Faith and Fishing

9.3.2023 | Moderator, Church in Society, Presbytery Tour, Presbytery News

On his tour of the Presbyterian Church in Ireland’s (PCI) Presbytery of Newry, Right Reverend Dr John Kirkpatrick PCI’s Moderator, spent time in Kilkeel’s Harbour Estate today visiting the Fishermen’s Mission and local co-operative, Sea Source.

Stretching from Annalong in the east, through the Kingdom of Mourne to Newry city, the Presbytery extends west to Markethill, and into South Armagh, taking in 23 congregations in total, two of them falling just south of the border in County Monaghan. Presbytery tours are pastoral in nature, encouraging the local church and others, and seeing at first-hand the work that is done quietly in the community.

The Presbytery also includes a number of harbours down the east coast, including Kilkeel where fish have been caught, landed and sold since the 1850s. On a wet, windy and snowy day, Dr Kirkpatrick and his wife Joan, paid a visit to the only UK national charity that supports both active and retired fishermen and their families – the Fishermen’s Mission. Accompanied by the newly elected Moderator of Presbytery, Rev Stuart Finlay and recently appointed Clerk of Presbytery, Rev David McCullagh of Annalong Presbyterian Church, along with Rev Stephen Johnston, minister of Kilkeel Presbyterian, together they met personnel and volunteers at the quayside Mission, including the Senior Coastal Operation Manager for His Majesty’s Coast Guard.

“I suppose the best way to describe us is ‘Christianity with the sleeves rolled up’,” said Ingrid Perry, who has been Mission Port Officer for the Fishermen’s Mission for the last eight years. “It is very hands on and we have been here in Northern Ireland for about 25 years, helping pastorally and practically on shore and at sea, although the Mission was founded over 140 years ago.”

“We are very much part of the fishing community and very much reliant on the support of local churches and the volunteers, many of whom are retired fishermen, and RNLI volunteers. It is a vibrant port with a good fleet of boats and we are a vital point of call for fishermen and their families, and increasingly the migrant crews that are so essential to the local fleet. We very much valued the Moderator’s visit and his prayer for us and those we serve.”

The Moderator heard of the practical welfare support the Mission provides, especially between October and February when boats find it difficult to fish due to bad weather. Known officially as Royal National Mission to Deep Sea Fishermen, the strong support of the local Christian community was also evident, with churches providing Christmas Hampers and financial support through the Christmas Tree Festival each year. With the first Fisherman’s Service taking place in Kilkeel Presbyterian in 1946, it has over time become an annual ‘Harvest of the Sea’ service, with other churches holding similar harvest services.

Dr Kirkpatrick also heard how the migrant crews, who are primarily from the Philippines, Ghana, India and Sri Lanka, currently work on Transit Visas, and how imminent new UK immigration legislation has the potential to affect them and the local fishing industry.

Encouraging the Fisherman’s Mission in its work, Dr Kirkpatrick said, “While there is a strong and proud fishing tradition in Kilkeel, there is an equally a strong and committed Christian presence in the town and in the Fisherman’s Mission they have come together. Fishing is a high risk industry and I am sure the tremendously valuable work of the Mission is not only much appreciated, but an essential part of community life, especially the practical, spiritual and emotional support that is often needed.”

On his visit to Kilkeel’s Harbour Estate, the Moderator also visited the local fishing enterprise, Sea Source, which began life 45 years ago as the Anglo-North Irish Fish Producers Organisation, catering for fishermen’s shore-based needs. Headquartered in the harbour, Sea Source is owned by local fishermen and promotes the local industry, primarily to increase the value of seafood for its fishermen. It also creates new opportunities based around local maritime expertise. Sea Source Off Shore, for example, has given members the opportunity to diversify their maritime skills into offshore energy related activities. This has included, the provision of Guard Vessels, Survey Vessels and qualified Marine Mammal Observers.

Sea Source chair, Brian Chambers, an active fisherman himself and member of Annalong Presbyterian Church, welcomed Dr Kirkpatrick to the operation. “It was a great pleasure to have the opportunity to talk about some of the issues facing the fishing industry, especially quotas and the continuing impact of the Northern Ireland Protocol, as it relates to bringing fish caught in UK waters in UK registered vessels back to this part of the UK. But it was also an opportunity to show how we have diversified into offshore work and talk about the research partnerships we have with Queen’s University, Belfast and Ulster University, and how we support the local fishing industry.

Mr Chambers continued, “In 2007 we saw a need to increase the benefits for our boats and developed a fish sales division. Seven years later a quayside factory, only a few hundred yards from the fish market, became available and we were able to buy it to process whole prawns and scallops, which come fresh off the boats. We also have another facility in the harbour that processes cod and haddock. Demand for white fish has rocketed since the ban on Russian imports due to their invasion of Ukraine.

“Although we are not a monopoly, our vessels can land to whoever they need to for the best price, but having the factory certainly helps our members and I hope the Moderator found the tour of our processing factory interesting,” Mr Chambers said.

Speaking after the tour, Dr Kirkpatrick said, “Many years ago I remember as child the small fishing fleet at Portrush, but it was nothing like the fleet that calls Kilkeel home. As we heard, fishing can be a lonely way of life, and a dangerous and arduous way to make a living, especially on a day like this when no vessels ventured out. Today has been enlightening and while we heard of the many challenges facing the industry, we also saw how Sea Source has diversified to meet some of them.”

During his tour, which will conclude on Sunday, Dr Kirkpatrick has met with local ministers for fellowship, prayer and Bible study, visited farmers and schools – including Kilkeel High School Daisy Hill Hospital and the Southern Area Hospice, and met members of the Police Service of Northern Ireland. He also preached each Sunday in different congregations and at mid-week services.

Photos: (1) At the Fishermen’s Mission in Kilkeel (left to right) Gary Young, Senior Coastal Operation Manager, His Majesty’s Coast Guard, Ingrid Perry, Mission Port Officer for the Fishermen’s Mission, Joan Kirkpatrick and her husband Dr Kirkpatrick, Presbyterian Moderator, Lesley Hammond, Area Officer Fishermen’s Mission and Rev Stuart Finlay, Moderator of the Presbytery of Newry (2) Kilkeel Harbour with the boats tied up on the day of the Moderator's visit (3) With some of the 400 tons of langoustine that are processed at the factory each year are Seas Source chair, Brian Chambers and  Dr John Kirkpatrick (4) Sea Source personnel (left to right) Brian Chambers, Rev Stephen Johnston, minister of Kilkeel Presbyterain, Rev David McCullagh, minister of Annalong Presbyterian and newly appointed Clerk of Newry Presbytery, Steven Pryce, Sea Source Factory Manager, Mrs Kirkpatrick and her husband Dr Kirkpatrick with Presbytery Moderator, Rev Stuart Finlay.

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