When we were children just after WW2 in Ireland, fresh fruit was the only source of Vitamins one could get. Little or none was being imported so we had to make do with what was wild in summer. As for Omega 3 – it was unheard of. However, fish was known in those days to be highly beneficial for the health of growing children and when the mackerel were ‘in’ during summer we feasted on them. Apart from them, it was generally only on Fridays that we ate fish.
In about 1947 when myself and two brothers were on one of our visits to my grandparents ‘down the country’, the point about the goodness of fish was brought home to me in one of Granddad’s old stories which he told convincingly.
The story about ‘The Salmon of Knowledge’ (or Bradan Feasa in Gaelic) is one that I am now quite familiar with but in those days when I was about seven years old it was all strange and new. It is also strange, but remembering Granddad’s stories now that were told in a beautiful country accent whilst we all sat in the dim light around the peat fire, bring back some of the most wonderful memories of my childhood.
Right then: To put the story into context, I must add a couple of sentences as a pre-cursor. A year or two before the story was told, my two older brothers whilst swimming in our local river saw a large injured salmon in distress. They beat seven bells out of it with stones, wrapped it up in their towel and brought it home. Remember that we are talking about 1945 or 46 and no-one other that certain shop had fridges. In order to keep it edible for more than a couple of days, Mum, (God rest her soul) cooked it in its entirety.
Suffice is to say that we ate fresh salmon morning, noon and night for almost a week and as a result, to this day, I cannot eat fresh salmon. I do enjoy tinned salmon now and then but never, ever fresh.
So, back to Granddad: It appears that Uncle Jack was a dab hand at poaching and arrived home one day with a salmon which he had taken from the local river. Granny cooked it and served it up. At the sight of it on my plate I was almost sick at the thought and could not eat anything. In those days, if you did not eat what was put in front of you, you went hungry. And so it was that night…
Later, as we sat around the fire – there was no television or radio in those days or in fact any electricity in the village – Granddad sat up and with his old pipe smoking away he began.
“Who knows anything about Fionn Mac Cumhaill?” he asked. When no-one answered, he said “Sure maybe you town people know him as Finn McCool – one of Ireland’s greatest ever heroes“. “I heard of him granddad” I replied remembering something that one of the teachers had said at school. “Right then Mick” granddad replied “and it is most important for you to listen carefully for was it not you who could not eat the fish tonight?
“In very olden days, boys especially but sometimes girls too, when they were about ten or eleven they were fostered out – that means they were ‘brought up’ by other families far from home. It was said that it made men and women of them away from the mollycoddling of their mothers. Well in any case, Fionn or Finn if you prefer, was sent off to the home of a great poet and warrior called Fineagas who was to teach the boy everything he knew. He had his home next to the river Boyne and both got on famously.
“Now it just so happens that in them days there were plenty of fish including salmon in every river in Ireland not like today with all the poachers taking anything that moves. This great fish was known as the ‘Salmon of Knowledge’ and it was said that the first person to taste the fish would become the wisest person in all Ireland. Many people came from all over Ireland and indeed Scotland to try to catch the fish but he was far too clever for all of them. However, Fineagas had his eye on him and hoped one day to be the first to eat some of him.
“Now Fineagas and Finn were becoming the best of friends and one day whilst they were enjoying the sunshine on the banks of the Boyne, they saw a large salmon swimming into the shallows nearby. ‘Begob now Finn’ said Fineagas ‘sure now that must surely be the Salmon of Knowledge’. He sent Finn back to the house to bring back a strong net.
“The old story also told of the curse that if you looked into the eyes of the special salmon you would fall fast asleep and allow the fish to escape. Finn and Fineagas were therefore very careful as they encircled the shallow water and netted the salmon.
“Well now” laughed Granddad “the pair of them danced around the river bank as if they had found a pot of gold and sure now wasn’t it much better what they did in fact have. Knowledge Mick” granddad said smiling at me “is far better that riches alone for without knowledge you will never have the other.
“In any case” granddad continued after lighting his pipe once again “they took the fish home and prepared it. As Fineagas had in fact had a glimpse of the salmon’s eyes he felt dozy and after giving Finn instructions on cooking it, he went to bed and had a snooze. Finn gave his promise that he would not under any circumstances taste the fish. With that he lit a good turf fire…………….
“As the fish cooked, Finn paid attention to make sure it would not burn or spoil, he turned it every minute or two and soon it was ready. Now I tell you Mick”, granddad looked me straight in the eyes, “didn’t he take his eyes off the fish for just a short second whilst he tried to wake up Fineagas. At the same time, he heard a ‘pop’ from the fire and ran back. There was a large blister on the fish and without thinking Finn pressed his thumb against the blister. Sure of course he burned his thumb didn’t he and again without thinking he stuck his thumb into his mouth to cool it down. Suddenly, it was as if a miracle had occurred. Finn looked around the room and he felt that he could see clearly for the first time in his life. His thinking was different and do you know what Mick?” granddad asked. “No granddad, what?” I asked, slightly annoyed that the story had been interrupted. “Begob now Mick” granddad replied “sure I think that was the moment that Finn had been given all the knowledge of the world and he became a real man.
“When Fineagas woke up and Finn explained what had happened by using his new knowledge and eloquence, Fineagas forgave him and insisted that there was no use in crying over spilt milk. He made Finn eat the entire fish himself.
“In actual fact” granddad was obviously concluding his story “Finn went on to become Ireland’s greatest warrior and the leader of that greatest group of men Ireland has ever known, the Fianna. He lived to be a great hero, a great poet and what we call in the country, a ‘Good Man’”
“So you see Mick” granddad spoke again after a couple of minutes, “by not eating the fish on your plate tonight at teatime you could have missed out on knowledge beyond your wildest dreams”.
To tell you the truth, all the knowledge in the world would not and still will not tempt me to eat fresh salmon. I try to meet granddad half way by eating every once in a while a couple of slices of smoked salmon. As for Omega 3, sure were not the old people fully aware of fish oils years and years ahead of the scientists who claim to have discovered it…