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Page 26 of 32
The Tale of the Eels

Eels? I hate 'em. Always have. Always will. Look like snakes. Feed on anything. Slaughterhouse offal. Slippery. Slimy. Goddamawful to handle. Tough to kill.

See that eelweir above the bridge? Below the Big Meadow? With its crenellated eelhouse? Picture postcard! You're welcome to it!

Don't go there. Don't fish there. Never have. Never will. Eels and pike. Pike and eels. Dirty fish.

Trout and salmon? Now you're talking! Anglers' delight. Morning. Noon. Night.

Best after rainfall. Evening rise better still. Feed like clockwork. Johnny Mac can tell you that. Between Erne View and Cathleen's Falls. "Half past eight to half past dusk." Never fails. Well, almost never. But you need to know what they're taking. Sooty olive or silver doctor?

What started me off on eels? I'll tell you what started me off on eels. 'Twas my uncle. The one without the hair. Not the one without the hip. The one that lost his hair in Mesopotamia. Not the one who lost part of his hip marching to the Somme, "fighting for the freedom of small nations", God help us!

My uncle fished eels. As a wee boy and didn't know any better, I used to help him betimes. Down at our backyard. We had two backyards, with a stone two-storey building in between. The back backyard was the bank of the Erne. In the middle of the town it was, a little above the Bridge End.

No great skill was involved. One lead cast and two or three side ones, each having a hook baited with worms. And a ball of fishing line.

Flung out by hand. The end tethered to a stone, and left alone. You see, we daren't be seen. That stretch of river was preserved water. For the fishing gentry who could afford a salmon-fishing licence.

In the evening, in the gloaming, we'd haul it in.

Now eel hooks are long, very long, and often as not eels swallowed them whole. To get them back out, the eels had to be killed.

Did you ever try to kill three or four eels and them coiling and twisting on a dewy grassy bank? I hated it then. I hate it still.

Grab an eel in one hand. Ignore the feel of the slime. Flail away with a stick in the other hand.

Bash. Wriggle. Squash. Squiggle. Bash. Wriggle. Bash. Bash. One last wriggle. Bash.

The end of his eel fishing came to me with great satisfaction.

My uncle was a printer. To keep the baited hooks from rising to the surface, he weighted the line with lead Linotype slugs.

One day a slug slipped off. Up rose a mass of worms. Down swooped a seagull. All hell broke loose!

The seagull snagged an eel hook. Its anguished cries attracted other gulls. They began to scream.

Soon there was one screeching cloud of gulls over a placid stretch of river in the middle of the town.

Soon the famous fourteen arches of the bridge were crowded.



"Sixteen! You can look it up!"

Look it up yourself. Fourteen arches!

"Fourteen! Sixteen! Get on with the story!"

Soon the bridge was crowded. From Kilbarron parish on one side to Innismacsaint parish on the other. How's that?

"That's better."

With people, all asking, "What's wrong with the poor gull?"

"Look, there's a line attached!"

For once, and one time only, I was glad the water bailiffs came along. They cut the line. The poor gull, now exhausted, was carried over the Falls and, when last seen, was heading in the general direction of Newfoundland, three thousand miles away.

My uncle fished for eels no more, and I was one happy boy.

"What about the bailiffs? Did they prosecute?"

Prosecute what? Prosecute who? I mean whom?

"Your uncle!"

For what? He wasn't there. There was a line on the bank, sure enough. But who put it there? It could have been there since Partholan's time.


And who would believe a bailiff with only circumstantial evidence?

"But you said--"

Me? I was only a child at the time. Not much older than Hughie. Surely you remember the poem:

"He's gone to school, wee Hughie,
And him not four;
You should have seen the look was on him
As he left the kitchen door.
He took a hand of Dinny,
And he took a hand of Dan;
With Joe's old coat upon him,
Och, the poor wee man!"
(An old Lagan verse)

I still hate eels.

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