Outlaws on the Ballinderry River

Memories of a 'poochin' man

When you are 10-12 years old its almost instinctive to challenge authority in whatever shape or form it takes. Whether it be your parents, the church or even the State.

Forty or fifty years ago your average 12 year old boy would hardly have dared to say ‘boo’ to his parents for he knew the consequences.

Nevertheless there were other ways of letting off steam such as rapping the neighbours door at night or breaking into an orchard to steal apples on your way home from school. Local circumstances would often dictate how you got your kicks all those years ago.

What follows is an account by a Ballinderry man, who in his younger years, got his kicks from doing something a little different… ‘poochin’.

Now for the unenlightened, ‘poochin’ is a corruption of the word, poaching - catching fish without licence or permit.

For obvious reasons the man’s identity cannot be revealed, but his story sheds light on what was a fairly secretive and illegal occupation.

Starting Out
I began ‘poochin’ when I was about the age of eight or nine , along with my brother. An old man called John Joe Kelly who lived in Lower Mullan showed me what to do.  

One of the reasons we ‘pooched’ was that we had little else to do when we were that age. To outwit the bailiffs who, after all, were grown men, gave us a great buzz.

But ‘poochin’ soon turned from an innocent pastime into an opportunity to make some money.

We found out that we could sell the fish that we caught, and the money we got we gave to our parents. They used it to buy clothes and shoes for us for the winter.

The most important skills a poocher needed were:
- The ability to keep ahead of the bailiffs.
- Having the nets well prepared; that meant keeping them clean and dry and packing them carefully into a bag without getting them all tangled up.
- Last but not least, setting and lifting the nets in almost total darkness without getting drowned.

Forty years ago the ‘Ballinderry’ was very famous for its salmon and trout. The river was teeming with fish. The ‘poochin’ season started early, at the beginning of June ‘til the end of September.

The best conditions for it was when it was very dark and warm with the water in the river not running too high, ye know.

About eight or nine o’clock,  you took your nets, sometimes four to a bag, down to the river and you spread them across the river one at a time, making sure you ‘ankered’ it in place with stones before going on to the next one. The whole operation would only take about 8-10 minutes.

Ye had to be speedy if you didn’t want to get caught. When you had the nets set ye ‘cleared’.

Between one and half past one you went back to the river to haul in the nets to see if ye’d caught anything. Most nights ye didn’t get to bed until about four in the morning.

When I was ‘poochin’ all those years ago, there were about 50 other poochers operating on the river between the Bar-Mouth and Ballinderry Bridge.

There were that many nets in the river that ye cud nearly a walked that stretch of it without getting yer feet wet. There was a massive flow of fish, everybody was catchin’ fish.

Every ‘poocher’ had his favourite spot along the river which he kept for the whole season. Generally everybody understood whose spot was whose.

Occasionally a dispute would arise which led to tempers being ‘riz', but, thank god it didn’t happen too often. Once or twice my spot was taken and I had to resort to ‘whistling’ …… to get it back.

Ye see all the ‘poochers’ knew what the whistle meant, there was bailiffs about. When a ‘poocher’ heard that whistle he usually scampered. That’s how I got me spot back, by pretending there was a bailiff close at hand.

Poochin was dangerous at times, especially when you were crossin the river. There was stones on the bottom and they were slippy. Ye could be carried away by the current if ye weren’t careful. When there was a flood on, it sometimes undermined the bank, and if ye fell in, ye had to be quick and grab a bush or branch for something to houl on tae.

We never went on our own to the river just in case something would happen and anyway, it took two people working together to set the nets. One to spread them out across the river and the other to 'anker' them with stones.

It was very exciting when ye were goin to set the nets. If we thought there were no bailiffs around on a particular night we hung about the riverbank telling yarns and ghost stories while we waited for the fish to get caught in the nets.

We kept our eyes on the nets to see if they moved, for then we knew the fish were in them.

The river could be a cold and lonely place especially at two or three in the morning.

One night we heard a noise in the bushes. Thinking it was the bailiffs, we ran. A good bit down the road we stopped to get our breath back and we heard the noise still comin' after us. It sounded like the rattling of chains. ‘Coorse’ we took to our heels again.

The rattling of the chains followed us home and rattled around the field next to the house for a good while. It scared the hell out of us.

The biggest fish we ever caught was a 27lb salmon and we ‘sowl’ it to a cattle dealer along with two small trout for a pound (£1).  In today’s money it would be worth £60 - £100.

The best catch we ever had was in a flood on a September morning. We took out 29 fish and their average weight was 12lb. And we caught them all inside an hour and a half. It was one of the biggest catches ever on the Ballinderry. Jimsey’s Francis, God rest him, gave us the going rate and he wuz more than decent with us.

Funny enough we were never caught, though we had some close calls.

If ye did get caught ye’d be fined £25 to £30 and your nets seized. That’s about £1,000 in today’s money. It was very ‘heavy’ for people with little or no money. With that sentence hanging over ye, ye made damn sure ye didn’t get caught.

They talk today about building yer self-confidence. In those days ye wouldn’t have heard the likes of that, but when I think of it now I cud say that ‘poochin’ did that for me. It gave me the confidence to be crafty and streetwise when times were hard. Some of the most respected people in Ballinderry ‘pooched’. Ye got out of ‘poochin’ what ye put in to it.

Preparing the nets and putting them in the bag was as skilful as a man packing his own parachute, knowing that this life depended on it. Ye had to get it right first time or ye were in trouble.

Corks were tied on one side of the net and stone-hangers on the other side. And there was a trimmin-end for pullin across the river.  The net was rolled up tightly and put in the bag.  If the net was clean and well packed ye could have it in the river in a very short time.

Preparation was the key. Get in and out in a very short time.

After a ‘lift’, the nets were hung out to dry, well away from the river I might add. And ye shud know why.

As far as I know, there’s no ‘poochin’ done on the river now, there’s too much to occupy the young people nowadays. And of course times are a lot better; young people don’t need to ‘pooch’.

That time is past and its jist a memory to me now. I’ll never forget it, so I’ll not. I never will.

The Ballinderry River rises in the foothills of the Sperrin Mountains and twists its way through rocky Kildress down to the softer alluvial soils around the Lough Neagh basin, where it empties itself.
Supported by the EU Programme for Peace and Reconciliation