Oceans of opportunity: three people who made a career out of their love of the ocean

An artist, an entrepreneur and a surfer tell Helen O'Callaghan how their lives and livelihoods have been influenced by the sea
Oceans of opportunity: three people who made a career out of their love of the ocean
Ali Jalilvand of Ali's Fish Market, Barna, Co. Galway.Picture: Hany Marzouk

The Entrepreneur

Iranian Ali Jalilvand started fishing on a leaking trawler in Galway Bay in the 1980s.

Invited to Ireland by a friend he met while he was studying in Sweden, Ali accepted and then lost his passport.

 “I couldn’t go anywhere, back to Sweden or back home," Ali says. "I didn’t know when I’d get a new passport.” 

With no income, stranded in 1980s Ireland, he looked out from Barna, Co Galway, and saw the boats coming and going. “I said I’d chance it,” Ali says.

Barely able to speak English, by studying the dictionary he taught himself five sentences, including, ‘Who is the captain?’ and ‘I want a job.’ He knew nothing about fishing. The first boats he’d ever seen were in Galway Bay. 

“I’m from the Kurdish part of Iran, which is all mountain; we barely have a lake,” Ali says.

His first job was on the St Gerard, a 40-year-old wooden trawler. “Each crew member got a share of the catch. I was new, so I got one-quarter. I didn’t mind. I had a place to live — the boat — I was making some money, and I had something to eat,” Ali says. 

Ali fished for two years. He got seasick every time. “I got used to working with that and anytime I asked for a job on a boat, they gave it to me: They knew I was a hard worker," he says. 

"Work gives you confidence; you get dignity. In many ways, it was the best thing, and I made friends I still have."

“Fishermen are hunters, but they chip in if disaster strikes," Ali says. 

Your net goes into the propeller and stops the engine, other fishermen will stop fishing and come help you, bring you back to the pier. There’s a sense of ‘we’re all in this together’. 

Ali left the boats and started selling fish from trailers around Co Galway when few people in Ireland ate fresh fish, yet everyone was used to prawn cocktail on wedding menus. 

“Everybody wanted prawns shelled, but nobody wanted to do it," Ali says.

"So we started shelling prawns, packing and freezing them. It took off: I started packing whole prawns for export. 

"Within four years, we had 40 people working in the factory. We were selling 18-20 tons of whole prawns a week.” 

Ali changed tack again and opened the famous Ali’s Fish Shops, as well as his first restaurant, about five years ago (winning ‘best seafood restaurant in Ireland’ the following year), and a second, in Barna, last year.

“Lockdown was a pity. We were trying to establish it, bring the name up. What can you do?” Ali asks.

Now, post-lockdown, it’s a case of monitoring things week by week.

And what is the sea's significance for him? “We think about the sea as a bunch of saltwater, but without the sea, I’d be lost. 

"It has given me life, dignity, great friends. In my life, it more or less told me, ‘This is what I can give you: What are you going to do about it'?” 

www.hookedonhenryst.com

The Surfer

Colum McAuley at Inchydoney Surf School. Picture Denis Boyle
Colum McAuley at Inchydoney Surf School. Picture Denis Boyle

The sea’s always changing, he says. “I might come to the beach thinking conditions perfect for surfing and be completely wrong," Colum says.

 "The sea keeps you on your toes: That’s what keeps my interest.” 

Inchydoney Surf School is in its 20th year. “We opened in 2000, with a tent on the beach. I’d put it up every day and drag everything we needed down to the beach: A handful of boards, wetsuits,” Colum says. 

Before that, he had been a lifeguard in Kerry for a few summers, where he was exposed to “surfing, waves, and rip currents”, and he had also completed a marine leisure-management course. 

His goal was to sail on yachts and he did for three years, across the Atlantic, and up and down the Mediterranean.

Back from sailing, he debated whether to be a marine engineer or an electrician. The latter won out, and he let go of sailing, worked as an electrician in winter, and opened the surf school for summer. 

“Gradually, the surf school got big," Colum says. 

"It’s got busier every year. I did everything on my own for the first four years. I’ve about six guys working with me now. 

Surfing wasn’t popular when I set up the surf school, but it was my excuse for staying on the beach. I was able to work outside. 

Colum runs the school from May until September, taking out groups of eight per instructor. “A big draw, at the moment, probably because we’ve been locked up so long, is kids’ camps," he says. “We take them from age eight up. I’d encourage them to be able to swim. They go out only to their waist depth — if they fall off the surfboard, they’re always able to put their feet on the sand.” 

Surfing in Inchydoney is good. “The angle of the sand on the beach here isn’t steep," Colum says. 

"It’s level sand all the way out from high to low tide, so, when the wave breaks, it rolls onto the beach from a long distance. 

"The shallow gradient means the wave’s energy spreads out. It could roll away for 100m into the shore before it dies off. 

"Which is good for teaching surfing; it gives someone on the board a lot of time to complete the manoeuvre they’re trying to do.” 

inchydoneysurfschool.com/

The Artist

Artist Cora Murphy in Cork, with one of her paintings of the sea. Picture: Denis Minihane
Artist Cora Murphy in Cork, with one of her paintings of the sea. Picture: Denis Minihane

The 'Idea of an Island' is the name of her exhibition (it was due to be shown this month) and Cora was absorbed by the notion of being in captivity on a beautiful island, Spike Island being the site of a 19th-century prison, where convicts waited to be deported to Australia.

“We imagine an island to be idyllic, but when you’re in captivity, there’s darkness," Cora says. 

I was trying to get into how it would be to be stuck on the island. Would you use your mind to escape? It was bizarre that, some weeks later, we were all put in lockdown.

Cora wondered how you’d mark time, listening to the constant lapping of the sea, the high and low tide. 

“And when they did leave, it was by sea all the way to Australia," Cora says. "So this thing that hemmed them in also helped them move onwards.” 

Ever since she took her first car trip on her own — to Inchydoney Beach, where she made 'At Inchydoney' — proximity to the sea has hugely influenced her work. 

Her art is about "holding on and letting go", and — at Lacken Strand, Co Mayo, one recent winter — it struck her that the sea teaches us to breathe. “Looking at the tide coming in and out, the timing of it was very similar to the way we breathe in a calm way,” Cora says. 

She recalls walking along Reen Roe Beach, Ballinskelligs, on a January day, and realising how incredibly loud the sea is. 

“I’d never listened to it before because I’d be walking along talking to someone. Afterwards, I made a painting, 'The Thundering Silence of the Sea.' 

"We get to use all our five senses at the sea. You hear, see, smell, taste, and feel it. And with the world in flux, the sea has real constancy,” she says. 

coramurphy.com/

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