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A Politician's Story

Restore the Falls of Assaroe? Restore the (blank) Falls of (blank) Assaroe? He must be mad! Stark, staring, raving, mad!

That was my first impression. My second and third one too.

"In Donegal? In Donegal! No bloody votes in Donegal!"

I remember it well. That was back in '95. No. Maybe '96. The spring of the year, anyway.

Seems like only yesterday. That's the trouble with growing old. Something you think happened ten years ago, you find it was almost twenty years ago.

Which reminds me. "Fifty Years Ago." That was a weekly column in our local paper. Only the old people read it. Senior citizens. Golden agers. "Old codgers" we called them. Now I'm an old codger myself. One foot in the grave. Staring me in the face.

Oh! The Falls. You want to hear about the Falls. Well, you came to "the right man, the right party, the right time." God, I remember the slogan. When was it? The election of '02. That was it--'02. We went into it without much hope.

"Too long in the tooth," they said. Well, now, we showed them. We showed them, yes siree! "Too long in the tooth!" Whippersnappers! Barely whelped. Young curs.

"The right man, the right party, the right time," a stroke of genius! The wife's brother came up with it. Only good thing he ever came up with in his whole miserable existence. Dead now, God rest him.

"The Falls, sir."

Oh yes, the Falls. Young man, I don't usually do this, you know. Bit early in the day. But now I'm retired, what the heck. Join me.

Jameson or Paddy? Paddy it is. John Jameson's the man for me. Always was. Always will be. As my old grandfather used to say, "There's more business done over one glass of Jameson than over a full churn of buttermilk." He was right! And I'll give you a word of advice. Don't ever drown it in water. If you want to drink water, drink water. If you want to drink whiskey, drink whiskey. My own father, now, he was a great man for the Guinness--

"Sir, the Falls."

Yes, yes. The Falls. You don't have to keep reminding me. I'm not senile. Retired, yes, but not doting. No siree!

"I didn't mean--"

Of course you didn't. You youngsters never do. I don't need prodding. My memory's as keen as the next man's.

"Sir, that picture on the wall--"

I'll tell you about the picture. I'll tell you about it all. If you'll just bloody well be patient. Stop interrupting, and let me get at it!

As I was saying, it was back in '95--'96 anyway. Joe, he was my doorkeeper--you wouldn't remember Joe now. You're too young. Joe's long gone. A grand chap, Joe. Died the year he retired, God rest him. I've seen it happen a lot. Stop working. Next stop, Glasnevin.

Anyway, Joe--I used to call him my doorkeeper. My wee joke. He didn't like it. Minister's executive assistant! A grand ring to it. Made him feel important. But doorkeeper was what it was. Keep the rabble out. That's what it was. Protect my precious time. That's what it was.

My God! Young people, you media people especially, can't imagine the pressures on a minister's time. You want it now. You want it yesterday! God of Almighty, if you only knew the hours we put in.

You see us in the Dáil. Answering questions. "Reading answers prepared by his staff." Oh yes. I've heard it said. Many a time. "Reading speeches prepared by his staff." Opening festivals. Cutting ribbons. Opening factories.

Which reminds me, did I ever tell you about the opening of the fish factory down at Killybegs when your man pushed the wrong button and flooded the place with gas? Great gas that was! Had to run like billy-oh!

"Sir, please, the Falls!"

Amn't I getting to it? Will you hold your whist a while and let me tell it in my own way? Now, where was I? Joe. Yes, Joe.

Joe comes dashing in one morning with a grin on his face as wide as O'Connell Bridge.

"Minister," says he, "you won't believe this!"

"Believe what?" says I.

"Some eejit of an author's written a book," says he.

"Well, now," says I, "that's not unusual. Eejits are writing books all the time."

Which reminds me, did you see that hatchet job's just come out on--

"Please, sir. My time's running short. That's something we can discuss another day. This program is due on Friday night. We're depending on it. The whole station's depending on it. We've got Greenpeace, and Earth Watch, and Euroviron, and you're the key to the whole ball of wax."

Here, have another ball o' malt. Paddy, isn't it? I'll be good. I'll go quietly. No more digressions. That was a great word away back when. "The Minister is digressing." Sure I heard that thrown at me many's the time. "Digressing, am I? I'm giving the Deputy some background. I'm giving the Deputy more information than his mental capabilities can absorb." And then the row would start!

But I'll be good.

What had Joe in a dither was the press clipping in his hand. "Restore Historic Falls of Assaroe" was the heading. "Author's Book Sparks Crusade!"

Another bloody crusade! That's all we needed. And another election coming up.

Damn, damn, damn, damn, damn! I remember me rising and pacing the office.

"Take the grin off your face, Joe. This could get serious. If we let it."

"If." That's the word. That's what a politician spends his life measuring. "If I do this, what will be the consequences?" The result he knows. The consequences are what matter.

"To hell with results; tell me the consequences." That was the old Taoiseach's credo. If you don't know that, young man, you don't know anything. That was how he made his mark. That was how we stayed in office.

"Consequences, sir?"

Votes! The only coin in the realm of politics. If I do this, will we lose any votes? If I do that, will we gain any votes? If I do nothing, will we hold what we've got? "The infinite void of conjecture," to borrow a phrase from our own Edmund Burke.

That was the first question and, at the time, the only question. I knew no more votes could be squeezed out of Donegal. One seat at most. And what was being proposed would cost a pile of punts.

Job creation? Yes. For how many? For how long? I could see the questions coming from Finance.

But this wasn't just a money job. I'd been in Donegal myself. I'd crossed the bridge at Ballyshannon. I'd seen the long-dry river bed. I knew the old eyesore from dam to estuary. "The Winding Banks of Erne" that once appeared in every text book meant nothing any more.

I still remembered a few lines.

"No more on pleasant evenings we'll saunter down the Mall,
When the trout is rising to the fly, the salmon to the fall."


"The music of the waterfall, the mirror of the tide,
When all the green-hill'd harbour is filled from side to side."

Now some eejit--I'm quoting Joe, remember--wanted to restore the Falls of Assaroe.

"The Erne at its highest flood I dashed across unseen
And there was lightning in my blood, my dark Rosaleen."

I remembered Mangan.

Damn, damn, damn, damn, damn!

Then Ferguson came crowding in.

I paced faster and faster, an old habit of mine. The brain was ticking. I could feel the appeal. Even now to talk about it, that feeling comes back. One part of me responded to an inner spirit urge. But the consequences, the consequences!

Dammit, I'm getting excited again. You'll take a--No? Well, now, I'll just add a wee drop. There now. That's better.

"The picture, sir!"

Will you wait! I'm coming to it!

There I was, on the proverbial horns. If I did nothing, would a crusade grow? If a crusade grew, would it spread across the country? If it spread across the country, what would be the consequences? Would votes leach away?

Heritage. A touchy subject. Environment. Touchier still. There was no thought of the environment when the Erne Scheme went in. Then it was jobs, jobs, jobs. And the jobs were gone, years and years and years ago. Now all that remained was an eyesore.

But spend money to restore the Falls of Assaroe? How much? What lasting benefit? The hard-nosed questions of Finance!

Then a glimmer of a thought. Just the faintest little gleam.

"Joe," says I, "get me the top environmental people. Our own first, the Euro's next. Get me our top tourist people. Get me our top marine people, our fish scientists. And get me our army engineers.

"A committee's what I want. If there's going to be a crusade, Joe, we, Joe, are going to lead it! And if there's not, a committee's the place to bury it!"

Just like that. Well maybe not that very minute. Maybe not that very day, or week, or month. But the germ of the idea was already there.

Was it feasible? That was the first question. Could the job be done? Well, dammit man, to my surprise, that was the easiest one.

A trench with two bumps. As simple as that. And no danger to the dam. No danger of flooding, no danger of spilling, no loss of power. "Bob's your uncle, and Fanny's your aunt!" God, I haven't heard that one in a long time. It was a great saying of an uncle of mine.

All my people were great for sayings. My aunt Sally now, she had this--


Damn! There I go again. Another digression, another transgression. Just hold your horses, hold your horses.

Damage to the dam. That was what people first feared. But your man had thought of that. What he was proposing posed no damage to dam, or to man. Big Dan saw that straight away.

You remember Dan? A straight shooter, Dan. An honest man. A respected man. Looked you straight in the eye. Nobody ever made a monkey of Dan. Try to pull the wool over Dan's eyes, and somehow he always found out. That was Dan.

God rest him. You remember his funeral? Pissing rain. Got drenched myself and took to me bed. Shivering and sweating by turns. Thought I was a gonner, but the punch pulled me through. Hot punch. That's the only time you mix water with whiskey. Boiling water. Brown sugar and cloves--

"My mother said the same, sir, but the picture--"

Dammit man, can't you let me finish? We'd be finished long ago if you wouldn't keep interrupting!

I was telling you about Dan, in case you've forgotten. Dan, you see, in his young days spent time in the States. Somewhere down south. And there he saw a strange sight. A whole river reversed. To its original bed. By the United States Army Corps of Engineers, he said. Could that work here?

Well, between one thing and another, in the heel of the hunt they agreed a trench could be cut without hurting the dam. With two large bumps. There's a technical name for them, and you'll have to get it from someone else.

It could be done. That was the main thing.

Was it prudent? Judge for yourself. The answer's there for all to see. But the arguments we had! Thinking of them makes me thirsty. I'll have another gargle. That's another thing about whiskey. It's death on germs. Just tongue it around in your mouth--All right, all right, all right!

I do take credit for one thing. You know those slabs of white stone you see like marble, below the foot bridge, the bridge that's built just above the restored Falls, they were my idea, mine alone.

And the footbridge itself? The easiest part of the job! Ten yards back from the brink, its supports were sunk in dry rock before the river danced once more to the music of the Falls.

Take a look at it now. Fourteen feet wide, and, when the salmon are running, crowded with tourists. Both car parks filled.

See the viewing platforms on either side, with their comfort stations--we used to call them public conveniences--and the souvenir stands. You just won't believe what people will buy! Postcards, t-shirts, anything with Assaroe on it. Local stuff, too.

When the chartered bus tours stop at the Falls, it's as much as their guides can do to cajole their sightseers back on board.

Aye, the story of the Falls is a powerful one.

Listen to the children when the salmon run is on. "I see one, Mammy, I see one!" "Look, Daddy, look! Over here. There's three; there's four!" I'm an old curmudgeon, sure enough. But watch those children's eyes, and look at their parents too.

The salmon are something to see. Tourists come from far and wide. It's become a summer ritual. The nightly sound and light show is something else again. It came later, and that's another story.

"The picture, sir."

The picture. Yes, the picture. Here, take a good look. Is your camera focused right?

That's the original. Sure, you've seen it reproduced, time and time again. Around the world it goes, on posters and in brochures. Travel magazines in far-away places have had it on their covers. But that's the original.

If you've got the time, I'll tell you the story. Just don't talk in the middle of it. That gets my goat. That rises my dander. That gets me going. I hate it when people interrupt.

Let's see now. Where did I get to? The trench. The white stones. The sound and light. Sure I'm leaving out the biggest part of all. How to pay for it. That was a hard one.

Everybody was for it. But nobody wanted to pay for it. That's often the way.

Your man, the eejit, as Joe called him--mind you, it wasn't me, it was Joe--the eejit who wrote the book, he felt so much about it he'd already decided to donate his book sales as seed money. Maybe Joe had it right--an eejit. Giving up royalties like that. Throwing money after water it was. Not just figuratively. Literally.

Somehow the idea caught on. As you know, a trust was established, the Assaroe Trust. Like our own Inland Fisheries Trust. And the call went out, "Restore the Falls of Assaroe." "Bring back the Salmon Leap to Ballyshannon."

It struck a chord, a responsive chord. Little by little, clipping by clipping, newspaper by newspaper, magazine by magazine, radio news and interviews, talk show by talk show, Internet by Internet news group--didn't your man go and put it on the Internet where it couldn't be buried--TV documentary by TV documentary, the word spread far and wide. And a springing salmon, lightning in its tail, was the logo for it all.

From the schools, from the universities, from the widely flung Irish emigrants and their descendants, from Canada, the United States, from Australia, from New Zealand, from the Middle East, from Central Europe, Germany, France, Switzerland, Poland, Denmark, Italy, the Netherlands, from Norway, Sweden, Finland, from England, from Scotland, from Malaysia and far away Japan, came a wave of support.

Had there been a "Save the Salmon Leap" campaign when the Erne Scheme first went in--ach sure, what's the use of talk like that? There was no thought of environment or heritage in those times. No thought of what might be lost to coming generations. But now there was a chance to undo the past, to give new meaning to our Irish heritage as a people who care for our own land and our own history.

My God, I'm beginning to sound like the old pol I once was! Maybe I'm old now but, by God, when I get going, there's no stopping me! The old words flow--


Damn, damn, damn, damn, damn!

To cut a long story short, and you haven't heard the half of it--how that Dublin TD got mixed up in it, his wife's people were from Donegal, you know--and the "Conscience of Cork", too. He must have remembered Kinsale and the debt owed to O'Donnell and O'Neill. Didn't the Taoiseach himself climb on board? Maybe I had something myself to do with that--I'm not saying so, mind you--but that clinched it.

The next EU budget included an appropriation for the Falls of Assaroe!

And the consequences were good, very good.

"The picture, sir. The picture!"

The picture competition was the culmination of it all. When the trench was cut, that was in April. The Falls of Assaroe, the dried-up Falls of Assaroe, began to weep. At first a mere trickle, a barely heard tinkle. Then the broad river spread. The water poured down, with a rush and a gush. From the lip of the Falls a crescendo cascaded. Spray shone in sunshine, and hearts danced in springtime.

Local people flocked to see the sight. Brought tears to the eyes of the older ones. People under fifty saw what was but a memory in their parents' minds. 'Twas Bord Failte's idea to sponsor the contest. Photographers came from all arts and parts. Professionals and amateurs, they flocked down the Mall, and crowded Portnasun. To snap the first salmon springing up Assaroe!

That's the winning picture. That's the original. Isn't it a grand sight? A sight to remember for years! And there's something else, too. Look. Up in the sky. Just where I'm pointing. That bird, that osprey, the Hawk of the Erne!

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