Shean and Me: A salmon fishing memoir from 1948
A wonderful trip down memory lane that you can almost feel you can step into, about a bygone era when the pace of life was slower and it s was as much about the journey as it was about the fishing at the end.
“ I cannot tell how the truth may be,
I say the truth as ‘twas said to me.”
(REV William H Maxwell 1892)
These are the two first lines from, Maxwell’s; book Wild Sports of the West. It is regarded by some people to be the finest field- sports book ever written. Most of the sporting action is set in Ballycroy, near Mulranny, in County Mayo in the late 1800s. To reach Ballycroy, Maxwell had no roads, so he went from Westport by a sailing boat to Croy lodge situated on the estuary of the Owen Duff River. In what was then and still is a very remote place.
He spent more than three months there hunting, shooting and fishing with his friend who owned the lodge, and recording his experiences in his book. My stories all relate to that area, but in particular to a fishing Lodge named Shean, which has been used by my family since the mid1930’s.
These are stories which I have shared and heard repeatedly in Shean's dining room, with friends and family, under soft lights, lots of laughter, and a glass or two of wine.
Shean: First visit in 1948
It’s hard to remember back sixty-one years to 1948, but I will do my best. Then, preparations were essential when making the 180-mile road journey from Dublin to Mayo. The problems were the roads - or lack of them - rationed petrol and troublesome telephones for seeking forward route information.
My Uncle Robert, for some unknown reason suggested that I would accompany him and my grandfather on my first trip to Shean. They arrived at my father’s house to collect me on a fine dry morning in early April at 6am. Robert drove a bright green 1920, Crossly car, which had a canvass roof, a brass radiator and headlamps. It was a four-door car, where the doors closed against each other, and the running boards were fitted underneath the doors.
Another feature added by my father was a gas producer (used to substitute petrol), which was mounted at the rear of the car. It looked to me like a series of joined up metal rubbish tins attached by a rubber hose to a canvass balloon mounted on the car roof. A charcoal fire under a metal dust bin produced gas, which was stored in the balloon and used to drive the car. On either side of the dust bin were extra sacks of charcoal used to produce the gas. Additional fuel was stored in the back of the car, along with our food for the stay, together with fishing gear, three spare tyres, and a very large black Labrador dog and, of course, myself.
There was no contest as to who controlled the back seat. Bobby won every round, spreading himself across the top of the charcoal and leaving a bare amount of room for me, so that it was difficult to know where the dog began, and I ended or vice versa, as we both were covered in char-coal dust. My Uncle was a tall and thin man in his early forties, dressed in Donegal tweeds and fours and grandfather was a copy of his son. He was almost seventy years old, but shorter and looked more slightly pregnant than actually fat. He differentiated himself from Robert by sporting a pork pie hat.
They began to sing as soon as we got on the main road, and the dog joined in too. As we progressed, people waved to us. My relations were delighted. It was not until some brave soul stood in front of the car to stop it, did they realise that our stock was on fire and was quickly extinguished. The first seventy miles of the road to Longford were good enough. We made a steady average fifteen miles per hour, arriving in Longford at ten thirty.
There was a Fair in Longford town, where we breakfasted in the Arms' hotel. Outside, the streets were busy with lots of cattle standing on the main road as well as sheep, calves, vegetables, also stands selling boots, men’s and women’s clothing, tools, carts of hay. A mobile blacksmith was in attendance, and a preacher called out that the end of the world was nigh, which is quite worrying when you are seven years old.
Uncle Robert and grandfather were in the cattle business, so they knew a lot of the cattle dealers who also breakfasted in the hotel. He and grandfather joined in a discussion group on some current problem in the cattle business, which required a lot of lubrication in the form of whisky.
In Longford, we were required to phone forward to discover which road was passable, a process which took more than an hour. It was determined that the road to Longford via Elphin (the northern route) was the best. Our roads had changed for the worst, not helped much by the long liquid breakfast. The tarmac road gave way to huge ruts and loose stones. A tyre was changed on average every ten miles, and our speed was reduced to ten miles per hour.
We met hardly any other traffic on the journey except for an occasional lorry. To make the journey more interesting for me; grandfather had me count the numbers of slated houses between the towns. I still remember in the average was five in the eight miles between them. The remainder were all thatched. At Frechpark, we had our four punctures repaired again in a local garage while we ate our lunch. The remainder of the journey required further six puncture repairs and took nine hours to complete. We had to extinguish another fire in the charcoal by reversing the car into Lock Mallard near Castlebar.
At Mullrany, a village about ten miles from Ballycroy, it was nearing dusk when we stopped at Cleggan Mountain for a call of nature. Grandfather looked at the hill top and pointed to what he thought was an eagle. I now know it was not, but it might very well have been an Osprey, which was blown off course while migrating to Norway; I have never seen one since in Ireland.
Another mile up the road we saw thousands of tons of cut turf, which were to be moved to Westport by lorry and then by train to Dublin to fuel the fires, as coal was still scarce, due to World War Two. It was a pitch-black night, when we went into the pub, the only building in the village of Ballycroy. There we were asked to bring a telegram to Shean. It was the same telegram my Uncle had sent the previous day to warn of our arrival.
Our journey had taken fourteen and a half hours, and we had to extinguish two fires in the charcoal, and repair more than twelve punctures. Now the same journey will take less than three hours on roads of near to motorway standard.
I was carried to bed by Robert, while grandfather led the way holding our only light source a wee Willie Winki candlestick.
Next morning, I woke up in a big strange house, which I began to explore. It had eight bed rooms covered with timber V board sheeting, a pleasant dining room, a spacious lounge and a country kitchen. I walked down the eight foot wide corridor with its twenty foot high ceiling. On one of the walls where racks, were fourteen-foot green- heart salmon fishing rods, with the silk fishing lines were pulled out to dry. On the floor beneath them were glass bowls of water in which gut casts were soaking, waiting to be used.
Through the lounge window, I saw the Shean rock and like every young person, I had to climb its twenty-odd feet and take a look from the summit. I stared out across 22,000 hectares of blanket bog. The area was covered in heather and wild multi-coloured grasses extending into the L shape of the Nephin Mountains, divided for as far as the eye could see by the Owenduff river. We had fishing rights on it for more than fourteen miles. Only two or three dwellings were visible. This was the legendry adult play ground I was to fall in love with.
If you would like to experience the River Shean and meet Ramor click here to view the fishing opportunities in this location.
Some Background on the Shean
Shean is built on the high ground fifty yards from the river. It is served by two roads - one from Ballycroy and the other from Ballveaney. They extend into bog for three miles. The bog then expands into thousands of acres of mountain, streams, forest and lakes and is now a national Park. Next to the house is a large rock named Shean, meaning in the Irish language Fairy.
It was said that when builders came to construct the house in the 1850’s, when they blasted the rock to make the site larger, after the first explosion, blood was said to have flowed from the rock. The terrified builders fled, leaving the rock as it remains today, broken in two pieces.
Everyone who has ever visited Shean has their own stories to tell about the place and its people, and this is mine. It is a love story - of salmon angling, family, and adventure. Inspiration from my childhood mentor Frank Mc is in the background; his family is still what makes Shean Lodge such a special place for those of us who have had the privilege to experience its wonders.