Tempers are tested as our fishing correspondent and the Editor deploy Silver Badger, Collie Dog and Icelandic Silver Stoat Double flies in pursuit of salmon on the west coast of Ireland
It’s a tale of grilse and gritted teeth as David Profumo is embarrassingly successful on a fishing trip to Connemara
FROM the moment I walked in, past the rod racks in the hall and the stuffed puffins on the stair, I felt right at home in Ballynahinch. Editor Hedges and I had been whisked from Shannon airport by Noel, an affable former trawler skipper whose conversation en route encompassed contemporary Irish fiction and where you can find a likeness of the Virgin Mary inside a lobster’s head.
I hadn’t been to Galway since the 1960s, when my uncle was Master of the Blazers, but have long relished the description by Somerville and Ross of the river there racing ‘under its bridges like a pack of white hounds’. ‘The water should be perfect for Beat Four,’ declared Noel.
Fishing is part of everyday life out here in the heartlands of the Irish-speaking west. Salmon used to feature on the coinage and appear in the oldest of Irish creation poems, such as Amergrin’s The Mystery, which begins: ‘I am the wind which breathes upon the sea.’ We were to stop just short of the sea, by the Connemara coast.
Set in many acres of spectacular and peaceful woodland, Ballynahinch Castle is a nice, rather rare mixture of high-end comfort and informal ambience. There are precious few four-star hotels in which you can clonk into the bar in your waders. On arrival at the Fisherman’s Pub (formerly a maharajah’s snooker room, now bedecked with cased fish—or Harvey Wallhangers), we took a pint of the dark stuff with a sandwich of pulled brisket and soft blaa bread and met our delightful ghillie, Cyril Biggins, who told us the first salmon had arrived just a few days earlier. We tackled up in a trice.
Having spent the previous weekend methodically repairing his battle-scarred waders, Editor Hedges scoffed at me as an arriviste for wearing brand-new Orvis chesties and spiffy Hodgman boots, which he claimed resembled the platform-soled footwear sported by 1970s glam-rock band The Sweet (whose album Desolation Boulevard was a prize of my record collection, years ago, until Mrs Reel Life sold the entire lot when I was away in Mexico). As former lead singer of The Rancid Vicars, I ignored this unwarranted sniping and quietly strung up my 13ft Loomis.
‘Editor Hedges scoffed at me as an arriviste for wearing brand-new Orvis chesties’
The whole Ballynahinch system is some 15 miles long, with the Castle water comprising the lower section of the Owenmore River, which offers prime fishing with an annual catch of some 100 salmon. Irish migratory stocks are embattled in several places, but the benefits of the 2007 drift-net ban are beginning to show and the Ballynahinch fishery is being positively managed.
From July onwards, there is the additional bonus of a sea-trout run, now showing signs of recovery (coastal aquaculture operations having disastrously affected the ‘white trout’), and these offer great sport, especially in the gloaming. The grilse tend to peak in July, but the season continues until the end of September.
Originally the stronghold of the O’flaherty clan, which included the notorious Pirate Queen Grace O’malley, in the 18th century Ballynahinch passed into the hands of the Martin family as part of an estate extending to 250,000 acres. ‘Humanity Dick’ Martin was a founding father of the RSPCA (his other sobriquet was ‘Hair-trigger Dick’ from his fondness for duelling), however, probably the most colourful proprietor was Col H.H. Shri Sir Ranjitsinhji Vibhaji II, Jam Saheb of Nawanagar GCSI GBE, known to his Cambridge chums as ‘Smith’, the Test cricketer whose batting career was terminated when he lost an eye on the grouse moors, yet who continued to fish here each summer from 1924 until 1932 and whose numerous casting platforms remain to assist the visiting angler.
Still fishless the following morning, we dropped by the streamy Beat One, where my friend Mark Wormald had just lost a salmon and his host (local poet Robert Jocelyn) had taken two grilse. Mark is a Cambridge English don on sabbatical, putting the finishing touches to his study of Ted Hughes and fishing— nice work, if you can get it.
After lunch, it was our turn on that pool and we tried it with the usual flies—silver Badger, Collie Dog, various Shrimps. Cyril then selected an Icelandic Silver Stoat Double for me. Mending the sink-tip into a slot between the twin currents, I was taken by a fresh fish that fizzed away across the stream, splattering to the surface, then careering back. At long last, Cyril lifted the landing net with a conspiratorial grin of triumph. It was a 6lb male, lice still on his back, and we kept him for supper. I was so thrilled, I began shaking like a rookie.
Editor Hedges tried again, elegantly Spey casting down both banks, then ignited a Cuban candle. I changed to a little Posh Tosh and suddenly, by Saint Polycarp, the line went away again and a five-pounder came to Cyril’s net. That crunch was an editorial cigar butt being bitten clean in half.
On my glam-rock boots, I cavorted up the concrete catwalk, but I fear the Boss was on Desolation Boulevard. Back in the bar, I wallowed in adulation like a warthog. Later, in the smart Owenmore restaurant, we feasted on hake and featherblade of beef; the Editor told me he usually orders prawn cocktail when firing contributors. We rounded off the day with tumblers of the aptronymically named whiskey Writers Tears.
We were up at Sna’ Beg the following afternoon, where a stream leads into the lough. Seamus Heaney composed his lovely poem
Ballynahinch Lake here, evoking ‘the spring-cleaning light’. A helpful breeze corrugated the surface and the Hedges fly-line reached delicately beneath the far rocks. At the sight of a silver swirl, he tightened his line, but all went slack. The hook was straightened—and it was one of my flies, too. I was treated to a look of glassy incredulity and held my peace.
That night, we dined off my grilse and Des, the castle historian, showed us the autograph manuscript of his friend Famous Seamus’s poem. One morning left.
Beat Four offered lots of delicious riffles and creases, but it was not until Cyril rowed us across that we saw a fish. I immediately realised this was no grilse as it lugged away with my Stoat in its incisors and he proved to be a 14-pounder, their biggest fish of the season so far. I was riven with disbelief. As another ghillie once said: ‘Sure, ye have the luck of a fat priest.’
The official Castle website ingeniously recorded that we ‘caught four salmon, landing three’. I’m lunching with the Editor soon and pray he doesn’t order the prawn cocktail.
‘That crunch was an editorial cigar butt being bitten clean in half’
Timeless tranquillity: the author and the Editor in the shadow of Ballynahinch Castle
Above: Cyril the ghillie nets one of the author’s three fish. Above right: Holding the catch under the vengeful eye of the Editor. Right: Taking dinner back to the castle