Imagine yourself on the road from Clonbur village, travelling south, en route to Cornamona and the Maam Valley in the heart of Connemara, county Galway. If you are a native you will know this road intimately, you will know in your mind what you will see at the sharp bend. Here your eyes will feast on the wondrous vista of Lough Corrib with its tree covered islands. Here you will enter a scene from a celtic vision, a shimmering waterscape with mystical revelations and ecological values, a natural beauty. Here you will reflect. Everything is not what it seems.
You are going out to come back. Your destination is Maam Bridge where the Bealnabrack River is about to be joined by the Failmore River as the flood waters of the Beanna Beola continue their journey to the sea through the lough of Corrib. Here at Maam Bridge you will begin your float around to Cornamona where the lough laps a rocky shore with a forgetfulness that is difficult to fathom, continue past the promontory that ends with the island of Doorus, move through the channel between Inishdoorus and Inchagoill, past small islands of wilderness to the pier at the bridge into Ashford Castle.
You have momentarily crossed the county border into Mayo and now you are going to take a short walk into the village of Cong, where you will meet Tony Waldron at the junction of the dry canal bridge in the townland of Drumsheel above McGrath’s vast limestone quarry where Galway and Mayo draw a line between each other. There was a time when you could have walked the dry canal that linked Lough Corrib and Lough Mask. Today we are going by road, a torturous route along back roads that will bring us to a vista at the south-eastern edge of the Mask, Tony Waldron promised would surpass the view of the Corrib.
Tony Waldron was born in 1937 across the north Galway county border in Claremorris in south Mayo. His father, like many of his contemporaries, fished the western lakes during the fishing season in the war years between 1939 and 1945 when petrol was scare and rationing was in place. They would set off on bicycles, cycling the 15 miles to Caher Bay via Ballinrobe. When they got to Caher Bay they hired boats because they didn’t have boats of their own. They’d fish all day, come back into Ballinrobe in the evening, have a few pints in Luke Higgins’ pub and cycle back to Claremorris. In 1947 when he was ten Tony’s father told him he was old enough to learn how to fish.
‘I was all excited. We drifted out from Caher Bay and the first fish I ever actually rose in the lake I missed. It was a place out from Caher called Taylor Rock. We fished all day. When it was time to go in, Dad said to me, “how many fish?” I opened the linen bag containing the fish and we had 12 brown trout. He said, “let’s make it a baker’s dozen.” I said, I know where I missed a fish when we went out. And I rose a fish. Now it may not have been the same fish. We pulled into Caher and we had 13 trout. We came back in the evening around seven o’clock. That was one day’s fishing. Fishing in those years was no hassle. If people wanted fish they were got. My job on a Monday morning after a day’s fishing was bringing fish around to all the neighbours. They were also sent to relations in Dublin. Today they talk about modern transportation and getting things fast tracked. But the number of fish I brought to Claremorris station as a young lad to send off on the train was very simply done. The fish we caught on a Sunday we’d have them back in Claremorris on a Sunday evening. We would pull up somewhere along the road on the way back to Claremorris and I would have to go in and pull a bundle of rushes. When we got back to Claremorris we went out into the back kitchen where it was cool and placed the fish on plates with the rushes. The following morning the first thing we did was get the fish ready for relations in Dublin. They were simply wrapped in a layer of rushes from head to tail and bound with twine. A label was put on them. My job was to get them down to the train and then go to the post office and my father would have the telegram wording made out.’
In the late 1950s this rite of passage ended for the young Waldron when he left home, for Dublin, then England. He was away for five years. He came home in 1962. The father told him he was delighted to have him back. They went fishing. ‘It was like the first day I had ever fished with him, when I was ten. The beauty of the lakes only really came home to me then – what really was there. I had to go away from it, and then come back to see it in all its glory. Before that I had taken it for granted – the lake and the mountains, the peace and the quiet.’
Tony felt the full range of emotions that day, ‘like adrenalin going through my system’. While they were on the lake he began to cry. His father asked him why he was crying.
‘I don’t know,’ replied Tony.
‘Why did I ever leave this?’ he asked his father.
Tony knew then that he never wanted to leave the west of Ireland again. ‘It’s all that matters to me. It was not the fishing or the catching of fish, it’s something engrained in us, I don’t know what it is.’
It’s hard to imagine in our synthetic world what the west of Ireland must have looked like through the eyes of the 10-year-old Anthony Waldron. ‘Although times were different then we knew we were living in paradise. Thinking back down all those many years, the only things I can recollect impacting on this paradise were days when there was too much wind or rain or not enough wind but too much light and blue skies to coax the wild brown trout to the fly. I can truthfully say that I can never remember my dad utter the word pollution or express concern about water quality. It was not until the late 1980s-early 1990s that I and the majority of anglers really began to ask, firstly of ourselves and then of others, what on earth is happening to our lakes and rivers, what changes are going on, what are the causes?’
During the latter decades of the 20th century intensive agriculture, conifer forestry and waste disposal began to alter the fabric of these unique ecosystems. Sheep populations increased well beyond the capacity of the environment to sustain them. Overgrazing eroded the vegetation of the hills and mountains. Sitka spruce, the chosen conifer species for tree plantations, allow very little symbiotic life. There is no flora and fauna in conifer plantations. The pine needles acidify the soil. When the acid soil is washed into streams and rivers and eventually into lakes, trout, in particular, cannot tolerate the increased acidity. Conifer plantations became a threat to native biodiversity. The lakes also received untreated sewage and toxic leachate from domestic waste dumps. Fish are susceptible to the heavy metals contained in sewage. Tony Waldron could not believe his eyes and wanted to cup his ears when he heard that had happened.
Tony Waldron was a tireless environmental campaigner during the 1990s. A thin wiry man, his seemingly emaciated gait was at odds with his indefatigable energy and eternal optimism. As public relations officer for the Carra-Mask Angling Federation, entrusted with the task of highlighting the concerns of local fishing groups, acting subconsciously for environmentalists and local communities on the wider ecological issues, he had a mandate to save the Great Western Lakes – Corrib, Mask, Carra and Conn.
‘Sadly time and increasing pressures from both our modern human life-styles and intensive farming practices and animal production have finally caught up with us. Our lakes and rivers now appear to be the innocent victims of our “we’re as good as the rest” progressive Ireland. Our rush to catch up with the rest of the world, both in the quality of the way we live and the quantity of food and livestock we produce, has inevitably impacted on what is or should still be our most valuable resource, namely clean water. Twenty five years ago we had clean water in our wells, streams, rivers and lakes. Although many fears and doubts were expressed over the years as to what was actually happening, the weight of opinion (including government) was to “plough ahead, keep going” and everything will be alright once we get there. We may have got there in terms of improved urban and rural living standards and in far higher yields and outputs from farming but in the process we have seriously damaged our once clean waters, although we still proclaim and live with the illusion that they are in “pristine” condition.’
It was a deja vu moment. Tony Waldron wanted to show me that particular vista, a remnant of a childhood memory, and I want to show it to you. We are on the Mask shore, further south from Caher Bay, standing on slabs of pock-marked limestone rock, the edge of a geological anomaly. Waves risen by a gentle breeze lap the lough shoreline. Pools of rust-coloured liquid bubble and froth. The rock pools are coated in algae. Deep crevices and sharp edges divide and separate the jagged hexagonal rocks. This is a landscape defined by erosion, the lesser evil.