Dervla Murphy


Dervla Murphy was born in 1931 in Lismore, Co.Waterford where she still lives, along with many animals, when not travelling. She is the author of over twenty books ranging from accounts of her travels to such places as Peru, Madagascar, Ethiopia, South Africa, Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia to examinations of race relations in England during the 1980s and of the perils of nuclear power. Dervla is a writer with a great sense of social justice and a sharp awareness of its opposite. She is a passionate opponent of the exploitation of people and of the environment wherever she travels and is no less so in the place she has always known as her home.


A River and Me *

On the way home we might pause, where Bohar na Naomh is lapped by the Blackwater and Patsy Frank would light a pipe while gossiping with four nephews who held licences to snap-net salmon just upstream from the Kitchen Hole. Their small flat-bottomed boats (a model popular over the past 7,000 years) were known as ‘cots’ which for some reason made me giggle – to Patsy Frank’s irritation. We never saw more than two boats, using a twenty yard net; Mrs. Lloyd could remember steaming up the Blackwater to Cappoquin and seeing dozens of cots between old Strancally castle and the Bride Mouth. Each group of cotmen then had rights to a certain stretch – rights defended, when necessary, with fists. A few famed fishermen were credited with a sixth sense enabling them to ‘feel’ the salmon swimming upstream by night.

In  1600, as the New English were tightening their grip, a law banished all cots from the Blackwater and Bride lest the ‘insurgents’ might find them useful. However, this ban was largely ignored, as too many riverside communities were dependent on fishing. Yet the 1832 cholera epidemic kept cotmen away from the infected coast and Youghal’s merchants had to collect their salmon from Villierstown quay. By then Blackwater salmon – exchanged for silk or wine – had gained renown across Europe.

Traditionally, the men who tended Lismore’s lucrative salmon hatchery beside the Ownashad (a minor Blackwater tributary) were cot-makers in their own time; salmon fry are not labour intensive. I remember joining the crowd who gathered one evening at the hatchery to exclaim over a record snap-net catch – a 51½ pound salmon landed by a four man cot crew.

In the early 19th century, the conflicting needs of navigation and commercial fishing caused much dissention between the Conservators of the Blackwater, the Board of Works, the Admiralty and the Fishery Commissioners. Those four bundles of bureaucrats spent decades exchanging reports and memos and indignant or threatening letters. Not until 1864 were all the Blackwater’s nineteen obstructive weirs (apart from Scart) pronounced illegal and dismantled.

That row, though notoriously prolonged, was a mere side-show compared with the ownership controversy. Who owns the Blackwater fishing rights? The Cavendishes claim them because in 1613 King James I awarded the patent to the Earl of Cork. Youghal Town Council claim to possess a document proving that His Majesty had already, in 1609, given the fishing rights to the Mayor of Youghal. The Magna Carta comes into this, as do Henry VIII and Sir Walter Raleigh. More recently (in 1882) the House of Lords considered the matter and predictably decided in favour of the Cavendishes. The case however remains open and is unlikely to be closed unless Youghal Town Council wins a multi-million lottery prize and can afford to mount a serious local challenge. (Afterthought: Would an Irish government department look after the Blackwater salmon as well as an English duke does? What do you think?

In the early 1940s my father founded a journal for Macra na Feirme and I accompanied him one day to the opening of the Tallow branch of Castlelyons Co-op, the last auxiliary creamery to be set up in Waterford. We also regularly visited the Knockmealdown Co-op which for many years flourished between Ballymacarbry and Mahonbridge in one of county Waterford’s most  sternly beautiful townlands – officially labelled ‘disadvantaged’. Nowadays, when I hear people debating how best to loosen the corporate stranglehold on food producers, I recall this gallant co-op and its one hundred employees including cobblers and tailors. It ran a string of small agricultural and huxters’ shops, a piggery, an egg depot and a flour mill. Here was the nucleus of a well-balanced, almost self-sufficient rural community which fought hard to maintain its independence when all around were being amalgamated. Then it died a lingering death, betrayed from within by converts to ‘rationalization.’

Small farmers throughout the EU have been hard hit by corporate-backed amalgamations and rationalizations. (As though there were anything rational about Ireland importing potatoes, carrots and onions!) One friend of mine hung for longer than usual, milking his six cows by hand. Until the 80’s my daughter was able to cross a field, morning and evening, to fetch a large jug of frothy milk, warm from the udder and uncontaminated by scientific processes. Then yet another set of EU regulations made impossible demands on Tom’s resources. He lived alone and those cosseted cows were his family. He didn’t long survive their sale.

In the 18th and 19th centuries demesnes large and small sported ornamental parks for their owners’ private use. These could be costly to establish but those lucky families who lived along the lower Blackwater were spared that expense. From Glencairn to Ballinatray they could look out on landscapes ornamented by Nature, needing only maintenance – discreet maintenance, to avoid blemishing their romantic wildness. By then the New English settlers had of course drastically altered most of the countryside – which was described, in the 1654 Civil Survey, as

……..generally course, barren and mountainous, affordinge noe graine without lime, dunge or sand haveings only the navigable River of the Blackwater on the west thereof.

Fitz once showed me old maps indicating how the settlers had remoulded the landscape to suit their advanced tillage methods, England’s demand for timber and Richard Boyle’s demand for charcoal. His iron-smelting furnaces on the Bride and Blackwater ( the biggest in Ireland) burned day and night until the surrounding region had been stripped of woodland. Those maps also revealed how ‘improvements’ to the Devonshire estate entailed the obliteration of several promising archaeological sites. However, given the Republic’s contempt for such links with the past we are in no position to complain about that.

West Waterford disappoints some of my foreign guests. They protest – ‘It’s too tame, too like Kent or Sussex or Dorset, too unlike Kerry or Connemara or Donegal’. I see their point, yet to me West Waterford , South Tipperary and East Cork are incomparably satisfying. This territory has formed me as an animal. It’s my natural habitat, where I am at ease in all weathers. Everything is congenial: every curve of the hills and montains, every bend of the rivers and streams, every distinctive seasonal scent of hedgerows and woods. Too often we forget that we are animals, albeit with certain unique capabilities increasingly lethal to our fellow animals.

Few interviewers can understand why I so often chose to travel in ‘undeveloped’ regions, far from motor-roads and towns (never mind cities). They obviously see this as an amusing eccentricity, or as silly romanticism or pathological masochism. It’s hard to explain my need (a deeply felt need) to spend time alone where the landscape has not been suddenly and violently transformed by the abuse of technology. And where one’s journey involves dependency on what the natural world offers in the way of shelter, water, fuel.

It is of course becoming more and more difficult to find ‘undeveloped’ regions. A dreadful example of technology abuse, which I came upon in Laos, was the hiring of helicopters to steal rare and protected trees from near the summits of very steep mountains.

Nowadays an alarming number of my city-born young friends, whatever their nationality ten not to notice their surroundings when I expose them to the Blackwater and Bride valleys or the Knockmealdown and Comeragh mountains. Although we have so much else in common, they seem detached from the natural world – indifferent to it. Perhaps this shouldn’t surprise me, so rapidly have S&T redesigned us. Three of those friends, visiting one October when the evenings were chilly, asked what they could do to help while I was cooking supper. When I suggested lighting the living-room fire, they exchanged uneasy looks. Outside the door logs were piled, and twigs for kindling, and newspapers and matches lay to hand – yet I had to demonstrate fire-lighting. A trivial incident, but it disturbed me as another example of links with our ancestors recently abruptly broken. All our multiplying labour-saving devices, which in theory allow us more spare time, also deskill us as invidivuals.

Mine is a peculiar generation. In 2010, anyone born in 1931 has glimpsed the end of one era and the beginning of another. As a youngster, I saw a cargo schooner sailing up the Blackwater, as an oldster I was bullied into cyberspace where a pressed button enables me to see and read about what is happening now on all continents. It’s generally agreed that this pace of change has been destabilizing. Consider – had reincarnated citizens of ancient Greece or Rome arrived in Europe 200 years ago, they could easily have coped with daily life, with our food, transport, communications, lighting, heating, clothing, housing, medical care. (Though our 18th century sanitary arrangements would have disgusted Roman villa owners). Were those reincarnations to arrive now, they would panic. What distinguishes us from other animals has taken us very far, very fast. Some people, myself included, intuit that evolution has not programmed us to adjust, undamaged, to such a sudden breaking of so many links. But, what to do? Maybe we could try reducing our over-dependence on technology – and retreating from cyberspace’s more frenzied arenas – and reopening our senses to the natural world.

Dervla Murphy.


* This is an excerpt from a much longer essay written specifically for the Townlands Project .