Because of the fecundity of the Corrib Fishery, there were endless disputes over it among Norman-Irish lords and even abbots and monks. Always in the background were the local citizens, who must have had little time to observe the sun go down on Galway Bay, busy as they were with their fish spears. They were so busy, in fact, and so celebrated for their poaching on royal water that a 17th-century map of the city was decorated by a drawing of a hooded monk sneaking away from the river, spear in hand.
For their part, century after century, the salmon just kept pushing through Galway Bay and then running the five miles of river that take them into Lough Corrib. In 1989, 25,000 of them made it into Ireland's biggest lake.
And now, as I stood on Salmon Weir Bridge with the rest of the gawkers, I kept to myself the delicious knowledge that, zipped up safe in my jacket, was a permit from An Priomh-Bhord Iascaigh (the Central Fisheries Board of Ireland). With it, I would be permitted to fish for salmon in the River Corrib Fishery, as it is formally known, from 6 a.m. to 1:00 p.m. and from 1:30 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. the next day.
It had taken a bit of arranging, this permit, which, at 40 dollars, was the biggest of fishing bargains. People have been known to wait a couple of years to get on the Corrib at the right time—which is midspring, when it is perhaps the finest Atlantic salmon pool in the world, for numbers anyway. Even now, as I put on a pair of glare-blocking polarized sunglasses and peered down from the bridge railing, I could see that the weir pool was paved with fish—dark, swaying shapes, shoals of grilse and heavy-shouldered older fish of 20 pounds and more.
All the same, tomorrow's foray would not be a guaranteed fish-in-a-barrel situation. Atlantic salmon can be as temperamental as rock stars, all charm and consideration one moment, sulking and uncooperative the next. The five anglers holding permits to fish next day might take 60 or 70 salmon. Or just a couple. For the moment, though, it was enough to know that I would be fishing.
I also knew that I would enjoy one huge advantage that my ancient predecessors on this river did not. In the late 1950s, three quarters of a mile from the sea, a great weir—it would be called a dam in the U.S.—had been built to regulate the level of Lough Corrib, so creating this 300 magical yards of fishing. Now, at this time of year, on every tide, fresh fish run in from the sea and up to the dam. There they rest, dropping back just as far as the bridge, moving up again, dropping back, until the water level is right for them to scale the fish ladders that were built into the dam.
Poaching remained a revered tradition on the Corrib until 1978, when the Fishery, which for centuries had been in private—and mainly English—hands, was bought by the Republic of Ireland. This meant that poaching could no longer be excused as a patriotic act of defiance.
The focus of the poaching had traditionally been in the area starting at Salmon Weir Bridge and ending about 150 yards downstream, where a series of fish traps is located. Fish caught in these concrete-and-steel traps—called cribs—are sold on the open market to defray some of the expenses of maintaining the Fishery.
The man who works the cribs is Joe Mulry, a lantern-jawed Galwegian who goes back to the time when the Fishery was in private hands and the cribs were the main focus of the poaching gangs. He lives on Nun's Island in the River Corrib, close to an ancient stone icehouse with 1669 carved over the door. On the eve of my day of fishing, I caught him as he was emptying the traps with his dip net and packing the fish for market.
Before the state took over in 1978, Mulry had been employed in the same job for the English owner, John Barbour. He recalled that his greatest triumph over the poachers happened shortly after he started work at the traps in 1976. "I knew that we were losing a lot of fish," he said, "but I couldn't figure out how until I caught a poacher on another part of the river and confiscated two fish and his car. He said he'd give me some heavy information if I'd give him his car back. He said, 'When the river's down to the four-foot level, forget the banks and watch the cribs.'