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The second half of the Nineteenth Century saw the development of Kilkeel as a major fishing port. Although construction work on the harbour started in the 1850s, a survey of the proposed site of a new pier in 1865 estimated the cost of construction at £5400. Half of this amount was to be contributed by the Board of Works and the other half raised by subscription or taxation on the district or a combination of both. The Board of Public Works eventually took the construction of the Pier into its own hands under the superintendence of Mr. David Henry and, by 1868, Kilkeel’s first pier had been completed, allowing it to flourish in the fishing industry as well as exporting granite and potatoes. 

Employees at work at McKee’s Fish Curing Station, c.1905. A store belonging to Spillers & Bakers Ltd can be seen in the background. Newry and Mourne Museum Collection
Employees at work at McKee’s Fish Curing Station, c.1905. A store belonging to Spillers & Bakers Ltd can be seen in the background. Newry and Mourne Museum Collection

The Newry Commercial Telegraph reported on 29th April 1869 that the Treasury had granted an additional sum for the purpose of constructing a basin and other works in connection with the pier. In 1885, the South Pier was built, followed by the Old Dock in 1886. Further improvements were made in 1916 and more decisively in 1955 when the long quay was built.

Workmen at McKee’s Cooperage in the 1930s. Each cooper made nine barrels in a twelve hour day. Newry and Mourne Museum Collection
Workmen at McKee’s Cooperage in the 1930s. Each cooper made nine barrels in a twelve hour day. Newry and Mourne Museum Collection

During the late 19th century other maritime industries stimulated by the fishing industry emerged at Kilkeel Harbour. In 1875, William Paynter from St. Ives in Cornwall, established a boat-building yard at Kilkeel which built Cornish-style luggers, also known as ‘nickies’ which were more suitable for herring fishing. By 1890 the fishing industry at Kilkeel accounted for more than a third of all the herring landed in Ireland. 

John Mackintosh, Paynter’s apprentice, purchased the yard when Paynter returned to Cornwall in 1885. Mackintosh was well known for the standard of his workmanship. He designed all the boats himself, some of which still survive, though most have been decommissioned. He was the first to build a skiff with a cruiser stern, which was copied by many others. The Mackintosh family continued to build boats until 1952 when Bill Quinn took over their business. When Quinn joined the yard, the 25 men working there were building boats for the Admiralty. There was a lull in the fishing at the time with no demand for big boats and so they built skiffs, cruisers, punts and other small boats. 

  Boat builder at work in the Mackintosh boat yard in the 1940s. Courtesy of Rae McGonigle
A Boat builder at work in the Mackintosh boat yard in the 1940s. Courtesy of Rae McGonigle

Local potatoes, grain, granite and local produce were exported from Kilkeel Harbour and coal  and other commodities were imported. This trade meant that warehouses and stores began to appear in the Harbour area. These included buildings belonging to Lees of Swansea who exported potatoes and Spillers & Bakers Ltd who were flour millers.

Boat under construction in Bill Quinn’s boat yard c.1960. Newry and Mourne Museum Collection
Boat under construction in Bill Quinn’s boat yard c.1960. Newry and Mourne Museum Collection

Captain James McKee became another businessman to flourish with the success of the harbour. He established a corn mill at the Harbour and imported Indian corn to produce cattle feed for local farmers. He owned a number of fishing vessels and, in the late 19th century, opened a fish curing business and also a cooperage which made barrels for transporting the cured fish. 

Although Kilkeel Harbour is much changed from the later 19th and early 20th centuries, the fishing fleet is the largest in Northern Ireland today.

Newry and Mourne Museum is temporarily closed.

by Joanne Glymond

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