Bing crosby had a great way with a tune, but you couldn't rely on him as a travel guide. Remember how he used to groan melodically, "If you ever go across the sea to Ireland," and then advise you, almost tearfully, to "see the sun go down on Galway Bay"?
Should you find yourself in the still romantic, gray old city of Galway, though, there are many better ways of passing the time than staring at the shallow and depressingly muddy bay. For example you could spend an hour or so at Morans Oyster Cottage, which is a few miles down the road to Limerick. But if your luck is really in, you could come upon the finest Galway sight of all, as I did in May of last year when I joined a crowd of tourists and locals leaning over the balustrade of the old stone bridge that crosses the River Corrib, right in the heart of the city. I knew I had struck it proper when somebody I never saw before grabbed me by the shoulder and said, "Janey Mac! Didja ever see the like of them three fellas?"
It took a minute to see the silhouettes, but I picked them up in the end, holding in the roiling current that was the color of pale lager. Not big fish, mind you, but six-or seven-pounders that had spent only one winter at sea. Grilse, they are called. They are Atlantic salmon all the same.
But the hand on my shoulder was squeezing impatiently. "Not them little fellas," said the exasperated voice. "Look about 10 yards further upstream...."
There was no time for that. Instead, my attention was urgently claimed by a strangulated cry from an angler, wading in midstream, who had been casting his fly across the current toward the bright flower gardens that run down from The Cathedral on the west bank of the river. He had hooked a 20-pound Atlantic salmon, bright as a newly cast steel ingot, that—now infuriated—slashed through the turbulent water and ended up hurling itself sideways into the air.
In seconds, traffic on the bridge had seized up solid. Strangely, though, no horns blared, no truckers yelled abuse. Indeed, the men who seconds before had been wrestling 17-inch steering wheels were now jostling for position on the bridge parapet with a gaggle of Germans who had clambered out of their tour bus.
Fortunately for vehicular circulation in the west of Ireland, the act lasted only a few minutes, culminating in a single, sharp expletive from the angler as his line went slack. This time the salmon had won. Floating on the surface, much the worse for wear, I could see the black and yellow Garry Dog fly, which the fish had spit out.
A tad reluctantly, it seemed, the traffic started moving again on the bridge, the one they politely call the Salmon Weir Bridge now but which is forever the "jail bridge" to traditionalists. (Galwegians will tell you that the English had the bridge built in 1819 to speed up the delivery of freshly convicted Irishmen from the courthouse on the east bank of the Corrib to the then-new jail on the west bank.)
There was no guarantee that gridlock wouldn't occur again within minutes, because the 300 yards or so of the Corrib that was within sight—the section called the Fishery—offers some of the best Atlantic salmon angling found anywhere. In 1990, 1,206 salmon came out of the tiny, magical Fishery—located absurdly, possibly uniquely, slap in the middle of an industrial, if small, city (pop. 50,000).
The salmon were there before the city, of course. So, apparently, were salmon fishermen. Archaeologists, drawing from the evidence of ancient fishing implements, have concluded that the banks of this stretch of river were "thickly settled" by Stone Age fisherfolk. The first written record of the Fishery dates from 1283. In a—what else?—tax ledger for that year, it is noted that one Walter de Burgo, a Norman aristocrat, first earl of Ulster, who had died in 1271, was in arrears with his rent (11 pounds per annum) for the Galway salmon fishing rights, which were the property of the English crown.