“Met Eireann has urged citizens on the west coast to ‘take action’ to protect themselves and their properties as the most significant levels of rainfall in decades are expected over the course of today.” – Irish Times 5/11/15.
THERE is some truth in the old joke that Rainlanders love to tell outsiders – for half of the year the lake is in Fermanagh and for the other half Fermanagh is in the lake. But science has yet to produce convincing evidence to support the popular claim that the 60,000 people who live on the shores of Lough Erne have webbed feet.
God designed the north west of Ireland to be wet. About one third of Fermanagh is water. It has the Darty, Bluestack and Sperrin mountains on its flanks. At its back is Ireland’s soggy hinterland of bogs. The next parish to the west is in Newfoundland and Rainland faces the incoming weather systems from the Atlantic Ocean with a stoic grimace.
The prevailing Arctic winds sweep in from the west picking up moisture as they cross the warm North Atlantic Drift which starts in the Caribbean but flows north as far as Ireland’s western shore bringing turtles and tuna fish. When the polar winds reach land they deposit their liquid cargo in a hurry. The weather station at Castle Archdale, which was a flying boat base on the shores of Lough Erne during World War Two, reveals that it rains on average 200 days a year. The wettest month is December. Fermanagh is not the wettest place in these islands, that dubious honour goes to the English Lake District, but it is twice as wet as Ireland’s east coast.
Phonebox: Castlecaldwell, Co Fermanagh. (click to enlarge)
Like the Inuit, who have 300 words for snow, Rainlanders will tell you there are five kinds of rain. The skift is a short and light shower which falls without warning from an almost clear sky. It is little more than a nuisance, will dry off quickly. It is nothing that will spoil your day. Rainlanders are oblivious to it.
The smur is a thick mist which settles in on cloudy days, shuts down visibility to a few yards, clings to clothes and quickly makes them damp. It is barely an inconvenience to those Rainlanders who toil out of doors. They hardly notice it, even when it is a heavy smur that lasts all day.
The drizzle is a heavier and more sustained shower which arrives with a whoosh and leaves the ill-prepared person wet through, if they are caught in the open unprepared. Rainlanders grumble and shrug it off but outsiders squeal and run for shelter in doorways.
Then there is lashin’ – proper rain. Leaden skies open and send down plump water droplets that wash away anything that is not properly secured, filling streams and rivers with a raging brown tide. Where once there was a gentle trickle there is a dangerous torrent. This type of downpour can last all day and makes old bridges groan. Drivers proceed with caution because the puddles are deep enough to drown the engine. Rainlanders grit their teeth and thole it.
Finally there is proper lashin’ – rain that comes down like stair-rods – as the Rainlanders describe it. This deluge is the heaviest, most prolonged and most unwelcome kind of precipitation. It is frightening to behold and it hurts if you are foolish enough to get caught in it. It falls like the devil’s judgment on the righteous. Clergymen drop to their knees and old dogs whimper. Farmers curse, wave their fists at the sky and reach for the whiskey bottle. Crops are flattened and left water-logged in the fields. Children become tearful and clutch at their mothers’ skirts. Drivers are forced to pull over because windscreen wipers cannot perform fast enough. Gutters on buildings struggle to cope and gurgle in protest. Water jets out of downpipes like a high-pressure hose. Spray bounces off roofs and windows with a drumming noise like a frenzied Orange band. Where once there were roads there are rivers. The raging brown tide becomes frothy and devours river banks, uprooting trees and carrying off sheep. The surface of lakes is whipped into a frenzy of hissing and spitting. Small boats strain at their moorings and sink. Ground that was once solid underfoot becomes spongiform.
It is the kind of rain that drives teetotallers into public bars and the beasts of the fields to bellow in the shelter of hedgerows. It can last for hours. Just when you think it is over, and a heavy smur takes its place, it can come back again. It is evil rain and nails the old lie: “There’s nothing wrong with the weather if you wear the right clothes.”
If a family is a community linked by blood, the Fermanagh people are a community linked by rain for rain is frequent and a powerful force which shapes their lives and their landscape. They have learned to live with its moods and exploit if for gain or for pleasure. If you can see the hills, they say, it is going to rain. If you can’t see the hills it is already raining.
The escape valve for all this water is the River Erne. It rises on the slopes of Slieve Glah in the county of Cavan in the Republic of Ireland and flows 90 miles to the sea at Ballyshannon in Donegal draining a huge valley. For much of that journey it is lake and is in Fermanagh. Upper Lough Erne is a complex maze of channels and islands. A broad sluggish river connects it to Lower Lough Erne.
Misty morning: Muckross Bay, Lower Lough Erne, Co Fermanagh (click to enlarge)
The county town of Enniskillen is built on an island between the two great lakes. Its most distinctive building, was constructed in 1614 and is called the Watergate. Flooding was a major problem throughout the county until the 1950s when the construction of a lock at Portora and two hydro electricity power stations downstream helped regulate the flow. There has not been a drought for a generation but if it does happen the lock can be closed to allow safe navigation in the upper lough. There is an agreement with the Republic’s Electricty Supply Board that ensures water levels in the lower lough do not drop below a level considered safe by the hire cruiser companies. Lower Lough Erne is 18 miles long and becomes a wide expanse of water, 200ft deep in places.
The Sixth Duke of Westminster was a Rainlander and grew up at Ely Lodge outside Enniskillen. He spoke with much affection about his Rainland boyhood. His cousin, the sixth Earl of Erne, still lives in the county at Crom Castle near Newtownbutler on the upper lough where he occasionally plays host to royalty. The river passes through the village of Belleek, famed for its pottery, and over the border again through the two hydro-electricity stations before squeezing through a narrow channel below the power station in Ballyshannon and into the tide.
There are probably more fish in Fermanagh than the rest of Northern Ireland put together. The Erne simply teems with piscine life. In its day it was a salmon fishery to rival any in these islands. The High Court judge TC Kingsmill Moore, author of the 1960 classic, A Man May Fish, described it as a vanished Eden ‘the most perfect of salmon rivers’ before the lower reaches were drowned by the hydro schemes. Last year I met a man who told me that 40lb fish were so common in his youth that anglers would leave them by the roadside for the locals to take home for dinner. The system still gets a decent run of big fish late in the year. They pause below the power station at Cliff, in a stretch about a quarter of a mile long and 100 yards, wide before making their way through the fish pass and into the lakes.
There are a dozen tributaries of which my favourite is the Ballinamallard river which has been made accessible by Northern Ireland’s Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure. Scrub and weeds grow well in Rainland – Ireland’s Mato Grosso.
There are good stocks of wild brown trout in the lower lough which is also managed by DCAL but a shortage of funding threatens the future of a hatchery which helps secure the future of the native strain of brownie. The mayfly hatch in June can be spectacular. Big bugs drop like snowflakes upon whiskey-coloured water from Eagle Point in the west to Muckross Bay on the eastern shore. There are ferox and now and again somebody hooks one of over 20lb. In autumn the first floods bring big lake trout into the streams to spawn. The locals pursue them with hefty spinners and big balls of worms the size of a child’s fist. The sheltered estuary holds good sea trout and can be fished from the shore or by boat.
But I love to wade the little stony rivers that trickle into the lough from all directions including from across the border where no licence is required for brown trout. Most of these are seldom fished. In summer every pool has a stock of greedy little brownies which are heroic fighters on a two-weight fly rod. You will catch them a dozen to the hour.
It was during a day’s ‘ditch crawling’ with my Bolton-born buddy Geoff Lomax that we encountered an international legal conundrum which can only be found in this part of the world.
“Lankie born and Lankie bred,” Geoff describes himself before adding “strong in arm and thick in head.” We waded down the Waterfoot River, which forms the boundary between the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, just a few miles from Pettigo in County Donegal on the old Barton Estate. The Barton family, also from Lancashire, were granted the land after fighting in Ireland alongside the Earl of Essex in 1599. The estate on the shores of Lough Erne was the scene of the last military action to be fought in the UK in June 1922. The engagement, during the Irish Civil War, began with snipers and machine gun fire and ended with heavy artillery, an amphibious landing and a running battle over hedges and streams that left around 40 dead including civilians.
It was on this forgotten battlefield that Geoff hooked a trout while standing on the Republic’s side of the stream. He was forced to step into the UK to get the landing net under a playful little trout of around a half pound. “If I didn’t have a Northern Ireland licence,” he asked “Would I have committed an offence?” I put the poser to my learned friend Stephen McCourt, a senior prosecutor with the Northern Ireland Public Prosecution Service, and a sharp and experienced legal mind whose job is to assess if the evidence merits a prosecution. “Hmmm …” he scratched his head and pondered deeply, and replied. “One for the European courts, I fear.”
Bad water: Flood warning, Boa Island, Co Fermanagh. (click to enlarge)
Lower Lough Erne is currently designated a game fishery and DCAL proposals to end this status have local anglers up in arms for the majority are passionate game fishers. This is a tradition that stretches back generations. The first Northern Ireland Prime Minister from Rainland was Sir Basil Brooke. His diary for 1943 records: “On May 1, over lunch at Government House, the governor invited me to form a cabinet.” Immediately he returned to his estate at Colebrooke and ‘caught a trout of 1lb 6oz at the narrows.’
The coarse fishing on the upper lake is regarded as the best in Europe and produces huge bag weights of perch, eels, roach, rudd, bream and hybrids. The Irish record for perch stands at 5lb 8oz. It was caught on upper lough Erne in 1946. Big pike lurk in the reedy bays, sluggish river sections and beneath the pontoons at the many marinas that are dotted around the lough shores. Fish of 20lb are common and a few Rainlanders know where the really big ones are to be found. Occasionally a tourist chances upon one.
In 2009 Harry Stevens from Downpatrick landed a pike of 46lbs while fishing on the river Erne just outside Enniskillen. Unfortunately the £10 set of scales that he purchased from Argos were not deemed fitting by the Irish Specimen Fish Committee or he could have claimed the Irish record. The rules state: Fish must be weighed in the presence of independent, reliable witnesses on properly certified scales, for example a shop scales or an official club scales which is covered by a certificate from the Weights and Measures Officer. “It took 30 minutes to land and broke the wire trace. I had to get into the water to lift it,” said Harry. “I was exhausted and shaking like a leaf by the time we released it,” he told the Belfast Telegraph.
The highlight of the angling year is the Fermanagh Classic competition which takes place in May. It attracts up to 250 anglers from Britain and Europe. Stuart Northrop from St Neots, won the 40th anniversary classic in 2015 with a catch over three days of 44kgs 60gms. His 27kgs 960gms catch from the Portora section on the final day earned him a cheque for £5,000 and the classic chalice. There is a classic for pikers in October. In 2015 Frank Donnan from Belfast won the top prize of £2,000 with a fish of 17lb 8oz caught while boat fishing. Kevin Raleigh from Westmeath won the bank competition with a pike of 16lb 5oz. He also banked a cheque for £1,000.
For both events Rainland’s weather was extraordinarily kind. Anglers were forced to endure only four types of rain. They were lucky enough to escape the stair-rods.