland, 9,000 of which is organic. They are reared in clearer seawater, fed better food. Wild salmon is retailing for €120 a kilo so it's a very niche market.

Would I like to be smoking wild salmon that are being caught over in Ballyhack of course I would. Would I like the government to open some of the fisheries and organic farms even for three or four days I'd absolutely love to see it because I don't know if I will ever see it.'

Working in his smokehouse with two part-time employees, today Mickie's business is growing by around 10 to 15 per cent year on year.

In the last few months the potential to grow it is becoming more apparent.

'The knots are starting to link up for me and it's not as hard a push to get my smoked salmon into the market.'

Wexford People

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