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River Requiem
The Beauty and the Wonder of the Erne
Charlie Ward

It is a weird and eerie thing to write about a fifth of myself that lies drowned deep in thirty fathoms of water, nothing on the gunmetal surface to point at and say, "I remember."

Somewhere down there, far below in the murk and mud, the calcined stumps of trees, and the Dantesque maze of matted twigs and rotted logs, there once was sunshine, and groves of hazel and birch, and glinting kingfishers, and a saint walked.

Down there I first became aware of my mother, not as a mother, not as a kind of extension of my childhood self but as a separate person, a something else, puzzling, queer. Thick shining auburn hair piled high, she lazed in the trembling grass on the lawn beside the driveway gates of Stonewold, graceful in a long skirt and snowy-white cambric blouse, on a heat-drenched summer day. A young woman, mother, tickling three-year-old Barry with a blade of grass, or searching among the stems for a cricking grasshopper. God bless women who can still be children to children.

Knifing back through the clutter of time, I can see the group and feel again that moment of stillness that comes sometimes in childhood when a new thought strikes; the young boy still maternally tied by some undefined, invisible cord; the young woman, fresh laundered and sweetly smelling of starch; my brown, wondering self reaching into consciousness.

There's a mad jingle that keeps running like a demoniac Greek chorus through my mind: "Captain, can 'ee hear me there below?"

A saint walked there--who else but Colmcille? Once on a day when hungry, coming down the Fisherman's Path from the Captain's Rock, the saint saw a man with a pile of glittering salmon. Asking for alms for the sake of Our Lady, Colmcille was abruptly told to go and work for his living. Sharp-tempered at the best of times, it was not his best of days, and he cursed the fisherman "by hanging, by drowning, by fire and water". He also cursed the salmon throw that was ever after known down to my own childhood as the Cursed Throw.

That evening the uncharitable fisherman's salmon fly hooked up in a tree. He climbed up, slipped, and in the words of the legend, "his neckcloth performed the function of a hempen cravat; the fire he lighted to broil the fish consumed the base of the tree, and the whole lot bent forward into the stream so that the body bobbed up and down in the current. He died by hanging, by drowning, by fire and water, and not a fish ever rose in the Cursed Throw since". Or ever will again, down in the deep where the Cursed Throw now lies.

That is one of the Colmcille legends of the Erne, but how can you make a legend live if you cannot show where it grew? Or will there be new legends of the Erne, legends of turbines and generators, of grids and tailraces? And who will be their saint?

It was not just the rocks and the stones, the trees and the moving water that made the river; there was the river life. Water rats are not lovable creatures, unless you have the gift of Francis of Assisi, but many a rat plopping at night under the river bank brought a rueful smile after I had been casting assiduously to the sound that was so like a trout rising.

I watched a stoat's funeral. It was up at the Old Mill above Laputa, just before dark. Two-by-two they marched along the top of a wide, low wall, not twenty feet from me. Then came four with the corpse upside down between them, a leg in each sharp-toothed mouth.

Ten more, two-by-two, followed, all making a low, whimpering, keening sound. The cortege, numbering about thirty or forty, disappeared into the culvert covering the old millrace, and went out of my life forever. Do stoats have communal cemeteries as elephants are reputed to have?

The smoky blue of a planing heron, the lapis-lazuli streak of a kingfisher, the stubborn old badger that challenged me on the Fisherman's Path, all played their formative part.

There was a rookery down there among the trees at Camlin. Camlin? Somehow in the tempestuous history of the Ford of Seadna, a little bit of Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table fluttered in from Cornwall and settled like a wind-blown seed on the banks of the Erne. The family were Tredennicks, and they featured early in the garrison records of he old borough of Ballyshannon. In my youth, only a caretaker lived there, but those magic words, Camlin and Tredennick, took me a step further on the road to living, jostling the Arthurian saga with that of our own Red Branch of Ulster, and from there down a medieval road of chivalry with its rigid codes, through European literature and history to the social ethics of today.

I still have a souvenir of Camlin. It is funny the things that accumulate along river banks. This one is an early French edition of "Ecole de Scandale" by Madame de Genlis, from the house's great library.

Beneath the rookery I struggled through Ruskin's "Sesame and Lilies", distracted by the parliamentary gabble of the aldermanic birds. I looked often at the great uninhabited crenellated home, and wondered if its architecture would have pleased the aesthetics of Ruskin. It might, for although Camlin was not great building art, set among its own sycamore and chestnuts and wheeling drive, it created its own harmonies.

Camlin of the Tredennicks and Stonewold of the Crawfords were stripped by the house knackers before the rising waters of the dammed river engulfed them--presumably for ever.

Poor Willie Allingham little knew how transient a thing he was writing when he wrote:

"The thrush will call through Camlin groves,
The livelong summer day."
On the Erne there was no difficulty at all in identifying with Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn or, if you stretched it a bit, with the Swiss Family Robinson. How innocent were our Batmen and Dan Dares in those days! Dad, who never got over the idea that I was some kind of incipient Mark Twain, insisted that some day a good boy's river-book with an Irish setting would have to be written. There was one, of a kind, "Iasgaireacht Seamus Bhig", by an elfin little Derry man who later tried to teach me Irish, Professor James Craig. For me it is wrenching enough to try to evoke the Erne here with reference points that no longer exist, without the agony of launching into bookform.

My father was wont to say there are two kinds of people--river people and the rest. Something of the bubbling effervescence and whimsy of water that moves in its own freedoms communicate themselves to bank dwellers. What kind of people will two-gun metal, concrete-girt lakes breed?

Will they be as regimented and functional as the dams?

Old vanished Father Erne, look now where you are leading me by the hand.

That most rambunctious of pious men, Colmcille, was in better mood on another day. Passing the Rose Isle Fall below the Great Pool of Belleek he grieved at the sight of salmon bloodily battering their sides mounting and driving over the sharp shelf of rock. By prayer, Colm caused a part of the rock to fall away to ease the passage of the fish, and The Rose Isle Throw became a famous salmon beat on the Erne. There's a moral here somewhere. The fish, perhaps, would have been bruised but safer from anglers had the saint left the rock alone. And if Comcille's "smashing" prayer were known today, the E.S.B. might have saved thousands of pounds spent on buying gelignite.

Each salmon beat on the Erne was named, and some of the names and the mystery of their creation fascinate me. Starting down the river from Belleek there was the Great Pool of Belleek, the Rose Isle Throw, the Monk's Ford and the Point of the Mullins. The next, named by some unknown and long-dead wit, was the Bank of Ireland. Then came the Black Rock, the Sally Bush, Tail of the Island, Fox's Throw, Moss Row (Mois Ruadh), the Earl's Throw--was this Red Hugh, Earl of Tirconaill?), the Captain's Throw, the Cursed Throw, Grass Guard, Reader's Throw, the Housekeeper's Widow (who the housekeeper and why the widow, with not a house in sight?), Cos na Honna (easy from the Irish), Kathleen's Falls, the Eel Weir, Ballyshannon Bridge, and the Great Pool of Ballyshannon. This list was published about 1850, but there were others not given--Kelly's Bank, the Well Field, and the Tanyard.

This whole drowned valley, including its neighbourhood, was a loosely-knit complex of religious hermitry and Patrician chapels at the time of Colmcille, and later became the peculiar water garden of the Bernardine Cistercians and Friars Minor. It was completely natural that one of the strategic fords that spanned the Erne between Belleek and Ballyshannon should have been called the Monk's Ford. But why on earth the Housekeeper's Widow, and what was the story? Time and water have plunged the answer into utter obscurity.

What else is down there apart from the young Charlie Ward and the shade of a saint walking the Fisherman's Path? The crew was motley; the rampaging Niall Og O'Neill on his way in 1398 to pillage the Monastery of Assaroe; Sir Conyers Clifford in 1597 to attack and be routed by the O'Donnells at Ballyshannon Castle; Red Hugh's wandering bard, Owen Roe Mac an Bhaird. Tens of thousands walked there in as many years, and one was that pre-history man who dropped a knife in the Ford of Seadna, to have it picked up in our own times, and listed as unique in the National Museum in Dublin.

Two lovers, Sile O'Donnell and Roderick McGuire, met tragedy down there at the hands of Shane O'Neill, who killed Roddy and carried off Sile to a future that still awaits a dramatist. And if he had not spent so much time pent up as a hostage in Dublin Castle, the young Red Hugh would have carelessly gone through the turmoil of adolescence to understanding, along the river walks of Erne, and might have eroded that little spot of bitterness from his nature that led finally to defeat.

Bolts from an arquebus, spears and arrows, leaden bullets and hard round iron shot lay deep among the gravel redds on which the salmon spawned, missiles that brought their own pageantry of death to those three miles of water. A small iron canonball fished out of a pool was my most treasured possession for years.

Down those paths at some time or other in history went great saints, rogues, vagabonds and heroes, bagmen and packmen, and soldiers fighting for the promise of a few pence that few lived to receive, never mind enjoy; people who walked tall, head high with hope; people numb in despair, careful people, careless laughing people--and the badgers, and the rabbits, and the stoats.

All their bones lie down there, the remnants of tens of thousands of years; bones of the dolmen men who were gone before Parthalon landed on the Island of Saimer in the Erne estuary; of the iron men who worked the knobs of surface ore lying upstream at Castlecaldwell; bones of anchorites who built sod and wattle cells along the banks in the early fever of conversion; bones tangled and broken from the writhing battles that, century after century, marked the river fords; bones of the old dying in wisdom, sanctity and grace; bones of others dying of illness or hunger, of violence, or of just losing the will to live.

What a shock they are due at Resurrection when, bursting from long forgotten tombs, they confront the mud, the murk, and the black water of progress in our day.

There goes that damn jingle again: "Captain, can 'ee hear me down below?"

The man sitting on the eel-weir below Belleek in the dusk of an August evening was dressed for the part; fly-decked hat, rough tweed hacking jacket, and the then fashionable plus-fours. Beside him lay a new varnished fishing creel, a wicker picnic basket, and the rod, dangling unprofessionally from his hands, must have been fresh from Hardy's of Alnwick. The rod was the false note.

"Catch many?" he called.

I showed him the dozen trout taken on the walk up the south bank from Ballyshannon.

"That's a fine catch. Care for a drink, lad?"

He waited for no answer, produced a half-pint silver flask, and poured a shaky dollop into a picnic cup. The raw whisky, not Irish whiskey, stung my throat and watered my eyes.

His own share finished the flask, and in the growing dark we relaxed into that kind of cliche-ridden conversation that later I came to know as the conventional backbone of the English merchant middle-class. He produced a fresh, unopened bottle from the basket, and I refused his offer. The Belleek weir was no place for unsteady feet in the dark.

Making heavy inroads on the bottle, he erupted suddenly. "I'm no dam' angler, just a bloody alcoholic. Sister's idea, confound the woman. Best dam' idea she ever had. Thought fishing just the thing to keep me away from the bottle--out here sittin' on the what-you-call-it, miles away from temptation. So there you are, young fellow. We sell up and here I am.

"Sister's sixteen stone and built like a fallow sow; she can't get around much. If she set foot on this yoke we're sitting on, it would take the Brigade of Guards to hoist her off.

"No time at all an' I catch on quick--bring a bottle or two, and no one down here to play "I spy." Keep me away from the bottle? Dammit, young fellow, it's doing better--keeping me away from me sister, bless her little half-stone heart...."

I got him off the weir with a struggle.

Somehow an eel weir seems a peculiar place to make a first faltering acquaintanceship with the psychiatry of alcoholism. I often wonder what happened to him.

Two friends I had on the river, Matty Mulhern, and Murray the barber, from Ballyshannon, who had a strong and bitter feud over a fishing stand. There was a flagstone in the river at the back of Stonwold which Matty claimed was his stand, but Murray challenged the right.

Often I watched them perched precariously on the flag, shoulder to bumping shoulder, in a grim. unforgiving silence. One night on the edge of dark, Murray loaded the top of his line with razor blades and, casting out over Matty, cut to ribbons the new 3 double-taper that was Matty's pride and joy.

The feud ended only when Murray died--and Matty fished on for years, missing him.

On a night when my first love broke a date, in mad reaction I grabbed my uncle's trout rod and landing net and walked, and walked, and walked the river bank to Ednagor. There, calmer, a plop in the middle of the river caught my attention. I was no angler then, and my first apprentice cast was aimed at a rock in the stream beside which the old trout was lazily sucking down wall flies. My fly snarled in the skim of moss crowning the stone, and I pulled and tugged. Finally it came loose, fell down the side, and was promptly taken by the fish.

All hell broke loose. The line had tangled through the top loop of the rod and the fish could not run. He sulked on the bottom, and by dint of pulling and hauling I skull-dragged him to the net. But the net had been lying unused in the hallstand for years and was rotten. The trout went straight out through the bottom and took off downriver in the general direction of the Atlantic Ocean and America.

I wrote my first story on that trout under the title "The Trout That Broke Its Neck on the Statue of Liberty", and earned a spectacular 250 dollars from a top-rank American magazine. It also made me into a fisherman, and poetic justice is satisfied. The girl who broke the date is now an angling widow, my angling widow. And who can blame me? Unfortunately, we can never relive our sweet moments along the drowned banks of Erne.

Ednagor? Of all the Erne this was the most breath-takingly lovely stretch. The Boyles lived there, a river-farming family.

A fifth of me is down there beneath that water, the growing fifth, and the twin lakes that bury it are the headstones.

Owen Roe Mac an Bhaird, who went with Red Hugh into exile, had a line to express it:

"'Twere long before, around a grave in green Tirconaill,
One could find such loneliness."
The fifth has always been the magical thing, and the youthful fifth the most magical of all; in the paintings of the Masters the fifth, or the quintessence, was the Golden Number. In Ireland the summum of all things Celtic was the five-fifths of the country; and in the north of Scotland there was a saying until quite recently around Findhorn (Fionn Eireann--White Ireland): "There are five fifths in Ireland and five fifths in Ireland's Rath, but better one fifth in Ireland than the five fifths of Ireland's Rath". Ireland's Rath is the area around the top waters of the Findhorn high in the Grampian plateau, a place of bog and barrenness.

My child asks me about my fifth and unconsciously tears the scab from the wound. How do I explain to her that down there, somewhere under ninety-five feet of expressionless water, blue kingfishers darted through sunlit hazels, and in the trembling grass of a great home's driveway all the mothers of Heaven and earth, in one intuitive moment, stood revealed?

Charles Ward

Note: My brother, Charlie, wrote this requiem shortly after the Erne River suffered environmental desecration in the 1950s caused by the construction of a hydro-electric project. Every description, every word, rings true, from the heat-drenched summer day at Stonewold with mother and his younger brother Barry, to his first love--even to the landing net grabbed from the iron hallstand at home in "the Purt" of Ballyshannon. He died in 1980--J.W.

Lizzie, Charlie and Barry Ward
Click for larger image

"God bless women who can still be children to children." A photograph of the trio, taken two years prior to that memorable afternoon which made such a childhood impression on Charlie, shows Barry sitting on his mother's knee, and Charlie standing beside her.


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