Obituary: Peter O'Reilly
Doyen of Irish fly-fishing who popularised the sport in a series of bestselling books
Peter O'Reilly, who has died aged 78, was the doyen of the country's fly-fishing, credited with popularising and illuminating the sport here in a series of bestselling books.
O'Reilly, a game angling officer with the Central Fisheries Board, was already a respected contributor to Trout & Salmon magazine when, in the 1980s, he was approached by Merlin Unwin, the countryside books publisher in Ludlow, Shropshire, to write about the Irish loughs. O'Reilly was not keen ("I detest writing," he insisted), but was eventually persuaded.
For two years he travelled the country in his spare time gathering his information. A particular problem, he told the journalist Daire Whelan, was accurately describing who owned the fishing rights: "You can be destroyed if you get the wrong information, especially regarding ownership. In all my life I only ever got one solicitor's letter, and it was frightening. I went back to my sources to discover the guy who instructed the solicitor was in fact a poacher and he didn't own the fishery at all!"
Loughs of Ireland: A Flyfisher's Guide was published in 1987 and became a bestseller. It was followed by Rivers of Ireland (1991), for which he again tramped round the countryside, walking on average "eight miles a day through nettles, briars, woods, fences, even bulls in fields" to cover some 800 waterways. Both books have seen multiple reprints with updated information.
O'Reilly's subsequent works were Flies of Ireland (1995) - an expert in the craft, he is said to have tied 306 flies in a day - and Flyfishing in Ireland (2000), giving guidance on how, where and when it is best to fish, as well as information on the life cycles of the fish and their diet.
As his fame spread, so did the demand for his expertise: he hosted courses at his School of Fly Fishing near Navan in Co Meath, at which he would instruct anglers in the mysteries of casting and fly-tying; he accompanied celebrities such as Jack Charlton, Timothy Dalton, Ian Botham and Eric Clapton on fishing trips; and he would guide foreign royalty and dignitaries on river or lough at the request of the Government.
Peter Paul O'Reilly was born on August 13, 1940, at Maudabawn, Co Cavan, where his father ran a mill, grinding oats for porridge. The mill stood on the river Annalee, which teemed with salmon and trout. By the age of seven Peter was fishing regularly with a hazel rod, catching perch and minnows.
At St Patrick's School, Cavan, he excelled at Gaelic football and cross-country, and went on to found a successful local athletics club. He later managed a sports centre in Dublin.
Fishing, however, remained his passion, and in the mid-1970s he secured the job as a game angling officer with the Central Fisheries Board. His role was to nurture and promote fly-fishing both among his own people and those from abroad who would bring in foreign revenue.
"The fishing just wasn't appreciated," he told Daire Whelan. "And those that did appreciate it would say, 'you know, fly-fishing's complicated'.
"The ordinary Irishmen were trout fishermen… The Irishman didn't fish for salmon because all the good salmon fisheries were fished by the gentry. An Irishman couldn't afford to fish them."
Over the years this began to change. In 1982, the Irish State bought the fishery at the River Erriff in Connemara from Lord Brabourne.
The Erriff was one of the best rivers in the country, and O'Reilly invited the editor of Trout & Salmon, John Wilshaw, to come to see it. It was the start of O'Reilly's long career as a contributor to the magazine.
O'Reilly, a dedicated conservationist, was distressed by the huge decline in the salmon population. He blamed poor water quality, caused by an abundance of silt and agricultural run-off, leading to a lack of fly life: "And if you have no fly life you've no food for the fish."
Apart from the occasional salmon for the table, he stopped killing fish in the mid-1990s after his son, having watched him kill a trout, inquired: "Dad, was that really necessary?"
Gentle, courteous and discreet, O'Reilly was a fount of interesting fishing lore. "The taper on a fly line was invented by one of Oliver Cromwell's generals," he once explained. "After failing dismally abroad, Cromwell cast him into the Tower of London for 12 years. During his stint in the Tower one of his ideas was to put taper on a fly line."
After retiring from the Fisheries Board in 2005, O'Reilly remained active as an instructor and fishing companion. He was a founder member of the Association of Professional Game Angling Instructors in Ireland, and served as a vice-president of the Wild Trout Trust in England.
Peter O'Reilly, who died on December 6, married, in 1983, Rose Gaffney, who survives him with their son.