Main pic: My uncle, Johnny Coyle, on one of his many fishing trips that he enjoyed all his life.
The old 28 inch wheel was always ready for the road. The chain guard had fallen off it, the front mudguard was missing and the brakes were very bad!
Made before the introduction of cable brakes. The old steel rod brakes only dulled your speed, heading down Glencar. You always knew in the back of your mind that you never were actually going to get stopped. It looked good the day my father bought the bike second hand in Carndonagh one summer when he was working there for the ESB and we all made a holiday of it for nine weeks in the summer of 1974. Daddy did use the bike a bit – a man’s 28 inch wheel black Raleigh. For a while he cycled a few times from Lagg, where we were staying in a caravan high in the sand dunes, into Malin Town. But when we got home to Letterkenny for the most it was me and my brother Nelius that took the most mileage out of that old bike.
There were many a road trip out fishing years ago to “Conwal Hole” as it was known to us townies. You crossed a field along the Conwal straight and it took you up on to the banking to where there was a turn in the River Swilly. There was a bit of a gravel beach there in summer days when the water was low. In the corner there was a deep part of the river called Conwal Hole where many the fish were hooked by many ones for the town. Many an hour spent waiting for that big salmon to take your worm, well that was the plan! Heading off with a fishing rod and an old canvas fishing bag that we seem to have in our house for years. We headed off miles from our home in Glencar up the River Swilly. Sometimes we walked out and a school classmate of mine, James Herron who lived in Hawthorn Heights, would go. We would head down over the fields from his house and down the grove to come out at Kelly’s Mills then walk out past O’Donnell Park. A jam jar full of worms and clay was packed to feed and hopefully catch the fish. A few buttered pieces of bread folded over and wrapped in a Milford bread wrapper were all in together in the fishing bag! It was the only time when we were young that you wished for rain, on the day before you were going out fishing so there would be a flood in the river and the fish would be moving, or so we were told. We caught many brown trout in “Conwal Hole” and the odd eel too and flat fluke fish which would alway get tangled up in your fishing line. The eels and fluke were always thrown back into the water, but all the trout we caught were brought home the frying pan out and made for dinner.
We always dreamed of catching a salmon on the Swilly but for me that never happened. The nearest we got to catching one was when we found one along the river bank in the undergrowth. It was a good size of a fish and even though it was starting to decay a bit we decided to tie it to the crossbar of the old Raleigh bicycle and show it off as we returned from Conwal walking along the road. The prize salmon was getting great looks from the road users with the odd driver tooting the horn and giving us the thumbs up as we came closer to the town. We got a bit more attention than we bargained for when we ran into the water bailiff for the River Swilly who stopped us along the road side to inspect our catch. From a distance or salmon looked very impressive. It was nearly the full length of the bar of the old black Raleigh bicycle. On closer inspection the decaying pong told you a different story. We never had a fishing licence and we would have seen the bailiff walking the river banking many times. As children, he never gave us too much bother. Along the roadside the day he caught us with the salmon and asked us what we were doing with our dead catch. We told him we would probably throw it in the bin when we get home. The bailiff decided to take the salmon off us at his roadside check stop.
The one that got away
When we got back into Letterkenny word had already arrived before us. The young fellows that had caught this salmon up at the Conwal Hole on the Swilly and the word got out that the salmon was that heavy that we weren’t able to carry our catch that we had to tie it to the bar of the bike and wheel the bicycle back to Letterkenny. Even though our salmon was dead when we found it. The story of it came to life when we decided to take it home and on that day we might not have been that impressed with the river bailiff that we accidentally ran into. When he took the salmon off us our story gathered pace. My uncle, Johnny Coyle who worked for Irish Shell in Carrick on Shannon, even heard about us and the salmon and quizzed me about it when he was home one weekend. He went on to tell me about when he was young and his older brother, Willie, and Dan Collins were always out fishing up the River Swilly and also spent many days snaring rabbits up through the grounds of Ballymacool. I told him the right version of the story – not the one he heard, the battle to land the fish and then to lose it to the bailiff. I always remember him laughing away and saying that’s a very very fishy story “ the one that hat got away” he called it. My uncle Johnny fished a lot in the Swilly when he was growing up but never caught a salmon, not even a dead one! It was on the River Drowes that borders Leitrim, Sligo and Donegal that he was to catch his first ever salmon. A very proud day for him, a very quiet man who just loved his fishing and the stories and memories they have made.