The Erne rises in Beaghy Lough in County Cavan and flows for 64 miles through Upper and Lower Lough Erne before entering the Atlantic at Ballyshannon. For centuries, the River Erne had an international reputation for its abundance of salmon. The O’Donnells, Chieftains of Donegal for almost 400 years, they and their ancestors were known as “the kings of the fishe”. It was a major source of revenue for them and they exported the fish in exchange for wine and other goods.
When Assaroe Abbey was established in the late 12th century, the monks were awarded fishing rights on the river. This provided them with a rich diet of mackerel, mullet, hake, herring and eel. Commercial eel fishing has an extensive history on the Erne, which stretches back to the monks at the Assaroe Abbey in the 12th century. In 1740, Sir John Caldwell leased a weir. His son, James discovered that he could harvest up to 3000 eels in one night during their winter migration.
After the Plantation of Ulster, the Folliotts and then the Conollys developed the local fishing industry. The salmon were salted, cured, and exported to England and Europe. Around 1867 R.L. Moore bought the fishery and developed angling on the river. This system continued until the construction of the power stations. In the 1800s, Ballyshannon became very popular as a tourist destination for aristocratic anglers. Their arrival prompted ancillary employment in the catering industry and gillies very much in demand. Hugh Allingham provides an indication of the economic benefits of commercial salmon fishing for Ballyshannon in his book Ballyshannon, Its History and Antiquities: “As many as 2,000 fish have been taken in one day, and 400 in a single haul”. In 1825, Ballyshannon produced seventy-five tons of salmon.
Writing in 1851, Reverend Henry Newland stated that ‘the Erne is decidedly the best fisherman’s river in Ireland’ and that ‘the number of fish which it contains is altogether inconceivable’. 162 Artist’s impression of the falls on the River Erne The Erne yielded an average of 100 tonnes of salmon (approximately 23,000 fish) every year. These fish were then exported to British and European markets. Until 1937, the Erne was the largest fishery in Ireland, employing 120 people directly. However, the construction of two hydroelectric dams between 1946 and 1955 led to the loss of many spawning and nursery areas with the result that there is no longer a self-sustaining wild population in the Erne system.
In 1928, a legal dispute broke out between local fishermen and the landlord in control of the river. The case was known as the “Kildoney men’s case” In 1933 judgement was delivered in favour of the local men and the river Erne was opened for public use. The river attracted angling tourists from all over the world. In times past, it was not unusual to see over fifty boats on the river and catches of trout weighing from 15 to 25 lbs were commonplace. The decimation of the salmon stocks led to the Erne system becoming better known for course fishing. On waters around Enniskillen, many world-angling records have been achieved. The key species are Bream, Rudd and Perch. In the past Roscor near Belleek played host to the World Coarse Angling Championships. In angling terms, Ballyshannon is synonymous with the Rogan family’s fly-tying artistry.
As the angling industry in the town began to flourish in the early 19th century, the Rogan’s capitalised on their unique ability to produce world-class flies. The anglers soon realised that the Rogan flies were very successful at catching salmon on the 163 Erne. Michael Rogan senior was born in Ballyshannon in 1833 and he learned the trade from his father James. Apparently, by the age of twelve he was so proficient at the craft that anglers were more than willing to purchase his elaborate creations. His flies were compared to ‘fine pieces of jewellery’. His minimalist approach employed just scissors and a comb. He also used a special wax that remained a family secret. Tradition has it that the urine of a stallion ass was used as a dyeing agent to achieve the luminous colours of his flies. The urine was supposedly kept in a barrel at the back of the shop much to the chagrin of near neighbours. When Michael senior died in 1905, his son James took the business and in 1938, his son Michael continued the tradition. He was the last of the name to carry on the tradition.
Due to the frequent flooding in centuries past, locals had an expression that “In the summer, Lough Erne is in Fermanagh and in the winter, Fermanagh is in Lough Erne”. In the 1880s, a drainage scheme lowered the level of the lake and many new drowned- drumlin islands emerged. For millennia, the river was a major highway and people traversed its path from the Stone Age to modern times. The development of the road networks meant that it was no longer a significant transport route but today thousands of people continue to sail along its path for recreation.