Monsters and Minnows

FRANCIS W. HATCH, a former Boston advertising executive, finds his membership on The American Council for Trinity College, Dublin, a fine excuse to visit his beloved Ireland. This charming description of fishing, the Irish propensity for suddenly changing the conversational mood, and the probability of the Loch Ness Monster points up his affection for that land and its people.

IN IRELAND the most casual conversation, like the weather, can suddenly and unexpectedly cloud up, grow chilly, and suffer a complete change of mood.

On a mild July evening, in late lingering twilight, I rested elbows on the coping of the town bridge in Sligo. Swallows were darting giddily overhead. Below, in the river bed, small boys were tossing stones into the occasional pools left behind by the dropping of tidal waters. Downstream, where the channel deepened toward the harbor, a half-dozen swans moved placidly about, silhouetted against the dark, damp rocks.

I had taken my place with young and old who lined the bridge to enjoy the evening, smoke a pipe, and join in gab and gossip.

A young man at my left, wearing a comfortable old tweed jacket with leathern patches at the elbows, recognized me as a stranger. He turned out to be a clerk in a sporting goods store, well informed on fishing and eager to give me news of local waters.

It had been a disappointing spring for salmon. And now, with the distressingly low water, the annual run of sea trout was behind schedule. “If we do get rain when you’re up in Donegal, be sure that your fly box holds plenty of Peter Ross, Connemara Black, and Blue Butcher. With streams so dry, stick to the loughs and settle for brown trout.”

As we chatted, a young girl started across the bridge, hesitated, and took her place at my right. There was no doubt about it, she had a disturbingly pretty face. Her cheeks were pink with the proof of radiant health. Her sleek black hair was pulled back in a chignon and secured by an applegreen ribbon. She took no notice of me or my neighbor and fixed her gaze steadily downriver.

I returned to talk about fishing and listened to proffered advice on the proper technique for hooking a sea trout. “Don’t put too much pressure on fresh-run fish. Their mouths ye’ll find soft, with the hook apt to tear out. Walk your hooked fish up to the bank with a steady pull if you have the chance.” After a further suggestion that the fly should travel with the flow of the river, I turned toward the young lady. At the same moment she had turned and looked at me with penetration and an expression of utter melancholy. Common courtesy pressed me to inquire whether there was something I might do. The longer the silence, the deeper my confusion. Finally I managed a tepid observation that even so beautiful an evening as this held a note of sadness. “Faith, yes,” she replied, in a voice that might have been a sigh itself. “I was longing for the waters to carry me away.”

At this poetic moment my fishing friend nudged my elbow to enlighten me of the sea trouts’ habit of traveling in “shoals.” By the time I had heard him out and turned back, she had gone. The last I saw of her was an apple-green ribbon fading into twilight at the end of the bridge.

I was aware again of this sensitivity of conversation at Lough Eske, where we had joined a company of fishermen a week later. A friend in Dublin had recommended the plush comfort of a country estate, formerly the domain of a titled Englishman. The letterhead confirming our reservation proclaimed it to be “The Most Beautiful Place on Earth,” and the Irish Tourist Bureau modestly added the accolade that it is known as “The Most Exclusive Hotel in Ireland.” With a dozen guests — Scotch, Irish, and British — we shared the comforts of the cozy little bar, the sun lounge, the whispering peat fires, and a competent staff. Seven hundred surrounding acres had been planted generations before with rhododendrons, azaleas, and even palm trees, which seemed to a stranger out of place in rural Ireland. Yet Donegal County is blessed by the exhalations of the Gulf Stream, and semitropical vegetation is quite at home.

Lough Eske, according to printed promise, should have teemed with brown trout and newly arrived sea trout, and if stream fishing was preferred, the River Eany was available close by. But once again, with the stream down to a trickle, I went about humming, “The rain in Spain stays mainly on the plain,” to which I added a postscript, “In Don-e-gall it does not rain at all.” No sea trout had showed up, and brown trout in the lake lay deep down and sluggish.

After two days of futile fishing on the lake, I decided to head up into the mountains, largely for the exercise. It was Sunday afternoon, and I took my rod along to investigate a small stream that tumbled down through a mountain gorge into the head of the lake. I was assured that there would be no fish of respectable size. But the promise of the wild beauty of the mountain slopes was incentive enough.

I left my car by an old stone bridge and headed up a rough path, stopping to cast in pools or runs along the way. Beautiful clear water, but no fish. A mile up the valley, the warmth of July had changed to something close to New England autumn, with turbulent gusts sweeping down from the bald granite peaks. Cloud packs moved over the face of the mountains with the promise of a weather change.

The path skirted a small white stone-walled farmhouse. Below the house, a road led to a bridge across the stream. Beyond, on the mountain slopes, were rough pastures traced by wandering stone walls. On the bridge a man stood waving his arms and shouting wildly into the wind. He might have been demented and acting out the opening of a short story by Poe. For a moment I could find no explanation. Then, high up on the valley wall, fully a mile away, I made out a black speck dashing frantically about. It was a sheep dog, like a captain in the field, maneuvering a gray-brown mass of sheep, now dividing, now changing front, now wheeling down toward the commander on the bridge. Commands from the master, which seemed unintelligible and impossible to be heard, were being executed by a dog working for the love of it. As the animal paused now and again to look down-valley for instructions, I thought of the stylized obedience tests of city dog shows — bored little dachshunds hopping and skipping, advancing and retreating, in quest of a blue ribbon.

Two miles up, bushes along the stream had dwarfed to heather, which gave a pink pattern to the mountain grass. The course now swept through steep gorges, with the stream tumbling over rocky walls in silvery waterfalls. Trout waters like an old Currier and Ives lithograph. I thought; deep and clear and rushing with wisps of spray, like silken scarves, whisking across the pools.

With care and patience I fished, wet and dry, with every fly, plausible and speculative, in the box. There were plenty of nimble little fiveinchers, but no sign of anything better. In disappointment I quit and headed on up.

Another half hour brought fatigue and the decision to call it a day. It was four thirty. Before turning back, I stretched out with my knapsack as a pillow. Far below was the silver ribbon of Lough Eske. A mile above, on the mountain faces, where grass thinned out to granite, feeding sheep were tiny dots which scarcely seemed to move. Peace, heavenly peace, without a sound except the murmur of the stream and the sigh of the wind. Before I fell asleep I watched the fierce pasture flies light on my leg and probe the thick Irish wool of my trousers in frustration.

AT SEVEN THIRTY we gathered around the little bar for small talk about the luck of the day. I told of the delight I had found on my excursion into the hills. A Scottish lady whom I knew to be an extremely competent fisherwoman inquired what I had found in the way of trout. I told her of the five-inchers in the picturesque pools. She suggested wryly that I had little to show for such a long climb. A trifle tartly, I replied that she might not have expected me to take the Loch Ness Monster from a mountain trickle. Her expression at once became grim and dour. In explanation, her husband, touching my arm, said quietly, “You have stumbled on a subject which is painful to my wife. She has seen the Loch Ness Monster, and she hates scoffers.”

Incredulous, I asked politely for what she cared to tell.

“I was born and lived as a child close by Loch Ness,” she said. “When I was eight years old, I was walking along the bank with my mother one summer’s afternoon. An excursion boat was moving down the loch. We knew the captain of the boat and watched it draw by. As we watched, the head and shoulders of a great creature rose from the lake between us and the steamer. It had an arching neck and a frighteningly beastly head.

“It swam along the surface for a while and then submerged. I was terrified, and so was my mother. I wouldn’t dream of ever again swimming in the loch and have not, to this day.”

I asked her to make a sketch from memory, in my notebook, of what she had seen. The care and determination with which she drew every line of the humpbacked creature was assurance enough that this was no spoof. She signed her name with the comment, “I saw the Loch Ness Monster.”

Emboldened by the warmth of Irish whisky, I suggested facetiously that her sketch followed the classic pattern of the “great beasties” which embellished romantic old sea tales.

“Am I to assume,” she snapped, “that you, who come from Boston, will be doubting what your ancestors saw off Gloucester and Nahant in 1817? The witnesses were all examined, you know, or perhaps you don’t.”

Alarmed by the squall which had whistled across the bar, I assured her that I was familiar with the engravings of our fanged and bewhiskered old sea serpent which hang to this day on the walls of Boston clubs. But in honesty I regarded the incident, and other sea serpent sightings, as no more conclusive than our recurrent and conflicting reports of flying saucers.

“Now, my dear,” her husband suggested with a gentle hand on her shoulder, “perhaps it is time for us to be going in to dinner.”

“I’ll settle this myself”—she bridled—“and I’ll inquire of the gentleman if he is aware that there were fifty-one reported and documented sightings of the Loch Ness creature in 1933 alone.'’

I admitted that such evidence was impressive, but that several competent investigators had concluded that it might be an optical illusion — a family of seals swimming in line, a concerted rise of salmon, or a wedge of cormorants flying low to the water, as I have observed them magnified by shimmer on Penobscot Bay.

“Rubbish,” she retorted. “I have seen seals and cormorants by the thousands. They bear no relation to what I have seen, with my own eyes. And if you will be stuffy, how about the photographs which have been published?”

Before replying, I drained my glass at a gulp. “It so happens,” I said, “I have a friend in Boston, a marine biologist. He tells me that one of the photographs suggests a dog otter; another looks surprisingly like the contour of a giant squid, a species known to attain a length of fifty feet.”

“You seem to know more about this controversy than you gave me to believe,” she said, with diminishing acerbity. “And perhaps you have seen Commander Gould’s book.”

I told her that I had read the text at the Boston Athenaeum and was perfectly willing to admit that there had been strange and unexplained goings on in the loch, with its incredible depth of seven hundred feet. I was even more impressed, I admitted, with her knowledge of the old controversy of Nahant and Gloucester.

“Perhaps the skin divers and the sonar boys will come up with the answer,” observed her husband.

“Let’s hope so,” I replied. “And now, if you’ll permit me, I’ll order a touch of Irish whisky for a wee doch-an-dorris to settle our stomachs and an old Scottish argument, and then we’ll go along to dinner.”

In Ireland the most casual conversation can suddenly plunge you overboard into turbid waters seven hundred feet deep!