Part 4 - THE SPORTING LIFE
Frank in 1940 with his new
Millard shotgun and his Wicklow collie.
Fishing in his Sunday best.
THE CLONBONNY RATTLER TO WILDFOWL
As soon as
I was able to move around I made cribs to catch blackbirds, thrushes and small
birds. I used to keep them for a while and then let them go. I graduated from
that to following old bird catchers from Athlone, like Jim Blacoe - father of
the jeweller - and another fellow who used to work in the Friary; they used
to come out here to catch goldfinches with bird lime. The Clonbonny goldfinch
was considered a great singer and was known as "the Clonbonny rattler".
As a boy going
to school I spent my time lying in ditches watching rabbits and birds and all
the comings and goings of nature. At first I kept cage birds, then I started
hunting with a dog. Later on in 1940 when I came on to manhood I bought a gun,
a Millard, from Jack Foy in Church Street, Athlone and that started my shooting
career. I spent twenty-five years, morning and night, following the gun. I used
about 1,500 cartridges a year in the first three years; after that my marksmanship
improved and I was able to make do with 1,000 cartridges or less. I had a grand
sheepdog bitch then called Diver; she'd hunt anything and she was a "miller"
at retrieving birds from the river
At that time
there was a great plenty of birds and animals and because the war was going
on in England game fetched a great price. I cut my shooting teeth on rabbits
as they ran from one clump of briars to another. I got so much practice at it
that I could shoot 100 running rabbits out of a 100. An odd time I'd only shoot
99 or 98 but that was when I wasn't paying heed to my shooting.
flocks of pigeons in the winter months, the time when there wasn't a lot of
work on the land; so I looked forward to the arrival of our foreign visitors.
There were flocks of ducks and I suppose between Athlone and Banagher there
were 2,000 geese, if there weren't more. The geese fed on the callows during
the day and if anything disturbed them they pitched up on the bog where nothing
could come in on them. They stayed there for a couple of hours before flying
back to the callows.
I used to get
up at 8 o'clock in the morning and go round the Long Island in a boat. If I
got a shot at three flocks of widgeon I'd have at least six ducks coming home.
If I saw a few geese in a spot where they could be stalked I'd forget about
the ducks and go in on the geese; I usually had two or three coming home. When
I had driven the geese round the Long Island I'd come home between 11 and 12
o'clock and get my breakfast. At about 4 o'clock, after I'd cleaned out the
stables and put in the cattle and the hay for the evening, I'd pick up my gun
again. I'd head back to the Shannon for the night flight which occurred between
lights, at dusk, and I'd stay out till 12 o'clock at night.
There was a
bright sky to the west on most evenings. The birds would fly past and of course
I knew every bird by its call - widgeon, teal, mallard, wild geese and curlew.
In those days the curlew was the greatest nuisance, though I'm sorry he got
scarce in recent years. You'd be stealing down behind a bush trying to get near
a flock of widgeon or teal or something when he'd get up and start screeching
mad; all the ducks would rise and fly out of it. He was the greatest watchdog
of all time for the wildfowl.
I often found
myself out at night waiting for a duck and I'd study this bright band in the
western sky. After some years I was able to forecast a storm, a downpour or
a thunderstorm months ahead. I associated wind with the clouds you see real
high up which look like little wavelets on the Shannon in a light breeze of
wind. I'm not able to forecast so good anymore as it's 20 years since I gave
up shooting. Still I forecast in February 1992 that we were going to have very
strong storms. In fact we had a lot of wind for three weeks or so and a fellow
said to me, "You were right about the wind, Frank." "That's not what I thought
we'd have," said I, as I was thinking of a kind of hurricane or something next
door to it.
away from the wind, when fog falls there's no beginning or end to the bushes,
fields and hedgerows of the callows. One foggy moonlit night I was heading for
the road on the callow; I was thinking away to myself as I crossed a field I
had been crossing all my life, a field where I knew every bush. Suddenly I looked
up at this hedge and I panicked as I didn't know where I was. I walked the four
sides of the field three times and still I couldn't get out; in the end didn't
I make out this row of wire and I knew then where I was.
foggy night, after I had been shooting down river with a neighbour's lad, I
came out of this bay and headed for home, as I thought. Suddenly the lad said
"Frank you turned the wrong way." The minute he said this I was lost, as the
lad put that bit of doubt in my mind. We spent hours rowing up and down the
Shannon until eventually a dog barked as we passed the Nally place. I got many
a fright like that in blanket fog but I'm thinking it's lack of concentration
that catches you out in a fog.
Soon into my
shooting career I developed a grasp of training dogs and in the end I could
train a dog to anything. I usually had half-breed dogs, mongrels as they say,
but I never minded that as I often saw a mongrel making a show of a pure-bred.
It's amazing how clever they are and from constant shooting dogs are nearly
able to read your mind. One dog I had used to go into a clump of briars at the
side of a ditch I was standing on. He'd smell around for a while and then go
round the far side with the idea of driving a rabbit towards me. If he found
that he couldn't drive out the rabbit from the far side he'd come back around
to my side. I knew then I had to run to the other side of the ditch at my best
speed; I'd be hardly in place till the rabbit would come at me like a tornado.
the Lord have mercy on him, had a chocolate-brown field spaniel which he got
from Lord Ashton. I had this auld half-breed bitch and I asked Jim about the
service of the dog. "Oh bring your bloody bitch up," he said, "and don't mind
anyone." So I got this curly-brown pup out of the union, a great dog I called
Diver. He was uncanny and when he grew up he always hunted the opposite side
of the ditch from me. At first I often had him on the wrong side, the unsheltered
side. When I realised how he worked I made it my business to go on the windy
side and let him in on the sheltered side where he'd get the whiff of the birds
or the rabbits and drive them out to me. I got a few grand woodcock with him
up on the Hill of Knockinea.
If Diver was
retrieving a wounded bird he'd swim round it and force it to dive; he knew the
bird's dive would get shorter and shorter each time. He waited until he was
within a foot of the bird and then he'd dive along with it and bring it up.
Once when I was standing on the brink near Buntulla Hill I shot an otter. The
otter tumbled on top of the water and turned over and started to go down slowly,
with his tail straight up in the air. Diver jumped in the minute I fired the
shot but he was a long way off. He ploughed towards him but the water was rising
slowly up along the otter's tail. I was asking myself, "Will he ever make him?
Will he ever make him?" But didn't Diver just reach him before he disappeared.
Over the years,
apart from Diver, a sheepdog bitch, I had a Wicklow collie, a setter bitch and
other dogs were called Snipe, Grouse and Ruby; as I said most of them were mongrels.
Now I have two pure-bred English springer spaniels called Pal and Bamby. I had
the father, which I got from a guard in Moate, and I gave the service of this
dog to John Mulligan, the detective in Athlone. He gave me two pups in return.
God be good to him, used to keep Llewelyn setters which he sold all over the
place. When I became known for having good dogs Henry used to come to me with
spoiled dogs and ask me to straighten them out. Henry later had a bitch, trained
by a Guard Ivory from around Banagher, which won the Irish Field Trials. She
was a great bitch!
dog involves a bit of trickery and a lot of patience. You start on them as little
pups; first you want to know where their bed is and where they go naturally,
it could be under a bush or anywhere. You have to get between them and their
hideout. You throw them a ball or whatever and then take it from them and pet
them, and maybe give them a little bit of bread now and again. Then you throw
the ball again and take it from them and pet them again. But you don't do this
too often because when they get tired they start playing and they "peg" the
ball up in the air. You do harm if you continue after that. I suppose it's the
old hunting instinct which makes a dog bring things back to his bed because
it's like a burrow to him.
To stop a dog
running on too far ahead when you're out shooting you start him shooting on
a string. You tie a hundred or two hundred yards of binder twine to the dog's
collar and then let him out in front of you. Two hundred yards is too far because
with a mongrel you wouldn't know whether he was on a bird or not. Once you see
him setting you tighten up the string and you come up to him slowly, then you
talk to him and pet him on the head and hold him with your knee.
dog trainer takes a month to six weeks to train a dog and he's not even trained
at that. He's like a year-and-a-half horse; his mouth is made and he can pull
a car but you want to be very careful with that horse for a year. You could
frighten him and he could bolt at the least little thing. You want to give that
horse all sorts of work and you don't want to let him move out of your hand
when you're heeling a car with a load of stones or anything like that. He's
like the dog which has only learned the bare rudiments such as "sit", "come"
and so on.
I was more
interested in geese than anything else and I made a study of their feeding habits,
where they went during the day, and where they landed at night. The usual geese
around here were the white-fronted geese. When I cleaned them I found grass
and the roots of sedge inside. The sedge has a little bulb at the bottom and
they pick at this until they eventually chew it off. You can see the old sedge
grass lying on the bog where geese have been. The gander is the male and he
looks just like the female, the goose, with a white front and black spots. When
the young geese arrive they have no black feathers; so the best way to pick
a tender goose is to find the lad with a whole grey breast and no black feathers.
pattern was to fly up the lake in the evening and come back in small flocks
any time from 10 o'clock until about 2 o'clock. The size of a flock varies;
it might be made up of six, ten, maybe 20 clutches which stick together; each
clutch comprises a gander, a goose and between two and five young ones.
I often brought
home, injured wild geese and kept them as pets, perhaps the tips of their wings
had been damaged by a grain of shot. They never tamed down completely so I had
to keep them in a wire pen-run and it's there that I studied their habits. To
feed them I used to put a "lock" of boiled potatoes in the bottom of a pan and
cover them with watercress. They'd start to puddle in through the watercress
and eventually they'd start picking up bits of potato. This way they got used
to potatoes and eventually I could put down an ordinary pan of potatoes. It's
marvellous how alert they are. If I left the pan for a day or two on the ground
and then moved it, the geese wouldn't come near the spot where the pan was the
first time; they'd go round it as if there was a danger of some kind.
To call a goose you have to
go to a feeding spot. If you were out in a high field where no goose ever
landed you could keep on calling all day and all night and no goose would
ever pass a bit of remarks on you. I was blessed with a clear mellow voice
and I could call the wild geese. I never met another man to do it and I tried
to train several fellows but their voices weren't suitable. I could never
get one of those goose calls they used to sell but I think they were for a
different kind of goose, the big Canadian goose. I used to hear the leading
gander cackling away to himself and giving a call now and again. The minute
I started calling, the ganders used to answer back. I knew immediately he
was answering me as his call seemed to change. The leading gander used to
keep on answering me and circling around trying to see what he thought was
the other goose.
Frank with Geoffrey Foy
If I saw geese
in a field in the morning I'd just pass by and if they were there the next
morning I still wouldn't heed them. However, if they were there the third
morning I'd wait for them that night and I'd just give a call. As usual the
leading gander would answer me and come round about in a circle. Then he'd
circle the second time in complete silence and let down his wings. When I
saw his feet coming I'd let go and usually blast two birds out of it at the
one time. When I shot a goose in a particular spot that spot was finished
for a week or so. Then I'd move further up to where they were alighting on
the Long Island or on the callows. I'd study their movements there in the
usual way; I had it cut down to a fine art.
A young fellow,
who was in a gun club in Athlone, asked me one night how many geese I shot
in my lifetime. I told him I was 25 years shooting and that I got an average
of 40 geese a season. I said that in the 25 years I must have got anything
from 800 to 1,000 geese. The poor lad never shot a goose himself but that
didn't surprise me as most townspeople knew nothing about geese. They used
to come out for a flight and stand under a stake and hope that a goose would
come in. Sometimes a flock would pass over them, maybe 200 or 300 hundred
feet high; they'd let fire with all they had and then go home, proud of themselves
that they got a shot at a goose.
From my experience
of shooting you should never fire until your goose looks as big as a aeroplane
that's about to land on top of you - then and only then is he within range.
You need to see him coming down to pitch with his wings bowed and his feet
out ready to land. Only when you shoot him and he falls do you realise that
all along he was fully forty yards or more from you. Though geese are only
four or five pounds weight you hear a thump as they hit the ground and you
know then that you have shot something worthwhile. Now fellows are daft about
pheasants, and no doubt they're lovely birds, but they're not a patch on the
goose - to my mind shooting a goose is the best prize of all.
is bigger than the white-fronted goose and he looks like the tame goose, only
paler. I came across graylag only once when I was gillie to three Dublin men:
Mr Fox, Mr Smith and Mr Jolly. One day we saw two geese under a hill. Mr Fox
asked me could they be got. I said, "I don't know", but anyway I decided to
send Mr Fox and Mr Jolly down into a drain about 200 yards from the geese.
I sent Mr Smith up above them to rise them and, begad, they flew straight
down over Mr Fox. He dropped one of them and the other circled around and
came back up to where he rose; and, "begad", Smith dropped him. They were
the only greylag I ever saw; but of course I often hear them calling, their
call is nearly like that of a tame goose.
Messrs Fox, Smith and Jolly I remember being with them and a few locals in
the Royal Hotel after a day's shooting. Someone started asking what we thought
was the greatest invention of the 20th century. So one lad said the steam
engine and another the telephone but, begad, didn't one of the locals start
and say, "Well, em... , well I think... that the greatest invention... of
this century was... was the rubber boot." Well, that was one I never forgot
because "me" man wasn't too far out; sure before the rubber boot a farmer
never had a dry foot and he in his leather boots.
I love to
hear geese whooping and to see geese on the wing in the winter sky. They fly
in "V" formation so that the leading gander breaks the wind; the next bird
follows half way out of his slipstream and so. If a bird happens to fall asleep
and slips out of formation he gets a jolt from behind; this wakes him and
he slips back into place again. Very often the leaders change around. The
same thing happens when geese are feeding; I often saw them changing guard!
One gander, the lookout gander, has his head up all the time; after a while
his job is taken over by a different gander so that the first lookout can
TALE OF THE DRIVEN GOOSE
season when the wind was blowing from the west I was out shooting with Tom
Longworth, from the pub in Ballinahowen, and this auld half-setter. We saw
two flocks of geese; when they saw us they took off low and landed 200 yards
away at the butt of the Callow Hill, four here and eleven there. We walked
down on them until they turned back up to where they rose the first time.
The two flocks seemed happy enough to fly together but when they landed the
lookout gander from the big flock started to chase the look-out gander from
the small flock and the two flocks separated.
put Longworth under a bush and I went around about at the geese; then didn't
the auld half-setter go off in front of me and start to crawl down on top
of them. The next thing I saw her setting them. I let her go until I saw the
geese turning for the wind, then I pulled a handkerchief from my pocket and
she stopped dead. I started to work them round in the direction of Longworth
and then I beckoned the dog to go and didn't the two flocks swing over him.
He dropped one of the geese but whatever happened he didn't kill with the
second barrel. These geese must never have been fired at before, they must
have just landed from Greenland. Ever since that day whenever Tom Longworth
sees me he jibes me and says "Hemstead I shot a driven goose, that's more
than you can say!" and of course I reply, "Longworth only for I driving him
you wouldn't shoot him!"
In my time
I shot at least five geese out the door of this house when it was a half-door.
In the morning the geese came from the Carrickobrien bog and across this way
over Kilgarvan bog. The tame goose I had in the pen at the time used to see
them passing and call them. The first time this happened I was asleep in front
of the turf fire and didn't the calling wake me. I jumped up and made for
the gun and I started to creep along under the half-door, but the very minute
my goose saw my head over the half-door there was silence. My pet goose was
as silent as the grave, not a call out of her. So after that any time she
called I kept under the half-door and never showed myself until I got the
passers-by circling around to land, and then I clocked them. Indeed I often
brought my pet geese down to the Shannon. You'd put a pet goose out when a
flock of geese was coming and you'd be waiting for her to call but "divil"
the call I could ever get out of her.
wild geese I was used to the ways of our farm geese; I often got pinked when
I was taking eggs from them. A goose could draw blood when she grabs you with
her mouth and holds you while she hits you with her two wings; if a gander
hits you he could leave your arm dead. If you see a gander coming for you
with his neck out, the best thing you can do is to catch him by the neck and
turn him around; you'll frighten the life out of him and all he'll be able
to do is flap his wings.
When I was
fowling I developed senses I never knew I had; for example, when I heard ducks'
wings whistling by, my ears used to cock, just like a dog when he hears a
sound. My sense of smell also became highly developed and I could smell a
fox a mile away, as foxes have stink glands like weasels. If you stood down
wind of a weasel after a dog went into his covert, sure he'd stink you out
ask me if I regret shooting all those ducks and geese. Well, I answer them
by saying that I never let anything I shot go to waste. I ate the birds myself
or sold them locally or sent them off to Dublin from where they mostly went
to England to feed the people who were hungry during the war. However, nowadays
I'm worried about the decline in certain species, especially geese. In 1965
the Shannon was full of geese and two years later in 1967 they were declared
an endangered species. Now I want to know how all those geese are supposed
to have been shot out in two years.
One day I
was on the river with Tom Longworth and the wife, Frances. We pulled into
Calf island; and while Frances was boiling the kettle I caught a few perch
and threw them up on the bank. Tom "pegged" the perch onto the fire and after
a while he turned them with a bit of a stick. The perch were as black as the
oven but he got a knife and peeled back the skin; it came off the grandest
you ever "seen", guts and all. Then he shook a grain of salt on one of them
and tasted it. The eyes stood in his head he liked it that much. Then he tackled
the wife and said, "Francis, try this!" She said, "No, I wouldn't touch it."
But he insisted and said, "Just try a little bit of it." Begad, in the final
wind up didn't she eat a whole perch herself.