While researching his 1952 book An Angler’s Entomology, author J.R. Harris organized and annotated a number of Irish, Scottish, and English flies collected primarily by two men, Richard Gregory and J. C. Gardiner, both of Galway, Ireland. Gregory, an ancestor of Irish literary figure Lady Gregory, lived at the turn of the nineteenth century, Gardiner at the turn of the twentieth. The flies eventually made their way into the hands of Dorothy Downs of Branford, Connecticut, who donated them to the Museum in 1991.
The oldest grouping, a dozen trout flies tied by Thomas Cummess, include their bill of sale dated 1789 (1991.020.003). In Irish Trout and SalmonFlies (1984),E. J.Malone implies that these flies are the earliest known examples of Irish fly tying and, according to Harris, they are older than the first color illustrations of flies (Bainbridge’s The Fly-Fisher’s Guide in 1816). Most are tied on Limerick-style hooks, pre-dating the first mention of Limerick hooks in fishing literature by about eleven years. Two of the flies are tied to horsehair leaders, the rest on gut. Harris speculated that the horsehair snelled flies might have been used with a crossline.
Another of the oldest flies is a salmon fly (1991.020.015) with a note dated August 1791, proclaiming the fly had taken four salmon at Galway. Harris believed it to be a variation of the King’s Fisher Fly. It is of particular interest in that it shows how early the Irish were experimenting with exotic plumages: the wing features golden pheasant head and neck feathers. The explosion of color in Irish salmon flies is usually credited to Pat McKay’s creations, which include the Golden Butterfly and the Parson, in the early 1800’s, but this fly indicates that earlier tiers were also tinkering with the beautiful foreign feathers brought back byBritish explorers.
Of course, these are by no means the only flies of interest in this collection. Others of note include flies tied in 1791 (1991.020.016) that use an Indiangrass leader- just imagine a blade of grass being the sole connection between you and your catch! One fly, tied circa 1803 (1991.020.033), includes a note providing the fly’s recipe, a rarity at a time when most of the population was illiterate and patterns were passed on through word of mouth. Because this particular pattern calls for cuckoo feathers and light fur from the sides of a rat, among other materials, it isn’t a fly we see a lot of these days.
As you’d expect for flies of this age, the hooks are among the earliest examples of Limerick, O’Shaughnessy, and Dublin hooks, showing us how these styles evolved as tying needs changed. In a similar vein, many of the flies are attached to different leaders, again providing a look at how this essential piece of tackle developed over the years.