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Rogan of Donegal

By Arthur Greenwood, Ireland UK


Nestled on the banks of the mighty River Erne and located in the scenic North West region of Ireland, Ballyshannon is one of the oldest and earliest settled towns in the country. It is also home to the oldest fly tying firm in the world.

For almost 170 years the firm of Rogan has been designing and dressing fishing flies for the most discerning anglers in the world. Since 1830 the Rogan name, built on tradition, quality, innovation and above all else, craftsmanship has been carefully nurtured through five generations of the family.

It was Michael Rogan Senior who first brought world acclaim to the Rogan flies. Born in 1833, he learnt the art from his father, James Senior, founder of the firm. He soon showed a wonderful aptitude for salmon fly dressing. It is recorded that at the age of 12 he was dressing salmon flies which were so successful that many experienced anglers of the period would use no others.

As this craft was handed down from father to son, none of the mechanical aids developed to assist the amateur fly dresser were ever used. The Rogan tiers remained true to the art of hand tying and scorned the use of a vise, of pliers, bobbin holders and tweezers. A small pair of scissors and a needle stuck in a cork were all that was required. Michael Senior is famously quoted as saying that nature had provided the ideal tools for he job in the shape of fingers! He considered this necessary to achieve the correct amount of tension on the silk, the hackle and the wings and to eliminate any stress on the hook. Fingers, he said, were far more sensitive to the pressures and strains than any steel contrivance, no matter how well designed.

During the mid-nineteenth century, the great English angling writer Francis Francis visited Ireland on one of his grand tours and became acquainted with Michael Senior's work. He described his salmon flies as 'akin to a piece of jewellery'. This description occurs once again in Taverner's book 'Salmon Fishing' – "Some of his Claret Bodies and Green Parsons were not unlike pieces of jewellery."

Michael Senior was invited to London in the early 1870's by the now defunct London Salmon Fishers Club to dress salmon flies for them personally. During the next twenty years he spent several months every year in London dressing salmon flies and was invited a number of times to fish in Norway, Sweden and Iceland by the gentlemen of the London Salmon Fishers Club. The quality of his salmon flies brought him a coveted Medal of Excellence and Diploma at the International Fisheries Exhibition in London in 1883.

Tradition has it that to achieve the brilliant and long lasting colors of his flies Michael Senior used ass's urine to degrease materials before dyeing them. That from a stallion was said to be the best for the dying process. This was kept in a barrel at the rear of the premises at Bridge End in Ballyshannon. Frequent complaints from neighbors to the sanitary authorities led to many visits from inspectors who were often sent away with a box of flies in their pockets and little more was heard of the matter! Old Michael reckoned that it was only at this stage that it was ready to be used as a super-detergent for preparation of his materials before dyeing.

Of the many salmon flies Old Michael created perhaps his best were the Green Parson, Rogan's Fancy and the Ballyshannon. It is also a fact that he invented the famous Fiery Brown color via his special dying process which gave it a brilliance that had not been in evidence before (and some would say has not been seen since) He perfected a method of winging salmon flies which caused each individual feather to react independently of its neighbor creating a translucent lifelike effect.


Photo courtesy The Martin Company, Kamiah,ID

In his long life as a fly dresser, Old Michael made many friends in all walks of society and many shared his fireside in the shop in Ballyshannon to partake of a nip of Irish whiskey and to talk of the day's happenings. On one occasion, the visitor was Edward, Prince of Wales, and the son of Queen Victoria. Old Michael offered him the customary draw of his clay pipe. This was accepted but before putting the pipe in his mouth, the Royal visitor wiped the stem of the pipe with a silk handkerchief. He took a few pulls and returned the pipe to its owner. Michael, with calm deliberation, broke off a couple of inches from the stem and replaced the pipe in his mouth, continuing to smoke it for the rest of the evening!

During his lifetime, Michael Senior trained his two sons and daughter in his art and after the old gentleman's death in 1905 his son James inherited the business. As the craft was handed down from father to son, they continued to tie in the traditional method, without use of a vise or any mechanical aids.

In the early part of the 20th century, the Erne River came into its own as one of the finest salmon rivers in Europe and it was from the gentlemen anglers who came to fish it that James received his business. Continuing his father's tradition of tying quality custom-built flies, he was never short of customers from the discerning fishermen of the world.

Fortunately, James started training his son Michael Junior in the Rogan tradition of fly dressing, for when in 1935 he had a stroke which led to his death three years later, young Michael was able to carry on the business as a professional tier at the tender age of 16.

Michael continued to tie flies for anglers throughout the world and at one stage in the 1960s tied exclusively for the famous firm of Hardy Brothers of London. He married Rita in 1941 and trained her in the craft. Sadly, in 1947, the magnificent Erne became a victim of 'progress' when a hydro-electric scheme destroyed the once beautiful and famous river, but not before Michael had taken a personal best Atlantic salmon of 30 lbs from it – on one of his own flies, of course!

American anglers may be interested to note that Michael's Uncle Alexander Rogan, who had been trained in the family business, emigrated to New York in the 1920's and carried on the traditional hand-tying trade when working for the now long-closed Alex Taylor tackle shop on 42nd Street in Manhattan. Sad to say, he found he could not keep a family on his salesman's wages, even with the additional income from his beautiful flies and decided to quit the business for the more lucrative trade of barber, a skill he had acquired in the trenches during World War I. An article about Alex Rogan by Leonard M. Wright Jr. appeared in the Spring 1999 issue of Fly Tyer magazine.

The Rogan company fell on hard times following the death of Rita Rogan in 1987. No surviving members of the family were able to carry on the tradition and although Michael and Rita had trained several local women in the craft, the company lacked direction and was almost extinct when David and Connie Feely, a young couple originally from the area but then living in San Francisco heard of its plight and returned home to resurrect the business.

After much heartbreak and tribulation, they finally raised the capital and realised their dream of ownership of one of Ireland's legendary angling companies and have pledged to continue the great Rogan hand-tying tradition. They have chosen the name Cuileoga Rogan for the new company which has been formed to carry on the wholesale side of the Rogan business. Cuileog is the Irish name for a fly, in this instance a fishing fly, and it is in keeping that they should chose to promote all things Irish in relation to the brand name. The business was formally re-launched in March 1999.

The new management team has developed a business plan to take the company into the 21st century. The old premises at Bridge End in Ballyshannon have been sold and a new development on the Bundoran Road will eventually house a modern tackle shop, a Rogan Museum and an Interpretative Centre. If demand is there, the company will consider the provision of hand-tying courses for amateurs wishing to learn the traditional method of tying without a vice. A new factory will be opened in Gweedore, Co. Donegal, where hand-tied Rogan trout and salmon flies will be produced.~ Shuck Raider

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