" 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
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
"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
"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
"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.