The Beauty and the Wonder of the Erne
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
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
"The thrush will call through Camlin groves,
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.
The livelong summer day."
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
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
"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
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
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
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
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
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
"'Twere long before, around a grave in green Tirconaill,
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.
One could find
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.
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
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