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STORY: The White Trout

STORY: The White Trout

Stories help us make sense of our world. Folklore from our ancestors has passed from one generation to the next, for thousands of years. Through our stories, we share what we learn with future generations.
But stories also help us to process unusual sights and experiences that we cannot yet understand. The old tale of the“White Trout of Cong” is one such folk story. It is a magical tale of romance and tragedy. This is a story about nature and geology, that hints to something highly unusual that our ancestors saw and struggled to explain.
This is the tale of the “White Trout of Cong”, and the story behind our new photographic print “Summer Pond”.

 

 

It is midsummer.

We have been walking together in the forest for about fifteen minutes. And yes, ok, that’s not a long time, but when you have a three-year-old in tow, this is an eternity. For her, this has been an epic adventure. We agree to stop and we unpack our small picnic beside a gurgling freshwater spring pond. As I take out our sandwiches I realise that these days our “walks” have become all picnic, and not so much walking.

The pond is dark and shielded from the bright summer sun by a lush Beech tree canopy. Sitting there, our picnic, I am reminded of all the folk tales I have heard about these very woods, ponds and caves.

'Tell me a story Dad” is a request I get a lot. Three-year-olds live in a world made of stories. Now, as a parent myself, I am starting to think a lot more about why and how we tell stories.

 

 

Stories are a vessel for passing on information, ideas and traditions.

Stories help us to make sense of what we have seen. We can construct a narrative and an explanation around the things that we cannot understand.

Ireland has a rich heritage of stories and storytellers/seanachaí (meaning a bearer of "old lore"). Lately I have begun to realise that hidden within this old folklore are clues and hints to the history of our natural world, things that perhaps our ancestors witnessed but could not rationally explain.

 

 

We are in the forests on the edge of the village of Cong, Co. Mayo. In this particular village, every tree, stone, cave, castle, ringfort and pond has an old folk tale attached. And part of the reason for this rich folklore, I am beginning to understand, is the underlying geology of the landscape in this region.

Cong village is situated on a narrow land bridge (isthmus) that separates southern Ireland’s two largest lakes (Lough Mask and Lough Corrib). The bedrock of this narrow strip of land is a maze of porous limestone. The soft limestone allows the subterranean rivers to weave and carve their way underground, through the bedrock, from the upper lake (Lough Mask) to the lower lake (Lough Corrib). The rushing waters underground have carved out a complex network of caves and passages.

Above ground, the land surrounding the village of Cong is carpeted in a dense and ancient forest. But, here and there, the rushing underground rivers sprout above ground and return underground in various locations. This forest is punctuated with pockets of water amidst the trees. There are lakes, ponds and streams- all seemingly without a source.

 

 

Staring into the bubbling pond before us I recall of the story of “The White Trout of Cong”. Like a lot of good folklore, it hints to something that our ancestors witnessed, appreciated and needed to talk about but perhaps could not explain logically. It is also a good example of a story where the unusual geology of this village has given rise to a particularly rich vein of legends and folklore

Do want to hear a story about this pond? I ask my fellow picnickers, chomping into my sandwich. Of course, I don’t wait for an answer.

 

 

“Once upon a time in the village of Cong there was a young woman and a King’s son who fell madly in love. The couple were due to be married when the King’s son was murdered and thrown into the lake. At the very same time, the people of the area began seeing an unusual trout in a river at the bottom of a deep cave known as the “Pigeon Hole”. And they believed the trout was none other than the murdered son of the King. The young woman was so broken-hearted. Then suddenly, one day, she vanished. Not long after a very unusual white trout appeared in the same river at the bottom of the cave. From then on the two trout were seen together daily and the people of the area believed them to be the young couple. The people in the village believed that the ‘Good People"‘ (Fairies) were responsible for uniting the young lady with her love.. albeit in trout form”.

 

‘Summer Pond’ photograph inspired by ‘the story of the white trout of Cong’.

 

Hmm… I think. I’m not so sure how suitable this story of murder and tragedy is for my three-year-old audience. So I move quickly on to speculating on the likely explanations for this unusual white trout sighting… Could it have been an ancient white cavefish, like the one that I have read was only recently discovered in a cave in Germany? Or could it have been a seatrout … returned inland from the sea? Perhaps it was a regular trout who simply had no pigmentation, living in the dark underground world of caves and caverns under our feet.

As I ramble on I realise the three year old is no longer listening to me. Her world is made of stories, with little need to parse fact from folklore. The story of the lovelorn bride-to-be turning into a white trout makes a very compelling story, just as it is. She doesn’t need to pull it apart.

 

 

Our photographic print ‘Summer Pond” was taken just a few hundred yards from the ‘Pigeon-hole’ cave (the site of the folklore story of the white trout) and this is most probably the very same watercourse. So as we sit and eat our picnic, on the banks of this little pond, it may look like the camera lens is staring idly into the water when in truth, maybe it is searching and hoping that we might catch a glimpse of a small little white trout.

 

Notes:

The story of ‘The White Trout of Cong’ is retold in many forms the earliest written form you can read here.

And if fairies aren’t your thing here’s one other possible explanation for the existence of a white fish in a cave river. The European cavefish, first discovered in 2015.

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