Mythical salmon

IMG_2835If you exit through the back door of the house I grew up in, walk past the sloping field and along the driveway, over the rattling cattle grid, then turn left, you will see, at the end of the road, two large, imposing stone pillars—guardians of a hidden realm—in between which hangs a solid, wide, iron gate. You can peer through its parallel bars, and your eyes continue walking as the driveway narrows gradually into the distance.

There is a sign that says ‘Private’. If you’re brave enough to go through this gate, the tall trees on either side are almost threatening, certainly claustrophobic, and the constant chatter of crows offer a sinister companionship, watching your every move, plotting against you. If you look up, the swirling branches and rushing clouds bring dizziness, as if you’re falling under a spell. It is always windy at the top of those impossibly tall trees. Underneath, the woodland floor is dark and uninviting, and the occasional scurrying of paws or breaking of a twig forces you to be on guard. It is strange enough during the day, but at nighttime you can’t help but hurry home along this path. There is always a feeling of hidden eyes watching your every move.

This narrow corridor suddenly widens into a wooded area where the drive decides to swing around to the right. There is an ancient graveyard here, in the ruins of a tiny chapel. It is overgrown, with long grasses, thickets of bramble, some old box hedges, and the ubiquitous ivy holding the ruin together, like sellotape on a fading photograph. The remaining headstones lean at contradictory angles, adjusting to the gradual slipping of the slight slope they sit on, fighting against the roots of the trees and bushes that are trying to undermine them. I wonder if the stoic determination of some of these stones to stay upright is a sign that the bodies that lie below—now surely nothing but bones—still have something to say.

Outside the walls of this ruin, a Lady Well guards the chapel, making sure that the abandoned graves and the spirits within remain firmly in their place. The oval brick well nestles in the ground, and a circle of flat stones surround it, on which one kneels to say a Hail Mary for every step of the rosary, a penance perhaps, or a simply a prayer. There is a tumulus nearby—a pre-Christian burial mound—but you have to know where it is or you’d never find it, and a mass rock sits quietly forgotten in a nearby field. Long before Christianity came to these parts, the pagans were burying their dead on this spot.

In Irish mythology, Lady Wells are depicted as originating in the ‘Otherworld’, a parallel dimension whose inhabitants have the power to control the natural forces in this world. Water flows from their world into ours, gushing forth as rivers such as the Boyne, urged on by the power of the goddess Bóann.

Supernatural fish, especially the trout or the salmon, are said to appear in these wells to those seeking omens for the future, and the goddesses themselves are fabled to take the form of the fish. Salmon were often believed to bear the light of ‘iomas’—the ‘light that illuminates’—meaning wisdom or insight gained from a supernatural encounter. Long ago even the pagans realised that the salmon was from another world, a passing visitor through ours. Magic fish indeed.

The River Boyne is not far from this spot, barely a few fields away. Legend has it that Fionn mac Cumhaill, the great leader of the Fianna of Ireland, was still a boy when he was sent to study under the guidance of the wise man Finnegas, who lived on the banks of the river while trying desperately to catch the Salmon of Knowledge from its waters. Whoever ate this fish would possess all the knowledge of the world. When Finnegas did catch it, Fionn cooked it for him, but burnt his finger on its skin. Sucking it to relieve the pain, the knowledge passed to him instead, and he went on to become one of the most important characters in Irish mythology.

IMG_2834We were brought up on stories of fairy rings, forts and mounds. There were places in the landscape that were left alone, respected from a distance. It is difficult to fully shake off this belief of otherworldly significance when you’re standing by the well.

It is a strange world of echoes and shadows, a domain of the dead perhaps, eerily silent—the caw of the crow stays away from here—apart from the sound of rushing water. Seeking this out, you pass under the low-hanging branches of old trees and push apart the wild grasses, huge patches of dock leaves, nettles and cow parsley. The noise is getting louder, calling to you. Then you see it—a weir—and the mood changes, life rushes into the scene, quickly washing the sense of foreboding away. Behind the weir the landscape slopes up to the Big House, former seat of the local lord, whose ancestors are still feeding the worms in the fading graveyard behind.

The weir is on a straight stretch of a small limestone river, and before the water tumbles, it is clear and deep. But it is not clear like crystal, but like Irish whiskey. There is a tint to it, a peat-stained reminder of its journey, and the bogs through which it has flowed. There is a purity to the water of the English chalkstream that evokes Sunday afternoons after church, tradition and order, a clear conscience, and their often tidy appearance reminds you of English country gardens, herbaceous borders and beds of roses. This Irish limestone river is a different animal. It evokes toil and labour, mucky work and dirty hands, and smells of cow shit, but god, it is beautiful.

Perhaps its colour reflects the journey the river makes when flowing between the two worlds. Perhaps it emerges first as crystal clear, only to gradually colour as it flows through the grit and grime of our dimension, where the sins of this world and a sorrowful history of conflict and famine stain it forever.

I fished this spot as a child countless times. We started catching minnows in bottles, graduating to worming for perch and trout. We hardly ever caught anything but saw enough to feed the mind.

On one occasion my friend David roused me from the monotony of my chores to rush to the river and watch the mass of elvers climb the weir. There were thousands, taking hours to pass. We caught them in jars—seething masses of writhing bootlaces—then released them into the quiet water above. I doubt I’ll ever see such a sight again.

There is a spot of slack water on the far bank where the reflection of the weir wall blocks out the light and allows you to see anything that swims there. It is here that I saw my first salmon, resting up after making his ascent. We tried everything to catch it, but it remained aloof and unmoved.

My father often fly fished here, wading the deeper water above and below the weir, where, when the torrent fades, the river glides gently past beds of rushes and through long strands of ranunculus weed. There is often a glorious hatch of upwings, dancing in the light like fairies, glistening like beacons until they are snatched by a rising fish. There are always trout rising in this little stretch, and they continue to rise all the way to the small, double arched stone bridge that offers the angler a chance to peer directly into the water, where the walls between the two realms are at their thinnest.

There were gudgeon there—huge gudgeon. Long and pink, silver really, but with a pink hue. And perch, lots of them. Oh, and the eels, sneaking into cracks in the brickwork, feeding on the dead sheep that would occasionally wash down the river after heavy rain, and get stuck with the floating branches and other debris that was swept from the land.

It was here that I saw my second and third salmon. Once again it was David who knocked on my door and told me to follow. His sister had been walking that morning and had peered over the bridge, looking for the cheerful gudgeon, but there were two salmon instead. They were still there when I arrived, barely a dozen feet away. They swam in the sun, spinning around each other in an ethereal dance. I wanted to touch them, to see if they were real, but they were out of reach. I couldn’t jump from my world into theirs.

My father and I would often stand by the weir, half-expecting a salmon to jump it. That’s the problem with weirs. Once you’ve seen a picture of a salmon jumping any weir, you can’t help but expect it happens all the time, even though you know that, sadly, it hardly happens at all. Yet you continue to stare, as if somehow this act alone will magic a fish from the realm of water.

There is a small bush clinging stubbornly to the near-vertical river bank about 20 yards below the weir, its fingerling branches and leaves overhanging the water, staring over the precipice with barely a thread holding them to the ground. There is a tiny pocket of calmer water under it. “In all my years, I’ve never seen a fish rise under that bush. I think there might be a big fish just sitting there,” my father said.

I thought nothing more of it until myself and the gang of lads I hung around with as a boy were fishing the weir one summer’s day. We were sharing an old sea boat rod and free-lining worm down the rapids. It was David’s turn to cast, and I had crossed over the bridge and made my way around to the far side of the bank, while Joe and Aiden were acting the mick. David was distracted by the horseplay and had forgotten all about his bait, until I shouted over that the line was now stretching down past the rapids and would soon snag on the dangling branches of the bush as the river sped around a bend. He started to reel in and his rod bent double. I still remember the look on his face—a mixture of blind panic and youthful excitement—his eyes wide open as they were assaulted with adrenalin and possibility, both hands firmly on the rod as it kicked and bucked furiously. As young lads, we’d never hooked into anything bigger than half a pound, so our emotions quickly outgrew their shells and we entered into a new territory of adventure. All of us were frantically shouting instructions to David, but my words could hardly be heard over the noise of the rushing water. It wouldn’t have made an ounce of difference anyway, as I had nothing valuable to offer except “Hold on!”. Then suddenly we saw it. A huge fish jumped from under the bush, crashing through the water in a shining, spinning mass. Its dark back and pink sides were clearly visible—a salmon! Holy Shit! This was real fishing, and we weren’t equipped for it. Then the line parted with a crack and David reeled in nothing but disappointment. Of course the salmon wouldn’t have been resident under the bush, but obviously knew a good spot when he saw one.

Perhaps every passing salmon took refuge under that bush, and had done since the time of Finnegas. But seeing that fish pushed us all into another realm of possibility where the water could reveal more than trout, gudgeon and perch. When I stand on that weir now, I can’t help but feel that at any moment the goddess Bóann will appear in the form of a fish that jumps that weir, and I will travel between the two worlds again, and return to being a young boy.

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