Irish streams and rivers provided many fine pearls. It is a fact, for many generations, the River Struel, which flows from Omagh to Newtownstewart, was noted for its pearls. The pearl industry centred around Omagh and the district has supplied many fine specimens.

Although nature conspires against all but the very observant.  The shellfish shows itself above the riverbed only from about June to August and in a small way. About a quarter of its three inches sticks up from the gravel. It stands on edge, is coloured a dirty dark like the riverbed, and has every chance of being mistaken for stone.  But no shellfish was safe when the experienced pearl-fisher was about.

History of Pearl Fishing

Pearl-fishing was extensively carried out in Ireland at one period is evident from a letter by Sir Robert Reading, concerning the pearl-fishing in the North of Ireland, dated 13TH October 1688;

‘The manner of their fishing is not extraordinary; the poor people in the warm months, before the harvest, is ripe, whilst the rivers are low and clear, go into the water; some with their toes, some with wooden tongs, and some by putting a sharpened stick into the opening of the shell, take them up; and, although by common estimate, not above one shell in a hundred may have a pearl, and one of these pearls.

Yet a vast number of fair merchantable pearls, and too good for the apothecary, are offered to sale by these people every summer assize. Everybody abounds with stories of the good pennyworths of the country –here is my favourite ‘; A miller took a pearl which he sold for four pounds and ten shillings to a man who sold it for ten ponds, who sold it to the Lady Glenealy for thirty ponds, with whom I saw it in a necklace; she refused eighty pounds for it from the late Duchess of Ormond,’

I was told pearls were often offered to tourists for five or ten shillings, which was real money 130 years ago, and it was quite usual for the fishermen to go down to the station to offer pearls ‘on spec’. To the passengers of trains halted at Omagh on their way to Enniskillen and Bundoran.

Irish pearls were very much in demand in former times.  In the diaries of the Earl of Cork, Sir Richard Boyle, mentions that on January 27th, 1611. Thirtyfour oriental and six Irish pearls were delivered to a jeweller named Ross to be made into a necklace for his wife.    Some 20 years later Sir. Richard reports the purchase of 140 pearls ‘from my River of the Bandon’ for his daughter at a cost of thirty-five pounds and six shillings. One of the minor inducements offered by Charles 1 to the City of London to undertake plantations in Ulster ‘was the abundance of pearls from the sea and rivers.’

Walter Harris in his 1744 book ‘The ancient and present state of the County of Down’, in which he gave a full account of pearl fishing on the River Bann and stated ‘Pearl fishery of this river near Bann Bridge though it runs to small account, yet must not escape our observation.

Records show that a collection of pearls, many of ‘extreme purity and large size’, which had been sent over to the Great Exhibition in London in 1851.

The pearls, despatched in a carved box of bog-oak, were entered by a Mr John Nelis, a citizen of Omagh, and founder of the weekly’ Tyrone Constitution’. Back in the 1920’ and ’30s, the waters of Tyrone and Fermanagh had professional pearl-fishers. Many of them were army pensioners who eked their tiny incomes in this way as well as doing the odd bit of poaching just to make ends meet.   In that day they would expect to get £1 for a small pearl whilst larger, well-formed pearls went to London where they might expect to get anywhere between £20 and £50.

The Fishing Spots

Down the centuries, pearls have been sought mainly in the rivers of Co.Tyrone, the Struel, Camowen, Drumragh, Ballinderry, Owenreagh and the rivers around        Swanlibar and Maguiresbridge in County Fermanagh.

The River Armey in Fermanagh close to the borders of Cavan was fished for pearls not by the locals but the people from Omagh!

The River Bann was once famous for its fine pearls some of these realised large sums of money.  Away back in 1688 a pearl was fished from the river weighing 36 carats. Those of the brilliant rose tint was the most esteemed. They are found in a species of muscle [Unio Atreatus] of an oval shape.

It is a well-known fact you will find pearls in any river frequented by Salmon. History records show that the river Shure that runs along Waterford and Lough Lean was known for their pearl fishing.

Since Mr Mikimoto in Japan discovered the secret of culturing a pearl artificially, the bottom fell out of the world market for real pearls.

Pearl Formation

The method of producing cultivated pearls is ingenious.   Any mollusc with a shell can create a pearl, though most of the pearls traditionally used in the jewellery trade came from the black-lipped pearl oyster, which is abundant in the Persian Gulf.  The same materials that create the animal’s shell are used in the pearl formation.

Natural pearl occurs when some form of irritant is stuck under the shell. It is popularly believed this has to be a grain of sand, but it is more often a food particle.   Once the oyster detects the particle, it begins to coat it with the shell-forming materials aragonite [a crystalline modification of calcium carbonate].

Molluscs rarely create pearls naturally.  Only one out of 10,000 animals will produce a pearl in the wild, so there has been a huge explosion in pearl farming by surgically implanting a bead or piece of shell into a mature oyster and this serves as the nucleus of the gradual evolution of a pearl by the ordinary process of nature.   Under the right conditions, the pearl can be grown at a far greater rate.  For example pearls cultured from the silver-lipped pearl oyster in the warm azure waters of Australia can grow up to 20 pearls in each oyster.

As I said comparatively few oysters contain pearls and it is this stimulating of the oyster’s faculty for pearl production that makes all the difference between rarity and comparative plenty.

Beauty of Pearls 

The most valuable of all is the milk-coloured pearl, these are generally taken from deep-water shellfish and the pearl-seeker dives from a rowing boat, sometimes wearing a homemade helmet to find them.

The perfect pearl is a lustrous white, delicately tinged with a faint shade of salmon pink and with sheen’ like the sun shining through the morning mist.’

The best pearls possessed ‘a soft and gentle brilliance’ and were held ‘of considerable value and estimation in the fashionable world.  While the pearls of our Irish rivers have adorned gracious ladies slender necks, the shells from which they came were sometimes put to a homelier use. From the “sligin” as it was called, with its beautiful mother o’pearl facing, lovely buttons were made.

J.J.Tohill

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