Ruminations on a River

Ours was a house with a view: the Abbey River, deep, brooding, like the Danes that were
alleged to have formed it: Inis Oibtain, King’s Island, The Parish, There is an Isle. Like a bold
child, it broke away from its mother – the Shannon – at Corbally, before being reigned in
below the Curraghower falls. Fastest race in these islands from Baal’s Bridge downstream
we were told by an English expert, who were we to contradict him?
Evocative memories: the corncrake ratcheting ‘crex crex ‘ from the callows across the
river; trout water rippling, gulping down their last supper in the night rise; Boat Club crews
paddling majestically downriver towards regatta starts: ‘Good luck Athlunkard’ we shouted,
as we did at the canal boat helmsmen: ‘blow your horn mister,’ the signal to open the canal
gates and distribute wooden barrels of Guinness to a thirsty city; the Sally Grove was our
jungle, swinging from branches imitating (poorly) the cry of Tarzan, picked up from Johnny
Weismuller in the Thomond.
We learned to swim with the help of mulit-patched car tubes, deflation out of your
depth meant sink or swim. Bobbing for eels with neighbour Tony O’Dwyer: sally rod, ball of
worms tied to line, hungry eels swallowed them whole, whip them into the angling cot;
catch elusive fluke up from estuary, settling on your broken piece of plate in the shallows,
only deft hands landed them.
Father told us it was frozen solid once and that Grandmother gaily skated on it despite
the Mayor saying it was dangerous. Good for you Granny! We nearly did the same in 1963,
but the ice never quite made it across the river.
Characters: Cuck Dwyer, saved so many from drowning it was said his citations were
so numerous he used them to wallpaper. In slack times he’d give a young lad a tanner to
pretend he was drowning: a rescue effected, timed to coincide with closing time in Angela
Conway’s pub . . . ‘did you hear the latest about Cuck . . . . .’
Mull Dillon, fishing from the river wall, telling us tall stories: ‘There was this monster of
an eel so big he broke every rod and line. They hooked him eventually with a rope but still
couldn’t pull him out. They tied the rope to the tail of an ass in Pa Healy’s and do ye know
what happened next, do ye?’ We waited with bated breath. ‘He pulled the tail off the ass.’
Then there was the annual Abbey Regatta organized by descendants of the legendary
Abbey Salmon Fishermen. It was a day out, our room with a view populated by aunts and
uncles, revelling in such events as the greasy pole, invariably won by an ageing man named
Walsh, attired in a Victorian bathing costume. ‘His father was a great rugby player,’ Uncle
Tom told us. ‘His son was a great disappointment to him, the greasy pole the only thing he
was good at.’
‘They’re coming!’ went up the shout for the main event: a large sand-cot sailing
majestically upriver, crewed by the minstrel group, The Alabamas. The parish’s top singers
harmonizing, faces blackened with burnt cork, lips painted white, and topped by curly locks
from a discarded mattress, serenading entranced spectators and patients crowding the
windows of Barrington’s Hospital. The pubs were full late into that night, sounds of Swanee
River and Just a Song at Twilight wafting across the river, proceedings of a memorable day
brought to a close with a spirited rendition of There is an Isle.