Divers feast on Mulranny’s coalfish

Outdoor Living

EXPERT FISHERS  Winter visitors to our shores, red-throated divers are the smallest of the divers found in Ireland.

John Shelley

I don’t suppose that I’m alone in hankering for longer days. Yes, there’s something nice about sitting in by the stove while the wind shakes the tall trees across the road and plays the chimney like a tuba. But there’s something far nicer about the month of May. I think I would never tire of it.
Rooted in winter, I went to Mulranny to look for geese and found a pair of red-throated divers patrolling flat water the far side of a rumbustious surf line. It must have been the state of the tide that picked the sea up, for there was no wind to speak of, nor any great swell coming into the bay. Whatever the reason, the diving birds found good fishing beyond the white water.
I guessed they were catching small coalfish. There was no great length of a hunt involved. Each bird would slip easily beneath the surface and come back to the top with yet another morsel held crossways in its pointed bill. A clever shuffle turned each hapless captive around and down that slender neck it went, to join the soup of its fellows.
We see more of the chunky great-northern diver than we do of these more graceful cousins. Mind you, if the title ‘red-throated’ brings to mind visions of exotically coloured creatures you might be disappointed, for the winter plumage of all our divers bears not a hint of their striking summertime appearance. On a dull day outside of the breeding season they are grey and pale grey, though winter sun brightens them considerably.
I cannot help but be impressed at their fishing ability. They are built for it, of course, as indeed those little fishes are built for escape from predators. The fish must have been thick in the water that day, as indeed the sea at Mulranny often is. But coalfish are nobody’s favourite. Their very name encapsulates their sooty-coloured flesh with its bland flavour: only in recent times have they appeared on the fishmonger’s slab.
These were only babies anyway. Give them another year and the best will be two or three pounds in weight. A good one of four pounds will make a dinner alright, but those little fellows? I’ve heard them called ‘gilpin’ and watched old men take them home to boil, almost by the bucketful. I suppose we’re spoiled really. We no longer need to take whatever we can get, but rely on imported and farmed fishes rather than on a naturally varied, seasonal harvest.
I went beyond the golf course to walk the machair, where sheep have nibbled all growth back level with the ground, and to trail along the edge of the dunes. This is a good place to go beach combing, for all manner of flotsam and jetsam is harboured in the lee of the great stony outcrop at the eastern end of the beach.
Back in the summer we found a number of Portuguese Men o’ War stranded along the tideline, strange purple bladders innocuous in appearance yet armed with powerful stinging mechanisms powerful enough to kill. We poked at them with sticks and left them where they were. Warmer seas will bring more of these to our shores, and perhaps a diversity of other creatures with which we have yet to become acquainted.
On one of those longer evenings I listened as a fellow angler told me of his unusual catch further out in the bay. Gilthead bream, he said, and good fish too, up to six pounds in weight. Traditionally fish of warmer Mediterranean regions, gilthead bream have been turning up in Irish angler’s catches from about the year 2000, since when they have continued to expand their range. These are among the best eating fish available and if they become established they will make a welcome addition to late summer table fare.
There I go again, hankering for summer. There’s only a week or so before we turn the corner once more – even a few minutes of extra daylight will serve to lift our spirits. This day I shared the machair with a family of pipits and a swarm of low-flying insects, then found an exposed rock which served as a staging post.
An hour later I was back at the beach where the two divers had become four. Still they pulled immature fishes from the edge of the surf, one after another until I thought they must be glutted.
My geese arrived with the dusk, a low, spreading, feathered and musical cloud.