Davy Smyth

The school bell peals. A young boy races out the gates and down to the end of the pier at Carnlough Harbour, where his waiting father has moored the family fishing boat. They set off, the boat bobbing over the waves as they leave the picturesque Victorian harbour and head out into the bay. The boy helps put out the nets at the back of the boat as they head off to look for plaice. The chatter of kittiwakes and guillemots seems to rise as, one by one, plaice skip into the nets. Hours pass, the setting sun ignites the bay, the reddish glow transforming the beautiful hills around Carnlough.

When fishing is in your blood, it’s hard to let it go. Davy Smyth vividly recalls those childhood evenings with his father, and still fishes whenever he can. In his early days, as for his father and grandfather before, it was salmon, mackerel and herring. Today, with fishing quotas in place, it’s more likely to be lobster.

But, these days, there is another reason to be out in the boat, celebrating his almost spiritual bond with these waters. Sharing his heritage with others.

Carnlough is part of one of Northern Ireland’s most epic drives, the Causeway Coastal Route, and visitors are flocking to the area. For the last few years Davy has been taking them around the bay in a restored lifeboat, ‘Curiosity’.

It’s not just the beauty of the scenery. “The wildlife is a big attraction”, says Davy, “There’s porpoises and seals, but what people seem to love most are the dolphins. They’re friendlier, not as shy as the porpoises. They like to tag along with the boat and play. People can’t believe how close they get. In summer they feed on the salmon, after September they head down here for the herring and mackerel.”

Sometimes, Davy will take visitors on specially requested trips, such as the four-hour round trip to see the Maidens, rocky islets far out in the North Channel. The Maidens were formed by the same volcanic activity that created the Giant’s Causeway further north. Most of this spectacular coast, so dramatic it is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, has become a world-famous attraction and backdrop to many scenes from HBO’s ‘Game of Thrones’ series.

Davy had his own close-up experience with ‘Game of Thrones’ in Carnlough Harbour. When the tide is low in the harbour, Davy moors ‘Curiosity’ by the steps where Arya Stark emerged from the water, having escaped the ‘Waif’ in season 6. He smiles as he recalls his own contribution to that day.

“They’d stopped all land traffic coming into Carnlough but had forgotten about the boats. I was the third boat to come into the harbour that day and interrupt filming and I heard some yelling and shouts of ‘cut’. I had a boat load of scallops to unload in the harbour too, so it took a little time. But, in fairness, they let me go ahead.”

The Causeway Coastal Route, along with Belfast, was named the top region in the world to visit in 2018 by Lonely Planet. Davy is happy to stay close to home, in the area where his family have fished for generations.

“I rarely venture out. Why would you when it’s so beautiful around here?”, he says, pointing to the hills around the village.

His favourite spot?  “Within a short walk from here, you can see a spectacular waterfall, where there are incredible views out to sea.” It’s a short drive to beautiful Glenarm Castle too, home of the McDonnell family, Lords of Antrim, who, as medieval Lords of the Route, once owned Dunluce Castle.

The McDonnell family also have a connection to Davy’s fishing boat, the Flora, a story he often tells visitors. In the early 1920s, a local man, Dick Wilson, who fished salmon for Lord Antrim, fell in love with a young woman called Flora who was living in Glenarm Castle. Dick even built a boat for her and gave it her name. But the romance was not approved of and Flora was sent to the US. Dick saved up and went on a steamer to the US to find Flora but was devastated to find she had married in the meantime. Dick left the boat to his young fishing colleague, Davy Smyth, Davy’s grandfather. Now, beautifully restored, the hundred-year-old-boat has come down the family and is still used by Davy for fishing.