Sunday 28 December 2014

Traveller tales

Con Houlihan

Published 17/07/2008 | 07:00

Con Houlihan

Twenty years or so ago I wrote an article in The Evening Press about the travelling people. I knew that some folk wouldn't like it.

I didn't, however, expect the storm of vituperation and vilification that it aroused: It came in the post, on the phone, in the pub, in the cafe, in the street -- even in the workplace. Almost all of the bouquets contained a question: Would I care to live near them? My answer was simple: I had lived very near them for many years.

About twenty yards north of our house there was a little road that was in effect a cul-de-sac. It was well sheltered from the north; a stream ran nearby -- it was ideal for an encampment.

A famous travelling family, the O'Briens, spent a lot of time there: only a low fence separated them from us -- they couldn't have been more our neighbours.

The women and the girls were regular visitors to our house, usually asking for maybe a cup of sugar or a mug of milk or a toisin of tea. The pay was usually in the form of a prayer: "May The Lord and all the holy saints look down on you", or "May The Virgin Mary herself reward you."

The travelling people are wonderfully articulate, a trait they share with marginalised people elsewhere: You will find it in the American black people and in the gypsies in the other island.

I remember especially an example of this way with words: It belongs to a day in late June, a time when the old potatoes had lost all taste and the early potatoes were hardly ready. A little 14-year-old girl called Mary O'Brien came to our house with a tin gallon and said: "In the name of God, Connie, fill up that. We're gone dry inside in us for the want of a spud."

And I think of a night in Hussey's pub in Castle Island when a small group of travelling men were talking about a mare that one of them had bought. Eventually an elder of the tribe said: "She's a grand little lady -- but in a bad mood she'd kick the salt out of the holy water."

Who are the travelling people? I believe that there is no mystery about their origin. Most of the men were whitesmiths who travelled from one place to another following their craft. And as so many of them were born almost literally under horses' hooves, it wasn't surprising that the men acquired an intimate knowledge of the noble animal.

Once I experienced an example of this for myself. Two mares gave birth about the same day in a rented field near the famous village of Currow. One foal was stillborn. The mares fought over the other foal. The two owners were in a dilemma. That night they were talking about their problem in Cunniff 's pub.

A small group of travellers listened. One of them said: "Put a headcollar on the foal and take him into the middle of the river. The mother will follow him in."

And so it happened.

The women had their own special knowledge: Some of them posed as fortune tellers and pretended that they could see into the future -- in fact they were very shrewd judges of personality. They could tell you things about yourself of which you were hardly aware. Palmistry was part of their art, if you could call it that.

Whitesmiths were good people to have in your neighbourhood: they could supply you with a great variety of utensils.

Tin mugs were ideal for the bog. You could get tin jugs and tin gallons and tin saucepans and tin plates -- I could go on and on. It was a lovely craft. The coming of plastic was a bad innovation for the travelling people just as it was for the jute workers in Pakistan.

The trade in horses is no longer a major part of their living -- it is more or less confined now to cobs and ponies for young people. Most of the travellers known to me in Dublin are scrap dealers. In the good days of The Evening Press I used to meet them in the morning in The White Horse.

The women sell ribbons and buttons and pins and threads out of their baskets. Many a letter I wrote to good old Hector Grey. He was their patron saint.

The good days of the travelling people are no more. The roads now are no place for encampments. They retain their culture; it should never be forgotten that they kept the old music alive when it wasn't very popular and certainly wasn't profitable.

The two most famous of all the travelling singers, Margaret Barry and Paddy "Pecker" Dunne, weren't travellers at all -- but none the worse for that.

If you were ever at Puck Fair, you would see that the travellers all had their own way of dancing. That festival was essentially theirs.

Tom Barry, IRA Commander, would tell you that in his days during The War Of Independence in West Cork, the travelling people were his eyes and ears. And so those who condemn them without thinking might remember that the travellers have played their part in making the Ireland of today.

Of course many of them leave their campsites in a mess but no worse than Dollymount Strand on a Bank Holiday or Fairyhouse on Easter Monday. There was a time when it was very seldom that you heard of a traveller committing a serious crime -- that isn't true today. In the good days the clan had its elders: they created a powerful ethic; the bonds have loosened now.

I choose to remember the travellers as a proud people who gave fair play when they got fair play. The prejudice against them was and is based on misunderstanding and ignorance.

It reminds me of an old story about a bad winter when the Indians were stealing out of the reservation to beg. One of the girls came to the back door of an Irish home -- and was told by the woman of the house: "Go back to your own country."

Fogra: Well done, Pat Hickey. You have shown imagination in assembling our team for The Olympics

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