If there's one person that comes to mind when I think of Clifford House, it's Patsy Donovan. The man seemed to drift through trees and bushes without making a sound and materialize in front of your eyes seemingly from nowhere, quite an achievement for a man of six feet and over three hundred pounds. He was a giant of a man in other ways too, and his influence on me will last a lifetime.
A few days after Davy Donovan's visit, his brother Patsy appeared at the house. I did not hear him arrive. I was alerted to his presence only when, glancing out the window, I was astonished to see our fearsome guard dog, Charlie, wagging his tail and welcoming a stranger into his domain.
Patsy was mounted on a tired, old Honda 50 motorcycle. His enormous bulk enveloped the saddle, and as he lifted himself off his long-suffering steed, an audible groan of metallic relief escaped from the suspension. When Charlie looked up and saw me at the window, he realized his position was compromised and made a halfhearted attempt at barking to announce the intruder's arrival. Patsy laughed and scratched Charlie's ear as the delighted dog rubbed against his legs. I pulled on my coat and went outside to meet our new gamekeeper.
Patsy Donovan was an eighteenth-century vision straight from a Hogarth engraving. Long, straggly, speckled red hair hung limply under a battered old tweed hat that was pulled down low over a round bright red face. A magnificent ginger beard that burst exuberantly from puffy shiny cheeks like an exploding fireworks display gradually tapered to a perfect point that curled up about a foot below his chin. He was almost as round as he was tall. An old brown overcoat that struggled to cover even half his circumference was held in place with a length of tattered string. His thighs were so huge the green waders he wore didn't reach much above his knees, requiring that they be rolled down at the top but bestowing upon him the raffish look of a pirate adventurer.
"Hello, I'm Dan, and you must be Patsy," I said extending my hand to receive a bone crushing response.
"Indeed I am," he declared, his voice surprisingly soft for such an imposing exterior. As with most encounters among the rural Irish, we descended rapidly into small talk about the weather, the state of the fields and the garden until the conversation ground to an awkward halt, and only then did Patsy come to the point. "The brother said you might have a bit of work for me?"
"Did he tell you what we are dealing with?" I said.
Patsy looked up at me and stopped rubbing Charlie. "He did. 'Tis the Flynn boys he reckons."
"Do you think we can deal with them?" I ventured cautiously.
His small green eyes studied mine intently for a moment, and then he said, "Oho! I can deal with them all right. It all depends on whether you'll do what needs to be done," he said impassively, looking past me into the far distance.
My throat went dry, and I recognized my character was being measured in this seemingly innocuous conversation. I determined it was not a good time to show weakness or indecision so I replied, "We'll do whatever it takes."
A deep chuckle emerged from the bearded face, and the huge man bent down, picked up Charlie as if he were a feather and held him out in front of his considerable chest saying, "Good. Then we'll go to work tomorrow so." Charlie responded by licking his face, and before I knew it, Patsy was astride the Honda kicking it back into life. "I'll see ye in the morning, good and early," he said revving the little engine to a scream before releasing the clutch and sputtering away down the drive. Charlie followed in hot pursuit, leaving me alone, dazed, and confused. I looked up at a summer sky full of wheeling, diving swallows and the inevitable promise of rain and wondered just what I had committed myself to.
The next morning came sooner than I wished, and I reluctantly rolled out of bed, washed and dressed, and made my way downstairs for breakfast, all the while keeping one ear open for the sound of Patsy's struggling motorbike. The sun was up, and the rain had come and gone overnight leaving the damp, green smell so familiar to anyone who has spent a summer in Ireland. I made the tea and took a cup to Geraldine who was sitting on the edge of the bed.
"You're up early," she observed. "I know," I muttered from the bathroom through a mouthful of toothpaste. "I have stuff to do on the river today with Patsy."
"He looks very fierce, doesn't he?" she said as I came back into the bedroom to find her at the window sipping her tea and staring down at the stable yard.
I pulled the curtain to get a better look and saw a smiling Patsy waving at me to come down. Charlie was inspecting two large sacks hanging on either side of the Honda motorbike, his little tail quivering with curiosity.
"Well, Dan, are you ready for action?" Patsy enquired, his huge arms folded across his chest.
I said nothing, nodding halfheartedly as I struggled to finish a slice of toast and a cup of tea I'd brought out from the house. "Would you like a bit of breakfast, Patsy?" I said, hoping he would accept and we could delay the whole thing a little further.
But Patsy informed me he never ate breakfast. "It slows a man down."
I looked at his considerable bulk and wondered just how much more damage a slice of toast could do. Then, bracing myself, I asked the question I had been dreading, "So, what's the plan?"
"The plan is simple, Dan. I'll tell you when we get there."
The riverbank was damp and steamy after the night's rain. Silvery splashes from the overhanging trees vanished in the fast-moving water, and the white light of morning painted everything in impossibly optimistic shades. We struggled along the bank, each carrying one of the large burlap sacks Patsy had brought on his bike. I didn't know what was in mine, and frankly I was in no hurry to find out. My companion at length raised his hand in a signal to stop, and we sank down on a patch of drier grass to rest. Patsy cocked his head to one side listening intently for any sign that our quarry was near. I held my breath. After a moment or two he relaxed, and I let out a gasp of relief. "Anything?" I enquired, poking with a blade of grass at a small beetle that was struggling to navigate the wet terrain.
"Not yet, but they'll be here all right. A night of rain will bring the fish up. They'll be running today, and the Flynns won't miss that."
I heard from Patsy that the locals never called a salmon by its name: it was always referred to as "a fish." Trout were called trout, but the salmon has held a place of high esteem among the Irish for thousands of years. Their legends imbue the salmon with mystical properties. One ancient story, "The Salmon of Knowledge," tells of an ordinary salmon that ate nine hazelnuts that had fallen into the Well of Wisdom from nine hazelnut trees. In doing so, the salmon gained all the knowledge of the world, and from that moment whoever ate the flesh of the salmon would in turn gain all the knowledge of the world. The "king of fish" was no mere water dweller to the ancient Irish.
Curiously, the Irish afford the same respect to Guinness, "the king of beers." Pub etiquette in Ireland demands that a pint of Guinness be referred to as "a pint," but all other beers are to be called by their name. The tragic difference between the salmon and the pint in my experience is that while consuming the salmon could make one smarter, the reverse is all too often true for those who consume the pint. I pointed this contradiction out to Patsy one day during a quiet spell on the riverbank.
"And sure isn't that a good thing?" he snorted. "Jaysus Christ, where would we be if we all knew everything and there was no mystery in the world?" That's what I loved about Patsy--he didn't often proffer an opinion, but when he did, it was unassailable.
We arrived at the high point on the cliff, which gave the best view of the river, and peering out of the jumble of rhododendron bushes, I saw to my relief that there was no one on the riverbank. "No one there," I murmured, trying to convey a sense of anger and disappointment in my voice but hearing only relief.
Patsy heard it too and chuckled good-naturedly, "This is the day for them, Dan. They'll be here soon enough so don't worry. I'll let you take the first crack at them. Better to go for the biggest of them first while you're still fresh."
I have no idea what I looked like after hearing that, but it must have been priceless because Patsy looked at me sideways from under his hat and roared with laughter. "Sweet Mother of God, Dan, ye'll win no medals with a face like that! Relax. We'll take them all without a shot being fired."
I felt no relief from that statement either.
"Come on," said Patsy, "'tis time to go to work."
The sun was climbing higher as we left our hiding place and moved through the undergrowth towards the deepest pool on the bank, the first place the Flynns would show up, according to Patsy. I was awed by the sight of the huge man ahead of me pushing noiselessly through the dense brush while carrying a large sack on his back. I watched him many times after that and was never able to put my finger on what he did that allowed him to look like a grizzly bear yet move like a mountain lion. He possessed a remarkable gift.
We emerged on the bank as the sun passed behind a cloud adding its gloomy portent to the proceedings. Patsy opened the sack he carried and produced a bundle of long multi-colored rag strips tied together at the base and fastened to what appeared to be a large lump of rusted cast iron that had once been part of a car's gearbox. He motioned me to open my sack, and I found the same curious creation inside it. He gathered them up and waded out about halfway across the river with one under each arm. He raised the first above his head and whirled it around effortlessly a couple of times before releasing it to arc across the water and fall with a tremendous splash in the deepest part of the pool, not ten feet from where I stood. He repeated the maneuver with the other bundle, and after a cursory inspection of angles and distances he pronounced himself satisfied. He nodded his head toward where the bundles had landed. "Can you see them?" he asked.
Clutching an overhanging branch I leaned out over the dark water and looked down into the pool among large rocks and drifting green weeds. When the sun chose that moment to reappear from behind the clouds, shafts of light pierced the gin-clear water illuminating the scene like a huge green snow globe. Patsy's rag creations had been transformed. The current swept around them making the rag strips wave and flutter slowly like giant anemones, their humble origins obscured in the brilliant light. They were beautiful, but despite their mesmerizing effect, I managed to stammer out the question, "Why?"
As he struggled through the water to a shallower spot and heaved himself up onto the bank beside me, Patsy explained, "These lads will be all the Flynns will catch in here from now on. We'll put a stop to their gallop so we will. But we've to make it so as we can get 'em out whenever we want." With that, he produced a length of strong fishing line with a large hook and a lead weight on the end. He wriggled on his belly out over the edge of the bank. "Hold on to me legs there, Dan," he grunted as he hung over the water and looked down into the pool. I noticed in his bright red reflection that his tongue was protruding as he focused on hooking the rag anemones and bringing them to the surface. Once they broke the surface of the water, he attached a length of nylon rope to each, made it fast to a spike he had driven into the bank and had concealed under a rock. Then, when he was happy the connection wouldn't fail, he let his contraption fall back into the depths of the pool.
I asked how exactly would making the pool unfishable help. Couldn't the Flynns cross over to our side and pull up the traps just as we had done?
Patsy began to answer as he stood up and brushed debris from the front of his coat but halted in mid-sentence. "Whist!" he snapped and cocked his head to one side. "They're coming," he muttered grimly. We withdrew into the bushes as the voices from the opposite bank grew louder. Patsy looked at me and, smiling, put a finger to his lips.
I nodded and settled down to await events.
The Flynns arrived in single file, the patriarch in the lead wearing the familiar red baseball cap. They spread out along the far bank, laughing, cursing, and complaining in equal amounts. "Mikey! Watch where you're going, you feckin' eedgit. If you fall in again, you'll feckin' stay there," the senior Flynn admonished the boy who was standing perilously close to the edge of an unstable mud bank attempting in vain to judge the water's depth with the tip of his fishing rod.
I stretched out to push away a bracken leaf that was obscuring my view, and Patsy reached out and pulled it back in place. "Let it alone. Old Flynn will see that pale face of yours a mile away," he whispered. "Now sit quiet till we see what they are up to."
He was right. I looked across at the Flynns more closely, and they all had the same nut-brown complexion from a life outdoors as Patsy did. Even at a hundred yards, my pasty white countenance would call attention to itself among the electric green beech leaves surrounding us. I sighed at my own stupidity, and sensing my embarrassment Patsy patted my arm and gave me a nudge.
"Lookit, they're going for it. Now we have them!"
The Flynns had taken up the same positions they were in when I had encountered them a week earlier. The river turned at that point, and over the millennia had scooped out a hole under the massive limestone cliff. Cool, dark, and deep, it was a perfect resting place for a large salmon after its long run up from the sea. The location was well known for producing good-sized fish and was called "Churchill's pool" by the locals because it had been fished by Winston Churchill after the war.
Flynn Senior allocated fishing positions for the other two, and they all set to work cutting branches from the hedges and piling them up on the top of the bank behind them to conceal their position. Their secrecy assured, they turned their attention to which lure to use. Due to the rain, they decided that a "flying condom" would give the best results, and the three went about setting up their rods. The flying condom, a recent local invention, was still secret. It was discovered by accident when some fishermen with no other bait attached a length of rubber tube from a dairy milking machine to a conventional brass spinning lure. Anyone witnessing the sight of the long pale, rubber tube shimmying through the water with a shiny brass propeller spinning wildly at its tip was left in no doubt as to why it was so inelegantly christened. The lure mimicked the action of a shrimp, a favorite food for Atlantic salmon, and proved almost irresistible to the hungry fish. Salmon do not normally feed when they enter the river to spawn, but the lure was so effective in triggering their feeding response its use was banned as a legal form of fishing, not that the law bothered the Flynns--all of their fishing was illegal.
I heard a splash to my left and another below me, and cautiously raising my head I could see the poaching had begun. I looked across at Patsy. He was motionless, his eyes narrowed, watching every movement. Flynn Senior was directly opposite us. I could see lying on the ground behind him the police baton with which he had threatened me during our last encounter. His grandsons were stationed above him, allowing him first crack at any fish traveling upstream. Again and again the lures were dropped into the water and were retrieved with remarkable speed. I watched for a while, fascinated at first, but then cramps set into my calf, and I began to worry I would have to move and give the game away.
At that moment Patsy leaned in close to me and whispered, "When I give ye the nod, stand up and start roarin' and shoutin' at them. I'll do the rest. All right?"
Patsy slithered noiselessly into the bushes, and I waited for his signal.
Soon a handful of pebbles splashed into the water directly below me, then another, and another. Patsy was springing the trap. When a salmon finds a place to rest, it will often roll on the surface above its hiding place. Nobody knows for sure why it does this. Some think it may be a mating reflex, others a sign of restlessness signaling the salmon is ready to move on. Either way it is the noise every salmon fisherman loves to hear, and the clusters of pebbles entering the water together simulated that noise perfectly. I watched as Flynn Senior's head whipped around, focusing in on the location of the splashes. He was looking directly at me, and my neck involuntarily shrank into my shoulders as I felt his unpleasant gaze. He couldn't see me, and he held up a hand to signal the other two to join him. They hurried to his side, and soon all three were casting their lures with astonishing accuracy, dropping them into the water a mere foot or two from where I lay.
Within a minute the youngest Flynn jerked his rod upright and gave a grunt. "I have him," he declared and stepped into the water to position himself better. His rod bent over with the force of the water. He began to reel in the line, and then he stopped. "Shit. 'Tisn't him at all, 'tis a snag," he said, his excitement fading fast.
"You bleddy eedjit, how many times have I to tell you? Always keep the lure moving. If you stop at all, it'll sink to the bottom, and you'll hit a snag. Well, step aside, and leave me get in there. I don't want to lose that fish over you." Flynn Senior spat into the water and cast into the same spot as his grandson had. "There, d'ye see, nice and easy does it, and you won't hit the bottom."
The boy wasn't listening. He was rummaging in his shoulder bag for a knife.
"Cut the line is it?" shouted Old Flynn. "Indeed, and you won't. Them condoms are the last I have, and I'm not going making more just because you can't use a rod. Wait now till I give a few casts over this fella, and then we'll go over there and get it loose."
With that he gave a flick of his rod, and the lure dropped into the pool about twenty feet above me. Seconds later his rod shot upright as he sank the hooks home. He realized that he was stuck in the same obstruction as the boy, and he snarled at him to "stop grinning like a fuckin' ommadawn [donkey], and go and get my waders from the bag."
The boy laid down his rod on the river gravel at the water's edge and hurried away as instructed. Flynn Senior gave a few more exasperated tugs and then flung his rod down, too.
I was quite enjoying the entertainment when I heard Patsy hiss, "Now, Dan!" from his hiding place.
I stood up and found my legs had gone to sleep, obliging me to grab onto a nearby sapling in order to stay upright. "Hey there!" I shouted in my very best menacing voice. "What the hell do you think you're doing? Get off my property at once!" I saw Flynn stiffen for a moment then, having recognized me, put his hands on his hips and burst out laughing.
"Well, if it isn't the young squireen again. Have you not had enough? Do you want me to come over there and straighten you out while we wait for the guards to arrive?" He jerked a thumb in the direction of his police baton lying close by.
I began to wonder what I was going to say next as I hadn't really thought much beyond my standing up and shouting. At that moment I was astonished to see the two abandoned fishing rods magically race across the gravel on their own and disappear into the water.
Flynn saw them too and rushed to grab them, but it was too late. They had slipped into the deep, dark water leaving just a few bubbles behind. I leaned out and looked along the bank to see Patsy hauling the two rods out of the water. As I had engaged the Flynns, he had raised his underwater trap and grabbed the lines of the two snared rods. He hauled them hand over fist into the water and out the other side before the poachers knew what had happened.
"So the Donovan boys are in this now, are they?" sneered Flynn, trying to conceal his obvious surprise.
"Well, one of them is anyway, Seanie," said Patsy, draining the water from the rods and leaning them against a tree. "I'm the new ghillie, and you've had your last fish from Clifford."
"Jaysus Christ, will you listen to yourself, and aren't you the biggest poacher of them all," said Flynn.
"Not as far as this man's property is concerned. I'm looking after it now, and the man told you you aren't welcome."
"We'll see about that," said a visibly furious Flynn as he grabbed the baton and strode into the river toward Patsy, forgetting he hadn't put on his waders and wincing as the water surged in over the top of his wellingtons.
Patsy roared with laughter and then chuckled, "Careful there, Seanie, or ye might get wet-though by the looks of ye, a drop of water might do you some good."
Seanie's grandson failed to suppress a laugh, and with a single look was left with no uncertainty as to what awaited him when his grandfather got hold of him.
"Now, are ye fighting or swimming, Seanie? Only I need to know whether to take off my coat or not."
"I'll give it to you yet, Donovan. Oho, you're the big man with your brother the bailiff and the squireen there, but you're not too big for me."
Patsy's mirth vanished, and a soft but deadly response drifted across the river. "Anytime, Flynn. Any fuckin' time."
The barely concealed threat hit home, and Flynn stammered, "Wh- wha- what about me property? You've no right to take that." He grunted as he staggered back up onto the bank, his boots squelching. 'Tis stealing, that's what it is."
"Well, if anyone would know about stealing, it's you, Seanie," said Patsy. "Ye can collect the rods from Sergeant Conroy up at the barracks this evening. He'll give them back to ye but only after you sign a receipt for them stating where you lost them. That way we'll have a record of your poaching here if we ever want to prosecute you for trespass. Now get out of my sight, the lot of ye."
The war ended as quickly as it had begun. The Flynns never returned, to my knowledge, despite making it known in virtually every pub in North Cork that Patsy was a marked man and that "his was coming." Eventually Patsy grew comfortable in his new role of poacher-turned-gamekeeper, and peace returned to the river. I never questioned his advice, and the place soon bloomed under his stewardship.
We became firm friends. On fine days I would spend time watching him working on the riverbank, and on wet days he would come into my studio and sit quietly watching me work. We spent many happy hours hunting the king of fish in his dark domain, not always successfully, but we didn't mind. We both knew that the best part of fishing is not the catching but the spectacle. The simple pleasure of observing and enjoying the surroundings far outweighed anything else. In fact, killing a fish was the least enjoyable part of the enterprise, but the local restaurants needed the salmon-and Patsy needed the money. It was a perfect equation with only one solution that I think troubled him more than a little. Indeed, when fishing with Patsy, I had often seen him offer up a clandestine prayer as he delivered the death blow to one of those magnificent bars of scaly silver. I would watch, alternately fascinated and horrified, as the life shuddered out of the beautiful creature into the soft grass of the riverbank beneath, and Patsy quietly made the sign of the cross in a ritual almost as old as Ireland herself.
Patsy took my rural education seriously, and I remember his chuckling at my obvious panic as he made me stand barelegged on the smooth, round stones in the glittering water of the spawning beds on a summer night. The moonlight turned the mountains and the trees to silver, and my fear turned to bliss as I felt the crowds of exhausted salmon brush past my legs as, after having traveled thousands of miles, they reached the exact place of their birth. He once showed me a fox crossing our meadow with three or four cubs in tow, the last of which was a little badger cub she was raising because its mother had been killed by hunters. He had been watching them for weeks and had left food out for them whenever he could because while he was a practical country dweller who would not hesitate to shoot a fox if it had killed his chickens, he admired nature so much that he couldn't help himself when confronted with such a compelling scene.
He had a remarkable sense of humor, too, very dry, with an impeccable sense of timing. One evening we were fishing without much success when I spotted a very large salmon in the shallows. Diseased with a fungus it was in its death throes. I gaffed it, hauled it ashore, and put it out of its misery. The fungus covered only one side; the other side was perfect. I left it on the bank and resumed my fishing. A short while later, some English fishermen appeared on the opposite bank on their way back to their hotel after a poor day's sport. One of them called out to me, "Any luck?"
And before I could reply, Patsy had hauled up the diseased fish by the tail, the healthy side facing the fishermen, and said, "Ach, not a great day really, and only this one and sure he's way too small to be keepin'," and with that he tossed the huge fish into the water to drift away as the fishermen gaped at the spectacle. It was the talk of the pubs for weeks.
Patsy was a part of the landscape as much as the trees or the fields. His family had been in the same place for hundreds of years. I often thought he was a man out of his time. Perhaps that was the mystery about him. He belonged to a slower, gentler era. He was distant to all but the few who took the time to get to know him, and that had given him a reputation for unfriendliness that was undeserved. He was my closest friend during my time at Clifford, and I miss him dearly.