Silver On The Barrow

My late father Michael Butler was the lock-keeper at Upper Tinnahinch Lock, Graiguenamanagh for 52 years. My siblings Kay, Mary, Lar, Jim and I have great memories growing up in the Lock House. My special memory is when my father fished for silver eels at the Lock gate. The eel season began in autumn and ended in late December and was done at night-time. The season was short lived and precarious and depended on the right amount of rain falling to get the water to the right level on a moonless night in order for eels to move and be caught. If the flood was too high, the eels escaped upstream over a weir and it all was over until the next flood. My father was very adept at setting the Coghill nets into the four Lock sluices. Preparations began in early summer when he knitted new nets a skilled enough job, with very fine meshes in the purse and larger meshes at the top which was attached to a frame. My mother trained us all on lamp duty, a job I loved showing us exactly where to stand, not to close to the edge! And point the light on the water so as my father could line up the net with the sluice. Then the excitement and anticipation when we went out to rise the nets and see how many were caught. When the dreaded war cry came, bed now school tomorrow! It was pure torture having to leave all the excitement. My mother Mary nee Cahill Ballyogan kept the show on the road cleaning nets, keeping the small Stanley range fuelled all night, making lots of tea, sandwiches, and hot cocoa. My father was constantly checking the water level on the water depth boards which were in situ at all locks then. Nets had to be lifted every hour so as the eels were not damaged. My brothers Lar and Jim had to raise and lower the 4 sluices each time, a tough job. Fish had to be emptied into bins and leaves and other debris shook out of the nets at speed so as they could be reset again quickly and not miss any. The eels were placed in the canal in special wooden boxes with small holes which allowed the water to circulate and keep them alive. In the morning my father would remove any that had died and put them in brown paper bags and my sister Mary would deliver them to neighbours who relished a fresh eel for breakfast. From the 1930’s my father exported the eels to Billingsgate Fish Market in London. My sister Kay recalls in the 1950’s watching my father prepare the boxes and nail a declaration form to each box. Then Patrick Bennett from Tinnahinch arrived in his small truck and the boxes were loaded. Kay, my father, and Patrick took off to Borris Train Station where the eels started their journey to Billingsgate. Sadly, Borris station closed in the early 1960’s. Various buyers started buying in the late fifties which made things easier. Later my brother Lar got a dealer’s licence and he bought eels all over Ireland and exported them to Holland and Germany. When my nephews and nieces came along, they too had a great experience helping out and earning lots of pocket money. In 2009 all eel fishing was banned to conserve stocks and the ban is still in place. Fishing for silver eels on the beautiful Barrow, one of my earliest and happiest childhood memories.