by Dan O'Neill


We settle in to life in the countryside and within days find human footprints in the garden indicating we are not alone. I encounter poachers on the river and find out the hard way that not everyone likes a landowner and narrowly escape a beating. I have my first encounter with the local Police and find the law is indeed an ass sometimes. However, the local sergeant takes pity on me and puts me in touch with the state river inspector who tells me in no uncertain terms I must defeat the poachers or my life won't be worth living. It doesn't look good, but he has a plan..



" Dan, there's definitely someone down there."

It was the one sentence I did not want to hear that morning, but as I put my

teacup down and listened through the open kitchen window, I knew Geraldine was right.

The noise was unmistakable. I could hear them calling to one another as they thrashed

through the undergrowth below the house along the riverbank, even the early morning

birdsong and heavy rain couldn't cover their yells. As I pulled on my boots and

hunted around the badly lit scullery for my raincoat, I wondered who these people were,

why did they find my property so inviting, and what was I going to do about it?

We hadn't been living in Clifford for more than a few weeks, when I first noticed

muddy footprints appearing on the path around the side of the house now and again.

Initially, I assumed they were my own and thought no more of it, but one afternoon,

I thought, "Robinson Crusoe" and put my foot onto one of the prints. It was

much too small to be my print but too big for Geraldine and for the first time, I became

aware that we had visitors. It didn't take much detective work to find the source of the

tracks. A well worn path ran through the long grass and into the lush, green darkness of

the dense rhododendrons at the top of the garden. The direction indicated the answer

would be found by the river. I decided not to investigate further that day, but knew I was

just postponing the inevitable and eventually, one morning, faced with intruders literally

yelling in my front garden, I had to act. I struggled into my waterproof gear, and set off in

a torrential downpour, the rain pounding so hard, I couldn't even hear my boots squelch

across the muddy swamp my freshly dug garden had become. Cautiously, I made my

way into the woods through the rhododendrons, their huge clumps of purple flowers

bedraggled and limp, looking exactly how I felt. I decided to take the longer route to the

riverbank, via the woodland path on the cliff top, and out onto the high rock that

overlooked my stretch of the river. I could observe everything from there without being

seen. I crawled the final few yards on my belly over the cold wet stone. The densely

packed bracken and bramble bushes took the opportunity to lighten the load on their

leaves down the backs of my legs, and into my boots, adding damp discomfort to my

growing apprehension..

The rain slackened, the way it always does in Ireland- reluctantly. The gray clouds,

resembling dirty tattered strands of sheep's wool caught on a barbed wire fence, started

to lift. The green tops of the Nagle mountains opposite stared out blearily through the

mist, and the sun probed weakly for a place to shine, finding a few cattle lying in a small

field to illuminate. They rose unsteadily to their feet and stood steaming in the bright

yellow light. It was only a brief respite, and they were soon forced to resume their

previous location under the trees, as the heavy clouds sank back over them, and the

rain began again. I settled into the most comfortable position I could manage in such a

confined, damp space, and eventually was rewarded with my first glimpse of the

intruders. There were three of them, all scruffily dressed, two fishing together on the

opposite bank and one on my side. The pair of fishermen looked like father and son, but

it was hard to tell at that range even with my pocket binoculars. All I could tell for sure

was that one was small and skinny, and the other had his tweed hat pulled down low

over his eyes. I thought it was a clear attempt to make it difficult to identify him, but then

again, it might have been just to keep the rain off. My mind raced, was that a shotgun

lying on the bank behind the third man? He looked to be older than the other two, and

was wearing a baseball cap turned backwards. I jumped to the conclusion that this was

a clear indication of a criminal. Probably more used to robbing banks than fishing I

thought. There is really only one excuse to wear a cap backwards, and that is if your

eye is pressed against a submarine periscope and you are about to sink a battleship. I

was so caught up in a rush of suspicion and anticipation that a rational answer did not

come as easily to me as it might normally have done. I had been a landowner for almost

no time at all, and knew little of the ways of the river and the people who are to be found

on, or in it. It wasn't at all clear if these people were actually poachers, or just some

tourist fishermen that had lost their way and were fishing at my place in error. I certainly

didn't want to upset any local people so soon after my arrival. I had no problem with my

neighbors doing a little fishing, but it would have been nice to be asked, I thought.

Clifford was a remote spot, and Geraldine and I were not yet used to the silence and

isolation of rural life. We felt vulnerable at night in the all consuming darkness, and were

still trying to come to terms with the absence of urban lighting. Strangers wandering

round our house was a new experience for us and we reacted like all city dwellers do-

with mild panic. I needed a plan of action, and so I decided to put in an appearance on

the riverbank in a casual sort of way and happen upon the three as if by accident. They

would greet me and I would return the compliment. I would gently explain they were

fishing in the wrong place, and they would apologize and graciously move on.

I had this comforting scenario firmly planted in my head when I appeared on the bank.

I smiled, bid them 'good morning' and waited for their response. It came as quite a

shock to be met with a stony silence that shook me rudely from my assumptions, and I

got the distinct impression I was not at all welcome. Recovering my wits quickly, and

drawing myself up into what I imagined was a very menacing facade, I asked who they

were. Unfortunately their facades looked rather more menacing than mine, and it

dawned on me that this was going to be much more difficult than I had thought.

The three strangers maintained a complete indifference to my presence, and infuriated,

I decided I wasn't backing down. I asked again, this time in a louder, more serious tone,

"What are you doing on my property?" The response was more silence, and then a long

stare from the older man with the baseball hat. My earlier suspicions were confirmed, he

was in his sixties as I had guessed. His hair peeked out from under the red cap in

greasy gray-yellow curls, a contrast to his dark face which was permanently tanned and

wrinkled, like the leather of an old walking shoe. The result, I supposed, of a lifetime's

exposure to the elements. His sunken cheeks were a mass of white stubble that

probably saw a razor once a month, or even less. He looked me up and down with red-

rimmed watery blue eyes for what seemed like an age, then turned away to hawk and

spit into the swollen, chocolate colored river that rushed by us. He turned back and said

in a low growl,

" And just who the feck might you be now.?" I glanced over at the two poachers on the

opposite bank, and noticed they continued to fish as if nothing was happening, but were

no doubt keeping a close eye on proceedings. I informed the man that he was on my

property and had no right to be there.

" Is that so? he said in a rasping, wheezy voice. "Well now, we have every right to be

here boy, we got permission from the owner yesterday. Now go on about your business

and get out of me sight." I tried to explain above the roar of the heavy rain, that I was the

new owner and that there must have been some misunderstanding as the previous

owner lived in Brazil and couldn't possibly have given them permission yesterday. The

man's face hardened into a twisted, unpleasant grin showing a mouthful of crumbling

molars, their dull, uniformly brown ranks rudely interrupted by two huge, gleaming white

front teeth that were obviously a very recent addition. How marvelous to have a dentist

with such a finely tuned sense of the ironic, I mused briefly.

"Are you calling me a liar now is it.?" he hissed, putting down his fishing rod and

slowly making his way over to where a large wooden baton lay on the grass bank.

Fishermen often carry a cudgel called a 'priest', so named because it is used to

administer the 'last rites' and dispatch a fish quickly with a blow to the back of the head.

This minimizes the suffering of the creature, however, 'priests' are usually small enough

to fit in a coat pocket. This was a police issue baton, and was clearly designed to deliver

a powerful blow to a much larger target than a fish.

He casually picked up the baton and faced me. Not in an overtly menacing way, but I

was in no doubt that we were but one step away from something very ugly.

At that moment the wind blew up along the river from behind him, his grubby overcoat

flapped weakly in the breeze. The odor of ancient fish guts, whiskey, tobacco and stale

human sweat caught me full in the face and I fought the urge to gag. I put up a hand to

stop his advance and said,

"Look, I've explained to you this is my property and you are refusing to leave, I have no

choice now but to call the police." He stopped in his tracks, and I thought for a moment

that I might actually have gotten through to him. But he just threw back his head and

laughed. I assumed it was a laugh, it actually sounded more like the death rattle of a

small mammal, but was probably just the result of decades of tobacco and alcohol


"You do that boy, go on, off with you now and call the Guards" he laughed.

(The 'Guards' is the colloquial name for the police in Ireland, as their name in Irish is 'Gardai')

There wasn't much more I could do, I had threatened him with the police and it hadn't

worked. Out of ammunition, I would have to retreat. I turned and muttered,

"Right then, I'll call the Guards" The old man tossed the baton back on the grass and

picked up his rod again. I heard him shout after me as I climbed the path back up to the

house ,

"And don't bother coming down here again today or I won't be as feckin' nice to ye the

next time" The cackling laughter from the two on the opposite bank echoed up the path

after me, adding to my humiliation and anger.

I was shaking when I got to the house, furious that I had been thrown off my own

property, but also somewhat relieved that I wasn't lying bleeding in the bushes with a

fractured skull.

"What happened.?" said Geraldine. "I'll tell you later" I mumbled as I rushed past her

and into the kitchen to call the police. I called the local 'barracks' as the police stations

in Ireland are known, and was soon explaining my situation to the sergeant on duty. He

listened sympathetically to my story, waited until I finished the whole thing, and then

allowed a long pause before he enquired,

"Tell me now, did this fella on your property threaten you at all.?" I admitted that apart

from a bit of swearing, and a rather worrying looking wooden baton, I couldn't say in all

honesty that he had threatened me.

"Did the other two threaten you, or have any fish in their possession? he asked,

again, I admitted they hadn't.

"Then I'm sorry" , he said, "but there's nothing I can do for you sir," I was momentarily


"If they didn't physically assault ye, they have nothing criminal to answer for" he


"But they were trespassing on my property and trying to steal my fish" I stammered..

"isn't theft and trespass a crime these days.?" The sergeant sighed heavily and

explained to me that

"Trespass is indeed a crime sir, but its not a criminal crime, it's a civil crime. For that, ye

will have to prosecute the boys below on yer riverbank through the courts, with a lawyer.

We are not involved in civil matters other than as a material witness "

"So, if they split my skull open with that baton, then you'll get involved, but not

otherwise, is that it.?" I spluttered,

"Indeed it is sir, you have it exactly, I couldn't have put it better meself " said the

sergeant cheerfully.

"I see, well, when that happens and I'm bleeding to death, I'll be sure to give you a call"

I said sarcastically,

"Do that sir, and I'll look forward to meeting you then." he replied with equal sarcasm.

I put the phone down and slumped in my chair. What was I going to do? I couldn't just

let this gang of thugs take over my home whenever they liked, but it appeared the law

wasn't on my side. I thought back to the old man on the bank and how he laughed when

I told him I was calling the police.

He knew the law as well as the sergeant did and that's why he was able to stand his

ground so confidently. Just then, the phone rang again, I picked it up half heartedly, I

was in no mood for a conversation but it was the sergeant again.

"Mr. O'Neill" he said, "sorry I couldn't speak freely when you called, there was someone

in the office who would blab ye're news all over the village if she heard it, so I had to

wait till she was gone". My hopes lifted, but soon fell again when he informed me that

his original statement still stood, it was a civil matter and there was nothing the police

could do for me. I would have to pursue a private prosecution for trespass through the

courts which was costly and hardly ever worked. The savage English laws on trespass

had changed when Ireland became independent. The pendulum had now swung so far

in the opposite direction that it gave landowners virtually no protection from intruders on

their property. I said,

"Please, call me Dan, I'm not used to all this formality."

"I will so, said the sergeant, 'and you can call me Larry"

"Well Larry, what do you think I should do?" I said with a trace of desperation in my voice.

"Lookit' there's no need to worry," said Larry, " sure you're not the first to be plagued by

poachers, and ye won't be the last. Tis part and parcel of living on the river. You need to

speak to the fisheries inspector, and you have to get yourself a ghillie"

"A ghillie?" I repeated "What's that.?"

"Jaysus Dan, don't tell me we've a Squireen who doesn't know what a ghillie is" was the

exasperated reply. "A ghillie is a man that takes care of your stretch of the river, he

keeps poachers out, looks after the wildlife and keeps the banks clean and tidy".

"A handy man to have about the place by the sound of it, and where might I get a

ghillie?" I asked half heartedly. Larry's voice dropped suddenly to a whisper,

" I've to go, there's someone after coming in" he said, "Davy Donovan, the fisheries

inspector will set you right there Dan, just ask him to come over. He'll take a look at the

place and tell ye what ye need. Good luck now" and he hung up .I made my way back to

the kitchen, and sat down at the little wooden bench table we used for breakfast.

"So..? said Geraldine.

"So, we have a poaching problem" I muttered, and proceeded to relate the unsettling

events by the river, and the options open to us.

"It looks like we are on our own then" Geraldine said nervously as she sat down beside


"Not quite, I'm going to call that Inspector right now and see if we can't get this sorted

out today so don't worry" I said as I slipped a comforting arm around her shoulder.

"You might think about getting changed first" came her reply. I looked down, and saw

that I was sitting in a pool of rainwater, my hands were shaking from the cold and I was

soaked through. Geraldine handed me a comforting mug of hot sweet tea, and nursing it

between my numb hands, I stood up, and shuffled off to find some dry clothes.

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