In Beer For The Week
The brown floodwater had risen to touch the boy’s white legs at the ankle. He was just a teenager and stood with trousers rolled above his knees, on the aging, concrete weir just below the Blackboy Bridge. He stood a few yards from the bank separated from it by a gushing spout of water that rushed over the lowest point of the weir, the first point to overflow when the floodwaters came.
"Pull on it. Pull on the fecker will you"
Yelled the older, black-haired boy on the bank, but his words were lost in the noise of the flood torrent that separated him from the white-legged boy only a few yards away on the wall of the weir.
They had stood together on the wall the previous evening watching the trout in the crystal clear water. The wall then stood eight inches clear of the water. They had cast their flies – Greenwell’s Glory and Red Spinner – repeatedly but with no rise from the fish. There are some days when even an expert angler is unable to tempt a trout to the bait and yesterday had been one of them – the trouts’ fasting day.
Over night the rain clouds had rolled in from the Atlantic over Limerick City and as they rose over the Sleivefelim Mountains, they shed the rain collected on their transatlantic journey. The boys knew that the overnight deluge would bring the river into flood and the fish to life.
It was still early in the morning, and he slowly shifted his weight from one foot to the other, raising the wet foot from the cold water giving it a chance to warm a little until the other foot was too cold and positions had to be reversed. In his hands, held above his head like an executioners axe, was a hurley, the Irish equivalent of a hockey stick. His attention was fixed on the spout of floodwater at his feet pouring over the corner of the weir, creating a waterfall and a seething, foaming pool below the weir.
He stopped the slow foot exchange and planted both feet firmly on the weir wall, bending at the knees to steady himself against the current. Suddenly he slashed the hurley down chopping into the floodwater and hitting the weir wall with a wrist shuddering thump.
" Ah shur Jezus don’t chop its feckin head off."
Yelled the black-headed boy on the bank as loud as he could.
"What did you say?"
Said pale legs in a South London type of accent, strangely out of place on the banks of the Bilboa River deep in the rural Ireland.
"Jayzus, Mary and Holy Saint Joseph tonight above will ye pull on it. Pull on the fecker, smack in the gob."
"Pull on it? … Oh, I get you."
Unlike hockey, hurlers are allowed to handle the ball, but they can’t pick it up from the ground. They either have to catch it in mid air, or lift it from the ground with the hurley and take it in their hand as it rises. As a last resort they can hit the ball on the ground with a golfers full swing of the hurley. This, he had learned, was what they meant by "pull on it". Next time he would swing the hurley with all his strength.
The boy watched the seething pool below his feet. He saw the silver flash in the foaming water below him. The journey up river for the salmon is a stop start affair. It is a journey fraught with danger along the way. A journey made in order to mate and then die. Once he reaches a stretch of water too shallow to swim, he must wait in a nearby deep pool for the floodwaters to come and allow him to swim through the shallow section. When the flood comes, the salmon run! If there are obstructions in the river – waterfall or weir - the salmon has to leap it.
The fish nosed up to the base of the weir and showed its head as if looking at the challenge ahead, and then dropped back into the pool. Three times the fish rehearsed its run-up to the big leap.
The fourth time he saw the salmon, it was for real. The fish leapt from the froth below, thrashing its powerful tail four times as it powered its way up the waterspout. The Boy swung with all his strength and, as the salmon cleared the top of the wall, the hurley smacked a ferocious blow to its head. The boy on the bank heard the smack above the roar of the water.
"Good man yourself"
He shouted, jumping to his feet and looking anxiously at the pool below the weir for sign of the salmon. After a few seconds the salmon, stunned and unable to move, came belly up to the surface. Caught by the flood current it was being swept off downstream. The boy on the bank did not wait, but took off down the bank intent on wading in and intercepting the fish before it could return to its senses.
The white-legged boy was ecstatic. He waved the hurley over his head, cheering on the other boy in his chase of the salmon. The water level was now high on his calf and the pressure on his legs was rapidly growing in force. He tried to walk towards the bank, but the water between him and dry land was deeper and more powerful. If he raised one leg to step forward the force of the water on the other leg would probably knock him. He was stuck.
He called the other boy but his shouts were drowned by the noise of the water. He tried to inch his way forward keeping both feet on the wall but that just increased the force of the water on his legs. He was clinging to the wall with his toes and he had to use all his weight to counter the force of the water. A few more minutes of rising flood level would wash him from the weir.
He planted the hurley on the weir wall, halfway between himself and the dry bank and kicked into the air attempting to pole vault himself over the gap and onto the land. It was working. His legs cleared the water. His body rotated upwards and across and pivoted on the top of the hurley handle towards safety. But at his highest point, when his body weight was directly above the hurley, it snapped. He plunged head first into the flood water, smashing his head on the wall.
On the bank the runner had overtaken the salmon and found a place to wade in and intercept the fish. The stones were slippery and the wading difficult but he couldn’t slow down or the fish would be past him and lost. He looked up as he reached his intended position. He could see the salmon two yards away, but there was no one on the weir, he couldn’t see the pale-legged boy anywhere. He almost missed the salmon as he looked around searching for his companion. Just in time, he made a desperate reach down stream to grab the salmon’s tail one handed.
The fish was heavy and still stunned but twitching slightly. It would soon recover its senses and he doubted he could hold on to it once it started to thrash.
As he turned to head back to the shore he saw the boy’s head bob up from the foaming pool below the weir. He was not swimming but floating face up in a strong current that had caught him. In about 20 seconds he would float past – not enough time to wade to the shore, drop the fish and wade back out. Two hands would be needed to grab the boy but one had to hold the salmon.
The handle of the hurley was bobbing in the water 6 yards ahead of the boy. He waited for the handle to reach him. As he waited, he saw the boy start to come round, begin to splash and struggle against the current. He grabbed the handle, struck the salmon a sharp blow to the head, killing it. He tossed it as far as he could towards the slower water near the bank and turned to get the boy.
It was almost too late. The boy was level with him. There was blood streaming from a cut on his forehead and he was holding out his hand but he was just out of reach. The flood was carrying him away. With a desperate last bid, the black-haired boy thrust out the handle of the hurley yelling
"Grab the feckin thing will you. Pull on it."
The boy caught the hurley one handed and held on to it with all his strength. His friend inched his way back from the strong current into shallower, calmer water dragging the boy with him.
"Can you stand now"? He yelled
The boy stumbled, coughing and spluttering to his feet, blood dripping from his head. The black-haired boy dropped the hurley, turned and started to wade as fast as he could downstream after the dead salmon that had floated off. He caught it, waded to the shore and returned upstream to help the pale-legged boy to the bank.
"Oh he’s a fine fecker of a fish to be sure. If we can find a yank tourist, he’ll keep us in beer for the week."
(My brother Connie O'Brien used to live very near to the Blackboy Bridge
and as a teenager, I spent every summer with him on the river fishing or
saving hay or getting into mischief - blackguarding as they called it
I attach a short story, a fisherman's tale from the late 1950's which
may or may nor feature my brother and me.)