The Hut

The summer of 1945 signalled the end of the terrible conflict that was World
War II, with millions of displaced persons wandering helplessly through war-
ravaged Europe in search of a home and missing relatives. In contrast, a whole
new world was opening up to us with the purchase by my father Joe of a two-
roomed cabin, or hut as we liked to call it, on the banks of the Shannon in a
glorious spot called Corbally, a few miles above the city of Limerick.
While Frank McCourt’s told us of his miserable childhood, ours, in contrast,
was a privileged one, spending our summers in this enchanted spot, sunshine
days filled with fishing, swimming, boating, on a still unpolluted river where
one could still fill a kettle of water to make the tea.
How would one spend the day? Cross the river to St Thomas Island to go
bird nesting maybe, explore the ruined mansion with its tunnel, said to go all
the way to St Mary’s Cathedral; maybe on to the Tail Race to dive from its
cliffs, and search for salmon stunned in the turbines of the mighty Ardnacrusha
Power House.
Shoals of perch to pillage; lifting river rocks slowly to fork the unsuspecting
eel on the back; fear of lampreys, or lamper eels as we dubbed them: we
believed if they attached to your leg you were goosed, they’d suck the blood
out of you with their rows of suckers. The otters too, they’d crack your bones,
night anglers put cinders down their waders just in case, a simulation of a bone
Such pride when I landed my first trout, cooked by mam on a primus stove,
the nicest he ever ate, said Uncle Bill. My father landed a salmon one day, and
beaching the boat in front of the Cowhey hut (their neighbour Angela McCourt
was a regular visitor), Elsie shouted: ‘Did ye catch anything?’ ‘Did we what!’
said I, proudly holding up the salmon. Oh sorry day. Dad ate me. ‘You fool,
didn’t you know I had no licence.’
Then there was Smoky Joe Collins, his hut our meeting place for evening
entertainment. A bachelor with affinity to the younger generation, Smoky
played music on his malogen as he called it; made multiple mugs of scald (tea)
and told tales, petrifying us with ghost stories by the light of a flickering oil
lamp: he was filling the kettle one night, he said, on the river’s edge when the
figure of a boy, who had been drowned some years back, glided towards him
across the water. ‘Good night,’ says Smoky, only for the ghost to pass through
him heading for his old home across the Mill Stream. Terrorized, we ran for our
lives to our hut, four of us sleeping in the one bed that night.
You were liable to meet Tom, Dick or Harry calling to Smoky’s hut for a
chat and maybe a mug of scald on their riverside walk. Jesuit Fr. Holden
blessing salmon anglers on the season’s opening day. Smoky acquired a
wheezy harmonium, and played his favourite hymn, Tantum Ergo, anglers,
maybe after a poor day, mollified as the sounds of the ancient hymn wafted
across the river to guide them home.
Night sounds: harmony from a boat, voices magnified across still waters; a
wraith-like mist rolling ghost-like off the warm land; the lonely call of the
curlew, the plop of a trout as it came up for a late night snack, an otter ruffling
the surface of the water, starting out on its nocturnal hunt.