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Through The Rosy Demdrums

from Waterlog Magazine, August/September 2004, by Clive Gammon, photos Terry Thomas.

The Slaney valley hereabouts is dark, dank, Tennysonian, the river shadowed by dying, ivy-choked oaks, the banks a tangle of rhododendrons long gone wild. Only drifts of white wood anemones and the first of the bluebells yield any sign of the year’s resurrection . . .

Right, Gammon, enough already of the poetry! Give it to us straight! Very well, then. The bloody Slaney was coloured, going up and down like a bloody yo-yo and there wasn’t a chance in hell of a bloody salmon on the bloody fly and, even if there were, those bloody overhanging trees would give even a world-class Spey caster, which I am not, a bloody nightmare.

But at least I had Tony Sweeney on my side. Tony’s the beat ‘gillie’ (or, indeed, ‘ghillie’*) and, like many of his calling in Ireland, great at morale-boosting.(For example, early on in our acquaintance he spoke, straight-faced, of the ‘rosy demdrums’ we were pushing our way through, and I looked at him and he looked at me, both of us in the sure and certain knowledge that he was putting me on. Then the both of us laughed and that was the end of that kind of stage-Irish rubbish.)

I’d been looking forward to fishing the Slaney which rises, as they say, in the Wicklow Mountains, reaches the sea at Wexford and, given the chance, could be the great spring salmon river it once was. I’d wanted to fish it for years, partly because the Slaney is redolent of the history of Ireland. It was on its banks – ‘the Singing River’ it’s called in the old ballad – that the lads of Wexford met, pikes in hand, back in 1798, to rise against English rule. And from those banks you can see Vinegar Hill, where they made their last stand.

After four days of fishing, though, it had become clear that it was Tony and I who were making our last stand. The Slaney salmon had done just barely enough o keep hope alive. A half-hour earlier, for instance, we'd seen what was clearly a 14-pounder move in the Ladies Pool – well, not exactly clearly, that's to say, but a good fish anyway, and I'd bothered it for a full twenty minutes with a Garry Dog, the a Sliver Stoat, then a Collie Dog, then an Ally Shrimp, then a Garry Dog again, after which we'd passed the time by speculating about why almost every salmon river in the Western Hemisphere has a Ladies Pool on it somewhere. The Slaney one, Tony said, was named from the habit, in the old days, of ladies staying at the Big House on the far bank bathing in it. But, on this particular day, elegant ladies cavorting au naturel in the Slaney were rarer even than salmon...

Thin was, with a free hand I could have got a fish or two, I reckoned; a free hand meaning a Flying C as the Irish delicately put it. But this stretch of the river, once March was over, was strictly fly only. This rule on the Slaney apparently, operates strictly by date, not on condition of the water, and didn't, meantime, prevent a local lad in the tackle shop, in nearby Tullow, looking incredulously at me as I selected a bunch of size 8 salmon flies, then, like one who considerately helps a handicapped fellow across the street, holding up a Flying C he was purchasing himself, said, “Get a few of these.”

Which, by means of one of those jumps of lateral thinking that afflict me from time to time, recalled to me a moment long ago in the Flyfishers' Club in London when, reminiscing as one does after a substantial lunch, I began to explain to my guest just how to use 13 amp fuse wire to secure the bored lead bullet on your line when worming for salmon, so that, when you got hung up, it was just the bullet you lost. And then I looked up to see, on the face of a plump and pinstriped member sitting near by, a look of horror as if I'd just warmly endorsed the antichrist himself to the Archbishop of Canterbury or suggested that, hey, Hitler wasn't all that bad. And, as he flounced out, it occurred to me that his relationship with the king of fish was probably limited to a fortnight once a year on some absurdly overpriced Scottish river – and also that it was just as well he wasn't there listening (for one think it wouldn't have been easy for an ambulance with a cardiac arrest crew to find parking space that afternoon on Brooke Street, London W1...) when I followed up by recounting the catching of my first salmon, wormed out of the little river Taf in Carmarthenshire which I, not long out of short trousers, immediately took round to the back door of the Imperial Hotel, Tenby, receiving 5, serious money indeed, for my pains.

End of reminiscence and time to get back to the Slaney. And, having purged myself of my feelings of frustration, I can now calm down a little. Each morning there'd been an update from Tony. “She's gone up a foot and colouring,” he'd say. Or, “it's raining like hell up in the Wicklow Mountains...” But nevertheless (or, “sill and all as they say in these parts) my few days on the Slaney had, oddly maybe, been rewarding. There was that dark, Tennysonian beauty of the valley and the company back at the Lodge at Ballintemple, with tales of past glories on the Slaney and, more pertinently, what was being done – buying out the nets for instance – to bring that glory back; good talk to accompany the quite epicurean. Carlow fillets steaks grilled perfectly by Diana Butler, lady of the house, whom I shall remember for ever as the only Irishwoman, or indeed man, to actually say “Begorra!”




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