You can only drink so much coffee, even when it's well made and there's a fine glowing peat fire to sit beside and half a nor'westerly gale straight from Greenland kicking up big green rollers on the beaches of the peninsula. Only so much, because after the second or third cup Brennan or myself or Patsy behind the bar is going to suggest stiffening it up with a little of the John Jameson 15-year-old special, and that would be the end of the morning's bass fishing. And we had a sincere wish to go bass fishing.
It was all Martin Flannery's fault, of course. All the assurances and promises of the night before were hovering above us. Certainly, he knew where the razor clams were, and, sure, we'd be filling a bucket with them in half an hour with plenty of time to catch the first run of the tide. I'd reminded him that the fishing-club secretary claimed they were hard to find this time of the year. "That man," said Flannery with a fine scorn, "knows no more about fishing than a pig knows about a clean shirt." And that seemed to settle that.
Waiting for Flannery. There'd been a lot of that in the past week, hanging around Dingle quayside, watching the tide fall back until it almost, not quite, left the 33-footer on her keel in the harbor mud. Then Flannery would appear, a little, red-eyed, pale man, scurrying out of Long's or Egan's or Ashe's Select Bar, just in time to get her off so that we could go and catch big pollack and coalfish in the races around the Blasket Islands. And, fair enough, in the end he always made it. The old diesel motor of the Sancta Maria would tonk away as he brought us out of the harbor on the last of the tide; he'd stick his head out of the wheelhouse coming round the point, mutter, "God send the fish," and look around wildly to the east and the west for inspiration. Brennan would chant, as he always chanted, the tune that we'd picked up our first evening in Dingle: West for Glory, East for Fish. But Flannery always took us westward to the Blasket races. Never east to the shallow, sand-bottomed water around Inch where the trawlers hauled cod and the big edible flats, turbot and brill, and once in a long while a halibut that might go 200 pounds.
West for glory. You could call it that, all right, when you saw how the tides clashed with the wind over the shallow reefs round Blasket, and the long-toothed rocks came clear out with the sea running back off them, and the black sleek heads of the brave seals bobbing in the swells. Well-fed seals they looked, too, for the reefs were alive with big, rock-haunting pollack that the trawlers could never come near. "You'd nearly want a curragh to fish it right," said Flannery the first time we went out with him, and what he meant was one of the long, black, high-prowed canoes, tarred canvas on a wooden frame, which some of the old Kerry fishermen still used to troll a line for pollack in such places. The curraghs would rise on the water, not in it, so that they could skim with a rising swell right across a big reef and take fish from the sides of it before the seas could break again. "I'll see about borrowing one from me uncle in Brandon Creek," said Flannery, comfortable in the knowledge that he had no uncle in Brandon, turning the slant of his eye on us to see how we took it. Brennan rose to it like a fresh-run trout. "We'd never have room to use the rods in one of those things," he said, lamely. "And besides—"
March 14, 1966
"Of course," said Flannery, ramming home the advantage. "You'd want to be on the sea for a good time before you'd be at home in one of them. There'd not be the like in Dublin Bay, I suppose?" And Brennan could only restore the balance by getting out the cigarettes and a bottle of the hotel beer. "Not right now, thanks," said Flannery, disappearing smugly into the wheelhouse.
But we had caught fish with Flannery, give him that, and yesterday had been the best day of all. The signs were good, right from the start, a mild sou'westerly, not much more than a light air, to move the bait inshore and the fish with it. The mackerel shoals were right close in: as soon as we'd left the harbor we could see the gannets, a couple hundred of them, working over the fish, clapping their wings together, white spear-headed missiles that sent great plumes of water up as they crashed in—timeless, beautiful birds. "Bloody things," said Flannery dispassionately.
But the birds found us the baitfish, and we quickly got out the commercial mackerel lines. These were bright, crude feathered lures tied to nylon heavy enough to moor a carrier. Big sinkers took the lures straight to the bottom. The idea was to feel the sinkers hit, then jig the tackle back to the surface. But long before that came the thump of fish taking hold. And hand over hand the lines came in, rasping on the gunwales, the slim, blue-green fish taking shape deep in the clear water as we hauled, then splashing at the surface, rattling out their lives on the bottom boards and in the fish boxes.
"That'll do," said Brennan. We had more than we needed for bait, and we wanted to get to the real fishing. "They're fetching two quid a box in Dingle," said Flannery, willing us to stay there all day, "and isn't it fine sport?" Brennan reasserted himself: "We will go ahead now, Mr. Flannery, if you please."
"I'll take a drop of that beer, then, before we do," countered Flannery; but for the moment it was Brennan, on points.
As we went ahead we picked up the long, gentle swell that is always off Dingle, even on the softest day. Flannery's face sharpened, visibly pulled itself together as he began to search the high, landward cliffs for marks that he knew, that his father and his father and all the long line of Flannerys had known about the water and the fishing off the Dingle peninsula. "Here's a fine mark for a pollack now," he cried, throttling the motor back and coming up-tide so that we would drift slowly over the rock pinnacle that he was sure was beneath us. He had found it by lining up two posts and a cottage chimney ashore. The pollack rods were set up and ready, old-fashioned two-handed salmon fly rods really, awkward in the boat but the only kind capable of doing justice to large pollack hooked over jungles of rubbery kelp. Flannery, still very professional, was cutting bait, long thin slivers from the mackerel's side that, just nicked on the hook at the broad end, would flow and waver enticingly in the tide at the end of a nine-foot leader that had a light, banana-shaped sinker above it to take it down through the water.
Over the side went the baits. And slowly we eased out line, waiting for the tap that would tell us the sinkers had hit rock so that we would start to reel up again, slowly, almost imperceptibly, until there would be a pluck at the line, and the temptation to stop the bait would be hard to fight down, but it had to be fought so that the pollack would keep coming, would smash fiercely on the bait this time, and the end of the salmon rod would come hard over and into the water as the fish made its first crash dive for the kelp.
The pollack came, as we knew they would, big, gold-burnished, handsome fish that would average out at 14 or 15 pounds. Then a good coalfish, close to 18 pounds, a real trophy for Brennan. ("Well now, an old blackjack," said Flannery, unhooking it and hurling it somewhere into the stern. Coalfish had no market value, and Flannery was a realist.) "Will you want to try for skate now?" No, not really, we thought, though Irish skate are plentiful up to 200 pounds and reach a conceivable 400. Skate meant getting the heavy rods out and still-fishing on the bottom with a whole mackerel. Though there is a certain dour sport attached to the business, it was a slow, waiting game.
Back to the pollack for us, then, and we fished hard, filled the boxes we had, then piled the fish on deck. It was time to head back, so that Flannery could get the fish weighed and boxed and onto the lorry that drove up through the night to the city fish market. We had an understanding that they were all his.
We met Flannery later on at Long's that night, on a pint-for-pint basis. He was dressed in his best blue suit, and as he mellowed we asked him about the surf-fishing bait. Always, we'd found, there was nothing to touch razor clam fished on sand for bass. Did he, Flannery, know where to get some? He looked at us levelly over the creamy froth of his Guinness. Did he, Flannery, know where they were? Sure, he was practically on speaking terms with them. How many bucketfuls would we be needing? He looked at us sternly and warned: "There's one thing, though. You'll have to rise early. None of your late breakfasts tomorrow. I'll be into the hotel to get you out of it." He looked at Brennan severely, as if the man spent hours in bed in the morning with plates of guinea-fowl breasts and plovers' eggs, sybaritic chambermaids and a copy of the Cork Examiner. "See that you're up, now," Flannery ordered as he stoutly walked into the night.
And we had taken him seriously. We were clean and pure and waiting in the hotel lounge staring at our coffee cups from 9 o'clock on. And it looked as if, this time, we'd had it. You can only collect razor clams for bait at low water. We didn't know where the colony was in the wide expanse of the natural harbor, and Flannery did or said he did. Now we were going to be too late.
We wanted those razor clams badly. Certainly, we could have gone out and dug sandworms or found soft-shell crabs in the weedy rocks, and both would have made good bait. But we wanted superb bait, razor clams that would do justice to the great shoals of bass we had located in the surf of the beaches on the northern side of the peninsula.
For a long time Brennan and I had been planning this trip to the white beaches of County Kerry, where miles of rich Atlantic surf had never been fished. The Irish have always been great sport-fishermen—for salmon and trout. It is only the last few years that they have looked to the sea for other than their food, and in the wild south and west the sport-fishing possibilities remain almost unexplored. You might see a few of the locals with light glass rods and spinning reels casting away from the nearest rock or jetty for mackerel, but that is all. Surf-casting gear is practically unknown. How would you be getting fish now, in those big waves?
Brennan and I knew, so we had come to Dingle, the longest of the wild, green fingers that Ireland thrusts out into the Atlantic, the most westerly land in Europe. If you go into the little shop at Dunquin and ask for a brand of tobacco or something else they haven't got, the girl will direct you to try next door. You look out at the wild expanse of moorland, boulder and cliff and then bewilderedly look back at her. This is the moment she's been waiting for. "Macy's, New York City," comes the practiced reply.
But what we wanted most now, waiting around in Benner's Hotel, was first Flannery and then some razor clams. He was exactly an hour overdue. "I'll Flannery him," said Brennan, and the little girl who'd come in to tend the fire looked up. "If it's Martin Flannery you're wanting, he's after going round the corner with his big drum." A wild, surrealist note was entering the proceedings. And then Brennan hit on it. Easter weekend. The independence celebrations. Flannery was away to a procession that he had forgotten about last night and didn't like to mention today. In confirmation, the thin, rhythmic music of a fife-and-drum band came wafting down the street. "It's Mr. Flannery's band you're hearing now," said the girl. Brennan's Dublin blood was roused at these hick antics. His face became even redder than usual. "We'll soon have him out of that," he roared.
Not so easy. With the big drum, Flannery should have been bringing up the rear. Instead, he was protectively flanked by other Flannerys, all small, pale men in flat caps. The band switched from Kevin Barry to Sean South of Garryowen. We drove behind in low gear, the rods all set up in the back of Brennan's station wagon, everything there except the bait. "He can't keep this up for long," said Brennan. "He'll be into Ashe's or Sullivan's when they get to the top of the hill." And, right enough, there was Flannery shedding the big drum, passing it on to an eager, pale cousin and slipping into Sullivan's. "You take the back door," said Brennan. We closed in on him.
Whatever Flannery lacked, it wasn't a sense of guilt. You could tell by the way he pretended there was nothing amiss, then drained his pint in one long gurgle. "You'll be having one yourselves before we go?" asked Flannery hopefully. Brennan just looked at him.
We could see why Flannery was trying to postpone the evil hour when we got down to the harbor. The tide was at quarter flood. No razor clams for us. "We'll find some anyway," said Flannery. "They're queer creatures here." But nature couldn't bend the rules that far, even for Flannery. "So help me, they must have migrated in the night. Would you like to go to a wedding instead? Me sister's getting married." Even Brennan was silenced. We went back to the wagon, and there was a man walking down the road with a bucket of razor clams. Flannery took him aside, engaged him in whispered conversation. All I heard was a plaintive, "They were for my supper." And then the man was away, and Flannery was coming back with the bucket. "I knew we'd get some," said he with no shame at all. "I had to give him a pound, though." Speculatively this, with a sideways look. Brennan obliged, and Flannery went off with the pound to his sister's wedding.
No wedding for Brennan and me then. With our razor clams we were into the wagon and off over the black mountains that ran like a great raised spine down the middle of the peninsula. We climbed first through green moorland where curly-horned rams with the whitest fleeces I have ever seen gazed at us through the soft Kerry rain that could easily change to sunshine on the far side of Connor Pass, so changeable and dramatic the weather there. And so it was. When we reached the top by the shining granite walls of the road cut through the mountain, a huge sunburst illuminated the peak of Mount Brandon, and laid out before us were the dark tarns that held trout and the gleaming thread of the Cloghane River, where the salmon and white trout ran 3,000 feet below. Away and beyond, Castlegregory strand with the surf creaming on it, and on the horizon the dark-blue shadow shapes of the Magharee Islands, the Seven Hogs of Irish mythology.
We dropped down to the tree line, low stunted thorns that had been bent by the gales until they grew that way. Then there were hedged fields, and we found the road that ran parallel with the coast. Fourteen miles of beach stretched ahead. It was hard to know where to start, but we began to look for those focal points around which bass gather on an otherwise featureless shore. Stradbally village went by, and then we saw two likely spots, a pair of stony little streams that crossed half a mile of bog and sand to the sea. They could put hardly more than a taste of fresh water into the tide, but that might be enough to draw the fish. Alongside the near one, a rough stony track just big enough to take the wagon led down to the shore, and down we went, impatient to be pulling on the thigh waders that were essential on these Kerry beaches if you had to throw a longline to get behind the surf, and impatient to feel the pull of the tide and the thump of a taking fish.
It was beautiful water. There were four long breaker lines rolling in to meet the small offering of the stream. Brennan was baited up and in the water before me, and I half expected to be gaffing a bass for him before I was fishing myself. But no. Not a twitch. And the baits, those perfect razor-clam baits, were coming back untouched. But all that promise could not go unfulfilled. Simultaneously we saw the gulls working at the edge of the tide, away up the beach where the other stream came in. We took off, running the half mile down the beach—two large galloping surf fishermen, somewhat overweight from rich Irish feeding, in thigh waders with all equipment flying. We were out for the kill.
I had never seen a sight like it before. As I waded to cast, a big green roller began to topple 50 yards out. And all along it, in the vivid neon green of the Kerry water, were thousands of bass. Brennan was yelling, nothing in particular, just yelling. And now the bass weren't 50 yards away, they were all around me, erect dorsal fins cutting the water.
We were both into fish straightaway, and we backed up to beach and unhooked them as fast as we could. In again, and the score began to build up. Sixteen, 18, 20 good bass. The fish ran mostly five to six pounds, the best of them around 10—good size for European sea bass (Morone labrax). On Ireland's western beaches, as on this occasion, the bass can be present in great numbers. It is magnificent sport on light tackle.
But Brennan, always a weak character, brought it to an end. He wanted his tea (Irish high tea: steak, ham, chops, eggs, accompanied by a huge portion of french-fried potatoes and onions; a brown home-baked loaf and a dish of fresh butter). He pointed out that without suitable nourishment we might quickly become exhausted and expire on the beach. Better by far, he thought, if we came back that evening, fortified. Anyway, every fisherman knew that bass took better in the dark. I did not point out that it would be impossible for them to take better than they were at that moment. Maybe I wanted my tea, too.
We hauled the fish back over the stream to the car, sure of a welcome in town from all our acquaintances. There was even a fish for Flannery, too late for the wedding but acceptable enough, no doubt.
It wasn't too late. The bride and groom might have left for Cork City, but no one else had. Flannery was sitting on the bar, leading the singing of My Old Fenian Gun, with a lot of other Flannerys joining in, a little inappropriately since this had been an entirely respectable wedding. Well, who were we to be skeletons at the feast? And didn't we ourselves have something to celebrate?
It was a lot of John Jameson later that I realized Brennan still intended going back to the beach that night, myself and Flannery with him. '"Isn't it fair," said Brennan, "isn't it right and proper that Martin here should see how well those fine razor clams he managed to get for us work on the bass?" I should have known better. But I went.
The John Jameson bore us up all the way over the mountains, and when we came to the little stony track again Flannery had a good idea. "Now, there's no need to be walking all the way up the beach to the second stream. We'll take the car on a little and cut down a bit of a track I know that'll bring us right there."
In the two hours it took us to reach the sea, Brennan had gone armpit-deep in bog and was hauled out, Flannery fell in the stream and I spent a quarter of an hour in a bramble patch, just waiting for the banshee to come and get me. We had, of course, forgotten to bring flashlights. There were a lot of other things as well that I've forgotten now, but we did make it onto the beach in the end, looking for the white band of surf to tell us where the tide was in the pitch dark. We found it, too, and cast out and stood there expectantly. We waited and waited, happy that Brennan had brought the Jameson with him and preserved it from all harm except what it could do to us.
What we didn't realize was that the tide was going out. We stood there on the sands for a good hour before Brennan said he fancied there wasn't much water there. There was none at all. We reeled up. On the end of my line was a very small, very dead bass. He must have taken straight away, and I was too anesthetized to notice the bite. "That's a fine fish," said Flannery. I tried hard to detect the irony in his voice but failed.
But there must have been an ironic point somewhere on the morning we left for home, when Flannery came to the hotel door with two small flatfish carefully wrapped in newspaper. "For the missus," he said.