Father Jack is alive and well and living with his brother in a cottage on Downpatrick Head in County Mayo. You know the one I mean, the toothless drunken Irish priest from Channel 4’s Father Ted. The one who snores, dribbles and says ‘Feck’ all the time.
I swear to God, if it wasn’t him, it was his double, or rather, his two doubles, that I met one summer’s day up on the cliffs overhanging the Atlantic on the West coast of Ireland.
Pollock was the fish I was after. I wanted a fat bronze pollock to bake in a fisherman’s pie, while I was staying in a cottage on the banks of the river Moy in Ballina. I was supposed to be salmon fishing but the river was having a tantrum and behaving like a hyperactive child, who’s just ingested too many E numbers.
Downpatrick Head is a great long narrow wagging finger of land poking out into the Atlantic like an angry referee signalling for a free kick.
A man in a pub, wearing a white Guinness froth moustache told me, I could ‘practically walk across the backs of the pollock off Downpatrick Head’. So, being a gullible, eternally optimistic angler, eager to follow the wisdom of drunks, I took myself off to the windiest portion of land in the northern hemisphere. Here I walked across the grassy headland grasping my shiny new nine and a half foot Diawa salmon spinning rod, my sleek Shimano fixed spool reel loaded with ten pound line, and a box of assorted rubber red gill lures, a couple of strings of feathers and some silver Toby spoons.
The west of Ireland still has the ability to surprise and shock with its amazing lack of populace. Lack of anything.
Out on Downpatrick Head there was no one. Only sea gulls. Distant sheep dotted in fields, were the only other mammals in sight. Sadly, the rare joy of going to a fishing spot which was deserted, was soon marred by the realisation that as fishing spots go, this was about as useful as a vegetarian ferret.
The sea swelled with potential. Great deep bays of green water edged with white foaming waves filled crescent shaped bites chomped out of the cliffs. But it was the cliffs which were the problem. Most of the peninsular had a sheer fifty foot drop to the sea. With not a ledge or a climb-down in sight. Hooking pollock that were feeding in the deep food-filled bays wasn’t going to be much of a problem, but landing them would be impossible.
Hauling a three or four or five pound pollock out of the sea and up fifty foot of jagged cliff face on a ten pound line with a test curve of a pound and quarter would be a bit like trying to haul a coal scuttle up your cellar steps using single strands of cooked spaghetti.
I marvelled at my own perfect ignorance. Why hadn’t I brought a drop net? Then again, I didn’t actually own a drop net. Being an impulsive, impatient, impractical dreamer, I couldn’t resist having a cast off the cliff down to tasty looking pollock friendly water below. I cast out a string of feathers with a two ounce weight on the bottom and reeled in fast. Of course I caught a fish. Of course it was too big to haul up the cliff. Of course my rod nearly broke, and of course the line did break, losing me the big bronze pollock, probably all of five and a half pounds and my brand new string of inscrutable Japanese hokai feathers.
So, I sat down with a heavy heart. Dismayed at how usless I could be. Here I was armed with hundreds of pounds worth of the finest fishing tackle money could buy, surrounded by sea bristling with fat protein filled pie-friendly fish, and yet I didn’t have the nouse to get one out.
It was then I spied Father Jack and his equally toothless, wild haired brother scrabbling about in the rocks a few hundred yards further round the cliff. They looked like overgrown, overaged, retired Leprechauns who had been let out on day-release from some institution. Both wore battered tweed suits with threadbare ties and orange baler twine as boot laces. They were almost unbelievable. Fictional. Like fantasy Irish characters out of some Hollywood Central Casting Agency. But they were real. And what was much more interesting, is they were fishing.
As I approached, one of the brothers cast their communal line. Casting consisted of swinging a length of baler twine around his head, to which was attached two large tractor bolts as weights, onto which was tied a length of monofilament thick enough to haul a Ford Sierra out of a ditch. After three revolutions of his head, the twine was deftly released and the bolts, two huge rusty hooks and weird looking bait descended the fifty foot below to splash in the edge of the white crashing foam. Within seconds of landing the brother was holding his arm out straight feeling for a bite, then striking hugely lifting his arm up and hauling on the twine.
Before I arrived beside them, I was able to watch a huge fat wrasse of about four pounds leave the water fast and bounce off the cliff face a few times, before landing gulping and green at their feet. It soon took its place among half a dozen even bigger fish.
Michael and Padraig were brothers who worked on the local farm and lived in a cottage at the first kink of the headland. They were farm labourers and this was Sunday, hence their suits. They were fishing for their dinner. And their technique was so skilled, so practical and so well practised, it made me blush with shame at all my stupid excessive Japanese junk.
The brothers used huge prehistoric looking stone lice for bait. The cliff face all around was like slate rock. If you pulled at it, it broke into horizontal sheafs, like filo pastry. In between the sheafs you could find these fat dark grey armoured lice, which looked like an earlier, larger, dirtier model of the common woodlice.
Two lice were fed onto each of the huge rusty hooks and the whole thing was launched out off the cliff into the sea. I spent the rest of the afternoon fishing with these two old boys. They seemed to speak Gaelic more than English and so our conversation took the form of grunts and signs.
They eagerly lent me their tackle and I too was soon hauling fat wrasse up the cliff face. They marvelled at my Japanese flashy stuff and I encouraged them to have a go. I put on a Toby spoon and gave them a quick lesson in casting, but they only wanted to look at the gear, didn’t feel comfortable actually trying it out.
In their huge, work-gnarled hands the tackle looked even more silly. More out of place. More usless. To try and bridge the gap of our fishing experience we came to a weird compromise. Michael and Padraig tied one of my red gill rubber lures to the end of their hose-like monofilament leader and whirled the pollock attractor further out into the green bay, propelled this time by just one tractor bolt. This was fine tuning.
We then took it in turns to haul the lure back fast through the water until Padraig hooked a pollock of just over five pounds.
At the end of the day, they insisted I take the pollock. I foisted a load of rubber lures and Toby spoons on them and a spool of ten pound line. They were delighted and gracious about accepting the gifts, but I felt real doubt that they’d ever actually use them.
We shook hands and they grinned happily with their toothless gums and plodded off to eat their boiled wrasse as I went home embarrassed by my ugly modern tackle, to bake a pie. A humble pie.