(c) Connecticut Explored, Inc. Spring 2019
Call this a fish story. It’s about two rivers, one governor, an Irish fish, and a Hollywood legend. It took place a long time ago—back in 1965.
That’s when John Dempsey, the only foreign-born Connecticut governor since the colonial era, returned to a hero’s welcome in the place of his birth: The town of Cahir along the river Suir in county Tipperary, Ireland.
The Suir is Tipperary’s great waterway—a lovely, fresh-flowing burn that streams 115 miles from Devil’s Bit Mountain south to the Atlantic. Filled with trout and salmon, it was, and still is, an angler’s dream. In that regard it was very, VERY different from Connecticut’s great waterway.
By 1965 the Connecticut River had been New England’s industrial and human sewer for a century and a half, unsafe for recreational use since the early 1900s, according to Ellsworth Grant in Connecticut Disasters (Globe Pequot Press, 2006). Hartford’s Park (or Hog) River, a tributary that used to dump waste into the Connecticut, was buried in the 1940s, in large part because it was so polluted. The Connecticut River was not much of a draw for fishermen.
Dempsey, when he wasn’t governing, was very much a fisherman. And one of the highlights of his return to Ireland was a chance to cast for salmon in the Suir, a reward he saved for the day before he was to leave. The governor’s efforts were less than productive. He did catch a fish—but the debate was whether it weighed 8 ounces or 9 . Intent on catching the big one, the governor postponed his return by one more day. Sure enough, that Sunday after mass, he did catch the big one, a five- to six-pound Irish salmon. As reporter Charles Morse noted in The Hartford Courant“All the kings of Munster couldn’t have taken that fish from the governor of Connecticut”(August 2, 1965).
The week Dempsey returned to Connecticut, a half-hour documentary called “The Long Tidal River” aired on WTIC, the local FOX television affiliate. Produced by Grant and narrated by his sister-in-law Katharine Hepburn, the film documented the toll pollution had taken on the Connecticut River. Hepburn’s statement that the Connecticut was America’s “most beautifully landscaped cesspool” captured the public’s attention. The resulting calls to action fell on receptive ears at the state house.
The governor, who had just caught his dream fish in the clean Suir river, lost no time in responding. Within 60 days he assembled a Clean Water Task Force charged with developing an action plan to clean up the state’s waterways. Their work led to a state Clean Water Bill in 1967, passed five years before the U.S.Congress’s first Clean Water Act. “No one,” Governor Dempsey claimed, “whether individual, industry, or community has the right or privilege to render our water resources unusable by pollution” according to the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection’s website “Over 50 Years of the Clean Water Act in Connecticut.”
Today the Connecticut River is a river transformed. In 2012 the U.S. Department of the Interior named it America’s first National Blueway, and the Nature Conservancy has designated the river’s estuary as “one of the world’s last great places.” These honors reflect a half-century of pollution-control efforts that came alive thanks to a governor, two rivers, an Irish fish, and a Hollywood legend.