The Poacher by Frédéric Rouge (1867–1950)
Now Folks: l am not going to write about poaching eggs; poaching fish in wine; or poaching of land by over-trampling by livestock.
I am going to write about poaching fish, game or animals. In years gone by poaching arose as a consequence of the affluence of the rich landowners. For them by Norman times hunting had ceased to have been essential for survival and has become a sport.
They decreed that the wildlife on their land was theirs to the preclusion of the peasant classes. However, an empty stomach and an empty purse have a way of compelling a man to fill them. The harsh penalties were disregarded and poaching became a way of life for many of our ancestors.
The proficient poacher was both hunter and hunted and lived by his wits. He read the woods and fields in which he walked almost as we might read a book and failure to do so could mean not only the escape of his intended quarry but also his capture by gamekeeper or landlord. Because the poachers’ operations were unlawful they had to be cunning and devious. Many a pheasant roosting on the branch of a tree in the landlord’s demesne awoke with a light been shone in his eyes by one man while a companion slipped a noose of horsehair or wire over his head and dragged him down silently from his perch.
Of course, game of all descriptions was plentiful at that time in the demesnes and a number of pheasants could be taken in one night. At the present day you might have to walk a marathon to find a pheasant roosting on a branch. Another plan the poacher had to fool the landlord or gamekeeper was to get a companion to tie a flash lamp to the waving branch of a tree in one end of the demesne on a stormy night and fire a shot. While the gamekeeper made as fast as he could for the moving light, the real poacher plied his trade at the other end of the demesne.
Of course, rabbits, hares, deer, salmon and trout were also taken by snares, traps, and nets. l knew two great characters in Monaghan Town years ago. They were near enough neighbours, and great rivals. One was a renowned poacher; and the other a gamekeeper in the local Rossmore estate. The gamekeeper was a great fan of Kerry football and never missed a game in Croke Park when Kerry was playing. His name was Paddy McGuinness, and the poachers name was Tommy Hendry and neither of them would mind me telling this story.
Anyway, one Sunday when Kerry was playing in Croke Park both men were at mass in Monaghan Town. Hendry knowing that McGuinness always went to see the Kerry game in Croke Park made sure after mass to meet McGuinness and said, “l suppose you’re for Croke Park Paddy” to which McGuinness replied “l am surely”. Hendry went home to get his gear ready as he had heard that a small lake in the demesne had recently been stocked with trout, and safe in the knowledge that McGuinness was on his way to Croke Park. However, McGuinness was well aware of Hendry’s intentions and decided to forego his trip to Croker, in order to catch Hendry for once; as he had proved most elusive in the past.
Hendry was well settled in on the bank of the lake on the Sunday afternoon had several trout caught by fair means or foul and looking forward to more, when he suddenly heard a voice behind him saying “What’s the score now Hendry?” I heard this story from both characters.
Talking of gamekeepers. There was one old character who used to ramble (visit) in our house years ago. He was not a gamekeeper in the real sense, but looked after an area of bog and marshland near home. This was leased for shooting to a number of wealthy business men from Dublin by the Irish Land Commission who held the rights. Anyhow this gamekeeper was kept well supplied with cartridges and strychnine poison and was prepared to give either to people who would shoot or poison vermin. Many a night in our house while sitting by the fire this gamekeeper, James O’Brien, took a little paper bag of strychnine on the blade of his knife and gave it to some local farmer who would be rambling and had complained about his sheep being attacked by foxes or dogs. He would give one quick wipe to the blade, on his trousers, and seconds after would be cutting his tobacco plug with the same blade. My father often said that he expected him to stiffen suddenly. But thankfully it never happened and he lived to be a ripe old age.
We had a dog at the time called Webley and, on a few occasions, he was with us when we called to this man’s house. We got V.I.P. treatment from his wife Tess and ever afterwards when James O’Brien came on his monthly visit. Webley took off, and went the mile and a half to visit Tess. There he would be put on the armchair beside the fire and there he sat in peace with Tess as there was no family.
He was the one for the night and given every tit bit on the menu. He left for home when James arrived and I’m sure dream’t about the next monthly visit.
Man’s best friend also played a big part in poaching activities and a clever dog who would move silently to his masters command was a great companion in poaching whether it be to silently point a pheasant or grouse in cover or chase rabbits or hares into nets on a dark stormy night.
I have barely touched on the methods of poaching but maybe another day. Now ye can go back to poaching eggs, or fish in wine, on your own property, but you won’t get the same buzz, as your ancestor would when going home with a bag of game from the landlord’s demesne.
Enjoy the poached eggs anyway!
Tony is a retired Sargeant and a member of the Tidy Towns Committee