The Angel’s Share on the River Suir

The famed Old Bridge in Carrick-on-Suir.

The famed Old Bridge in Carrick-on-Suir.

“MAKE sure you find Watty Quan,” the young O’Neill lad from Carrickbeg was told as he was sent to the local Co-Op yard in Carrickbeg to seek him out. Coal (two stones’ worth) and spuds (a stone) also needed collecting.

“Make sure you find him,” his mother warned; the words ringing into ears which would be clipped and red if he didn’t do what he was told. Such instructions needed to be fully followed. Always.

The yard was wide and busy and took up both sides of the street for a big chunk of the road from Carrickbeg down to the Half Dollar pub.

It had massive doorways which could take a truck or an agricultural machine easily 12 feet square or more.

It reached all the way down to the river for access to supplies and to assist with some shipping but mostly for space and storage outdoor of large quantities of fertiliser and other essentials for farmers – lime, hardware, fencing, bags of sugar and so on.

The locals who fished for salmon and trout needed and were entitled to access to the river behind the Co-Op to carry on their seasonal trade and livelihood so, of course access was provided and respected.

There was no need for any significant security infrastructure.

The men launched their boats (or cots as they’re called locally) into the silty water flowing from left to right towards the Sally Islands bubbling with energy having been divided and reunited by the arches of the Old Bridge built in 1447 (before Columbus discovered America there were boys fishing off the old bridge). The bridge’s arches, save one, were symmetrically identical.

The exception was justified by necessity having been blown up during the War of Independence.

The rebuilt arch was slightly longer and larger with a sweeping curve, more oval than circular, just yards from Tipperary’s – and Ireland’s most inland tidal area.

The men fished in pairs of cots with two men in each, slowly paddling downriver, already knowing what way the tide was ebbing and thus when the fish would be programmed by nature to move and feed rather than rest.

Tim Quan reports They fished with nets which were bunched equally in both cots and so the cots had to be paddled in unison and the men not paddling and steering held each other’s cots by hand. In handmade wooden crafts they were at one with nature.

As they approached their fishing ground slowly paddling, making barely a ripple or any sound, they often entered and later emerged from the early morning mist while Carrick’s Town Clock chimed – the weather vane on the Clock Tower is, of course, a salmon.

The cots would slowly separate and move away from one other, left to right, each towards a different riverbank and the men who held the boats together would slowly untangle and release their net.

The net men would feel the pull as the fish entered and were trapped in their watery snare and then signal the paddle men when to come back together as collectively they pulled in the net again bringing the boats back together. Fish gathered and were then stunned by a wooden cosh. And then the fishermen would start the process all over again.

Never knowing how many fish they’d catch meant this could prove a lengthy process.

The net men also bailed out any water in the cots with a plastic scoop, like a lengthways guillotined bleach bottle with the handle still attached, all done with and in almost total silence. Over the centuries, these river-bound practices have remained constant.

The nets are dried in the sun, cleared of any clogging weeds and repaired with wooden needle like handles by the older men whose advancing years have taken them out of the cots.

When not fishing the cots were tied up and copius lengths of rope allowed for the movements of the tide.

You got a kick in the arse if you tied the rope too short, thus causing the cot to ‘hang longways’ – this meant that the nets, bale kit and paddles etc would tip into the Suir and could be lost.

Befitting of the river dividing Tipperary and Waterford, its fishermen, families and teams numbered their cots to establish propriety and recognition.

Buyers were available and fish was landed and loaded with cash exchanged thereafter. The men rested and slept for they worked with the tide, which often involved a 3am start to their working day.

The rattle of a hand cart with steel wheels and ball bearings thickly loaded with viscous oil would soon break their slumber as young O’Neill brought the hand cart back to Watty.

It made more noise when empty than when fully loaded as the weight of coal and spuds in heavy bags suppressed the rattle and took the strain – O’Neill had found Watty as instructed.

“What’s your mother’s name?” Watty asked the young lad, and a reply was promptly provided.

He then proceeded to load up five stone of coal and five stone of spuds, much more than what was ordered, but he charged for only what had been ordered.

“You won’t be able to carry all that so take a handcart but bring it f*cking straight back.”

The young lad duly obliged, with the fishermen nearby groaning at the interruption to their rest.

A thumb on the scales was a terrible thing – this was a grocer’s means of cheating the customer who only looked at the needle on the scale and didn’t see the thumb was cheating them by making their purchase look accurate weight wise in ounces.

A foot on the scale was a different thing altogether, a blessing to those in need for it come the purchase end of the transaction.

“Hold that bag out, young O’Neill and I’ll fill it for you after I weigh it out.” Such a comment was a simple gift to the buyer who went home with more than they paid for but no more than the family needed.

Watty could literally tell the weight of the contents of a sack or a bag blindfolded simply by lifting it up. He had uncanny accuracy.

Muscle memory, a skill that’s also come in handy for those who’ve treaded the boards in the Forester’s Hall, the Strand and the Brewery down through the years. Watty possessed it in both biceps.

A brother of Watty’s was, among other things, a cattle tangler.

He was the best local judge of a beast and, being a butcher, could look at a beast being bought to market and calculate the final sale weight to within a pound.

As a tangler he knew the buyers in the market field and thanks to Watty he knew the sellers.

He would bring them together and offer a price on both sides which, when agreed was closed with a handshake maybe with a spit for lubrication.

His expertise was honed via his eye and brain, more muscle memory only this time aided by a visual scan, quickly recalling a similar beast yield on the hook and pricing it accordingly.

These skills cannot be taught but are the stuff of intuitive emotional intelligence being at one with the lump of coal, the spud or the cow.

The farmer who brought his grain or barley or wheat to be dried and stored and ground for sale and later payment needed the foot on the scale as it added to the recorded weight of his yield.

Any later reconciliation was difficult for weight was lost in the drying process anyway and a full silo had an unknown total weight to begin with.

Distillers call this operation ‘The Angel’s Share’, with the final yield delivered in fluid gallons against the original input due to evaporation in the barrels.

This old trick involved the use of custom made trouser leg long watertight tubes which were filled and then transferred to bottles for private use and sale.

They defied the cost and material spies, while all the while wearing wide smiles.

The farmers paid Watty with half crowns, which he took home in his brown Millers work coat, emptying them in fistfuls on the kitchen table.

“Good man, Watty,” Peggy would say as she made them in to piles of eight and balanced the household budget for Christmas.

Tim Quan is a native of Carrick-on-Suir.

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