Paddy Heneghan (1922-2012) – The Ghillie of Delphi

by Turtle Bunbury


Still working flat out at the age of 86, Paddy was the third generation of Heneghan to work as a ghillie at Delphi Lodge. He knew all the secrets to becoming a fish whisperer by the time he was a teenager. 



Through the misty darkness of the night, the figure continued to move slowly towards him. ‘I said good night’, repeated Paddy, feeling a cold chill whistle up his spine. The stranger still did not reply. Paddy’s right hand clenched at the spade he was holding, the one he had used to help bury his uncle earlier in the day. Why had he not stayed at the wake?, he wondered. What was he thinking going up the road in the black of night? ‘Whoever you are, you should have spoke?’ he shouted. The figure continued to draw near. Paddy raised the spade. ‘Good night, Sir?’ he roared. The figure hesitated, about-turned and trotted away.

‘And what was it?’, says Paddy, ‘only an auld skin of a donkey’. Decades after the event, Paddy’s relief continues to be immense. ‘Only for knowing it was a donkey, I wouldn’t be passing on that road ever again.’

You wouldn’t have Paddy pegged as an easily intimidated sort. Indeed, he is surely one of the most agile and robust men of his generation. In March 2009, the 86-year-old ghillie helped reel in the first salmon of the season at Delphi Lodge. We found him not long afterwards, over by a small, corrugated shed at the back of his house, chopping a fallen alder tree into logs, ‘to pass the day’.[i]

Born at what is now Waterfall Cottage on 27 June 1922, Paddy is the third generation of Heneghan to work as Delphi’s ghillie. The family were originally woodmen from Cork. In the early 19th century, they came north into Mayo where they were employed to fell the once great oak forests that grew along the River Erriff. Paddy has fond memories of his grandfather, Michael Heneghan, who was born and raised near the bridge at Ashleigh Falls. When the 6th Marquess of Sligo repurchased the family fishing lodge at Delphi in the 1890s, he recruited Michael as caretaker of the property.[ii]

Delphi Lodge was built in the 1820s by the 2nd Marquess of Sligo, a colourful soul who named it Delphi after a lengthy sojourn in Greece with the opium-toting poet, Lord Byron.[iii] Lord Sligo clearly had an eye for location. Delphi is arguably the most spectacular setting in Ireland, with sprightly rainbows and soft mists frequently adding to its Eden-like beauty. In 1851, the lodge passed to a Scotsman, Captain William Houstoun, who built a second fishing lodge, Dhulough House, further north along the shore of Doolough. This is now a crumbling moss-hued ruin, hidden by Scots Pines and sprawling rhododendrons. [iv]

Directly beneath this second lodge is a small cottage where Captain Houstoun’s steward once lived. This is the house where Paddy and his two sisters live today.[v] The views from here are as epic as any, with the Sheefry, Mweelera and Binn Gabhar (Ben Gower) rising steeply on all sides. Paddy has climbed these mountains many times and claims to know every foothold. At the summit of Binn Gabhar stands the remains of a shelter built by the Houstouns for a lonely night-watchmen. Sheep-rustling was rampant in Mayo at that time, explains Paddy. Inevitably the wind blew the shelter apart but the stones are still there.

In due course, Johnny Heneghan succeeded his father as caretaker of Delphi. Together with his wife Bridgit and their four children, he moved to the cottage at Doolough .[vi] Sad times had already befallen the Heneghans with the loss of two children – a baby girl called Bridie who succumbed to rheumatic fever in 1949, and 19-year-old Jim, who Paddy describes as ‘the best of us all’, to meningitis. Paddy’s other brother Michael was the only one to marry and now lives ‘at the butt of Croagh Patrick’ where he also operates as a ghillie. There were also two sisters Mary (who worked at Delphi Lodge and died in 2010) and Nonie.

With so many ghillies in the family, Paddy knew all the secrets to becoming a fish whisperer by the time he was a teenager. He learned the hard way, earning the wrath of his grandfather when, aged seven, he cast his line and caught a pony by the ear. During the 1930s, he and his brothers often walked down to the pebble stone beach that runs along this part of Doolough to fish. Sometimes the dark waters seemed to shriek, and the Heneghans would think again of the poor souls who drowned near here during a particularly bleak episode of 1849.[vii]

Paddy Heneghan chopping timber. (Photo: James Fennell)

On hot summer days, the youngsters swam in the beautiful stretch of the Glenummera river which runs just in front of the cottage. The salmon used to spawn in these clear waters but Paddy says the forestry plantations on the surrounding hills have played havoc with the local river system, sending floods gushing out across the road and into a riverside field where his father used to cut hay for the sheep.

During the 1930s, Delphi Lodge was leased to a well-to-do family lately returned from British India. In 1936, the family’s Scottish chauffeur taught 14-year-old Paddy how to drive a car. It was an invaluable lesson for someone living in a remote location like Delphi.

In his late 20s, Paddy tired of life as a ghillie and joined the county council. He slowly worked his way up the road-building hierarchy, crushing stones in the Sheefry Pass in the early days, directing others as he got older.

When Peter Mantel purchased Delphi Lodge in the 1980s and reopened it as a fishing lodge, he simultaneously recruited Paddy as ghillie. Delphi Lodge remains one of the finest fishing retreats in Ireland and there is a large volume of repeat custom. Paddy still goes out on the water today but ‘only with certain people’. There are some, he holds, who ‘would take the eye out of you and not notice’. He also has an interest in a mussel farm on the north coast of Mayo by Kilsallagh.

Paddy keeps himself busy and aims to live long. ‘My mother was a couple of weeks short of 102 when she died’, he says with a chin-twitching chuckle. For entertainment, he drives to Leenane twice weekly to pick up his copy of The Mayo News and to have a drink in one of the village’s two pubs. It’s fast approaching twenty years since Leenane hosted Jim Sheridan, Richard Harris and others for the making of John B Keane’s epic, ‘The Field’. But Paddy complains that it has become very quiet in Leenane lately. He can’t remember the last time he heard a good sing-song.

Paddy is a contented bachelor. He has loved a few women but never enough to change their name. He recalls one particularly inquisitive neighbour who was forever pestering him about whether he would marry. ‘She would nearly want to know what’s in your pocket’, he says. ‘So I told her I was often married but never churched. And she never asked me anymore.’

Paddy Heneghan passed away in March 2012. If you enjoy ‘Vanishing Ireland’ stories, please feel free to join the ‘Vanishing Ireland’ group on Facebook at this link.

[i] When we mention the idea of a photograph, he looks to the mountain and says the rain is coming in. It all looks pretty sky blue to us but, he counters, ‘you can be sure you’ll get rain sometime anyway’.
[ii] Michael’s wife died young, leaving him two sons and three daughters. In later years, he lived in a cottage now known as ‘No 1’ and ‘No 2’. Other cottages were formerly the garage and turf shed.
[iii] Delphi Lodge was originally leased to Thomas Spencer Lindsey of Hollymount House, Co Mayo in the 1820s, to Stepney St George of Headford Castle, Co Galway in the 1830s and to the Honourable Reverend William Conynham Plunket (later Archbishop of Dublin 1884-1887) in the 1850s.
[iv] Captain Houstoun leased some 40,000 acres, known as the ‘Dhulough Farm’, from Lord Sligo. Captain and Mrs Houston previously lived at Ross House, built by Lewis O’Donel, a son of Lewis O’Donel of Killeen, Crossmolina, Co Mayo and a first cousin of the first Sir Neal O’Donel baronet. (Ross House was purchased by Middleton O’Malley about 1880 and it is now the home of Mrs Meike Blackwell). The Houstoun lease of what ‘Dhulough’ farm, in the parish of Kilgeever, was renewed to the Captain’s son George and in the early 20th century, for a much reduced acreage, to his nephew Alfred Houstoun Boswall. Legal documents in the Westport Estate Papers record much of the history of the Houstouns occupation of the farm. There is a memorial to the Captain in Aasleagh Church, Leenane, Co Galway.
The Captain’s wife wrote a colourful memoir of their time in Doolough Matilda Charlotte Houstoun, ‘Twenty Years in the Wild West; or, Life in Connaught’ (John Murray, 1879). Today, Doolough House is just about accessible by a rough squelchy beater’s path. Water flows straight down the mountain into the house. An ominous black stain marks the exterior of one wall but Paddy assures us the house was simply abandoned, never burned. In its glory days, the view of the lake from here would have been magnificent. Its’ the sort of place Lord Byron would have happily spent some time, tooting on his opium pipe, if only the Mayo weather wasn’t so wet.
By the 1880s, large numbers of black-faced sheep and polled Galloways were grazing in the surrounding lands – see Bernard H Becker, Disturbed Ireland – Being the Letters Written During the Winter of 1880-81. (
[v] Another beloved local resident was a stray donkey who had been with them for 23 years when he died last year. They also had a few cows.
[vi] Paddy was born and spent his early childhood in the cottage where Peter Mantel now lives.
[vii] The deceased were swept to their deaths while they vainly sought assistance from the Board of Guardians at Delphi Lodge. It was in these same waters that Sean Bean’s Tadgh McCabe drowned Tom Berenger’s American in ‘The Field’.

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