Swept away on my own river of life


WATERFORD:In the first of a series in which writers reflect on their own county, we visit DERVLA MURPHY’s Waterford, from the curve of hill and valley to the twists of Ireland’s oldest road. But none has quite the same pull as the bend of the Blackwater river

I HAVE HAD an intimate relationship with the Blackwater since my father taught me to swim in 1934 – an important rite of passage, though I can’t remember it. Here in west Waterford the river has come a long way from its source near the Cork/Kerry border and is quite close to its Youghal Bay estuary. It flows between steep wooded ridges – sombre in winter, lacy green in spring, heavily green in summer and in autumn a glowing conflagration. To the north, in the near distance, rise the gentle blue curves of the Knockmealdown mountains.

East and west of Lismore one may walk all day, seeing nobody, through a dog’s paradise of woodlands and riverside meadows where the terrain cannot have changed much since the second century. Then, Ptolemy took time off from star-gazing and composed a map of the known world – including the Blackwater, already an important trading route. For lack of Romans, land transport inhibited Irish commerce until comparatively recently.

Gradually, over the decades, nature has wrought numerous changes in this tranquil corner of the Barony of Coshmore and Coshbride. Aged trees have surrendered to gales, or to the slow erosion of their supporting hedgerows, and now lie or lean at odd angles, wearing frills of fungi and housing an abundance of insects. An 18th-century salmon weir has been dismantled by floods. Banks of sand and gravel come and go, creating temporary current-free inlets suitable for teaching small children to swim. Every winter brings certain modifications, usually subtle, but dramatic when great chunks of pastureland are torn away. Other river-bed transformations can seem almost magical, as when a deep, dark, glossy stretch is replaced, within a very few years, by a sparkling amber torrent, shallow enough for its stones to be visible.

In the 1950s and 1960s a dying willow was my diving-board, but it now lies level with the bank, forming a highway for mink – beautiful creatures, though widely and rightly resented. Since their arrival, the swans that habitually nested on the islet near the collapsed weir, just upstream from Lismore castle, have moved house. Responsible swans don’t lay eggs within reach of mink. So I can no longer watch the tiny cygnets (little bigger than ducklings) rapidly becoming fawn-grey adolescents. Swan life, being such a joy to watch, encourages anthropomorphism. They seem the ideal family, parents mutually loving and faithful and sharing childcare, adolescents happy to hang out with parents until something hormonal tells them its time to seek a mate.

Otter families are much rarer and even more endearing. In midsummer I like to swim at sunrise, and one year two adults and a juvenile often appeared nearby. If I was already in the water, they ignored me and played: all three having fun, chasing each other, doing gymnastics on a half-submerged fallen branch. Then one would move off to fish for breakfast while the others continued to frolic. It seemed I was no threat while swimming very slowly and quietly. But if they arrived first, and saw me walking towards them, they immediately vanished.

One memorable morning I met an otter on the path, sitting on his haunches, sucking a swan’s egg. On an even more memorable morning my dogs interrupted an otter’s breakfast by the water’s edge – an aberrant otter, no doubt: allegedly, they never catch salmon. That five-pounder became several suppers; I had carried it home furtively, wrapped in colt’s-foot leaves, hoping not to be reported to the Duke of Devonshire’s bailiff.

Along this valley, on an average day, one sees what I think of as “the quintet”: moorhen, duck, cormorant, heron, swan. The cormorants conspicuously colonise a dead elm for several years, then move on, then return. The herons stay put, always building their sprawling, noisome nests in the highest branches of towering sycamores or chestnuts. They are responsible for littering the banks with large horse-mussel shells, once used by the locals as spoon substitutes – a poignant reminder of bygone days when many in this area lived in extreme poverty, while up and down this valley stately homes were being embellished and spacious demesnes expanded.

On lucky days a winged jewel flashes past: kingfishers nest where tangled tree roots protrude from the bank above a semi-stagnant inlet. Occasionally the jewel perches on an alder branch and if I go still, treading water, I may see his lightning dive for something unidentifiable. On other lucky days flocks of wild geese follow the river, their powerful wing music stirring a mysterious emotion, a mix of reverence and diffuse nostalgia.

Less common, nowadays, are the iridescent curlew flocks, their plaintive cries not matching their joyous, precisely choreographed swirlings across a wide sky. In recent years a few newcomers have appeared among the cattle: slim, Persil-white egrets, suggesting climate change.

One May afternoon in 1941 I saw something unforgettable. My parents and I were approaching the Blackwater estuary, on our way to Whiting Bay, when suddenly a man waving a red flag leaped out of a ditch. He had probably been dozing; in those days motor traffic merely trickled and our Ford Ten was the only car on the road. Then, before my very eyes, Youghal bridge seemed to disintegrate. Quickly it came apart and a three-mast schooner with an auxiliary engine sailed past us on its way to Cappoquin – or maybe it was going to turn up the Bride with a cargo for Tallow. Twenty years later I was to see from my bicycle saddle one of the last merchant schooners taking advantage of the tide between Camphire and Dromana.

The sight of that splendid vessel sailing upstream, past waving fishermen grouped below Ballintray House, put my father into pedagogic gear. I associated the Blackwater with beauty, silence and solitude, but now I learned about it as a crowded thoroughfare of considerable commercial and military importance. For some 2,000 years, boat and ship-building were a crucial part of riverside life; in the 19th century 50-tonne barges were still being built in such unlikely (to us) places as Ballyduff and Affane. The variety of cargoes carried up and down the Blackwater and Bride indicate how multi-skilled were these communities. Boat-builders, sail-makers, wool-combers and spinners and weavers, stone masons, fishermen, wood-cutters, sand-spreaders, iron smelters, lime burners, leather tanners, basket makers, flour millers, bacon curers, cider brewers, rope makers – each person valued for his or her particular contribution to the local economy. Such people must have enjoyed a high level of self-respect. Now too many of their descendants are reduced to using technologies that minimise physical labour but can’t do much for the individual’s amour-propre.

Seventy years ago children could do their own summertime thing, unconstrained by our era’s gruesome alliance between health-and-safety neurotics and compo-culture bandwagoneers. At one stage (aged eight or nine) I developed a craving for rides in carts and sometimes ingratiated myself with the amiable young man who took delivery at the railway station of merchandise for the Wine Vaults, Lismore’s main grocery shop. For the many other smaller shops, goods were loaded on handcarts; only the Wine Vaults could afford horse-power. That was an agreeable though too-short ride behind a briskly trotting gelding, a glossy chestnut with a white blaze and an evident sense of his own importance.

More satisfying were the slow four-mile journeys on Patsy Frank’s donkey cart, carrying milk to Cappoquin creamery via Bóthar na Naomh, said to be Ireland’s oldest continually used road. Once upon a time it crossed the Blackwater by the main ford, below the Round Hill. In the 1940s, and long after, it was a pot-holed and deeply rutted boreen, almost overwhelmed in summer by its healthily untamed hedges of ash plants and holly bushes, whitethorn and blackthorn, hazel, elder and crab apple. Through occasional gateways the Blackwater could be glimpsed beyond narrow strips of boggy land, which made Patsy Frank grumpy. Such land could and should be drained, but if the Castle wasn’t interested no one would bother . . .

“The Castle” was shorthand for the Duke of Devonshire’s estate. Infrequently a very old woman (probably much younger than I am now) sought a lift and sat behind the churns wearing a thick black shawl over her head whatever the weather. She must have been among west Waterford’s last “shawlies”.

Approaching the Blackwater Valley Co-op (opened in 1914), one could smell its milkiness and hear the whirring of separators and the distinctive clatter of churns being scoured before the journey home. Around the creamery it seemed no one ever hurried, and the farmers – wearing cloth caps and calf-length overcoats, their trouser legs bound with twine – held long, animated discussions (sometimes becoming angry arguments) while their animals enjoyed oat nosebags or bundles of hay. What were they discussing? Probably milk prices and politics, themes then closely linked. Nowadays, bureaucrats fix milk prices in distant tower blocks.

On the way home we might pause where Bóthar na Naomh is lapped by the Blackwater, and Patsy Frank would light a pipe while gossiping with four nephews who held licences to snap-net salmon just upstream from the Kitchen Hole. Their small, flat-bottomed boats (a model popular over the past 7,000 years) were known as “cots”, which for some reason made me giggle – to Patsy Frank’s irritation. His father (born in 1852) could remember dozens of cots fishing between old Strancally castle and the Bride Mouth.

Each group of cotmen then had rights to a certain stretch – rights defended, when necessary, with fists. A few famed fishermen were credited with a sixth sense that enabled them to “feel” salmon swimming upstream by night.

In 1600, as the New English were tightening their grip, a law banned cots lest insurgents find them useful – this despite so many communities being dependent on fishing. Naturally the cot law was ignored. However, the 1832 cholera epidemic was not ignored; it kept cotmen away from the coast and for months Youghal’s merchants had to collect their salmon from Villierstown quay. By then Blackwater salmon – exchanged for silk or wine – had gained renown across Europe.

Traditionally, the men who tended Lismore’s salmon hatchery beside the Ownashad (a minor Blackwater tributary) were cot-makers in their spare time. As a 12-year-old I joined the crowd who gathered there one evening to exclaim over a record snap-net catch, a 51-and-a-half pound salmon landed by a four-man cot crew.

That summer I was judged sufficiently mature, mentally and physically, to swim alone in a river I already knew so well.

Thereafter my two favourite activities supplemented each other. Cycling allowed me to find various secluded swimming spots between Mocollop, some eight miles west of Lismore, and Villierstown, about the same distance to the east. Downstream from the Kitchen Hole one had to beware of the tide; elsewhere, one had to check for dense underwater weeds.

As a teenager I once swam in the Bride, the Blackwater’s main tributary, without first studying its tidal whims. I forget what prompted that lapse into mental immaturity. But I shall never forget my fear when I realised that I could neither swim back to my starting point nor reach the bank. Along that stretch there was no visible bank, only treacherous, muddy reed-beds.

Not until the tide had carried me down to Camphire bridge was I able to scramble ashore, very cold and very shaken. Luckily, haymakers had been near my starting point; otherwise I would have been naked. I set out to hitch-hike back to my belongings and soon a bemused elderly farmer, driving a cart-load of spires to Sapperton, bravely picked me up and hastily wrapped me in sacking.

I wasn’t the first reckless swimmer to have come ashore at Camphire bridge. The Bride was famous for its reed-beds; to this day one sees a few spires stacked near the bridge. Sadly, people say they have been much weakened by agri-pollution, and for major jobs thatchers must now import from Hungary or Turkey.

Towards the end of the 1950s motor traffic began to replace draft animals, to my great distress. Cyclists dislike sharing roads with other machines. Rapidly the pace of life changed, as did attitudes to farming, which around then became the “agricultural industry” – an ominous semantic shift. (Similarly, publishing became the “book industry”, to the great detriment of non-bestselling authors.) By 1965 very few milk suppliers were driving carts to the creamery.

West Waterford disappoints some of my foreign guests. They protest, ‘It’s too like Sussex or Dorset, too unlike Kerry or Donegal’. I see their point, yet to me west Waterford, south Tipperary and east Cork are incomparably satisfying. Everything is congenial: every curve of the hills and valleys, every bend of the rivers and streams, every distinctive seasonal scent of fields and woods. This territory is my natural habitat, where I’m at ease in all weathers. It doesn’t do to forget that we too are animals, albeit with certain unique capabilities increasingly lethal to our fellow animals.