There are those who believe an angler is a man who enjoys sitting on muddy riverbanks doing nothing because he can’t get away with doing nothing at home. But for Mary Maher, knowing that her husband was casting his rod in the River Blackwater was certainly preferable to the prospect of him sinking a heap of pints in the village. ‘If I stayed here until morning she’d have been happy,’ says Frank. ‘Just so long as I wasn’t in the pub!’
The couple met and married in England in June 1956. Mary, reared in Doneraile, north west Cork, was working as a housekeeper. Frank was working as a carpenter on the power stations. From the age of twelve, he had served his apprenticeship with a great-uncle in Mallow. Frank’s Waterford-born father was in charge of driving the sugar beet in from Mallow train station to the factory.
In 1952, fifteen-year-old Frank went ‘on my own’ to England and began working on the Aldermaston power station outside Reading. He swiftly became part of an Irish gang that roamed around England, living in camps and hostels, working on the power stations and tearing off ration stamps for their breakfast, lunch and tea. By the time he married, he’d become a foreman.
Frank and Mary returned to Ireland in 1960. Mary concentrated on raising their children, six boys and four girls and Frank headed off around Ireland with his toolbox in pursuit of an income. One of his first commissions was to build the Rippon piano factory in Shannon. He then worked with McInernys on the construction of a new jet runway at Shannon airport to accommodate the first long-range jet aircraft, such as the Boeing 720, that had just begun operating on the route. Frank remembers it well, ‘It was exciting to see these new planes coming in.’ By the 1970s he was working on housing developments in Limerick, Galway and Tallaght.
‘I’m a carpenter by trade but I’m retired now,’ says Frank. ‘When you get over seventy, you may throw the towel in and go fishing.’ The last carpentry job Frank did was to gather a load of pine logs, bring them to the south bank of the Blackwater and turn them into a cabin. Elevated on sturdy stilts four feet above ground, the cabin is safely out of harm’s way should the river burst its banks. The walls are lined with newspaper clippings, rods, boots, thank you letters, photographs, birds nests, chainsaws and other notices. A photograph displays the biggest fish he ever caught, a twenty-two-pounder. The view is of a fine wrought iron bridge – that Frank also built – across the Blackwater and, on the horizon, a horse-filled paddock, an old limekiln and a tree-lined avenue leading to an old Norman castle.
The cabin is Frank’s base for his present career as a ghillie. He began nearly twenty years ago and now looks after those guests from Ballyvolane House outside Castlelyons who come to enjoy this fantastic two-mile beat. He enjoys the role very much and has met many remarkable people, politicians, aristocrats, surgeons and lawyers. ‘They’re all normal when they get here,’ he says, ‘although you’d have to watch the language … well, until they get to know you and then you can carry on!’
There can be no doubting that if Frank put ten cents in a box every time he swore, he’d probably be able to buy Latvia by now and, as it happens, if Frank could live anywhere else, it would most likely be Latvia. A son-in-law owns a lakeside property out there and on a recent visit, Frank was much taken with the country, declaring it to be ‘way ahead of Ireland’. He was particularly taken by a crèche full of mini motor cars so that ‘the little ones learn how to use gears and indicators and all that’.
Much to Frank’s amusement, Mary never learned to fish. ‘She knew everything there was to know about fishing, the times, the winds, what flies and what rods to use – but she never did the fishing.’
Mary passed away in May 2005, just a month before she and Frank would have celebrated their Golden Wedding Anniversary. In her latter years, she had worked at the gift shop in Croom Mills. Frank misses her terribly, though he draws much warmth from the fact that they have thirty-seven grandchildren and six great-greats. Today, Frank’s preferred spot is to be on his lonesome, waist deep in the river, listening to the breeze rustle through cow parsley and ragwort, the gloop of a passing fish, the bark of a distant dog, the rushing of the waters. Before she died, Mary made one last request – that he would not go back to the pub. ‘And I didn’t,’ says Frank. ‘They thought I would, but I didn’t. And I wouldn’t go back now.’
With thanks to Ballyvolane House.