"The thrush will call through Camlin groves the live-long summer day;
Standing on the boat dock, looking out over moonlit water under a star-filled sky, Martin
Doherty's memory was suddenly filled with half remembered, long forgotten lines of verse.
The waters run by mossy cliff, and banks with wild flowers gay;"
It was a far pitch from Camlin groves, on the banks of the River Erne in the County Donegal,
to the Gatineau escarpment, darkly etched behind his back, overlooking the Ottawa Valley
and the Ottawa River itself. The water at Martin's feet was not river water but the water
of a lake, a small lake, Martin's own lake, built and created by his own machinery if not
by his own hands.
No wonder the sight jogged his memory of the forgotten verse. The Gatineau Hills, Martin's
Lake, and the Ottawa River were almost exact parallels of the Leitrim mountains, dominated
by Trusc Mor, Lough Melvin with its gillaroo trout, a rare species once thought to possess a
gizzard, and the fabled River Erne, famous in song and story, poem and rann. Both
geographical settings, the Canadian and the Irish, were of a piece, and to Martin it was
good, and Martin himself felt good. The only difference was the daytime haunting cry of the
loon which had replaced the call of the thrush.
What other penniless exile of his generation could boast of owning his own lake, with his
own boat dock, with his own high powered, twin screw runabout, and his cottage where he
spent most weekends when he fled the city and the relentless dollar treadmill?
They called it a cottage in Canada, where many people owned cottages, or rented lakeside
cottages to which they escaped from the summer heat and humidity of city living. But
"cottage" applied to everything from a one-room, fifty-year old, plank-board shack, fine for
roughing it in for a week or two at a time, to architecturally designed, panorama windowed,
year-round temperature controlled constructions of every style, from Swiss chalets to
rounded Roman temples set in sylvan groves.
Martin's cottage was of the larger type, and it had everything, including, though he never
drank the stuff, a wine cellar. A Doherty owning a wine cellar! The first of his name to
own such a thing, and never to touch the stuff himself! Why? "Well, 'just for the jig of
the thing', as the old woman said when she rode the whin bush", Martin would reply.
Martin knew cottages. He had been born in one. No wine cellar, no hot and cold running
water, no water at all except that hauled by bucket from a well fifty yards away, and hard
work it was for chilblained hands and bare legs on frosty mornings, walking the right-of-way
graciously granted by an absentee landlord on whose land was situated the well from which
the bucket was filled.
His Canadian cottage was a mansion by comparison with his old home in Ireland, a home from
which his own grandfather had been evicted for inability to pay the rent to the selfsame
absentee landlord's grandfather, the owner of Camlin Castle.
That original cottage had been almost tumbled to the ground by the bailiffs on the day of
the eviction, with the story of that day being told and retold by grandparents and parents,
and known to Martin ever since he could remember.
A year later, when the old landlord had died, and his family had removed themselves
permanently to London, Martin's grandfather, stone by stone, had rebuilt the walls until
they were strong enough to carry a light thatch of straw as roof, and the Dohertys moved
back into it. The construction was makeshift and ramshackle, and two generations later
Martin, the last of his family, as a lad of sixteen closed the latch on its door for the
last time, just one of the 80,000 emigrants leaving that year to seek, not fame or fortune,
but a living. That living Martin had eventually found in Canada, and a good one at that.
His lake, his boat, his cottage, all new, all modern, all his.
Two years previously he had bought the land, you might say for a song, and that fall his
caterpillars and tractors and backhoes and cranes worked to excavate and extend what once
had been a small pond that was destined to become a lake, Martin's Lake.
He though he would have trouble with one fair-sized mound in the middle which would cost a
lot to remove, but his surveyor assured him the new lake waters would rise high enough to
bury it for all time. And they did. He watched as it happened. It was in the Spring.
To see the full extent of his lake filled for the first time should have been cause for a
celebration, but as he watched the water slowly, ever so slowly, creep the last inch or so
over the mound, Martin became aware of another watcher, some two hundred yards away, silent,
immobile, standing on a small pine covered promintory. He might have been a statue, thought
Martin of the second watcher. There was no movement at all. Head and eyes were focused on
the last scrap of mound remaining above the water. Only when the last scrap disappeared did
the figure move and Martin saw his fellow-watcher for what he was.
"An old Indian, for God's sake! An old Indian," Martin would exclaim when he told the story
to others. "And in the morning he was still there, dead, dead as a doornail."
It turned out that, unknown to Martin, and to practically everybody else in the area, the
mound was an old Indian burial ground, a sacred place, where once a small group of Woodland
Cree, separated in past ages by vast distances from their own people, had settled for a time
and, over the years, buried their dead.
It was eerie, but after the story was told a few times it faded from memory.
Martin was a man in his sixties at this stage. He was "Hail fellow, well met" to one and
all, and his hospitality was legendary. A weekend at Martin's cottage was a sybaritic
experience, and if he didn't use his well stocked wine cellar, his guests certainly did.
Nothing gave him greater pleasure than to ask, "What would you like? A drop of the hard
stuff? Beer? Wine?" and then produce the very bottle, the very brand, the very best vintage
or brew that his guests had requested. He positively beamed when he was able to say, "Well
now, I think I've got some of that tucked away", and could return triumphantly bearing some
obscure brewery or vineyard offering.
He was, surprisingly, a widower, without children, who never remarried, never attempted to
father a family. "She was the best", he would say, a sort of a choke in his voice, "the
very best", and would leave it at that. But his family of friends was limitless, and his
acts of charity, never spoken of, never performed in public, legion.
Then came the night he stood alone on his boat dock and memories of childhood filtered back
into his consciousness. He was happy, he was content. He had accomplished all he had set out
to achieve fifty years before as a raw, sixteen-year old boy leaving his native land. Now
he felt it was time to go back, to trace family roots, and look at what remained of that
closed-up Irish cottage he had forsaken.
It was Big Jim Sheerin, the taxi driver, who was the first to meet Martin when he stepped
onto the platform of the G.N.R. railway station in Ballyshannon, immortalized as "the kindly
spot, the friendly town", by Willie Allingham, the poet.
"A returned Yank. Sure it's sticking out all over him", thought Big Jim.
"Where to?" asked Jim.
"Just go down to the Belleek road, turn right, and I'll tell you where to stop".
"By gor, it gave me a strange feeling entirely", Big Jim told his pals later that night in
Sweeny's pub. "Turn right", he said, "and turn right I did, and when I did I looked across
the front seat and saw the shock on his face, and the eyes opening wide on him, and the
mouth falling open, and a sort of a half smothered grunt coming from him. His whole face
went white, and grey, and purple, and white again".
"It was apparent the man never knew or heard of the Erne Scheme", said Jim, "for the sight
of the dam and the huge reservoir of a lake behind it just paralyzed him".
"Camlin?", said Martin Doherty at last.
"Camlin? Sure it's under a hundred and forty feet of water!"
"The Doherty cottage?"
"Never heard of it", said Jim. Jim wasn't even born when Martin had left.
"In front of Camlin gates".
"Gone", said Jim. "Down there with the big house, and the round tower gatehouse, and the
bloody river itself, nearly all the way back to Belleek".
Martin Doherty climbed out of the taxi at the edge of the dam and looked over the whole
sunken river course, the sunken Doherty cottage, the sunken fairy rath, the sunken forest
trees, and the sunken rabbit burrows, fox runs, and badger keeps. No thrush sang. A wind
blew a ripple across the black water. For a long time he stood, silent, staring, immobile,
"like a frozen statue" said Big Jim.
Then he got back in the taxi. "Take me to a hotel, any hotel".
When the chambermaid went to call him next morning, Martin Doherty was found lying dead in
On the axle of fate the wheel of life had turned full circle, for Cree and Celt alike.
Note: I am indebted to my friend, Jack Dyer, former Hansard colleague, for his description,
given many years ago, of an Alberta lawyer's wine and beer cellar, use of which forms part
of the story of Martin's Lake.
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