Of the Centre and its Extremities
"Farewell to every white cascade from the Harbour to Belleek,
Just up at the corner of our street where the Sixteen Arches began was Rogans, a name
known, revered, respected, even sworn by, among the angling fraternity of England,
Scotland, Wales, and in later years, Minnesota, the New England States, by "the odd divil"
in Newfoundland, and by the self-styled "scourge of the River Wye", Charles Fisher, himself
a peculiar fish, a Welsh emigrant to Canada, schoolboy acquaintance of Dylan Thomas,
one-time confidant of a young Eartha Kitt, erstwhile adoptee of Spanish gypsies, who
sported a golden earring thirty years before the habit was adopted by a certain class of
men in certain walks of life, baseball players and the like, and a former colleague of mine
on the Hansard staff in the Canadian House of Commons.
And every pool where fins may rest, and ivy-shaded creek."
Fisher's appearance so early in the Rogan story is simply explained, he being one of the
very few in North America to know the value of a Rogan hand-made greenheart rod, the
ownership of which was on a par with that of a pair of matched Purdey shotguns, lovingly
treasured and lovingly handed down from one generation to another.
The Rogan establishment was somewhat recessed from the general line of houses. Its one big
window that let light into the shop was almost at ground level, so that from the outside a
passer-by had to stoop to see in, while a person inside looking out might only see passing
shoes, trouser cuffs, and the occasional well turned ankle and leg. The front wall itself
was curved, blending into the bridge, and easing the slow flow of pedestrian traffic in
The patriarch of the Rogan clan was James Rogan, who, to every young boy, gave the
appearance of a very biblical figure, short on temper, gruff in voice, and, on entering his
shop, to be addressed only when spoken to, with due deference and a display of good
manners. An elderly man, he had seen generations of anglers pass through his shop, buying
rods, flies, reels, casts, line, hooks, nets, gaffs, all the paraphernalia that made up
Walton's "compleat angler".
Lords, Peers, Right and Left Honourables, Colonels and Majors, retired and might as well
have been retired, a Romanian Baroness and a Hungarian Duchess, exotic one-time visitors
and dedicated annual patrons, and, of course, the townspeople themselves, were treated
alike by James Rogan. They might have an idea of exactly what they wanted to replenish
their store of hand-tied flies, but until James Rogan knew exactly where, and at what time
of the season they intended to use them, not one move would he make to fill their orders.
"That won't work", he would thunder, and a brow-beaten military man or Lord of the Realm,
if he had any sense, would accept the verdict and leave it to James to tie what pattern he
knew would meet the fishing conditions of place and time.
My oldest brother, Charlie, a devoted angler all his life, so devoted that if he couldn't
find a river or a lake to fish he would even resort to sea fishing off the Bull Wall at
Dollymount, north Dublin, knew and loved Rogan as only a true student of art loves and
respects an old master. Many were the stories he had to tell of fishing expeditions and
fishing lore, and hardly a one ended without a reference to the master, James Rogan, who
gave him one of the soundest educations in angling ever enjoyed by any man.
There was, however, one thing Charlie maintained all his life. "The old man", he said,
"could tie flies like no other mortal man, but he spent most of his time making rods.
Contrariwise, his son, Michael, could make the finest greenheart rod you could ever wish to
own, but was driven by changing times, first to split cane rods, eventually to ready-made
hollow tubing, and finally to tieing flies for the rest of his days".
During his lifetime, James's, that is, the Erne was a premier angling river, famous for its
salmon, prized for its fighting sea trout and freshwater brown trout, and not far away lay
the Drowes, and Lough Melvin, home of the gillaroo trout which, in some circles, was
thought to have a gizzard, the missing link between fish and fowl. This, however, was
It was good for himself that James died before the advent of the hydro-electric scheme,
with its huge dam that destroyed angling as he knew it. He had made a good living and,
what was better, left a fine reputation behind him. He also left a fairly sizeable estate,
divided between his two sons, Michael and Austin, and his daughter, Ada. It was just
pre-war, the boys were young, and the inheritance went soon, spent on sports cars and the
like. I seem to remember a German Audi tearing around the country, driven by Austin, before
it ended up in smithereens in some accident, and Austin lucky to escape with his life.
He later became a bus driver in Dublin.
Michael retained the family establishment at the Bridge End and developed a successful
business supplying custom-tied flies for specialty stores in America and elsewhere. His
wife also became adept at tieing flies, and both were often hard pressed to fill all the
orders they received. All these later patterns were for use on foreign waters. "Look at
them," Michael would exclaim, "purple, pink, yellow, brilliant blue, black, gaudy green.
No self-respecting Irish fish would be fooled for one minute by any of them".
Rogan's of Ballyshannon remains a famous establishment deserving of remembrance wherever
men and women practise the gentle art of fly-fishing.
Rogan's was midway along the Purt. At either end of the Purt lived two families whose
leading roles in the commerce of the town spanned a number of generations. At the east end
was Neely's Brook, Neely's Well, Neely's big house, Neely's immaculately kept circular lawn
in front of it, two iron gates breaking a long, high, stone wall, with one small wooden
door opening from a side lane, Neely's lane, into Neely's garden. The garden wall was twice
as high again, completely shutting out from public view a well tended oasis of fruit trees,
flowers, shrubs, vegetables, rows of carrots, potatoes, beetroot, scallions, cabbage,
cauliflower, thyme, rosemary, blackberry bushes, strawberries, raspberries, and potted
plants nurtured in glasshouses until strong enough to be taken outdoors in the early warmth
of approaching summer days.
It was a silent oasis, presided over by Neely's gardener, himself a silent man--I think his
first name was John--who walked without uttering a word, twice a day through the town, from
his home on the other side, down Main Street, across the Sixteen Arches, along the Purt, in
through the first iron gates, up the winding drive leading to the house and garden, and back
again in the evening at the close of a long day of back-breaking work. People who wanted
fresh vegetables would go the long way around to the lane, knock on the wooden door, and
wait for John to open it, let them in, and take their orders. It was only if a customer
expressed an interest in some plant, or shrub, or flower that John would open up and share
his knowledge of flowers and vegetables, gained over a lifetime of silent, dedicated toil
in Neely's garden.
If he was working at the far end of the garden, any potential customer had to wait outside
the door until he returned within hearing distance of the knocking. A person might spend
half an hour waiting but, as my uncle used to say, "the man who made time made plenty of
it", and the waiting was well worth the while, for each order, let us say of carrots, was
dug fresh out of the ground and any clinging earth washed or knocked off, before being
handed over in return for a sixpence, a shilling, or a florin, depending on the size of the
Because the garden belonged to the Neelys it didn't matter if there was any profit made on
a transaction, and if John threw in an odd cutting, or happened to hand out a handful of
strawberries to a wee boy or girl sent to get the carrots, sure it was only out of the
goodness of his own heart. Somehow the song, "In a Monastery Garden", an old concert
reliable, comes to mind whenever I recall Neely's garden.
At a remove of forty, fifty, and in some cases sixty years, the exact place occupied by old
Mr. Neely in the commerce of the town has escaped recall. He was retired by the time I
became fully conscious of him, and by that stage his manner of dress was what stamped him
indelibly in memory. He was almost, but not quite bald, a slender figure, frail in movement
but tough as nails, and he wore dark clothing, dark suit jackets of a cut long gone out of
fashion, and white wing-cut collars on his shirts, made rigid with starch. But for all his
seeming frailty he was a great salmon fisherman, and could stand for hours at a stretch on
the narrow cement catwalk a short distance above the Falls of Assaroe, making cast after
cast with his Rogan greenheart rod and Rogan hand-tied flies.
He and his sister lived alone, the last of their family to enjoy house, grounds, garden,
and lawn. His ending was a tragic one.
As pets he kept two big Alsatian dogs, known locally as an unpredictable breed, and
children were always admonished never to try to pet such a dog. True, they were great
watchdogs, guard dogs, strong brutes, but many a tale was told of their unreliability
because of a tendency to turn on their owners. A healthy master could beat them back into
submission, but Mr. Neely, who trusted his grounds and his person to the guardianship of
his two Alsatians, was nowhere near a match for them when that trust was broken, when they
turned on him savagely, pulled him to the ground, and inflicted mortal wounds on his old,
In later years the house, garden and grounds were bought by an up and coming family who
were involved in road building and construction work, and the last I saw was a two-ton
lorry parked right smack dab in the middle of what used to be one of the finest kept lawns
in the county, if not in the entire country.
Mr. Neely and his sister were soft touches for all kinds of charities, and he deserved a
more merciful end. His funeral was one of the biggest the town ever experienced.
At the other end of the Purt was the establishment of John Myles & Son, builders suppliers,
lumber yard, hardware merchants, and, until the advent of the Erne Scheme, suppliers of
electricity to Ballyshannon and the neighbouring seaside town of Bundoran. The electrical
generator was driven by hydro power from a small portion of the Falls of Assaroe, where the
river tumbled over the age-worn rock escarpment into the tidal estuary below.
Like two bookends at either end of the end of the Purt, the Neelys and the Myles's were
descendants of Protestant families whose honesty in business dealings with their mainly
Catholic customers was legendary. Straightforward, and possessing a sense of civic pride,
they grew in public respect as they successfully coped with the transition that the end of
English domination brought to the Twenty-Six Counties.
None was more exemplary than Major James Sproule "Mickey" Myles, M.C., T.D., whose house at
Portnasun overlooked the Erne estuary, the fabled isle of Inis Saimer, and was surrounded
by a high-walled enclosed garden famous for its roses, one of which, cut fresh daily, was
worn by the Major as a boutonniere. Canadian readers will remember one of their Prime
Ministers of a later generation, Pierre Elliott Trudeau, who had the same habit.
Major Myles was, quite literally, a major figure in the life of Ballyshannon, indeed of the
entire county. As a young man he had excelled in sports, particularly rugby. He was quick
footed, sure handed, and compensated with both for a lack in inches, he being of only
medium height and weight. One of his fondest memories was of touring Canada with an Irish
rugby side in the early 1900s. Not too much rugby was played in Canada at that time, but
ninety years later Canada's presence in the World Rugby Championship tournament is
testament to the growth in popularity of the game, and to the talent of its players.
The Major, who retained the army title after service in the Great War, in which his valor
won him the Military Cross, was a man of many parts. In addition to his interest in the
family business, his energy led him into captaining the local voluntary fire brigade, and
he became an expert pilot for the coasters and tramp steamers that made the dangerous
crossing of the bar and equally dangerous passage up the estuary to safe harbour below the
Falls, carrying cargoes of coal, lumber, and other imports. This was a task he performed
even at a late age. He was the last of his generation to do so.
His greatest contribution was to politics, that peculiar brand of Irish politics that
marked the period following the Troubles when Irish men and women of good will attempted to
heal the wounds opened by the Easter Rising, the Proclamation of the Republic, the 1916
executions, the Black and Tan outrages, the tragedy of civil war, and the partitioning of
the thirty-two counties of Ireland, severing six of the nine counties of Ulster from
political and economic union with an independent Ireland which still retained membership in
what was then the British Commonwealth of Nations.
Donegal County, by virtue of population, was entitled to elect five members to Dail
Eireann, the national Parliament in Dublin, and by virtue of demographics one of those
seats was always won by a Protestant. That member, by tradition, always eschewed party
politics and sat as an Independent, and that member, for years and years, was Major "Mickey"
Myles. It was a duty to which he gave himself without stint or measure. Happenstance
ensured that the bulk of his constituents lived, not in southwest Donegal where he lived,
but in the northeastern part, and to represent them properly he had to spend much time
travelling, first from Ballyshannon to meet with them, and then from Ballyshannon to the
Dail in Dublin. Driving such distances by car in the 1920s, 1930s and 1940s was a demanding
task, and for this the Major hired a chauffeur, a member of the Connolly family of
Now the Major was not a tall man. Lacking even more inches was his chauffeur, a man
completely devoted to his employer, and who, thereafter, was known only as "the wee Major".
The duo of the Major and "the wee Major" were a familiar sight to one and all, in Dublin
and Donegal, part of the natural and political landscape that seemed destined to endure for
as long as the Major lived.
But politics, party politics, is no respecter of tradition. Expedience dictated that
Donegal should be split into two constituencies, and, when the constituency boundary lines
were drawn, the vast majority of the Major's constituents lay in the new northeastern
constituency. An ambitious local resident seized the opportunity to insist that he could
better represent the area than an absentee T.D. residing in far away Ballyshannon. His name
was Sheldon. In a short time he became Mr. Sheldon, T.D., and Ballyshannon could no longer
boast of being home to a representative in the national Parliament.
The decision to split the constituency was blamed by the Major on de Valera. It was, he
felt, a personal insult, and there were many who viewed it the same way. Major J. S. Myles,
M.C., deserved better than to have his political life ended prematurely, and his
electricity generating station taken over by the national Electricity Supply Board.
Hat brim turned down over one eye, pipestem jutting upward to meet the other, a rose in
his lapel, a credit to his people from one end of Donegal to the other, the Major and "the
wee Major" remain unforgettable figures in the mind's eye as they march into the distance
The Catholic counterpart to the Myles entreprenurial drive could well be said to lie with
the Cassidy family of Erne View. Erne View was a well situated house on a rise overlooking
the river, some distance east of town, past Neely's demesne. The Cassidy name was a
respected one throughout south Donegal. The family owned The Barracks, a wholesale wine
and spirits establishment serving a wide clientele, a brother was proprietor of the Central
Hotel in Bundoran, and lands surrounding Erne View provided crops and grazing for the
family cattle business. Cassidy's butcher shop lay just at the bottom of Main Street, next
to Alfie McGonigle's, the drapers.
Cattle formed the backbone of the family's wealth, and "Shoulder the Wind" Cassidy was one
of its main supports. A hard-working cattle dealer, his nickname had been well and justly
earned. Days of driving cattle through pelting, wind-driven rain, year after year, had
worked their effect on his physique, so that even in calm days he strode with one shoulder
permanently slanted to the ground. He and his type were the material of Padraic Colum's
poem "The Drover":
To Meath of the pastures,
Whether "Shoulder the Wind" Cassidy ever thought of the King of Spain's daughter remains
unknown, but the concluding verse sums up his knowledge of the docile beasts he drove and
talked to on their way to "Meath of the pastures".
From wet hills by the sea
Through Leitrim and Longford,
Go my cattle and me.
I hear in the darkness
Their slipping and breathing--
I name them the by-ways
They're to pass without heeding;
Then the wet, winding roads,
Brown bogs with black water,
And my thoughts on white ships
And the King o' Spain's daughter.
I will bring you, my kine,
The two Miss Cassidys who occupied Erne View were inseparable maiden ladies, advancing
in age, destined to see much of their farmland become the bottom of a great lake created by
the Erne Scheme hydroelectric project, while a vast wall of cement rose to obliterate their
view upstream of the sunken winding banks of Erne.
Where there's grass to the knee,
But you'll think of scant croppings
Harsh with salt of the sea.
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