Gone Fishing

Written by Shane McGovern

Indeed, my good scholar, we may say of angling, as Dr. Boteler said of strawberries – ‘Doubtless God could have made a better berry, but doubtless God never did ‘; . . . and so, if I might be judge, God never did make a more calm, quiet, innocent recreation than angling.

Izaak Walton, The compleat angler 1653

This is a story which is sometimes told when older members of the clan get together.

Like most stories about Ireland the events which it recounts are difficult to understand without a knowledge of Irish history dating back at least one thousand years and without some familiarity with our regional culture and stereotypes. I have accordingly, included explanatory comments on the historical and cultural background.

Also, like all Irish stories of long, long ago with few still around to dispute the facts it is presented as “a true narrative of events”.

I respectfully record it with the hope that what we then spent our lives doing and particularly, in these days of sit-coms and canned laughter, what made us smile and sometimes laugh out loud, may be of interest.


The`valley in which Glangevlin is situated is flanked by two mountains – Coilce to the north-west and the Benbrack, Knockgorm/Carraig-na-mada . . . to the south-west. Coilce is 665 metres, Knockgorm, a little less and the valley between them falls off dramatically from about 170 m ASL at Bellavally (Glan) Gap to about 50m at . . . 8 kms away to the northwest. Viewed from the Gap, the valley has the appearance of another world, enclosed by mountains on either side and losing itself in the far distant horizon.

They say that back ten-thousand years or so the valley was filled with ice. As it thawed this great ice block slowly slipped down from the Gap dragging much of the most fertile top soil as it went, eventually melting into Sligo Bay. On the mountainsides it gouged the earth to form alts[1] and waterfalls leaving behind beds for little streams near the peaks which grew bigger as they descended and which in turn carved out sweeping heather-covered banks and drumlins. Fish came to the streams, grouse and hares and foxes and, in more recent times, people occupied the land in the valley and then higher and higher up the mountain side. For centuries, probably starting in the eleventh or twelfth, the MágShamhradháin[2] (McGauran, McGovern) clan had ruled the barony of Tullyhaw in which these lands lie. As was the way of the time they quarrelled continuously with the neighbours, the more powerful O`Rourkes, Maguires, and O`Reilly`s, losing most of their assets in the various affrays. Of late, in fact since 1652, the clan had fallen on even harder times, having picked on the English during the 1641 Rebellion. When the part played by Felim’s ungrateful descendants in that Rebellion became known, lands granted to Felim MaGauran under the Ulster Plantation settlement (1610) were quickly yanked back and given to Cromwellians.

And so it is that the Griffith Valuation (1837-64) shows Robert McGovern of Alt-na-Sheen reduced to renting a farm of 150 acres in conjunction with others from Alex Hazzard, an absentee (and obviously British) landlord whose ancestors may well have been personal friends of Cromwell[3]. Robert passed on the farm to Patrick who with Margaret, his wife, was, by 1911 rearing a family of nine there. This holding later became the focus for Margaret`s grandchildren who spent Summers there before it was finally annexed by the Forestry Commission (1964/65) [4] and turned over to the cultivation of spruce trees.

Wesley Johnson says of the drumlins : (http://www.wesleyjohnston.com/users/ireland/geography/physical_landscape.html#drumlin_belt)ssays of them . “They are poor agriculturally, and the hollows between them tend to become water-logged . . . People who come from the Drumlin regions tend to be used to being only able to see to the next hill (!) and tend to own small farms . . .”

True, the farms were small but those who lived or spent Summers among the Glan drumlins are anything but short-sighted. As children we sat high among the heather on Summer evenings, listened to the murmur of the bees, observed how immense the sky and the world really is, and hoped to acquire by osmosis that kind of wisdom and careful regard for humanity for which the people of these parts are known.

Though he probably never heard of Adam Smith or David Hume, my uncle Sonny, who inherited the farm from Patrick had a good idea of the value of work and about economics in general. He was one of the small farmers who toiled and eked out a living within what was a unique cultural milieu. They reared calves, lambs, chickens and turkeys, churned buttermilk, grew oats and cut turf in a busy seasonal cycle. What they did not use themselves they sold in the local market. Up until a century ago they spoke Gaelic. Their generosity, hospitality and devotion to family were legendary and they preserved the links with those who emigrated to the US and the UK – and there were many – with singular tenacity. More recently still – that is seventy or eightyyears ago – the land commission bought the farmers out, relocated them and planted spruce trees where cows and sheep once grazed extinguishing a society and a way of life which had existed for several centuries.

With the necessities of life always won at great personal expense my uncle Sonny could never understand why any (sane) person would deliberately spend an uncomfortable day getting soaking wet to catch a few little fish – barely enough to feed the cat, as he might put it – and all this having spent a fortune on fancy fishing gear. Nor why anyone one would tramp the mountain from daylight to dusk on the Glorious 12th of August in pursuit of a few little birds (grouse) and each one barely adequate for a decent meal. While he wouldn’t say this out loud, you knew that he felt that some town and city-dwelling nephews and nieces of his, who spent such joyful Summers in his house just did not – and never would – get it.

In dry weather the streams of Glan each consist of successions of pools, which are smaller and shallower at the higher altitudes and increase in size and depth as the altitude drops. The trout that live in them vary in size as the pools – smaller at the upper levels and bigger and more cannibalistic in the pools in the Abhann More – the Big River- which makes its way through the valley floor to the Shannon..

In the days before they were planted with spruce trees, on a sunny August day the mountains had a bluish haze and one could sit in the heather, watch comings and goings on the roads below and listen to the humming of the bees. In the evening, there was the barking of dogs and the howling of foxes, the lowing of cows, and the braying of donkeys while smoke curled vertically from the many turf-fired chimneys.

But on some days, a heavy fog enveloped the peaks, shutting out the rest of the world and imparting an unimaginable sadness to the valley while the rain fell gently but seemingly forever, coating the heather and the grass, dripping from the eaves and gradually permeating the apparently impenetrable, with cold, cold water. Cows stood dumbly in the fields, tails to the wind, flanks dripping, heads lowered, with that bovine acceptance of whatever life brings. Donkeys, less tolerant, tried to find shelter, then, like the cows, stood motionless as any muscle movement caused cold water to penetrate to the skin and send shivers all over the body.

Fed by the rains the little streams swell and eventually discharge themselves into the Owenmore, normally a placid rippling little brook but which can become in a few hours a raging torrent. The ‘raging torrent’ stage is known locally as a ‘flood’. An intermediate stage of lower intensity is known as a ‘fresh’.

Few venture far on such days unless it is for Sunday Mass and then clothed in long oilskins and waterproof footwear, because everyone – including the donkeys and the cows – know that, however you are clad, it is only a matter of time before Glan rain finds a way in.

The mountain streams are inhabited by a breed of trout with a black back and upper sides, sparsely speckled and a silvery belly. The flesh is white as distinct from the red or pink of the ‘brown trout’ High on the mountain they are lean and small – 4-6 inches maximum; lower, towards and into the Owenmore they become progressively larger. In dry times they feed on flies and grasshoppers; in the ‘fresh ‘ or a ‘flood’ they feed ravenously until gorged on whatever is washed down to them, and are particularly partial to worms. Catching the little ones is usually left to children and the zealous who sneak behind rocks, stumble over heather clumps, are clawed by brambles and sallies and are soaked to the skin by Glan rain. The tweed-suited might agree with my Uncle Sonny that the rewards are meagre and the labour great.

So it was one Sunday in August around 1955 when we arrived in Glan – Sean Sheehan and Kathleen, daughter Maura and husband Seaghan Maynes, and myself, armed with Hardy split cane-rods, reels, nets to land the big ones, bags to carry them in and artificial flies named (among many others), Butcher (black wing, silver body and a red tail), Priest, (like a Butcher but without a tail), Hares Ear, etc. The weather had been wet, Carraig-na-mada was wrapt in cloud and the river looked very `fresh` indeed. Seaghan and I decided to go fishing despite much tch,tching and other indications of disapproval from the rest who religiously went to mass.

Cavan men are (they say) a parsimonious lot. We don’t expect the world to provide for us and are happy with what we have. We don’t take chances unless the odds are overwhelmingly in our favour and whatever we gain, rather than invest it we hide away from those who might covet it. Those of us who go fishing – despite the disapproval of the more practical (like my uncle Sonny) – go with the expectation we will catch nothing though it will be enjoyable but otherwise a waste of time. But in the event we do catch something we will celebrate with the best and be truly grateful. In line with this thinking, we always carry the minimum amount of paraphenalia – the die having already been cast against us.

Seaghan (on the other hand) was from Belfast, land of the entrepreneur, where the thinking is positive and everything is possible. People from those parts invest whatever they have, hoping to buy a modest house on Bray head overlooking Dublin Bay with a close-by 18 hole golf course (for the wife, of course), a modest farm close to the city, overrun by wood-pigeons and pheasants, a modest mountain within an hour or so drive stocked with grouse and of course an adjacent modest trout stream filled with fish. Their expectation is, without fail, a creel full of fish or a bag full of game after a day’s outing – if not then someone is to blame and heads must roll.

. It was raining steadily, a ‘fresh’ –or even a flood – seemed imminent and it wasn’t long before we decided flies were out – that it was a ‘worm’ day. We had no worms.

There were plenty of fields around, many with cow-patties under which worms might be found. We had no tools so we used sticks/ There was a cry from Seaghan – he had slipped and fallen, bottom down in a soft clatty[5] cow-pattie. It was not a pleasant sight. By this time the congregation was coming from Mass. Someone provided a knife and Sean was scraped more-or-less clean but not enough to be allowed to sit in a car.

My Uncle Sonny, a true Cavan man descended from the ancient Cavan clan MacSamhradain arrived with a bunch of locals on the way home from Mass, seemingly a little embarrassed under the circumstances to acknowledge us as family.

‘Any idea where we could borrow a spade?’ I asked after the usual greetings

‘What for?’ said Sonny

‘To dig worms’ Sonny glanced at his friends as if to say ‘I told you so’

‘What do you want worms for’

‘To fish’

‘Um, I see’

‘We need a spade’

‘Ah, you wouldn’t find a spade in the country’

All the while the locals, standing around in the rain, nodding sagely (as the saying goes) were apparently unanimous that no one in this country of farmers possessed a spade. As for worms, they were equally scarce and no one present could remember having seen one in a long time.

It continued to rain steadily. I thought, maybe we should have gone to mass, at least we would have had the Lord on our side and besides we would be dry.

Somehow we got something to dig with and a can to put the worms in; we found a place and dug up some worms. We wrapped ourselves in our waterproof jackets, adjusted our hip boots and set off for the river.

Walking along a riverbank strewn with waist high heather, brambles and sallies in the rain is not among the fisherman’s favourite occupations. It soon became apparent that the fish were already gorged or didn’t like the worms we offered for they kept their distance as we plodded along. Every time we brushed the rushes or the heather on the riverbank we were splashed with rain. All the while our clothes became more sodden and our boots filled up as the Glan rain seeped in. Just as discomfort reached a peak, we saw, at a sharp bend in the river a shed; the flood was such that it was surrounded by river but it had a roof and offered the prospect of shelter. We went through the only door, opposite to which was a window Our clothes under the waterproofs were sopping with rain and perspiration. After suitable deliberation we decided it was just too uncomfortable.

We stripped off.

There was plenty of old hay in the shed. We set some alight to warm us and to dry some clothes. But the hay was highly flammable and the flames spread rapidly. The burning hay had to be pushed out and dumped in the raging torrent outside. But outside, on either side of the door were some of the most venomous nettles in Ireland. For us it was the classic Scylla and Carybidis:

There we were, naked as the day we were born, pelted with cold rain, welts from nettle stings on our bare bodies, in front of a shed with smoke billowing from the window, the door and the holes in the roof.

The casual observer, aware of the pre-Christian associations of the area, might conclude that he had stumbled on a re-enactment of some ancient druidic ritual at the end of which they burn down the cowshed with all their earthly possessions. . .[6]

Desperate situations require desperate measures. Always men of action we dumped the remaining burning straw in the river and got the fire under control. We managed to dry some clothes while the rain eased. But the level of the river continued to rise – we were knee-deep by this time and reluctantly decided we must go, well knowing the ridicule, first silent and sympathetic and then raucous, we would face if the details ever leaked out. It was all to be a close secret. Seaghan, ever the honest broker, thought we must recompense the farmer who owned the shed for the hay we had burned. Besides, there was no guarantee that we had completely extinguished the blaze and there was a possibility that all might go up in flames. He left five shillings in a shelf in the wall.

We plodded wearily home with squelching boots, grim faces and no fish.

It was indeed a story for those long dark winter nights around the flickering turf fire . . .

We first met my Uncle Sean, a Dublin man who had a cutting wit and a facility with words which could distort the most painful secret embarassment into a farcical public romp. At first, he feigned sympathy to our plight obviously sensing that there was more here than met the eye. As the story leaked out he could not conceal his delight.

His eyes danced with amusement and he chuckled uncontrollably as he probed the events of the day. The story was dragged out of us, starting with the fall in the cow-patty, repeated, embellished, polished and repeated again. There was the question about Seaghan’s acceptability as a passenger in the car. Maura, of course had a spare pair of trousers. As for me, besides not bringing worms, there were other indications I had no common sense – after all Seaghan is from Belfast and not used to our climate but I, a native, should know better.

“You need to keep your eye on these people from the North – you can’t let them loose like that !”

“And besides again you should have gone to Mass – how do you expect to catch fish if you don’t go to Mass? What are you? A Pagan ? And walking around naked in the rain – and on a Sunday too !!!!”

If this story ever gets out the family will be too embarrassed ever to come back to Glan again!!

Then “What’s that smell – like burnt straw” said someone.

That smell came back to London with us. Any garment which came in contact with one from the event in the shed acquired the smell. Despite burning anything that we thought smelled of straw (including the suitcases) it lingered. When it rained, garments which never before exhibited the smell suddenly exuded it. It was a contagion like the Plague. It took years to get rid of it.

Obviously Izaak Walton, so taken with the calm, quiet, innocent aspects of angling had never fished in Glan.

Shane, May 2011

[1] Alt, Gaelic, ravine. Alt-na-Sheen means Ravine of the Fairies.

[2] See Book of the MaGauran translation of the 12th century text by Fr. McKenna, S. J.

[3]For those unfamiliar with Irish history Oliver Cromwell is heartily disliked in Ireland

[4]) The ruins of the house are marked by a plaque and are designated a protected site. Margaret, (neé Dolan) prototype McGovern alpha woman, who came from Legnagrow down in the valley had a reputation as a competent manager, butter-maker, spinner, rug and blanket maker, self trained midwife and social worker, always willing to tramp the mountain to assist a needy neighbour. Patrick, nick-named the Doctor seems to have had unusual talent in dealing with human and animal ailments. In 1911, my father, eldest of the family was training to be a teacher at the Teachers Training College in Waterford – the only McGovern in that county at the time. Of other family members, three became nurses (Kathleen, Anne, Delia), another (Molly) became a teacher while three emigrated to the US. Sonny stayed at home to take over the farm. Margaret, one of the US emigrants, initially lived in New York but moved to Arizona because of health problems of one of her children. In 1986 I met her there. She told me she remembered seeing Halley’s Comet, then in its 1986 transit over Tucson, in its 1910 transit over Glan. This appeared to be of special significance to her.

[5] Clatty is a Cavan word meaning ‘particularly dirty, slimy and disgusting’. It can be applied to persons, places and things.

[6] This is not so far out as you might think. We do have a tradition in Tullyhaw. Crum Cruach, the great Pagan idol site said to have been destroyed by St. Patrick, was just across the mountain near Ballinamore !!

Related Articles

Latest Articles