Fly-fishhing in the land of my ancestors
In 2007, Dottie and I traveled to the land of my forefathers. It was one of those "Trip of a lifetime" kind of things. I planned it with a sense that it was something that must be done. Images of myself, fly rod in hand, wading in a lovely river flowing through a glorious green landscape haunted my waking dreams. In this, I was probably channeling Norman Maclean.
I am haunted by waters." – Norman Maclean, A River Runs Through It
We went to Ireland. I found Ireland's waters and waded them.
In an impossibly beautiful setting in the wild lands of Connemara on the western side of the island, I hooked a large Atlantic salmon, and using my 5 weight trout rod, fought it for more than 20 minutes before my hook slipped out of its mouth just as I was bringing it to my ghillie's net. But later that same day a price was paid for living my dream.
Part I - Dublin
The Irish Rebellion, the Easter Rising of 1916, was the one that finally gave the Irish people back most of their country from the English.
Dublin, the city in which our visit to Ireland began, was one of the major stages on which this event played. On Monday, April 24, 1916, the day after Easter, a group of men under the leadership of James Connolly and Patrick Pearse marched through the city streets to the post office. Pearse, a poet, read a simple declaration:
"Irishmen and Irishwomen, in the name of God and of the dead generations from which she receives her old tradition of nationhood, Ireland, through us, summons her children to her flag and strikes for her freedom."
Although the rebels held out for a while, they were eventually forced to surrender. Pearse, Connolly argued for terms that allowed the rank and file of their men to be spared, but they and a few other leaders would be executed.
Several weeks later they were shot. Connolly had been so badly wounded in the battle at the post office, that he had to be propped up in a chair to be executed. It was this sacrifice that finally tipped the scales and world opinion against the British. The Irish won their freedom.
I tell you this not because I went to Ireland to write about Irish history, but because to appreciate what Ireland is today, one needs to have at least some knowledge of how its people struggled under various forms of tyranny and tragedy. It is a long and painful story, and Dublin was a good part of it.
The city is more "Irish" today than it was for most of its existence.
Until 500 AD, it was a crossroads and remained so until 837 when the Norsemen invaded.
Dublin was dominated by Anglo-Normans, and its people, politics and religious preferences were more English than the rest of the country.
In fact, it was consider the place that was safe from the wilder Irish people who lived in the countryside. This that gave rise to the expression "beyond the Pale," the Pale being and area from Dublin outward into the countryside as far as Dublin's authority (and protection) was effective.
Today, it is a bustling city, with a vibrant, increasingly European atmosphere reflecting confidence in the future, while celebrating the preservation of the Irish culture after centuries of repression.
Dottie and I visited a few tourist spots, including the Guinness brewery. I love Guinness, and trained for the trip by drinking at least a pint a day.
Beautiful buildings from Dublin's Golden Age (18th Century) are still plentiful. We went through Trinity College and saw Ireland's greatest treasure – the Book of Kells. We lounged on St. Stephens Green and watched a free open-air presentation of a Shakespeare comedy.
There are many wonderful museums and historical sites in Dublin, and I'd like to say we saw them all, but I regret we didn't. Eager to spend more time fishing, I failed to schedule enough city time.
Part II - Beyond the Pale
In Dublin’s early years, well-worn paths and trails led out toward the edge of the Pale in all directions. At many points other paths and trails intersected them. All of these were the means by which Irish people brought their trade goods, including cattle and horses, to market.
Fast-forward to the 21st century and you will find that these paths have been improved - paved.
Dottie and I had arranged for a rental car with automatic transmission, figuring that driving on the left hand side of the road from a steering wheel on the right hand side of the car was enough of a challenge without learning to shift gears left-handed.
As it was, every time we signaled a turn, we turned on the windshield wipers instead of the turn indicator.
In Dublin, the care rental agent offered us a car obviously reserved for Americans. It was so scarred and battered that during the walk-around inspection the agent gave up and marked all sides as nicked, dented or scratched. This turned out to be a good thing.
The Brits (and Irish) drive on the left side of the road, a tradition that dates back to travel in the Middle Ages when passing strangers kept each other on their right (sword) hand as they passed.
The wearing of swords is past and most of the rest of the world drives on the right. Today, there is a new threat in the UK and Ireland – American drivers. When we drive in Britain and Ireland, we are a great danger to them. Of course, when they drive here in the USA, the role is reversed.
It's not all our fault. The roads in Ireland are barely wide enough for one car let alone two heading towards each other.
Dottie and I traded off driving on our first day out of Dublin heading south toward Kilkenny. After getting lost on the outskirts of Dublin, we found the correct road. It started out sufficiently wide enough, but kept getting narrower as we left the city behind.
By the time I took over the steering wheel, it was the width of a cow trail. While the cows seemed nonplussed, I was showing severe signs of stress.
The countryside was green and beautiful, or so it seemed out of the corner of my eye. It was all I could do to keep from sideswiping the stone fences, trees and pedestrians on my left as I tried to avoid ramming the trucks and cars coming at me from straight ahead.
While rounding a curve near a little village, I encountered a large truck parked half on the road. Just as I tried to move around it, a car came at me from the other direction.
My expletive was drowned out by the sound of metal on metal, the kind made by a truck-bed gouging another long and ugly scar on the left side of our rental car.
I was just recovering from that scrape when a gasoline truck came toward me at 50 miles per hour. I hit the break and pulled as far to the left as I could, missing the truck on my right, but not the rock fence on my left, thus adding yet another blemish to our blessedly blemished vehicle.
After that, Dottie insisted on doing all of the driving. I was happy to let her.
Pt. IV - So many pretty places
When planning a trip to Ireland, the challenge is in an over abundance of choices – So many beautiful place to visit, so little time.
My choices were based on the close proximity of fishable rivers. Our journey south from Dublin took us to County Kilkenny and the luxurious Mt. Juliet Conrad resort. It was billed as one of the "Great Fishing Houses" of Ireland, but if my experience any indication, the fishing is great no longer.
It is, however, a beautiful golf resort and caters to a high-end clientele. Part of the estate on which it sits was once devoted to the raising of racehorses and, in fact, part of the adjoining property is still used for that purpose. It is the only place we've ever been where the paintings over the fireplace were of famous racehorses, rather than a prominent family member.
For me, the elegance and golfing were wasted. I would have rather stayed in a local B&B and rubbed elbows with the locals at a pub. A fancy resort is not a place where one gets a feeling for the country. I made the choice to gain access to good fishing. I learned too late that there are other ways to get that access without isolating yourself in enclaves reserved for the wealthy.
After a few nights at Mt. Juliet we navigated more country roads south and west of Kilkenny to County Cork and Ballyvolane House. Here, hidden in the dense woods and surrounded by several acres of gardens, ponds and pasture, is a Georgian manor house that immediately takes visitors back at least a century. A family, operation, the current owner/operators Justin and Jenny Greene, are warm and gracious hosts, and the atmosphere is warm, relaxing and elegant in a 19th Century, country-gentleman's kind of way.
The house is decorated in a rich collection of family heirlooms and antiques. And the guest rooms are huge and overlook a garden of several acres filled with Rhododendrons, Azaleas and trees.
Dinners are served family style and provide an opportunity to meet and talk with other guests. I chose Ballyvolane because it was close to the Blackwater River, one of Ireland's best salmon streams, but as luck would have it, a two-week stretch without rain had the left it too low and clear to be any good. I fished one day nevertheless, but only caught a few small trout.
Ballyvolane is one of those places to which we would return. Both Dottie and I would highly recommend it.
From County Cork, we drove north, a long, long way, through Tipperary, and then west of Galway to the wild and beautiful western reaches of Connemara where another of Ireland's great fishing houses actually lived up to its designation.
Built in the 18th Century, Ballynahinch Castle rises over the Owenmore River on 40 wooded acres just a few miles from the Atlantic Ocean. The river is loaded with salmon, the accommodations are luxurious and the hospitality is first class. Breathtaking scenery surrounded Dottie and I as we followed the narrow winding road from Galway toward the coast. The castle wasn't hard to find, because there are few roads and fewer buildings of any size in that part of Ireland. Our room was virtually on the river and a floor-to-ceiling picture window gave us an awe-inspiring view of the waters I would fish. As we enjoyed our dinner in the castle's pub, with its walls decorated with mounted salmon and memorabilia from decades of anglers, I was already looking forward to my second day, for which I had reserved a guide and an entire day for fishing.
Part V - The salmon that got away
When Englishman Oliver Cromwell invaded Ireland in 1649 and ruthlessly crushed Catholic opposition, he also confiscated their land. Many who opposed him were give a choice - "...go to hell or Connemara."
Connemara, located on the western edge of the island, would not be our version of hell today, but its wild beauty was lost on the severely beaten Irish, who had been displaced from much richer farms to the east.
Fast forward to the 21st Century, and the land still looks wild and untamable. You don't see a lot of farms. Settlements are few and far between. But its lakes and rivers are filled with fish, and it is for this reason that many visitors come, and why Dottie and I came to stay at the Ballynahinch Castle.
Built in the late 18th Century, it was the country house of Richard Martin (1754-1834), known as "Humanity Dick," the founder of the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty To Animals. Today, it is the closest thing I've ever seen to a country club for fly fishermen. Accommodations are luxurious and scenery is breathtaking.
Guest anglers meet in the pub each morning and are assigned a beat (section of the river) and a ghillie (guide). At noon, anglers take a lunch break and then are assigned a new beat for the afternoon.
Non-fishing guests can stroll the many forested paths along the river, or drive to nearby Clifden, a village of 1,000 people, numerous pubs, restaurants and shops.
My ghillie, Michael Van Mourik, came to Ireland from Holland as a very young man and has been a ghillie on the river for more than 30 years. He proved to be a great guide, a wonderful conversationalist, and an excellent teacher.
Michael may not have been born Irish, but his brogue was rich and his vocabulary sprinkled with such a colorful and imaginative use of profanity that he kept me laughing most of the day.
Our morning beat was just a few hundred yards from the castle on a pool that emptied out of a large lake.
It hadn't rained in two weeks and the water was low and clear. As we approached the edge, a huge salmon cleared the water just 15 feet from shore, then another, and another. They were jumping all over. I brought two rods. A 14-foot, two-handed salmon rod that I had only used once, and my favorite 5-weight Sage trout rod, thinking I could always catch a few trout if the salmon weren't biting.
After Michael saw me cast with the two-hander, he told me to use my trout rod.
"At least you won't scare the #&%*! fish," he added with a smile.
I tied on one of the colorful salmon flies I had purchased at the castle and preceded to cast in whatever direction Michael pointed. I cast to the left and the salmon jumped on the right. I cast on the right and the salmon jumped on the left.
The morning wore on and Michael and I had a nice conversation about salmon and their strange habits in fresh water (they don't feed once they enter a river), speculating on what makes them strike at a hook with feathers on it.
We tried every local salmon fly in our box, and then Michael said, "Let's try one of yours." He looked through a small case of flies I had carried with me from California and picked out a little No. 10 Prince nymph, a fly with which I catch a lot of trout on the upper Sacramento River.
On my second cast with the Prince, a huge Atlantic salmon hit the fly and took off toward the ocean. My little buggy whip of a trout rod and single-action reel had never seen a fish half that size.
Michael was quietly telling me to relax and let the fish have its way. I assured him the fish was completely in control.
The salmon jumped. Michael said it was an eight-pounder at least.
For 25 minutes the fish ran up and down the pool, taking out line whenever it wanted, and me taking some back whenever he came back toward me.
I'd like to report that I successfully brought the fish all the way in, but I can't.
Time and time again, I brought the big fish to the edge of the pool, inches from Michael's net. Each time Michael lunged forward trying to get the fish into the net, the salmon took off on another run.
Sometime around the fifth or sixth try, the salmon dodged the net one last time and spit my little trout fly in our faces.
We were going to let it go anyway, and in this case, close to the net was close enough.
"We're calling that a catch," Michael declared.
Part VI – The price of success
After lunch, where Michael regaled the folks in our pub about the monster salmon we "fought to a draw," with my little 5-weight trout rod, we drove a few miles downstream to fish another part of the river. We each took our own cars, because Michael wanted to drive directly home in the late afternoon to watch the World Cup rugby match between Ireland and Georgia (the country, not the state).
Although we saw several more salmon jump, I didn't hook another fish. As twilight settled in, Michael looked at his watch and indicated it was time for him to leave. Because I had my own car, I decided to fish for a little longer.
A half hour later, more clouds rolled in. The wind picked up and it started to rain. I decided it was time for me to head for the car.
The next thing I know, I'm writhing on the ground in agony.
Replaying the moment in my head afterward, I recall walking along the river bank and some how I caught my right foot in a crevice, fell forward and felt my ankle snap. It happened so fast I had no chance to regain my balance.
It was late afternoon. Michael was back in his home watching a rugby game. I had no cell phone and my car was parked a half mile away.
Lying on my back and trying to recover from the shock and pain, I raised my right leg only to see my foot dangle at an odd angle like a gate on a broken hinge.
The movement sent white-hot streaks of pain up my leg.
A storm was blowing in from the Atlantic just eight miles to the west. It was getting dark.
At home in California, I often fish until I can barely see the water. I knew that Dottie would not be concerned about my absence for at least another hour.
Lying there in the cold waiting for rescue (and possibly going into shock) wasn't a good option.
I decided to try to scoot along on my butt with my legs behind me and see if I could make any progress back up the path toward my car and the road. That was too slow and awkward so I rolled over and got to my hands and knees. Fortunately my knee was not injured and I was able to hold my broken ankle up off the ground behind me and crawl very slowly along the path. Even the slightest jar caused a lot of pain, but I didn't have much choice but to keep crawling.
It took me about 45 minutes to crawl about a quarter mile up a hill and get close to the narrow country road that I had driven to get to this part of the river. No cars went by, and even if they did, a high brush-covered fence blocked their view. They couldn't have seen me. I doubted that they would hear my calls for help.
My only option was to keep crawling toward my car, parked another quarter mile away. I wouldn't be able to drive it, but at least I'd be out of the cold rain.
My painful progress was slowing and fatigue was setting in. Then I heard muffled voices in the distance.
"Help!" I bellowed. "Somebody help me!"
A minute or two passed, and the voices seemed to be getting closer. I yelled again. And suddenly I saw someone appear on the road above me. It was a bicycle rider whose seat was just high enough for him to see over the fence and down to where I was crawling along. Soon several others joined that cyclist. They jumped the fence and came running to my rescue. They carried me to their van and the van took me back to our hotel, where the manager called a doctor and an ambulance.
A long ambulance ride took me too Galway University Hospital where x-rays revealed that I had fractured my ankle and done some other damage to that joint. The doctors there recommended surgery but I chose to travel home and have the surgery here.
Part VII – A quest to be finished
I started this tale by suggesting there was a price for the one salmon I (almost) caught.
If you have ever broken a bone, then you know that the severe agony of the moment can blot out most other senses.
Looking back, I recall how the staff of Ballynahinch Castle cared for me, got the doctor in record time, called an ambulance, helped Dottie pack the car and made a hotel reservation for her in Galway near the hospital; how they packed her some sandwiches so she would have something to eat during the long night.
I remember her bravely driving, alone, behind the ambulance as it sped along the narrow, winding road in the dark and rain.
Galway University Hospital’s emergency room on a Saturday night gave the impression of a triage center on the edge of a war zone. There were injured and sick people jamming the waiting room, and stashed in wheelchairs and gurneys along the hallways.
A nurse gave me a pain pill and told me it would be at least four to five hours before I could see a doctor. They parked my gurney at the end of the hall and Dottie kept me company while we waited.
Undaunted by the chaos around them, a pair of elderly Irish women pushed a cart through the crowded hallways offering tea and toast.
To the sick and injured, including me, they also offered blessings. “God bless you, Darlin,” they said in a lovely Irish lilt as they handed me my tea and toast.
Sometime after midnight I saw a doctor. X-rays confirmed my broken ankle, and a resident orthopedic surgeon told me that I needed to have surgery. Doped up, but fortified with plenty of tea and toast, I told her that I would sleep on it and call her in the morning. She recommended that I stay overnight in the hospital.
I spent the night in a six-bed ward and in spite of the noises made by its other occupants, I slept pretty good, the pain in my ankle dulled by the drugs (and tea, toast and Irish blessings).
It took Dottie about two hours to find her hotel in the winding streets of old Galway, actually only a 10-minute drive away. But she was back bright and early to make sure I was OK, and to hear me tell the resident that I’d rather have the surgery done at home.
We had to spend three more nights in Galway before our flight left. The hotel found us an old wheelchair, which gave us a little mobility.
One day Dottie pushed me several blocks down to my “family castle.” The “Lynch Castle” in old Galway is now a bank building, but apparently was the home many centuries ago to some of my ancestors. It is next-door to a McDonalds.
She could have pushed me other places, but the old wheelchair had a flat tire, and it took all her strength just to push it a few blocks over the cobblestones.
The flight home was bit of an ordeal, but I had an excellent nurse and companion to take care of me.
There is probably a better way to finish a visit to the land of my ancestors, which is why we shall return and try again sometime soon.