IT'S a saga with a rich cast of characters including Fred Astaire, Tiger Woods and Sir Walter Raleigh, but now Peregrine Andrew Mornington Cavendish, the 12th Duke of Devonshire, has agreed to the first discussion for 250 years of the vexed question of his family's ownership of one of Ireland's finest and most exclusive salmon rivers.
"I think that the issue of the ownership of the Blackwater -- especially in relation to the harbour -- the best thing that could happen is that we should sit down with the people of Youghal -- the officials -- and not deal with it through the media." he said, breaking his silence on the controversy , which has pitted the well-liked Duke against local Irish interests.
The duke, worth more than €800m, is the largest private owner on the River Blackwater in Cork and owner of the 8,000 acre Lismore estate, which came into the family's ownership in the early 18th century and was once owned by Sir Walter Raleigh.
The Duke's Irish estate consists of the spectacular Lismore Castle, where his close friend Prince Charles, and his bride-to be Camilla Parker Bowles stayed before their wedding, and the fishing rights to two-thirds, or 12 miles of the tidal water of the Blackwater and a range of other fishing rights, totalling almost 20 miles of river.
It's prime salmon fishing water and Tiger Woods, via his friend John Magnier of Coolmore, has indulged his passion for angling on the Blackwater, stalking the same banks where Fred Astaire regularly fished.
Control of the river by a generally absentee English landlord, despite the family's popularity in the area, has been a contentious issue since the foundation of the State, but in the past few years there have been a number of disagreements of a more practical nature that has brought ownership into sharp focus.
The Duke has legally challenged the Department of Communications, Marine and Natural Resources who ordered him to remove a weir at Clondulane on conservation grounds.
There has also been controversy about control of the mouth of the river and if local fishermen can harvest mussels in the estuary at Youghal while some local anglers also question the Duke's rights to stop them casting a line into the river. The issue of drift net fishing in the estuary is moot at this time because the Government has banned it -- though historically fishermen did pay a fee to the Duke for the right to fish for salmon returning to the Blackwater to spawn.
The Duke maintains all his historical rights including those of the harbour. These rights are contested by the local town council who would like to legally challenge the Duke but haven't the money to do so.
The Duke leases some of his waters to a number of local salmon angling clubs who pay his estate for the privilege. However, his most prized asset on the river is the exclusive fishery lodge at Careysville where guests pay from €2,500 to €4,000 per week for accommodation and fishing.
But in an interview to be broadcast on RTE Radio One tonight at 7pm for a documentary titled Fishing the Blackwater, the Duke offers to sit down with officials from Youghal Town Council and discuss the river and its ownership.It's the first time in 250 years that the family have agreed to discuss the issue.
"There are a number of issues which we would like to resolve and I would welcome an approach from the council to come and discuss them with us," he says.
He added that following the Government decision to end drift-net fishing, his family had voluntarily suspended the issuing of their licences to drift net but that they still maintain the right to reinstate should the Government change its position.
He said that he regarded his estate's ownership to be where the Blackwater reaches the sea, which is normally defined as a line across the river to the Youghal lighthouse. He added that he was aware that there are people in Youghal Council who would take issue with that.