‘You have been responsible for bringing more anglers to Ireland than anyone else in the country’ Peter O’Reilly, a life in fly fishing
I interviewed Peter O’Reilly in 2016 over three hours in a midlands hotel. He was gracious with his time and I wanted to get a sense of the life that led him to accomplish so much within fly fishing in Ireland. Little did I know that it would be the last time I would meet him and I got the feeling he was willing to look back on his life’s work not knowing what way the future would lie.
The following is just a small extract of a chapter on Peter O’Reilly’s life in a forthcoming book on Irish fly fishing called, Ireland on the Fly.
Irish fly fishing was popular before Peter O’Reilly came along but in the 1980s and 1990s, through his books and tireless work in promoting, teaching and fly tying, he almost single-handedly brought the sport to a wider public consciousness. His name was synonymous with the sport in Ireland, both at home and abroad.
When Tourist Development International were hired to provide a socio-economic study into the value of angling in Ireland in 2012 (which was valued at €750 million annually incidentally), he got a phone call from the company.
“I want to tell you something that we didn’t put in writing,” they told him. “You have been responsible for bringing more anglers to Ireland than anyone else in the country. Every questionnaire we got, when we asked an angler, why did they come to Ireland, your name was mentioned.”
If you’re starting out fly fishing, chances are you’ll be directed to his ‘Fly fishing in Ireland’, regarded as the book most responsible for introducing people to the beauty and magic of Irish fly fishing.
If you’re tying flies, there’s his ‘Trout and Salmon Flies of Ireland’. Or if you’re just looking for a river or lake to cast a fly on, there’s his monumental guides, ‘Rivers of Ireland’ and Loughs of Ireland’.
Pretty much every named river and lake is listed and detailed with information on the beats, the flies, the fisheries. It’s a lifetime of work which set the bar for putting information and statistics about fly fishing in Ireland firmly on the map.
“What an angler wants are hard facts,” Peter O’Reilly explained in his softly-spoken Cavan tones. “I was ghillieing with Conrad and Anne Voss Bark once in Ireland (owners of the famous fly fishing hotel, the Arundell Arms in England) when Anne turned around to me on the river bank and said, ‘I want to tell you something.’”
“‘You’ve a great product here,’ she told me. ‘But you could do with more people using it. I’ll tell you how you do it.’”
“There are four things in fishing, she said. Get your product right, the flour to make the bread is fish in the river, so number one, you must have fish. Then all the services, the ghillies, the flies, access, the accommodation, get all that right. Third, keep your statistics. We all want to know the truth, how is it fishing? The fourth and final thing was, bring over the editors to write about it.”
“Soon after, I rang the editor of Trout & Salmon, John Wilshaw, and said will you come over? He said, yes I will. I arranged it straight away and this was before there were resources like Bord Fáilte. I was having to arrange it all myself.”
“I brought him over to the Erriff in in June, and we hit a run of fish. Literally the water was blue with them, he couldn’t believe his eyes. ‘You’ll write an article now won’t you when you go back?’ I said to him. ‘I will not,’ he says. ‘You will write it.’ So that was the start of it”.
If it hadn’t been for Anne Voss Bark’s insights and advice that day in Ireland, who knows what way Irish fly fishing would have developed.
As Peter himself admitted though, people had to twist his arm to do the writing in the first place.
“I detest writing,” he said with a surprising vehemence. “I’m a hands-on person. I grew up on a farm in county Cavan where my father had a small corn mill. We lived in a house beside the mill by the River Annalee and I grew up with the sound of the by-wash roaring by our windows. The Annalee was — and is — still a fabulous river. It was teeming with salmon then as well as trout. But there’s not a salmon in it now.”
His first memories of fishing were at just three years of age. A neighbour, Hughie, taught him in the early days and his first catch, he remembers still, was a perch, watching the line swing out in the river before a small perch grabbed his bait.
“I got a hazel rod,” he recalled with clear detail. “And I was fishing regularly from seven years of age. My father would come with me at the start but eventually I went off on my own, and then my sister came with me. We caught perch as well as a lot of minnows. We made a little pond and when we caught a minnow we’d put it into the pond.”
Just being children, fishing, enjoying the outdoors and the environment, it seemed so natural. With a river flowing by your doorstep, what else would you be doing? Fishing was in his blood and would be the pulsing beat of his life forever more.
Peter O’Reilly, 1940–06/12/18
Ar Dheis Dé go raibh a anam dílis