By Daniel F. Mc Crea. (Cork Examiner – Monday May 10th, 1976)
At the door of a little one storey house on Chapel Hill in Castleconnell village (pp 350), some six miles north of Limerick City, I came face to face with 90 year old “Shanks” Tuohy.
He invited me into the house that’s been his home since the day of his birth, May 8th 1885. Even before we had seated ourselves at his hearth we were talking.
“Ah God I suppose I am” he said in answer to my question if he was aware that he was the last fisherman in Ireland today. “And I’d still be fishing if I had my sight”. My wife’s dead these seven years and I’m living on my own and the nuns (from the neighbouring Presentation Convent) looking after me.”
While his hearing wasn’t quite as good, I rarely had to repeat a question. Neither did he pause nor hedge in his reply. As to how he had acquired “Shanks” as a nickname, he had no idea. “Every one of us had a nickname” he said, “Mine was “Shanks”. “That’s what the Englishmen I fished with called me. Willie Bowen the head fellow never called me anything but “Shanks”. Indeed if you went into Nestor’s now in Limerick and it’s a great tackle shop and you said “Bill Tuohy”, they wouldn’t know who you were talking about.”
His fishing career started with eels. “I had a few brothers and they went away sailoring” he volunteered. “My father was dead and I was here with my mother. I was 14 years old and done with school and I had to go out and earn money. All I got from the eel fishing was a shilling a night – from 4 o’clock in the evening till next morning. I was only holding the bag for the fellow that was at the net and there were about 30 nets. I stuck at it four years”. In 1903, he became a fisherman on the Landscape beat, one of ten private salmon fisheries on the Shannon. He was then only 18 years old but stood 6 foot two inches tall and weighed 15 stone. His first week’s pay as a fisherman was £2 plus ten shillings for Sunday.
When I asked “Shanks” what age was he when he caught his first salmon, he answered: “I don’t suppose I would be ten. My eldest brother had been fishing but caught nothing. He brought in the rod. There was a prawn on it. He was going for a pint to the pub when I came home from school. I was barefooted. I took the rod and went down to where the bridge is crossing the river and threw out my prawn. In a couple of minutes I was in a fish of 30lb. I landed it”.
When I voiced my admiration of a 10 year old child playing a salmon, he told me that his son, now living in Whitegate, Co. Clare has a photo of himself with his first salmon. It was 20lb and the boy was only nine years old.
It was in the late 1920s that “Shanks” caught his last big salmon, a 40 pounder. As to how many in the intervening 35 years he had boated, he had no idea, though he recalled taking specimens of 44lb, 48lb and 49lb.
He gave me a graphic description of hooking and playing a big salmon on a fly. “If he had the hook in the front of his mouth”, he said, “it would come out of him, but you nearly always found it in the side of the jaw. Some of them would pitch right out of the water and you could see he was a big fellow. He might be 38 or 40lbs or more and he might run across the stream. As soon as the current caught his side, you’d want a steel rope to hold him because of the weight of the water against his side. And if the line caught your fingers, yo ho, but it would cut them off”.
And all the time, he reminded me, the fisherman had to keep his mind on his work. “It was the most dangerous job in a dangerous river”, he pointed out. “Make the least mistake and your boat would be matchwood against a stone while you’d be thinking, Thank God, I never had an accident of any description. That’s why everybody wanted to be with me. Before they would take one of the ten boats, they would want to know if I was on it, and if I wasn’t they wouldn’t come at all”.
He fished with men from all over the world, but had difficulty in recalling all their names. Names which rolled freely off his tongue were “Mr. Hancock of the Birmingham Post” he wrote of me in that paper and in “The Field” and Mister Thompson and Mister Henderson – he was a millionaire – and Harrison Cripps who was the Surgeon Cripps that operated on King Edward the Seventh for appendicitis. I was fishing with the Surgeon the Sunday (in 1920) when he caught a 40lb salmon. It was the day that Mister O’Donovan (father of Dermot O’Donovan and owner of the Shannon Hotel) was shot dead by the Black and Tans at the hotel. And I fished with Lord Parmoor, the Surgeon’s brother and father of Sir Stafford Cripps. I fished too, with General Corry and his daughter and Mister Adams, Colonel Robinson (of Robinson and Cleaver), Lord Somerset and the Earl of Kingston and Sir Peter Walker, the whiskey distiller from Macclesfield, and John Jameson, another whiskey man from Dublin. They were all of them generous and paid us well.”
He cited Colonel Robinson as an example “He would come into the house here in the morning” he told me “and sit there beyond the hob with me and give my mother a five-pound note before we went off to fish”.
He laughed as he recalled a particular morning “when the Colonel said as they approached the river – ‘I don’t know but I have a feeling I’ll get a 40 pounder today’ “I hope in God you do”, says I, Do you know? We weren’t twenty minutes fishing till we got the 40lb fish. The Colonel made all Castleconnell drunk”. Another generous patron, he said “was Mister Henderson, an Englishman, who had made his money in India and retired on an income of £40,000 a year. He engaged myself and another fisherman on the Doonass beat. This other fisherman is dead now. He died in America. The pair of us would go down to the river in the morning and lay two boxes of matches in a tree. Mr. Henderson would cover them with two gold sovereigns. For every salmon that came into the boat, we’d draw the two sovereigns. If we got ne’er a fish that day, Mister Henderson got the two boxes of matches.
From the way he spoke of Lord Parmoor I was in no doubt as to who was “the kindest and best man that ever paid me”. That they had to be wealthy to fish in Castleconnell is obvious from the rental of the ten fishery beats. “In the early 1900’s”, “Shanks” recalled, “Doonass beat cost £1,000 and I don’t know if any of them was as low as £400. There were plenty of them wanting the fishing and ready to pay for it”. And the big money was matched by the big fish. The biggest salmon which he know to have been caught in the Shannon weighed 64lbs. “An Englishman by name of Moore or Moorhead killed it” “Shanks” told me, but he couldn’t recall the year. “The biggest taken in the nets weighed over 60lbs and was caught at the Lax Weir in Limerick City”.
Nor was he in any doubt that “the greatest year that ever came on the Shannon was 1927. In one draw at the Lax Weir the nets took 300 Salmon. All big salmon. The smallest one would be about 30lbs”
It was somewhere around that year he caught the Shannon’s last “Portmanteau” salmon in the 40lbs plus bracket. He couldn’t recall the exact date but he was sure it was after the “hydro-electric scheme” which the newly emerging Irish Free State sponsored as a national source of light and power. “Mine was the only one. There was ne’er but the one caught” he said. “My son Pat has a photo of it up in his home in Clare”.
To my point blank query. “Would you go down now to the river for a big fish?” he replied, “Indeed I wouldn’t, all they get now is salmon of 6lbs or 7lbs. The river wasn’t too bad for maybe two years after letting it in the water but then it went right bad. The electric scheme finished the Shannon”.