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Open Features: Salmon Poaching And Cattle Markets - Part 1

...Artie, now settled in my father’s chair over by the fire said, “Troth and didn’t I hear that the two river watchers got into a right handlin’ last night over by the mouth of the river.”

I pricked up my ears upon hearing this and paused by the pantry door to hear more. I knew that there was a deal of salmon poaching going on and that Ben Byrne and Rob Diver were watching the river at night on behalf of the owners of the fishing rights. Their official title was that of Water Bailiffs but around our part of the country they were known as “river watchers.”...

Artie the postman brings news when he calls at the farm to deliver a letter.

Alan McConnell brings another slice of life in the rural Ireland of yesteryear. Watch out for more from Alan next weeks.

To read more of his richly evocative articles please click on http://www.openwriting.com/cgi-bin/mt-search.cgi?IncludeBlogs=1&search=alan+mcconnell

We didn’t get an awful lot of mail in those days. What we did get was mostly confined to letters from relatives and these only when they had some sensational news to impart or to inform us of an impending visit. Sometimes the government department that took an interest in the farming community deigned to send us a missive dealing with some aspect of agriculture but these were never of any great import and did not need an answer. How times have changed!

Anyway on this particular Saturday afternoon Artie, our postman, had occasion to pay us a visit. He sailed into our yard on his green Post Office bicycle, dismounted and propped it convenient to our back door. He then delved into his postbag and extracting a letter, gave the door a swift tap of the knuckles, lifted the latch and made his way up the short hallway to the kitchen. I entered almost upon his heels laden down with the creel, which I had been replenishing in the turf shed. Coalie and Jack who had been outside engaged on some dog business accompanied us into the house and settled themselves on either side of the kitchen fire.

As it happened his arrival, in the early afternoon, coincided with my mother and Laura preparing to commence the butter churning in the pantry.

Upon hearing Artie’s knock my mother had emerged from the pantry to meet him just as he entered the kitchen. She greeted him, “Ach it’s you Artie. It’s not often we get a visit from you, not with letters anyway; but come on in and take the weight off your feet. We’re just about ready to start the churning but there’ll be a jigger of tea in a wee while if you’re not in a hurry. Or perhaps you’d like to try a sup of the fresh buttermilk.”

In the act of handing a letter to my mother Artie barely suppressed a shudder. “If it’s all right with you, missus, I’ll stick to the tea. The buttermilk and me don’t just get on; something to do with the acid in my stomach you know.”

My mother had a wee smile at this, well knowing Artie’s tastes in the line of liquid refreshment.

“Well, Artie, everyone to his taste as they say. I’ll just get Laura started off with the churn and then I’ll see to the tea and Willie, you don’t get settled with that book. You’ll have to take your turn with the plunger and both of you mind you go brave and steady with it. Pull it well up and dash it well down and give it a wee turn as you go along. You should know by now that if you don’t do it properly it’ll be night time before we get any butter.”

While she was talking my mother scrutinised the letter before placing it on the dresser. Looking over her shoulder I had seen the American stamps and knew it could only be from Great Aunt Mary in New Jersey

Artie seemed to be a little disappointed that she did not open it there and then and perhaps divulge some interesting item of news which he could carry with him and pass on during the remainder of his postal round. No doubt this played some part in my mother’s decision to leave it unopened until after Artie’s departure.

I had just reached for my latest Zane Grey story obtained the day before from Miss Probus’ travelling library and settled myself on the old sofa by the back window when my mother’s words struck an unwelcome chord in my ear. I had banked on Laura and she attending to the churning while I lost myself in the deserts of Arizona. However, Artie’s visit had taken my mother off in another direction so there was nothing for it but to spell Laura with the churning. Anyway, if we got the rhythm of the dasher right we should be at the butter stage in thirty minutes or so.

As I laid aside my book and made my way towards the pantry I heard Laura softly singing what we called her “churning song.” This was something Great Aunt Mary had picked up in America and duly passed on to Laura.

"Come butter, come butter, come!
Peter - standing at the gate!
Waiting for a butter cake!
Come butter come!"

Artie, now settled in my father’s chair over by the fire said, “Troth and didn’t I hear that the two river watchers got into a right handlin’ last night over by the mouth of the river.”

I pricked up my ears upon hearing this and paused by the pantry door to hear more. I knew that there was a deal of salmon poaching going on and that Ben Byrne and Rob Diver were watching the river at night on behalf of the owners of the fishing rights. Their official title was that of Water Bailiffs but around our part of the country they were known as “river watchers.”

“Well,” says Artie, “I’m just after hearing from Francie Meehan that the boul pair of boys came on Plunky Deane and Percy Quinn netting the river just at that narrow place near the old island church. Deane and Quinn had the net across the river when the watchers came on the scene on the opposite bank and grabbed a hoult of the net at their side and then wasn’t there a grand tug of war. According to Francie, Byrne had to do most of the work because didn’t poor Diver’s back trouble keep him from being much of a help. Anyway, at the rear of it all Byrne, being the big strong man that he is got the net and two big salmon to boot.”

I couldn’t contain my curiosity and said, “What about Deane and Quinn?”

“Ach, they cleared off once they had lost the net.”

“And the salmon? Did the watchers keep them?” I had visions of maybe a nice piece of salmon coming our way since Rob Byrne was very pack with my father and usually visited us on his ceili at sometime during the week.

“Divil the bit of it. They were still alive and Byrne fired both of them back into the river. Sure it would have been more than his job is worth to try any tricks like that. The pay for that job is too good to be throwing away for the sake of a couple of salmon.”

My mother approached the conversation from a different angle. “I hope poor Mr Diver isn’t going to have more trouble with his back after this. He had an awful siege with it last winter when he was off work for a month. Sure, that man’s past the time when he should be traipsing round the riverbanks at night in all weathers. It’s time he was thinking of giving up that sort of work. It’s all right for Ben Byrne to face these poachers. He’s young and there’s not too many will face up to a man of his size.”

Her next words were addressed to me. “Here, Willie, I thought I told you to give Laura a hand with that churning. Her arms will be pulled out of her with that dasher and it’s time she got a rest.”

Reluctantly, I entered the pantry and relieved a grateful Laura at the churn. She promptly made for the kitchen to garner any further pearls of gossip that Artie might have to impart. I was careful to leave the door open but it was difficult to hear any of the conversation over the noise of the dasher plunging back and forth through the milk in the churn.

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