Invited by Nancy Lange to write a piece for Eau Secours! a water aid charity in Quebec, about Les Trois Soeurs, or the Three Sisters – the York, Dartmouth and St-Jean rivers in Gaspé, running from the Chic-Choc Mountains to the Baie des Chaleurs, famous for their salmon.
I don’t know much about rivers, in all honesty. I have never lived so far inland as I do now. The smells I recognise most on the air are of salt and seaweed and shifting winds. Not this running silt, this mineral smell of bulrushes and murky water. Not these culverts, streams, brooks and creeks, watercourses and tributaries.
But salmon? I know a little of salmon. The Celts all have their stories of salmon. Wales has the giant salmon of Lyn Llyw – which set against the story I’m about to tell you here, provided the most well-natured and vociferous argument I’ve ever had about the provenance of mythology outside a doomed railway pub on a rainy night in Cardiff. Glasgow City bears two salmon on its coat of arms. And in Ireland, we have the greatest legend of them all (yes, Iestyn, I’m still claiming it), the legend of Fionn, later Fionn mac Cumhaill, leader of the Fianna, the greatest warrior of them all, and his encounter with An Bradan Feasa, or Bradan an Eolais, or the Salmon of Wisdom, if you prefer.
What is a legend but a story that has fought its way upstream to the source of us all? A story that might just tell us who are, collectively. The stories that we tell. The stories that return as the salmon so, as the salmon return to remind us that stories must return to their source, to born again, and carried out to the world anew.
Did you know that the word salmon comes from the Latin salire – ‘to leap’. The salmon’s leap, I have heard, is a mighty thing to behold. The most charismatic of fish, all determination and desperation and fidelity to the land. Out to the world and back again, like the rainfall to the mountains to the rivers to the sea.
We do have our rivers in Ireland. The Lagan and the Foyle, the Bush, the Blackwater. The Quoile and the Shimna. The Six Mile Water, the Kells, the Bann. Along the banks of the last grew nine hazel trees. Nine trees, with nine nuts on each, with all the knowledge of the world in them. That grew and fell and grew again. All the knowledge of world, cycling through.
This then becomes a story of the druid poet Finegas, who lived along the River Bann with one endeavour in his mind. To be the first to catch and cook and eat of the Salmon of Knowledge, who had spent its centuries eating the hazelnuts from the trees along the Bann, and held in its flesh and its juices all that wisdom. And for seven whole years, Finegas tried to catch that fish. Oh, he tried.
The lifespan of the clever, desperate salmon. Born as fry in fresh sweet river, swept down the watercourse to become smolts in the salt and tumble of the sea, and then striking out to the deep water alone. So far, so much with gravity and with currents. But then – but then. Clever loyal fish. Some silent impulse calls, and they must go back home, up the course of the same river. The salmon leap and the salmon fly, desperate crash of bodies against current and water, all spun muscle and flickering rainbow oil. And they spawn and they breed as the cycle renews against the flow of the river water, and eggs hatch, and the cycle continues.
And the sweet oil of the effort is the trick. Finegas, our Druid poet, so hungering for salmon. And after all that work of finally – finally! – catching the famous, fabled fish – he went to lie down. To leave the last job, the menial task of the gutting, the preparing, the roasting, to his apprentice Fionn. The boy Fionn. And as the huge fish lay crackling on the fire, a blister first formed on the charring silver skin, and then broke, and the hot oil of the fish, the oil of the effort that slips around the world, spat out and burnt the thumb of the boy – and he put his finger into his mouth to suck it.
And so it was Fionn, the boy, the lowly apprentice, the cook, who became the first to taste of the Salmon of Wisdom, not Finegas, the elevated Druid poet. And so it was Fionn who gained all the wisdom and the knowledge of the world. By chance? By fate? By grace of the hard work often overlooked and left behind? Who knows.
And so the cycle renewed, and the child became the leader, and the water flowed its course, from source to sea, and back again. And so it goes, and goes again, and goes.