FATHER leaned out the window of Betsy his Morris Minor and studied the ground by the side of the road. “What are you looking for?” I asked. “Landmines,” he said. “This is bandit country and I’m taking no chances.” Tullynawood lough straddles the Irish border among the rugged hills of South Armagh – an area where support for the ‘armed struggle’ of the Provisional Irish Republican Army was uncompromising and old hatreds run deep. The British army base at Crossmaglen was supplied by air. Captain Robert Nairac of the SAS was abducted and his body never found. Informers regularly turned up in bin bags with a bullet in the head. It took days to recover a body from the side of a country road because of the fear of booby traps. Four years later Protestants like us were machine-gunned as they worshiped at their church in the nearby village of Darkley in a naked act of ethnic cleansing.
Why Northern Ireland’s Department of Agriculture decided to stock this particular water with its new American rainbow trout was a mystery. Perhaps the civil servants were pretty sure the exotic fish would get relative peace here and a chance to thrive among the remote bogs and drumlins that were well away from the tourist trail – such as it was in Northern Ireland during the 1970s. There were warning signs about dangerous marl deposits along the lough shore. An angler could fall through this deceptive clay crust and disappear into a sink hole – as if the South Armagh brigade of the IRA was not enough of a deterrent. This was an experimental fishery. The scientists were not quite sure how the rainbow trout, a creature from the crystal clear streams of California and British Columbia, would fare in the tea-coloured and acidic still waters of old Ireland.
Satisfied there were no trip-wires or landmines father pulled his head in through the car window, his old walnut pipe reeking with the distinctive aroma of St Bruno Ready-Rubbed. It was the best midge deterrent known to man. He pulled the car off the road, dragged his tweed cap over a balding head and stepped out into the ditch. We donned Wellingtons and coats and put up fly rods. A strong breeze at our backs raised a modest wave on the lough. Father believed a good ‘curl’ on the water was necessary to disguise an artificial fly. If the breeze dropped he would put the rod down and stoke up the pipe in anticipation of a midge attack. “Don’t forget the landing net,” he instructed and slammed the car boot closed. We swung our legs over a low stone wall and dropped into the field beyond. A few scrawny sheep watched with disinterest as we made our way to the shore and the forbidding waters of the lough. The only other fisherman was a lanky heron which lifted silently into the air like a Harrier Jump Jet as we approached. Father prodded the ground in front of him with a stick as we neared the water’s edge but the earth seemed solid enough.
The rainbow trout fascinated him. A fly fisherman since boyhood, like his father before him, he was a natural born angler and risk taker. He ran away from home at the age of 15 to join the Royal Engineers and was a radio operator in a Churchill Tank when German mortar fire blew his foot off at the Battle of the Rhine.
He knew something about landmines for his job had been to clear them. Though surgeons amputated his left leg above the knee it did not stop him climbing fences and ditches along the waterways of his native County Derry. As a child I was often tucked under one strong arm and a cane rod under the other as he headed to inaccessible places where trout were big, strong and free rising. He had an instinctive Scottish Presbyterian love of book learning and could quote Robert Burns. He read somewhere that the rainbow trout was the biggest, strongest and most free rising trout of all. Not wirey and wily like its native Irish cousin. These long, thin brown trout of the peaty lakes and rivers he often dismissed as a no more than ‘auld whangs’. He dreamed of the big-boned trout to be found in the limestone loughs of the west and the savage, spotted monsters of the lowland rivers like the Bann. Trout that were well fed on vast hatches of fat sedges and Mayflies that fell upon the water like snowflakes in late spring. He was no purist about wild fish. The rainbow was a worthy adversary in his book – even if it was government bred.
He uncoiled a nylon cast from his wallet and tied on three carefully selected wet flies. He had no idea what would attract a rainbow trout but his best guess was something big and flashy. After all it was an American trout. On the point went a large Invicta with its distinctive flash of jungle cock. The middle dropper received a medium-sized and hairy Claret and Mallard and on the top dropper was tied a small white-winged Coachman’s – three classic Irish lake patterns. They imitate the big bugs that hatch on the lake bed shallows and drift to the surface for their fatal mating dance before falling back to a watery grave. They are difficult to see in the dark lough – unless you are a hungry trout looking up from below where they are silhouetted against the brighter sky.
The weather forecast was not good. Rain was on its way from the west. Collars were turned up against a sudden shower as our first tentative casts caressed the water. Each retrieve was tense with anticipation of a savage take and a vigorous run from a sturdy transatlantic interloper. Twenty yards apart, we fished down the shoreline for a good quarter of a mile before encountering a water-logged ditch that was clearly too deep for knee-length boots. The ground around it was soggy and felt like walking on a trampoline. A barbed-wire fence ran out into the lake to keep the sheep from straying onto the dangerous ground. Father parked himself on a rocky tussock and lit up. From his pocket he produced two Mars bars and tossed one at me. It was soft and smelled faintly of tobacco. “I think I’ll change the Invicta for a Silver Horn,” he said and studied his little aluminium fly box. “You try this wee Peter Ross on the point.”
The weak spring sun dropped toward the western hillside on our right as we walked back up-wind to fish down the shoreline again with the breeze at our backs. A fox patrolled nonchalantly along the stone wall by roadside and stopped to give us the once-over before disappearing like a skilful magician in the blink of an eye. His quarry was rabbit. An old tractor sped along the road with a load of empty milk churns rattling, breaking the deep rural silence like a late night drunk singing on his way home from the pub. Life goes on – even in the middle of a bitter civil war. We fished on. Father would not give up easily. In summer he would fish all night risking a serious rebuke from my mother who was the family worrier. He picked up the rod on St Patrick’s Day each year and put it down again at the end of September. The only thing that drove him off the water was a serious ‘fangle’ – a tangled cast that could not be fixed or replaced in poor light.
As a boy I never thought there was anything odd about my father. Yes, he had a tin leg with a little adjustment wheel at the knee and a broad leather strap which secured it to his waist, but he fished and played golf, danced at weddings and roamed the countryside. He drove a car by placing his tin leg on the clutch and depressing it with his hand. He never missed a gear. He rowed a leaky boat across the lakes of Donegal and waded into fast flowing rivers. It never occurred to me that if he fell into deep water the leg would take him straight to the bottom.
By day he worked in Belfast, as a clerk for the Imperial Civil Service, alongside other wounded war veterans. Its headquarters at Tyrone House was a labyrinth of stone stairwells, creaking lift shafts and dusty filing cabinets. It was blown up twice by the Belfast brigade of the IRA. The windows were covered in a lattice of tape in readiness for the next attack. In the summer holidays I would go with him to the Derry office which was a modern building with a fine view down the Foyle estuary. Many of his closest friends and colleagues were also ex-servicemen who had a limb missing. His wound was rarely mentioned – even when the stump of his leg was red raw from too much walking. In his 70s he phoned me once and said: “I want you to take me to Berlin.” Bemused, I asked why. “According to the Irish Times the Germans make the best artificial legs in the world,” he added. “They owe me one.”
As darkness fell on Tullynawood, the sky cleared, the moon and stars appeared and the wind and temperature dropped. The lough became still and glassy in the lull before the storm. Father removed his cap and scratched his head. These were poor conditions for trout fishing. “We’ll give it another half an hour and see if the breeze gets up again. Then we better head for home. Your mother will be worried,” he said. He threw a lazy cast across the ebony surface of the water, tucked the rod beneath his arm and let the line sink. I knew this to be the tactics of despair.
He pulled the pipe from his pocket and lit-up, carefully putting the used Swan Vesta back in the box to leave no trace of litter. Great puffs of St Bruno rose gently into the chill evening air scattering the midges as they regrouped a squadron for a final and determined offensive. The smoking ritual complete, he started a slow figure-of-eight retrieve before the cast hit the bottom and snagged.
The water boiled and the walnut pipe fell from his mouth. Line raced off his Hardy reel making the ratchet scream. “Christ on a bicycle,” he said and swiftly raised the rod to set the hook. The fish seized the Silver Horn deep in the dark, still waters. Then it took to the air and tail-walked for several yards, shaking its head in an effort to throw the barb. This was no whang. Out in the darkness we could see this bar of silver raging in the moonlight. “Get the landing net,” said father. He almost stepped on his pipe, glowing in the gloom, as he struggled to hold the beast. It made the eight-weight rod dance and the inky waters swirl. Too much pressure would break the cast. Too little and the hook might work loose. Three times he brought it skilfully toward the net. I was a seasoned netsman. “Bring the fish to the net not the net to the fish,” was his mantra. But three times this fish found the strength to dive for the depths again. We knew it was beaten when on the fourth approach it lolled over onto one side showing the flashes of pink and blue that give it its name. It slid over the edge of the mesh and filled the net. I needed two hands to lift it clear of the water and onto the grass. We gazed down in wonder and silence as great fat drops of rain began to fall.
Father forgot to extinguish the pipe properly. It burst into flames inside his pocket as we drove home through the storm – destroying a good tweed jacket and provoking a fit of colourful blasphemy which was another lasting legacy of the Royal Engineers. The news on the radio was grim. Lord Louis Mountbatten had been killed in an explosion aboard his boat at Mullaghmore in Sligo and a roadside blast had killed 18 soldiers at Narrow Water near Newry.
“Landmines” said father.