Mr Johnny (‘Pops’) Connors
Seven Weeks of Childhood
Just before World War Two my father and mother were camped at a roadside camp at Locklington, County Dublin, Eire.
My mother got a kick from a donkey or horse. I was still in my mother’s womb at the time. Seven days later I was born.
During them times my father made tinware such as buckets, kettles, pots, pans, basins, beakers, mugs, plates, baths, etc. It was very hard times for the Tinker in those days and, to make it worser for both me Dad and me mother, it was the wintertime of the year.
There was eighteen children in our family and my father would have to make a lot of tinware and sell a lot of tinware to keep us all going on food and drink. Into the bargain, we would be shirted by the local authorities and police sometimes as often as five times in one month.
When I was five years old a minister ran over me with a Baby Austin car in Banbridge, County Down, Northern Ireland. The Minister gave me a white five-pound note when I was coming out of hospital. My Daddy is very superstitious and he did not want to take blood money from the Minister. So my Daddy would not handle the five-pound note. And he told me to buy boots and shoes for the other travelling children with the five-pound note. I was brought into a shoe shop and I bought boots and shoes for all the children except my sister Mary. I had no money left to buy her boots.
‘What about my boots, Johnny?’ said my sister Mary to me.
‘Oh well, I have none more pounds left to buy you boots, Mary, you will have to wait till another of God’s motor-cars knock me down.’ Mary never got her boots.
I was a terrible mischief-maker. I can honestly say I broke every cup and plate that came in front of me. I hit a very wicked and peevish pony with a stick on the legs and the pony kicked me over a hedge. I still have the mark on my left cheek to prove it.
Food rationing started and the Travellers had no ration books. The only way we could live was to smuggle our food across the borders, food we could not get in the Free State. We would go over the border to the English part of Ireland and buy it on the black market. But sometimes we were caught smuggling over food. And the people that were caught doing this would be fined a lot of money and sometimes they would be sent to gaol. Still we had to keep on smuggling our food and risk being gaoled or fined by the Courts. We just had to smuggle to keep alive. If we did not smuggle we would have died with hunger. We also risked being shot on the borders. It was very rare we went through the Customs. We always used the unproved roads. By using the unproved roads we could travel freely from the Irish Republic to the North without being seen by the police or Customs officials. Some nights we would travel through the fields with our wagons to escape the authorities. Also, I can well remember, it was not a very pleasant journey to travel in a wagon over ditches, hedges, bogs, rivers, especially in the dark. Many’s the time I got slapped against the floor or sides of the wagon when we would be travelling over rough ground. To look out of the door of the wagon on a dark night and see the steam from the horse’s sweat rising towards the blue sky and not a sound could be heard, only the breathing of the horse under the shafts of the wagon,
an odd burst of the dogs through the hedges after rabbits and a death squeal from the rabbit in the terrier’s or lurcher’s mouth. This was the only noise that broke the stillness of the night. Low whispering voices outside and all of a sudden a stupid cow said ‘maue’ to the top note of its voice. Everybody jumped, and I scream so blue murder with the fright.
When we were well over and safe away from the Barons we pulled out of the land and on to the by-roads. All the wagons and carts were tied, pulled in along the side of the grass on the verge of the road. The poor jaded-out horses, the lathers of thick white sweat frothed out of them, would be unyoked from the wagons and carts. The horses would be that tired and worn out from pulling the heavy wagons and carts all night; they would just move very slowly out from the shafts.
When they had been unharnessed, the horses would be let loose to find their own sweetness and taste of grass. The camp-fires would then be lighted, the pots and kettles filled with water and they would be put on the fire to boil. And then we would all sit round the fire and have a tablecloth spread out on the grass as a ground table. When the food was cooked you could hear the voices of the children say to their mother, ‘Give me mine first, Mammy. I want more soup, Mammy. I want more poppys, Mammy. You never gave me none. What about me, Mammy?’
And other of the children would get angry and say, ‘You would, you big face,’ or ‘Ya, I was before you.’
‘You were not, with your fox’s nose.’
‘I was first, badger’s eyes!’
‘Old look-at-yourself, bull’s mouth.’
And the voice of a very small child could be heard saying, ‘Soup, me want soup. Give me, Mammy.’
The sweat would be dropping out of their mother trying to serve them all with food. Including me, of course. I was very fat. I used to eat a lot of fat meat and butter and potatoes and cabbage and I would go to sleep in the grass when I ate my victuals.
The next morning I would wake up in the wagon where my Mammy had carried me while I was sleeping. I would dress myself and then go outside with the dogs. The kind of dogs and the breed of them would be lurchers and terriers. They would kill that many rabbits and hares I would not be strong enough to carry all the rabbits and hares home. Two rabbits or one hare was the most I could carry or drag. The dogs would carry one apiece in their mouth. It’s surprising I never got lost in the land. I was always able to find my way back to the camp.
Sometimes the dogs would kill a pheasant or partridge. Or go down a fox’s den and kill a fox.
Badgers were very hardy and they are really good fighters. It’s not every dog that can kill a badger. Many a good dog the badger has killed. But two good wire-haired terriers will bolt the badger from its den and when the lurcher gets his long mouth around the badger’s neck one of them will have to die because they are both game animals.
Young badgers are lovely little animals. They make very good pets and so does the fox cub. But when the fox gets big he won’t stay domesticated, he will always run away to his wild and open life. I suppose nature made him to be free and that is the way he wants to stay.
Well, Travellers are like nature. Their nature is similar. They don’t want to live in a house. But they do want to settle down on a site with their caravan or wagon or tent. This is their way of life and it has been that way of life for thousands of years. They still like to be free to go and come as they please.
I was always ever fond of fishing and one way I like to fish is with my hands in a trout stream. Even when I was five or six years old I caught big trout, eels, pike, bass, roach and perch. And many’s a bite I got from a
pike or eel under a bank or under a bridge or stone in the river. How I used to fish was to put my hand under a pocket or hole in the bank, run my hand very lightly along the side of the fish till I got my fingers near his gills, then I would squeeze lightly on his gills with my thumb and forefinger and then I would pull him out and he would be mine.
Many’s a bite I got from a rat or snap from an otter under a bank. But I always managed to get my three or four dozen of fish on time.
In Remelton, County Donegal, I went to the big river to fish and saw a very big salmon in the shallow part of the river. Sambo, I called that salmon when I first saw him, and my full intention was to get Sambo.
Just up the river from where the salmon was there was a very deep hole. I knew if Sambo got into the hole I would never get him. If Sambo went down the river I would have no bother killing him. The river was at the mouth of the sea and it thinned out to about six inches of water. What was worrying me was up the river, the deep hole.
I went back to the camp and I got four sacks. I put barbed wire around the mouth of the four sacks. This made the sacks the shape of catch nets. I got the four sacks near the hole so if the salmon took it in his mind to bolt
he would have to go into one of the sacks before he got into the deep hole.
I was seven years old at the time and Sambo still in the water was thirteen pounds in weight. The water he was in was about two foot deep. I walked into the river and to get where the salmon was I had to swim.
When I got about nearly three feet from the salmon I looked down at him. I had a long pointed stick in my hand. I made a jab with this stick at the salmon. I missed him and he very nearly broke my leg when he hit off me. He tumbled me upside down in the water. I got out of that bank, but where had Sambo got to? I went now up to the hole to where the sacks were set. I tried two of the sacks. Sambo was not there.
But in the third sack he was inside in it as big as an ass. As I pulled out the sack he gave a jump. He tumbled me head over heels again. I went into the hole. I very nearly had been drowned.
The salmon went down the river, still in the sack it was. Somehow I managed to get out of the deep hole after swallowing about a gallon of water. I took up the other three sacks to get them in the right places and there was about nine or ten big trout in them. I broke the trouts’ necks by putting my thumb in their mouth and I pulled their heads back towards me. I threw them onto the bank.
I got the sacks again and I went down the river looking for Sambo.
When I saw Sambo, he was out of the sack and he was in the deep part of the river. He bolted when he saw me and he swam towards the hole this time. I saw him going into the middle sack and I got a rock in my hand. I put my foot on the mouth of the sack and I let the rock fall down on top of Sambo. He gave a jump inside of the sack. I hit him again and again. He lay still in the sack and I dragged the sack and Sambo out on to dry ground.
The greasy blood was falling down Sambo’s belly from a wound on the back of his head, caused by the blow from the rock. What a beautiful fish he was. When I took him out of the sack he lay as still as the stones he was lying on. Not a move out of his body. He was like a large ingot of silver as still and pure as his weight.
I felt like a hero now, and again I would look at Sambo. And I was sorry for him. I was sorry for killing him. He was a very game fish.
But we did not feel sorry for him when I brought him back to the camp. Instead I was glad of him when my mother handed me over a big steak of him. It was well cooked in butter fat, with vinegar and lemon-juice. The only swimming he was going to do was in my belly. So Sambo found his way into eighteen little tummies.
My Daddy got very sick. A bus ran into him at Harold’s Cross, Dublin. Nearly every bone in his body was broken. His legs, arms and collar-bone and jaw-bone were broken. His eye was shattered and he was in a coma for seven weeks. And two of the horses was killed as well in the crash. Well, for months my Daddy could not work.
When he got better it was the world’s worst winter. We had to sell the wagon and all our horses except one pony which we kept to pull the bad cart along the road and the bit of green canvas.
Never in the world have people suffered more than we did that winter. What I am writing, when the reader reads it, he will say to himself, or herself, it was impossible to survive. No, it was not impossible to survive. It was a miracle because I witnessed it and so did my little brothers and sisters, and my poor mother and father and our misfortunate animals.
A few days before the big snow the weather was very bad. We were after coming from the Twin Towers in County Donegal. We were crossing Branards Cap and we were forced to turn back with the blizzards. Some of us was in our bare feet walking behind the pony and cart.
That evening we camped near a crossroads at a sheltering hedge. My father made a tent and my mother went hawking to the nearby houses to get the makings for
our supper. The icy wind was cutting our skin on our hands and faces, and my little sister in my mother’s shawl, only three weeks old she was, was crying with the bitter cold and at that same time my mother was very ill. She looked very pale, worn out and tired. The snow was blowing through her hair, and when a gust of wind blew, the half-melted snow would drop from my mother’s brow on to my sister’s face in my mother’s arms, and when this happened we could hear a very delicate and innocent cry from the child in the wet frosty shawl.
Our blankets were in the cart and the snow water was falling out of them as my Daddy took them from the cart to put in the tent. When this was done all the children got into the tent, a frosty snot hanging from each one of their noses, their little faces red and blue with cold, and our little hands and feet swollen with the angry bitter weather. Our little terrier bitch, named Nell, keening with pain from the cold, came into the tent for shelter from the icy wind and snow.
My Daddy went to the wood for sticks to light the fire, and he himself was hardly able to walk. The frost was taking advantage of his broken and half-set bones. The poor pony outside trying to put her head into the door of the tent, the snow was cutting the eyes out of her and she was trembling with the cold.
My Daddy got back with the sticks, an armful of old twigs, and he dropped them from his arms on to the ground with weakness. He fell on top of the sticks and he looked up at the sky and said in a pitiful voice, ‘God, look down on us.’
My Daddy managed to light the fire somehow.
And in about ten minutes the fire was blazing. When the pony felt the heat she started whinnying slowly as if to say she was grateful. She pulled her head from the door of the tent and walked over beside the hedge. The smoke from the fire and sparks were blinding her but she was quite contented.
And little Nell went to the fire and sat down on her behind and stared into the fire puzzled and amazed. The children came out of the tent and sat on bundles of straw. The steam was rising from their wet clothes and melting the falling snow in the frosty air.
The kettles were filled and put on the fire to boil, and my Daddy took the wet blankets from the tent and in turn dried them over the fire. Then my mother came back with some dry clothes and food the people in the nearby houses gave her.
She also got some flaked meal and my Daddy put some of it into a dish and threw boiling water over it and gave it as a hot gruel to the pony. And poor Queenie was so glad to get it she nearly said thanks to my Daddy. And
when she ate it she trotted up and down the road to keep herself warm.
Soon we had our food, and with every bite we took from the bread, lots of snowflakes we would have in our mouths. It was making the bread soggy. My mother was barely able to serve us all with our food, she was that ill with after-birth pains and pneumonia and bronchitis, and the snow at the same time was dropping down on her black hair and on her innocent face that was as pale as the smoky snow around her.
My Daddy and my brother Jimmy, after their tea, went to the houses for straw. My Mammy said to me, ‘Do you want more bread, Johnny, son?’
‘No, Mammy,’ I said. ‘I am too full now, thank God. Mammy,’ I said, ‘you are sick. You should lie down in the tent for a while.’
She looked at me with tears in her wet eyes, and her wet hair blowing with the wind around her pale face. She kissed me and put her two hands on my knees. ‘Why do you worry about me so much, Johnny?’
‘You’re my Mammy,’ I said. ‘That is why.’
She tried to be cheerful. ‘No, Johnny, I am not sick. I am just tired and fed up with this weather.’
‘You are sick, Mammy,’ I said, ‘and very sick. I will make the bottle for the child. You go into the tent and lie down.’
‘No, son. I am all right. When your Daddy comes back, don’t say to him I am sick. Because I don’t want him to know I am sick. If your Daddy knew I was sick I would have to go to hospital. And there would be no one to look after yous. So don’t tell your Daddy.’
‘All right,’ I said. ‘I won’t.’
She pulled my nose gently, ‘I will be all right, Johnny, son.’
It was nearly dark when my Daddy and Jimmy came back with two large bundles of straw on their backs, and one of the bundles they strewed and spread around the tent. Jimmy made a little shelter for the little terrier bitch with some of the straw, and the rest he gave to Queenie to eat.
We all went to bed at this time - there was about a foot of snow outside on the ground.
The next morning I was the first to waking, and the sweat was falling down off me with the heat. It was so close I could hardly breathe. The snow was covering the tent. Six foot of it over the tent. Not a sound could be heard.
‘We are finished,’ said my Daddy.
Then after a while we could barely hear muffled voices outside saying, ‘They must be dead.’
It was a lot of farmers digging away the snow to get down to us. They managed to get down to us after some time. Then we were all pulled out, one by one. Then Jimmy started to dig for Nell. He found her. She was after having pups. Nell was dead and all the pups, except one was barely alive. And my sister put him in her bosom to get the life back in him. Most probably he was the first puppy and he was more strong than the others. We called him Spring.
The farmers brought us to the farmhouse and we all had a good meal and a good heat at the inside fire.
Queenie was all right. She found herself a stable during the night with a lot of sheep.
My Mammy gave my sister Mary one of the teats belonging to the child to feed the little pup with and Mary would not let that pup die. She blew down his neck. She rubbed him and shook him till the life was back in his veins, and then drop by drop she patiently let the drops of milk drop into the few-hours-old pup’s mouth.
All through the bad snow the farmer gave us the use of a big warm hayshed. And at the door we had a great big fire, and the people from around the area brought us blankets and clothes and food and milk. And at the same time my Daddy and Jimmy was helping the farmers to dig out the sheep and cattle from the drifts of snow.
My Mammy went to hospital a few days later. And she signed herself out after a fortnight. Then the snow began to disintegrate into slush and the weather was getting better and Spring was yelping. His eyes was just after opening when the snow went.
Then my Daddy and Jimmy made dozens and dozens of tinware articles and then sold them at the shops and houses. And my Daddy built a new wagon. My Mammy was better and all the children had dry noses again. And within a few weeks my Daddy built another wagon.
Queenie gave birth to a lovely black and white foal, and we called her Taxi.
My Daddy and Jimmy bought a job lot of articles from a big Co-op Hardware Store and they sold them at the fairs at a big profit, until we came to have six horses and about twelve donkeys. And Spring was under one of the wagons chewing at a big bone. It was the month of June, and we were camped at Brockah Corner, near the railway bridge. Brockah is a little mountain-town on the side of a valley, and just down below Brockah there is a wood and across from Brockah one could see little golden-coloured roofs of the white thatched cottages and the salmon jumping in the river below in the valley.
We left Brockah and pulled into Ballybokay. We met other Travellers, including Johnnie Doran and his family. Johnnie Doran was the best ulean piper in the world. He was buskering the fair and the whole fair stood to listen to him play his favourite reel ‘Rakish Paddy’. When he played this reel he bought two fine horses, so a deal and a reel was going on at the one time. That reel will never be played by no man the way Johnnie Doran played it. Johnnie, God rest him, was also a smart man with the horses. Johnnie was very seriously injured shortly after. A wall fell on him and broke his spine. He died two years later in Dublin.
I left the fair and my sister and me went out to the quiet country road. As we turned up the side-road to the camp I could hear the uninterrupted sweet voice of a travelling woman echoing across the valleys and hills. ‘Mary,’ I said, ‘don’t make a sound. Listen to that complete yearning in that voice.’
‘Ah, will you go away out of that,’ said Mary, ‘you’re too fond of music.’
‘Mary,’ I said, ‘nobody can be too fond of music. Music is nature and the one that is not fond of music is unlucky.’
‘Ah well,’ said Mary, ‘you’re too fond of music.’
As we got closer to the camp we could see it was a woman called Mary Calley. She was singing a lullaby to her baby. As the notes went low in her voice, the bees kept the drones and beat going with their humming and an odd blue-tit or wren filled in the background with their chirping and whistling. God Almighty, it was something to hear. It was nature and real unspoiled and clear.
The song Mary Calley was singing was called ‘A Mother’s Lament’:
A mother cried while tears were falling,
Rolling down like a lonely stream.
Although she cried while the tears were falling,
There she wandered day by day.
There she worried, growing fonder,
Of the child that made her joy.
But till the next she will stay
Till she finds her angel boy.
The legend behind the song concerns a mother that lost her little child and, as the legend goes, the bad fairies took her little child away and they put an old bewitched and bewildered half-human child in the cradle and took her lovely babe away. The mother waited at the side of the stream for months and months to see would the bad lureacones bring her child back to her. She died
broken-hearted when she saw her child floating down the stream. The baby was dead.
That year I got a stroke. I lost the power of my legs and I had no power whatsoever in my back. The doctors said I was spending too much time in the water. The reflections of the sun and water were affecting me and he said I would never walk again. For two years I was a cripple. I could not even stand up and I was fed up with everybody.
We were at Derry. We camped at the old racecourse. We met a lot of other Travellers there. There was not much for me to do, as this was the time I was crippled. I felt very sorry for myself. I could not go to fish or play or sing. I was crippled and to make it worse I got a sunstroke. The only life I had in my body was my hands, neck and head, the rest, except my tongue and brain, was paralysed.
Spring was now a good size. He would come over and lie down beside me and lick my face. No one could come near me because Spring was willing to suffer his death over me. I got a rabbit skin one day and I shook it.
Spring took it out of my hands with his mouth and tore it to pieces.
Another day a policeman came to the camp. I was on my own, the rest of the children were sorting scrap and rags up the lane. Spring started to growl when he saw the policeman.
‘How long have you been here?’ said the policeman.
‘We came here yesterday, sir,’ I said.
‘Get up when you talk to me,’ said the policeman.
‘I can’t, sir,’ I said.
‘You cheeky little brat. Get up or I will kick you up.’
The policeman came towards me. Spring caught him and then he bit his leg. The policeman was screaming for mercy. The policeman got the kettle bar in his hand to hit Spring with it, but three or four lurchers came from the other caravans. I shouted at the policeman to drop the bar. He did drop it and the dogs came over to me when I called them in Shelta.
‘I am going to get these dogs shot,’ said the policeman.
‘It’s your own fault,’ I said. ‘The dogs was only protecting me. You came here to bully people. But you
got the worst of it yourself. Wait till my Daddy comes back and he will give you a worse beating.’
The policeman walked away with his clothes in rags and no seat in his pants, saying; ‘I will have them mongrels shot.’
I shouted after him, ‘You will have to shoot me first.’
The policeman never came back.
One day a very nice farmer was herding cattle up the camp and one of the cows came over to smell me as I was lying down in the grass. Spring made a spring for the cow’s nose and he swung out of it. When the farmer saw what Spring done naturally he was angry. But when he saw that Spring was only protecting me from the cow’s walking on top of me, he patted Spring on the head and said, ‘Good boy, that’s a good boy.’ Spring was glad that the farmer showed admiration for him and he licked the farmer’s hand. And soon as he done that he came over and lay down beside me. Spring was the cutest, cunningest, loyalest dog that ever was pupped.
In the mornings Spring would come into the wagon and pull the blankets off me and lick my face. I am sure he
had some idea what was wrong with me in his own way. He definitely had pity for me. He knew and saw himself as my protector. I trained him to do all classes of tricks just by word of mouth.
For two years Spring was my playmate. He was my amusement with his tricks. He was my pal and my protector. He would sometimes go into the nearby fields and kill a rabbit or hare and bring it back in his mouth and drop it beside me. Then he would look at me and lick my face as if to say, ‘This is for you.’
No matter what I told Spring to do he would do it straight away. When I would be eating my food I could leave the plate under Spring’s nose and he would not touch one bit of it. But if another dog came over to the plate, Spring would warn him with a growl. If he did not take the warning, he would feel the sharp teeth of Spring.
Spring had a kind of reform code to the other animals and they obeyed him. After all Spring was a travelling dog, born in the snow an orphan, and he classed our family as his family. There never will be another dog like Spring.
One day a priest came down the road.
‘Hello, my child,’ cried the priest.
‘Not too bad, Father,’ says I.
My Mammy asked the priest to bless and consecrate the new wagon my Daddy was after building.
‘I will to be sure,’ said the priest. ‘Have you any Holy Water?’ said the priest.
‘No, Father,’ said my Mammy. ‘I forgot getting it at Mass last Sunday.’
‘Well have you got a cup of any class of water?’
‘No, Father. The children did not go for the water yet.’
The priest took a cup out of the dish. ‘Here, son, go down to that river and get me a cup full of water.’
I took the cup from the priest. ‘Father,’ I said, ‘I can’t walk.’
‘Get up you lazy little boy and run down to that river when I tell you.’
‘Father,’ I said, ‘I am a cripple. I can’t even stand up. I wish to God I could run down to the river for you.’
The tears fell down the priest’s face. ‘I am sorry, my child.’
Then one of the other children took the cup from him and got the water. The priest then asked my Mammy for salt and my Mammy gave the priest the salt. He took a stole out of his pocket, kissed the cross on it and he prayed over the water and the salt; now and again he would put a pinch of salt into the water. He then blessed me
and the wagon. He told me to keep the water and I would get stronger.
That night I wanted to go to the toilet. I crept out of bed and I fell over the wagon. I tried to catch the shafts so as I could get up again into the wagon. The shafts fell down on top of me and I caught hold of the shafts so as I could drag myself back into the wagon.
Somehow I managed better than any other time and I was glad when I got back into the bed. I fell asleep, smiling. ‘Thank God,’ I said. ‘Thank God.’
About three weeks after I could sit up and in a few days from that I was standing up. Then my Mammy brought me to a doctor in Dublin. He took the fluid from my knees and he told me to do as much exercises as possible. But he could not guarantee my walking again. He was also wrong. For exercises I tried dancing, and in two months’ time I was, and still am, a very good dancer. And I have won prizes for dancing.
I was walking again, thank God. I have never been sick since and I hope to God I won’t. I have never seen the priest since or before. I hope he is in good health wherever he is.
After I got the power of my limbs back, Spring was as glad as I was because there was more exercise for both of us. Wherever Spring was I was. When I would go to church, Spring would come to await at the door of the chapel for me till Mass was over. If I went to the pictures, Spring was with me.
One day a shepherd was driving sheep and the man was in a bad way because his dog was not with him and the sheep was running all over the place.
I offered the man help with the sheep and I said to Spring, ‘Caush comra.’ In no time Spring had the sheep rounded up.
‘That’s a very good dog you have,’ said the man.
‘Yes, sir,’ I said. ‘He is the best dog in the world.’
‘Would you sell him?’ said the shepherd.
Spring growled at him as much as to say, ‘I will do you a turn, but you won’t buy me.’
‘He knew what I said,’ said the man.
‘Oh yes, sir,’ I said. ‘He knows every word, don’t you, Spring?’ And Spring barked.
Every day I went out hawking with my Daddy, selling tinware and collecting rags and scrap, swapping ponies and donkeys, etc.
And I was a very happy young boy again. In the night-times I would go to sing old ballads and folk-songs at public houses. And at a horse or cattle fair I would sing for money in the hotels and public houses and I would come home to the camp with my pockets full of money.
I was always in my bare feet. And I still did not give up my fishing though. One Sunday I was coming back from Chualin, near Boyle, County Sligo, and I saw a river and I went into it. I caught a good few trout. Just as I was coming out of the river, an English gentleman and lady pulled up their car beside me.
‘Good afternoon, sonny. Can you please tell me how I can get to Waterford?’ said the gentleman.
‘Oh yes, sir,’ I said. ‘I can. But you have a long road in front of you.’
‘How far is it, sonny?’
‘Oh, about a hundred and twenty miles from here,’ I said.
‘Good heavens, is it that far?’ said the gentleman.
‘Yes, sir,’ I said. ‘And I can’t make it any shorter for you.’
‘Indeed you can, sonny. Just tell me how I get there.’
‘First of all,’ I said, ‘you may turn your motor-car around.’
‘Good heavens, I have just come fifty miles along that road.’
‘Well,’ I said, ‘that’s not my fault.’
‘Of course not, sonny,’ said the gentleman.
‘Well,’ I said, ‘go back to Sligo. When you get into Sligo, follow the signpost that says Athlone. Then ask for Kilkerry and from Kilkerry to Waterford. Kilkerry is about fifteen miles from Waterford. As a matter of fact,’ I said, ‘County Kilkerry is bordering on Waterford.’
‘Can you please show me on the map the road to take, sonny?’
‘Oh, I am sorry, sir,’ I said, ‘I can’t read.’
‘Well, how do you know, sonny, where these places are if you can’t read?’
‘Oh,’ I said, ‘we are Travellers. And we have travelled all Ireland.’
‘Well, well, well,’ said the gentleman. ‘What have you got there?’
‘Oh, these are fish, sir, I caught in the river.’
‘What kind of fish are they?’ said the gentleman.
I looked at him very puzzled before I answered him. ‘Water fish they are, sir,’ I said, ‘and we call them trout.’
He started to laugh. ‘What do you do with them, sonny?’
‘Oh, we eat them when we cook them,’ I said.
He laughed again. ‘Will you sell me a few?’ said the gentleman.
‘Yes, sir,’ I said. ‘I will. How many do you want?’
‘The lot. I will buy the lot.’
‘How much will you give me for the lot?’ I said.
‘Well, let me see now. I would say there is ten pound of trout there,’ said the gentleman.
‘You’re wrong,’ I said. ‘There is about fifteen or sixteen pounds of trout there.’
‘How do you know, sonny?’
‘Well,’ I said, ‘I have caught fish since I was five years old.’
‘Well, sonny, if you say there is fifteen or sixteen pounds’ weight of fish there I won’t argue with you. I will give you two pounds for them.’
‘It’s a deal, sir,’ I said. ‘You can have them.’
He gave me the two single pound notes and he put the fish in the boot of the car. In the boot he had all classes of fishing tackle.
‘Well, I must say, sonny, I never did see a better fisherman. I watched you catch those fish. You are a proper artist at tickling fish. I also took the liberty of photographing you fishing.’
‘I knew, sir,’ I said, ‘there was something catchy about you.’
The lady got out of the car. She had a camera in her hand and she took several pictures of me with the gentleman. They gave me a box of candy and said, ‘Bye bye, sonny.’
‘God be with you,’ I said.
Travellers never say ‘Good-bye’. Good-bye is for ever. We always wish our company on parting a safe or holy wish like, ‘God be with you,’ or, ‘God send you good luck. God keep you safe.’
We are Travellers history that has never been challenged. English scholars could not make head or tail of Cant, or for that matter Irish scholars. So when they knew they were beaten because none would translate it for them, the English scholars put ‘Cant’ in their dictionaries as hypocritical talk, odd talk or peculiar talk.
The word for Cant in our language is Shelta. A Tinker was asked to translate Shelta to the tyrant
Cromwell. ‘I can’t,’ said the Tinker. And Cant it remained since, and Cromwell was none the wiser.
We are the mysterious people in the world: history knows nothing about us. When the first Gypsies came to Ireland from Egypt, they brought with them Egypt ways of life and living. The English dictionary does contain some of our stolen words like fetich which, in our language, means curse. Monya fetich means good charm, good luck. A wise man, we call him, connich fein. Intercourse is feick. Feek means take. What was beating good scholars at our language was the way Travellers pronounced the words. Then when they was asked to spell that word it was like asking a rock to talk. And the scholar had to abandon whatever he set out to do.
We were travelling the Counties Kerry, Cork, Clare and Galway, meeting other Travellers on our travels at fairs, and especially at Ballinasloe Fair. Hundreds of Travellers come to that fair, selling horses, donkeys, wagons, carts, swapping and dealing, telling fortunes, playing musical instruments. For a full week the fair would be on.
Spangel Hill Fair in County Clare is another very big fair, and then of course there is Puck Fair, County Kerry. In Puck Fair all the wagons are camped on the roadside. Hardly any of the Travellers go to bed during the fair. The Travellers have been attending these fairs for hundreds of years. And there are great legends about the fairs:
The hand that kills King Puck
Will wither like the dew.
The blade that cuts his whiskers
Will pierce your heart too.
The rope that hangs old Puck,
Will execute its maker ...
Old King Puck is a goat and he’d be crowned King Puck during the fair. It is also said that the single girl that goes to Puck Fair will leave it doubled.
In the night around the camp fires you would hear some of the best Irish traditional music that ever was played; reels, jigs, airs, marches, and old Irish waltzes - ‘The Galway Snare’, ‘Father Murphy’, ‘Sullivan John’, ‘The Jolly Tinker’, ‘The Catcher-man’, ‘Ellen Brown’, ‘Banclothy’, The Maid in the Garret’, ‘Seven Drunken Nights’, ‘Heather Ale’, ‘Flower of Sweet Strabone’, ‘Lalley Mountain’, ‘The Beggar Man’, ‘John Mitchell’, and
many more different names of songs: ‘The Maid of Mount Scisco’, ‘The Sligo Maid’, ‘The Maid behind the Bar’, ‘Rakish Paddy’, ‘Georgie Whites’, ‘The Washer Woman’, ‘Pigeon on the Gate’, ‘Down the Broom’, ‘Battering Ram’, ‘Sally Gardens’, ‘The Black Bird’, ‘The Cork Hornpipe’, ‘The Dawn of the Day’, ‘Wearing of the Green’, ‘Kelly from Killarney’, and many more.
We went towards Tyrone and then towards Antrim. What a grand county that is. Giant’s Causeway on the Bray of Hill sloping to the sea and glens and valleys, dells, lakes, and clear river. And our bright coloured wagons passing through the glens and the sun reflecting the blue, red and yellow colouring of the wagons and carts. Ponies, donkeys, mules, dogs and goats, the children sitting in the doors of the wagons and more of them running behind.
We camped at Ranulestown with other Travellers named Connors and Doran. That night most of the folk went to the local pub where they drink black, creamy pints of Guinness like fish. Guinness to a Traveller is a food, a strengthener, a tonic, a beverage and a health drink as well as a lively community drink. Sometimes we give it to the babies instead of milk.
No matter what way we mix it or take it, it still remains one of the greatest drinks that ever we have
drunk. It has reared many a child to be a man and secrets we like to keep, some of them anyway. It’s the secret, sacred drink the travelling people got from Arthur himself in 1758, the year before he made it.
The Guinness is the Travellers’ doctor in many different ways. Suppose I had the ‘flu, the only doctor I would see is a black bottle of Guinness and it would cure me using it my own way.
When the old people came back from the pub the dancing and singing started around the camp-fire. Songs, reels, jigs galore. What a great night that was. And I stole some of their bottles while they were dancing, and myself and a little girl went out in the field and we drank the porter. We got drunk, and we fell asleep. When I woke up my head was paining me. I had to shake the little girl, she was still drunk. And I was going to be blamed for making myself and the little girl drunk. She was about my age, nine and a half years old. I went to the wagons, everyone was in bed. So I went to the press and I got three or four blankets and I brought them into the field and I spread them over the little girl and myself and then slept in the field till morning because I was afraid to leave the little girl by herself. I thought maybe Willy-the-Wist or Jack-the-Lantern or some wicked spirit might harm the little girl and I would get the blame.
The next morning a lot of the older people in the camp woke myself and the little girl. I had to tell what happened and my father was very angry with me over my stealing his Guinness.
That same morning the police came and told us that we would have to move. So after our breakfast we shifted and we came on to Newry where the Irish patriot John Mitchell met his down-fall. There is a great song about him, and the name of the song is ‘John Mitchell’:
I am a true born Irishman,
John Mitchell is my name,
To free my own great country
From Dungiven town I came.
I struggled hard both night and day
To free my native land
And yet I was transported
All to Van Diemen’s land.
When I first received my sentence
My loving wife came up to me
And unto me did say,
‘Oh John my love cheer up your heart
And daunted do not be,
It is better to die for old Ireland’s rights
Than to live in slavery.’
When I first received my sentence
On inland Ireland’s ground
Thousands of my countrymen
Was standing all around.
My liberty was offered me
If I would forsake their cause,
But I would rather die ten thousand deaths
Than forsake my Irish boys.
Fare you well my wife and children,
In heaven I will wait for you.
Goodbye all true born Irishmen
And my old country too.
There is one request I will ask from you,
That’s when I’m dead or gone,
Remember poor John Mitchell, boys,
That wore a convict’s chain ...
Ah, many’s a folk club or public house or camp-fire I sung that song at. We did not stay long in Newry and a few days later my Daddy said he was going up the country that morning.
We were leaving the rest of the Travellers. Nearly all the people in the camp was crying. They were very sorry and lonesome to see us go. ‘Well lads,’ said my Daddy, ‘God Almighty be with yous, and send yous all the height of good luck.’
So the lash of the whip fell on the mare that was under the shafts of the wagon and the mare put her chest to the collar and away she pulled with the wagon behind her. We were still waving to the rest of the Travellers as we turned the bend of the road.
Another time, I was about nine years old at the time, we were camped near Antrim town, and a travelling woman said to the farmer that was going into his field, ‘A good morning, boss.’
‘The devil a good morning it is when you are camped here,’ said the farmer.
‘Don’t bite me, like a good man, sure I only said good morning to you,’ said the woman.
‘Well I don’t want to see your horses in my field,’ said the farmer, ‘you’re nothing but trouble, I don’t want you around here.’
‘God save us, sir, you are a bad man,’ replied the woman.
The farmer was going to hit the woman. ‘Get away, God’s curse to you, you should be ashamed of yourself,’ said the woman.
The farmer simmered down and he got ashamed of himself.
‘I am sorry, missus, I did not mean any harm.’
He opened the gate of his field and into the field he went driving his tractor. As he was going through a gap in the hedge, a stick or a bit of bush caught in his coat; he fell off the tractor, and the back wheel of the tractor went over his leg.
No getting away from it, the Travellers did often put their horses into a farmer’s field at night and many’s a Traveller was murdered by the farmer over it. Well, after all, you can’t see a horse go hungry. Travellers are very fond and good to animals. Travellers do not think any harm out of putting their animals into private land; they say that grass was there before there ever was a
farmer. God did not put the grass there for any one man. And grass will be growing over us all some day.
We were never allowed to camp for long in the one place. The travelling children did not have much chance to go to school. I can still picture the big old fat guard on an upstairs model bike, like a fat tomcat on a pair of scissors. Before he could get down off his bike, he would be out of breath.
‘Well, I am afraid you will have to move, the neighbours are sending in complaints.’ It would not be the neighbours who were sending in complaints, it was himself. He would use discriminating words against us to the neighbours. After all, there was then no crime in the country parts of Ireland and the law must see that he do his job, or not he would get twice as fat, and he would not be able to get up on the bike, never mind to get down off it.
Fairly speaking, the police were not too bad in Ireland against the Travellers, but believe me, there were some self-made bastards among the guarda. I never will forget a sergeant in Milford, County Donegal; I was just nine years old and I was coming back from hand-fishing. I had a hank of trouts and eels in my hands. I was after
tickling in the river; both of my hands were full of slippery trouts and eels.
As I was walking past a thatched cottage, a cat must have smelt the fish, and the cat came through the half-opened window. There was a big breeze out, and the cat must have hit the stick that was holding up the window. The window slammed down and it got broke.
I still carried on along the road, and an old man about seventy years old came out of the house; he blamed me for breaking his window.
‘I swear to God, I never broke or even went near the window.’
The old man said to me, ‘Is there anybody else with you?’
‘No,’ I said, ‘there’s not.’
‘Well, you broke my window,’ he said.
‘How could I break your window,’ I said, ‘and you looking out of it.’
The old man brought me into a shed, he beat me black and blue with a broom. He locked me up in the shed, and he went for the sergeant. About an hour later, himself and the sergeant came to the shed, unlocked the door, and told me to come out.
‘Well boy,’ said the sergeant, ‘who broke the window?’
‘I don’t know, sir,’ I said, ‘but it must have been the man himself, or the cat that knocked the piece of stick from the window.’
‘You broke the window, didn’t you?’
‘I did not, sir,’ I said.
The sergeant hit me a hard slap on the ear, I could hear bells ringing in my ears. ‘You did break the window, come on, you were passing and you threw a stick at the cat.’
‘I did not,’ I said.
The sergeant hit me five or six slaps on my head and face. The blood spouted out of my nose.
‘You did break that window, if you don’t say you broke that window I am going to beat you and beat you till me arms get tired,’ the sergeant said.
Just then my Daddy came down along the road. He saw my eyes swollen and the blood running down my face.
‘What happened to you, Johnny?’ my Daddy said. ‘Did you get knocked down by a motor, or what?’
‘No,’ I said, ‘the sergeant done it.’
My Daddy had a loaded butt whip in his hand.
‘Did you do that to my child sergeant?’ said my Daddy.
‘He would not tell me who broke the window, and I lost my temper,’ said the sergeant.
My Daddy turned around on one foot and he swung that whip, and it hit the sergeant along the side of the head. He hit the ground, the sergeant did. My Daddy unfurled the lash and he hit the old man a tip on the leg.
‘The cat broke the window, the cat broke the window,’ the old man said.
The sergeant got up from the ground, ‘I am going to arrest you for assaulting me,’ he said to my father.
‘Not till I beat the -- out of you,’ said my father. My father left down the whip on the ground. ‘Put your hands up to save yourself, you big stupid bastard,’ said my father.
My father and the sergeant got stuck into it. My Daddy won and myself and him walked away. There was never anything about it, and my Daddy was not arrested, but I was sore for a month after.
It is a very lonesome time when we leave other Travellers and then pull up that night on the side of a lonely by-road, with just our own family to talk to. We were travelling every day for over a week. Just pulling in for one night and then moving on the next morning till we got to Mullingar, County Westmeath.
There was a very bad RUC sergeant in that town one time. I think he was there during the rebellious times. He was a bastard of a pig dressed in uniform. My Daddy often told us about him. I believe he was the worst man that ever was born from a mother.
When Travellers would camp around Mullingar, this bulldog of a police sergeant would not let the Travellers stay and sometimes during the night himself and a lot of blackguards would go to a camp and pull the Travellers out of their beds and demolish their tents and destroy everything.
But he did it too often. John Donohue put a stop to his gallop.
The sergeant came to John Donohue’s camp, John was not there, but John’s wife and children were. The sergeant jumped on top of the tent and he broke the tent to the ground. When John came back the next morning, his wife was crying and his children were shivering with the cold. John lit the fire for the children and then he went into the town looking for the sergeant, ‘John Bull’s Under Snot Watchdog’ as he called him.
John met the sergeant in the main street. John had an ash plant in his hand and the sergeant had a revolver. John walked over to the sergeant.
‘Good morning, Mr Bulldog,’ said John to the sergeant, and before the sergeant had time to speak, John
hit him along the side of the head with the ash plant. The sergeant fell to the ground.
‘Get up,’ said John, ‘or I will kick you up.’
The sergeant went for his gun and as soon as he did, John hit it out of his hand with the ash plant. John kicked the sergeant up and down the town till the sergeant looked like a hug-a-day and John left the sergeant lying in the street.
There is a song about it:
Oh the public houses were not closed
Here and there my two eyes goes.
And I up and I struck the sergeant
Over the eyebrow at the bar.
I knocked him down you might be sure
I trampled upon him on the floor
And I kicked him into ribbons
Before I left Mullingar ...
That sergeant was like a saint ever after. He got his own medicine and he did not like its taste. He never troubled another Traveller.
During that time Travellers had a contract with a bottle, jar and glass firm, and we were collecting all classes of bottles and jars, thousands of gross each day we collected from farms, cottages, hotels, and dumps. But we were also collecting rags, scrap metal, feather beds and horse hair, and buying and selling donkeys, horses, and so on. In the winter months we pulled the sugar beet and made cans, buckets, pots, kettles, baths and basins, as well as mending them. And an odd fortune would be told as well. And we attended all the fairs and marts.
We left Mullingar and we came on to Athlone, the centre of Ireland. And we camped at the Radio Eireann Broadcasting Station. It’s a little country woody road leading off the main road. There we met the McDonaghs (Wexford Connors), Delaneys and Walls and we were all very glad to be camping with company again.
We left Athlone along with a lot of fish I caught that morning and we headed for Tuam, County Galway. There was about twenty families of Travellers with us at this time and we camped outside of Tuam near the old monument. There we met the Dohertys, Wards, Cashes and Sahoes. They were waiting around Tuam for the Ballinasloe Fair.
All that day and part of the night the travelling men were swapping and dealing their wagons or carts and ponies.
County Galway is a beautiful country and it’s a country that I could live long in and die happy, although we never travelled the County Galway much. Galway is the home of the great pipers and fiddlers and singers.
There is a song about Galway, and one evening I was coming back to the camp with a can of milk in my hand and I heard a young girl, about sixteen years of age, she was. She was singing to her little baby brother and when I heard her voice, a thrill of pleasantness crawled up my spine. The yawn of her voice had a culture of its own. The name of the song was ‘The Galway Shawl’:
It’s Aranmore in the County Galway
One fine summer’s morning in the month of May
I overspied a handsome colleen
She nearly stole my poor heart away.
She wore no paint nor she wore no powder
Nor costly diamonds she wore none at all.
But she wore a bonnet with a red rose on it,
And around her shoulders she wore a Galway shawl.
We kept a’talking to ourselves, were walking,
Till her father’s cottage it came to view,
Will you come in till you see my father,
He will play for you, The Old Foggy Dew ...
At this stage a lot of noisy children came running down the road and my enjoyment was spoiled and I walked over to the girl and I said, ‘Miss, that was the grandest bit of a song I ever heard.’
‘Ah will you go away out of that, I am hoarse as an old cuckoo.’
‘No, miss,’ I said, ‘you have a voice as sweet as wild bee’s honey.’
She laughed and she put her little baby brother in the tent to go asleep and I could see there was a smile of contentment on the sleeping baby’s face as she lay him down on the patchwork quilt in the tent.
‘You’re a nice little boy,’ she said. ‘What’s your name?’
‘Oh, my name is Johnny Connors,’ I said. ‘What’s your name?’
‘My name is Mary Sahoe,’ she said.
This girl was a pure picture with long curly golden yellow hair. I thought to myself if I was her age I would be more bolder and I would ask her for a date. But that was out of the question. I was only ten years old at the time and I had to abandon my ideas. It was a kind of compulsory matter, I suppose. Anyway, one can’t put an old head onto young shoulders. But at the time I wished
it was possible, that was one time I would have loved to be older, at least for a day or so anyway.
‘Well, miss,’ I said, ‘I must get back with the milk. God be with you.’
‘You too,’ she said, and I walked on down the road to our wagons.
My Mammy was a sort angry with me over me delaying so long with the milk.
‘What in God’s name kept you, Johnny, with the milk?’ said my Mammy.
‘Oh,’ I said, ‘I was listening to that grand girl down there in the tents, she was singing a fine song and I had to wait to listen to her.’
‘Why don’t you tell a lie sometime,’ my Mammy said, ‘you always have an excuse.’
‘No,’ I said, ‘it’s true. I was listening to the grand fine girl, singing a grand song.’
And my Mammy laughed at me. ‘Johnny, son, you never tell a lie. Never mind what I said to you. Here’s your supper.’
Spring was after finding himself a few bitches, and one of the bitches had a whole litter off Spring. For Spring, he was lying down in under the wagon, a proud father of his pups. He looked at me in a very happy mood
as much as to say he was a good-looking dog and the bitches got attracted to him. I looked at him and he wagged his tail.
‘Mammy,’ I said, ‘that Spring is a stupid fool of a dog.’
‘Why?’ said my Mammy.
‘Well,’ I said, ‘he got married too young and he’s never going to feed all them pups.’
My Mammy roared with laughter.
A few days after Ballinasloe Fair, we travelled on to Rosscommon and from that to Ballina, County Mayo. At the fair of Ballina we met a lot of my Daddy’s people and that was the only time in my life that I ever saw eight hundred donkeys together in the one bunch. Johnny Connors (RIP) had nearly three hundred donkeys including some ponies. Jerry Connors had about a hundred donkeys. John Boy Connors had a similar number of donkeys and we had about sixty donkeys. Donkeys was a very big trade. Most of them were shipped to Britain as pets. But a lot went to the Continent. In fact some of the donkeys went to all parts, even to the United States and Russia. People say that it was cheaper to have a live ornament in their garden than to have a big stupid stone. And big ranchers always count it lucky to have a donkey running
with their cattle. If a cow or a horse fall in a bog or swamp, the donkey will roar for help and he will continue to do so till the animal is brought to safety. Also when a cow has calved or a mare had foaled, a donkey will protect the calf or foal from dogs and other animals.
People use the words, as stupid as an ass. A donkey is an ass, but he is not stupid. He is a great, cunning pretender. If a donkey don’t want you on his back, he will buck and jump and leap to get you off his back, and if that fails, he will give in or submit for the time being, till he comes to a ditch or a trench. And when you think you have him broken and he thinks that you think you have mastered him, he will stop in his tracks very suddenly and you will be dumped into the hedge or trench. He will stand there looking at you trying to get out of the trench or hedge. The donkey will always make a fool out of a human in his own space of time.
We travelled to all the fairs in Mayo and all the towns, Foxford, Westport, Ballyhaunis, Claremorris, Goodcady, Castlebar, Manerhamilton, Culshamock, Achill Island and The Sound.
County Mayo is the nearest thing to heaven. I never saw heaven, but I would swear if our Lord and His angels and His saints was ever changing their address they would
stay in Achill, County Mayo, for evermore. The only thing they would have to do is put a pair of golden gates on the approach to the island and they could call it the New Irish Heaven on Earth. And what a grand place it would be. The birds whistling and singing and the salmon and trout showing off jumping in the river. Along the side of the roads, a good tinsmith hammering out a grand lively beat on his iron stake or anvil and a good musician playing an Irish lament. That’s what I would call heaven on earth:
Boys get together
In all kinds of weather,
Never show the white feather
Wherever you roam.
Be like a brother
And help one another
Like the true hearted men
From the County Mayo.
Yes, Mayo is heaven’s pastures on Ireland’s ground.
My Daddy made two wagons, one for Jim Delaney and the other for Johnny Connors, and two good barrel-top wagons
they were. When he had finished he left Mayo and on to the County Cavan he went.
Times was very good. My Daddy was dealing in everything and anything, and he made a lot of three-legged tables, and he sold them like hot cakes. At this time we were buying all kinds of poultry, and at times we had as much as three thousand birds. Ducks, turkeys, hens, guinea hens, and bantams and chickens. We had a contract for them with a poultry and feather farm in Dublin. Anything a farmer wanted or any job he wanted mended, we would mend it, such as mowing machines, ploughs, hay-rakes and all farm implements.
My Daddy is also a great vet, and he could attend to any animal. So we were the jack-of-all-trades. Any kind of a job in the country we could do. We were builders, carpenters, dealers and iron workers, tinsmiths and horse dealers and breeders. We had the gift of the gum sha lack unick. Gum sha lack unick is an etc. etc. etc. Cross between a genius thing and a miracle. There is a song about the gum sha lack that I have written:
GUM SHA LACK
We are the travelling people like the Picts or beaker folk.
The bureaucrats thinks we are parasites, but Tinker is the word,
With our Gum Sha Lack alayro,
Move us on you boyos.
All the jobs in the world we have done from making Pharaoh’s coffins,
To building Birmingham,
With our Gum Sha Lack alayro,
Wallop it out me heroes.
` We have mended pots and kettles and buckets for Lord Cornwall.
But before we could leave the house, me lads, we would mind the women and all,
With our Gum Sha Lack alayro.
Wallop it out me hero.
Well I have a little woman, a mother she is to be,
She gets her basket on her arm and mooches the hills for me,
With our Gum Sha Lack alayro.
Wallop it out me hero.
We have fought the Romans, the Spanish and the Danes,
We fought against the dirty Black and Tans and knocked Cromwell to his knees,
With our Gum Sha Lack alayro,
Wallop it out me heroes.
Well we are married this twenty years, nineteen children we have got,
One is hardly walking when there’s another one in the cot,
Over our Gum Sha Lack alayro,
Get out of that you boyos.
We have made cannon guns in Hungary, bronze cauldrons in the years BC,
We have fought and died for Ireland to make sure she was free,
With our Gum Sha Lack alayro,
Wallop it out me heroes.
We can sing a song or dance a reel, no matter where we roam,
We have learned the Roman Nero how to play the pipes way back in time of Rome,
With our Gum Sha Lack alayro,
Whack it if you can me boyos.
We left Cavan and we came on to my own home town, Dublin. Dublin the city of great fame. We camped at Dolkins Bran beside the canal, and there we met old McCann, Johnny Murphy, and the Camer Murphys. The Camer Murphys are my old Mammy’s people. We never call our grandmothers ‘grandmother’. We call them ‘old Mammy’ and our grandfathers ‘old Daddy’. The Murphys are great poets and ballad makers, and the McCanns are good music makers
and they were also great leather makers. They made boots, shoes, harness, and all classes of leather goods. And they were good in the boxing booths and rings. They were real professional boxers. They also made iron and tinware and collected metal and smelted the metal at the roadsides in makeshift furnaces.
The wobs and nese stach mon’ya feins would evict us night and day. We would be shirted night and day along the roads so we could not go to school. The travelling children in my country could not read or write.
A well-known man said to me one day, ‘John, son, if you ever had to go to school just for a few years, there would be no man to touch you, you are a genius of your people.’
‘Sir,’ I said, ‘if I had to go to school, I would like it very much, but if I did, I would not know my people.’
Well, my mother was expecting my sister Catherine at the time and the very day and hour my sister Catherine was born my little sister Barbara died, God rest her little soul. This was a terrible shock to us all. And I will never forget that time, it very nearly killed my Mammy. She cried for a whole week till there was not a tear left
in her body. Yes, my Mammy took it very bad. She was crying and she was really sad and lonely.
The tears were falling from her eyes. She called me, ‘Come here, Johnny, son.’
‘What do you want Mammy?’ I said.
‘Will you go down to the Convent, son, and ask the Nuns for a loan of a crucifix to put in the wagon. Because we are going to wake your little sister in the wagon.’
So I told my mother I would go to the Convent. My mother gave me two pennies for the bus fare.
At that time I was in my bare feet. I had a very big rip in the seat of my pants and the tail of my shirt was hanging and waggling from the hole in my pants. Like a tail it was. I was like a clown.
‘Galune,’ I said to myself, ‘I’ll be saulked.’ But somehow I was not arrested and I came to the door of the Convent.
I knocked on the door and I could hear footsteps coming towards the door. The door was opened by a little Nun. She was dressed in black robes with a white front on them. She had a beautiful and pitiful warm smile on her face.
‘God bless you, Sister,’ I said.
‘You too,’ said the little Nun.
‘My mother sent me down to ask you for a crucifix,’ says I. So I told the Nun the whole story of how my little sister had died with pneumonia. The little Nun said she was sorry to hear that. She was really sorry because I could see the pitiful expression on her face. Then the little Nun asked me to come in.
‘Thank you, Sister,’ I said.
As I walked down the big, long hallway the noise of my two bare feet was echoing all over the place. It was like the noise of a big heavy duck walking: clap, clap, clap, slap. Finally we came to a big room and the little Nun opened the two big swinging doors and straight in front of us in the room was a lot of Nuns sitting around a big Jacobite table. They all stared at me for a good while.
‘How the devil are you?’ says I.
They all blessed themselves. I knew I was after saying the wrong words, but there was nothing I could do about it. I tried to change the words to ‘God bless you, Sisters,’ but I was too embarrassed. I am sure you could boil a kettle on my face it was that red with shame.
‘It’s a grand morning,’ says I. In fact it was evening. I was all mixed up with shame.
The Reverend Mother got up from the table and she walked towards me. ‘What is your name?’ she said.
‘Oh, my name is John Connors,’ says I.
‘Where do you live?’ said the Reverend Mother.
‘I live in a caravan, Sister.’
‘What age are you, John?’
‘By Jaysus, to tell you the truth, Sister, I don’t know. I know one thing, Sister, I lost my teeth about eleven months ago.’
‘Can you read, John?’
‘No, Sister, I can’t.’
‘Do you know any letters, John?’
‘Do you know your prayers, John?’
‘What prayers do you know, John?’
‘I know about that many.’ I put up all my fingers.
‘So you know ten prayers, John.’
Then the other little Nun that opened the hall door for me came in and gave me a big mug of hot milk. The rest of the Nuns asked me questions. One Nun asked me, ‘How many horses have you got, John?’
‘We have a good few, Sister. We have the world of donkeys, and two caravans.’
Then another one of the Nuns asked me what I thought of Northern Ireland.
‘It’s a grand country, Sister,’ says I.
‘I am from Northern Ireland,’ said the Nun.
‘Yes, I know that, Sister. You are from Derry.’
The Nun was amazed. ‘How do you know that, John?’
‘Oh, I can tell by your accent,’ says I.
‘Where am I from, John?’
‘You are from County Cavan, Sister.’
The little Nun that opened the door for me was watching me the whole time, and she just asked me one question, ‘Have you ever been to school, John?’
‘No, Sister, I never went to school. But I would like to go to school only the police and corporation men won’t let us stay for long.’
‘Well, I will teach you, John. You come here next Monday at seven o’clock in the evening and I will see to it that you will know all your letters,’ said the little Nun.
‘Yes, Sister, I will come.’
It was time for me to go, and all the Nuns said good-bye to me.
‘Yous need not say good-bye to me. I will be back next Monday.’
As I walked to the door I looked back at the rest of the Nuns and I said, ‘Good luck to you all, Sisters.’
As I was going out the door I said, ‘Tell me, Sister, when will I know it’s seven o’clock? I can’t read or spell the time.’
‘Ask somebody the time and they will tell you,’ said the Nun.
I got on the bus and I went back with the crucifix. My mother was still crying when I arrived at the wagons. I handed the crucifix to my mother and she said, ‘God bless you, son.’
The next day my little sister Barbara was buried. Hundreds of Travellers were at the graveside, Johnny Clark and Izer Price, Willy Loveridge and some of the Grays were at the funeral, a lot of Irish Travellers. They had come to the funeral in lorries and motor vans, ponies and carts and so on. We were all very sad to see the little coffin going into the grave.
On the following Monday morning I awoke and I was in an awful hurry trying to get on my clothes. At this time I was well dressed. My shoes were polished and I put on my good pants and coat and shirt.
I rushed out of the wagon. There was an old conishfein passing. ‘What time is it, sir, please?’ said I.
‘It’s half past,’ said the old conishfein.
‘Half past what, sir?’
‘Half past eight,’ said the old conishfein.
‘When will it be full past, sir?’
The old conishfein looked at me. He got very upset and angry.
‘Listen, young man, what damn time do you want it to be?’
‘I would like it if it was seven o’clock,’ said I.
‘Well, do you want it to be seven o’clock in the morning or seven o’clock in the evening?’
‘Dark time,’ said I.
The old conishfein started to laugh. ‘You are a comical little boy,’ said he. ‘You have ten-and-a-half hours to wait for seven dark time, as you call it.’
‘Thank you, sir, and good luck to you,’ said I.
‘Dark time indeed. Ho, ho,’ said the old conishfein.
As I walked away I looked back at him and I said to myself, a ruileahfein.
All day I was asking the time. I did not want to be late for school at the Convent. Then I got my other sister, Maggie, to ask the time. A woman was passing and Maggie asked the old ladog, ‘What time is it, Mrs, please?’
The old ladog said it was twenty to six.
‘What time did the woman say it was, Maggie?’ said I.
Maggie replied, ‘a whole load of minutes and a six.’
My Daddy told me it was half past six. So I washed myself and I got on the bus.
The conductor said, ‘Fares please.’
I gave him my penny. ‘What time is it, conductor, please?’
‘Twenty to seven,’ said the conductor.
‘When will it be seven o’clock?’ said I.
Just then a gentleman got on the bus.
‘What time is it, sir?’
‘Wait a minute, sonny, and I will tell you.’
The gentleman took out a gold pocket-watch. ‘It’s ten minutes to seven o’clock,’ said the gentleman.
‘It is not,’ said the conductor, ‘it’s just turned twenty to seven.’
‘How dare you make so little of my watch,’ said the gentleman to the conductor.
The two of them were still arguing when I got off the bus. I knocked at the door of the Convent and the little Nun opened the door.
‘Come in, John.’
And that was the first time I ever was at school. One thing is sure, that one can teach oneself how to read but one cannot teach oneself how to write properly. I
have never been to school since. But I can claim to be an overgraduate from Oxford, because I went to night-school at Oxford for eight hours. So, to be precise, I had seven weeks, eight hours at schooling in my whole lifetime.
About four weeks passed and I could write my name JOHN.
And nearly every minute during the day I would be saying, ‘ZABQAZXOUWZ. ACB792Y14MN2Q,’ and so on.
I would sing it all day, ‘ABCDEFG HIJKLMNO PQRST UVWXYZ.’
Six weeks had passed and I could tell the time of the clock myself.
That was six weeks at night-school. Then the Nun asked me, would I like to go to a real classroom with little girls, because it was a girls’ school. I said I would, so the next day for the first time in my life I was in a classroom. When the girls of the class saw me I could hear them whispering to one another, ‘He is a Gyppo.’
I was nearly mad. I shouted, ‘Ah, shut up your big mouths.’ I know it was wrong of me to treat young ladies that way, but they had started it.
After a while that day I got settled down to the class. And then I asked the teacher, ‘Could I go to the toilet?’
‘Yes, John, go right ahead out to the yard.’
I went into the toilet and I bolted one of the doors, and two girls came in.
It was a girls’ toilet I was in.
‘Hurry on, Mary, and pull your bloomers up when you leave.’
I made a burst for the door and my trousers tripped me up. I ran out the gate of the school. As I was going out I met the Reverend Mother.
‘What’s wrong, John?’ said the Reverend Mother.
‘Those girls followed me into the toilet, the dirty things. They should be ashamed of themselves.’
I could see a smile on the Reverend Mother’s face.
‘You go back to your class, John, and I will sort it all out.’
I was ashamed of my life. Then it was playtime and the girls became to like me. I would skip with them, play ball with them. They became great pals of mine. The big bully girls were afraid of me, because when the big bully girls would bully the little girls I would stop them.
There was one big girl: I christened her ‘Young Elephant’. She was a very fat girl and she would bump into the little girls and the little girls would fall flat
on their faces. So one day she was bullying all the other little girls.
‘Hold on there, you overgrown young elephant, don’t be pushing any of the little girls.’
So from that day onwards she never pushed any of the little girls, and if she tried to the little girls would say, ‘I will get John to call you more names.’
After six weeks at school in the Convent, the little Nun said to me, ‘John, I want you to be here at the Convent tomorrow morning at ten o’clock. You will be making your first Holy Communion in a couple of days. And I will have a surprise for you tomorrow morning.’
So that evening I was ready at last. Nearly six weeks of hard work had made me a scholar, and this meant a lot to me, and it also made a queen of the little Nun. She had mastered a completely illiterate boy within six weeks, and it made a man out of me.
Before I left the Convent that night all the Nuns gave me money and sweets. The money amounted to five shillings and most of it was in pennies, halfpennies and threepenny bits.
I went to a shop in Francis Street and there were a lot of one-arm bandits and slot machines in the shop. I put a penny in one of the slots and I won fourpence. I
put another penny in the slot and I won the jackpot. I thought I was a millionaire. I had won eight shillings and fourpence.
I changed the pennies with the woman behind the counter and she gave me silver money for the pennies. I then went across the road to the Tivoli Picture House. I paid the man at the door fourpence and I gave a penny for a big ice-cream. I saw a great funny picture of Bud Abbot and Lou Costello.
I went on to a little shop. I bought two dozen of little holy pictures at one shilling and sixpence a dozen.
‘How much do I owe you, Ma’am?’
‘Three shillings, son,’ said the old woman.
I gave her a half-crown and a sixpenny bit.
‘Thank you, Ma’am.’
‘Ah, you’re all right, son. Watch yourself of the motor-cars!’
‘I will, Ma’am.’
And off I went down along Merchant Quays in all the public houses, and I sold my little holy pictures at fourpence a piece.
I had about four little pictures left when I came to O’Connell’s Bridge, and I went into a big hotel. I think it was the Gresham Hotel. I was only in there for a few minutes when a big gentleman called me over to his table.
He was an American and his name was Roy Rogers, the film star.
‘What are you selling, sonny?’
‘I am selling holy pictures, sir.’
‘How much do you sell them for?’
‘Well, now, I must buy one of those.’
I could see the manager of the hotel was not very pleased with me. He had a dry laugh on his face and by his looks he would rather see me gone. I suppose I can’t blame him. But eventually he showed me to the door. He was very fair about it all and very polite.
When I got to the door, he said, ‘Please don’t come in again.’
‘I won’t, sir, and thank you very much.’
As I was walking away the manager called me back.
‘Here, come here. I might as well buy one of your little holy pictures.’
He put his hand in his pocket and gave me a two shilling piece. ‘And keep the change,’ he said.
That was seven shillings I got, and so I walked away from the hotel. The second time the manager smiled at me and winked his eyes.
I had two holy pictures left and I had a lucky night. I had about thirty shillings altogether in my pocket. It was 9.45 on the Lucky Coady clock facing the Bank of
Ireland. I said to myself, ‘I will sell these two pictures I have left.’
So round the corner in a pub, I asked a man would he buy a holy picture.
‘How much are they?’ said the man.
‘Only fourpence, sir,’ said I.
‘Bedad, you are charging enough for them,’ said the man.
‘Oh, you bought a picture off me the other night, sir. And you were very drunk.’
‘I suppose so, son,’ said the man.
He bought the little picture. That man was the late Brendan Behan, one of Ireland’s greatest writers and play-writers, God rest his soul, Amen.
So I put the last picture in my pocket and I walked up to Christ Church, and at the corner of the Coombe and Patrick Street I got the last bus home. When I got to the wagon my Mammy said, ‘Where were you, Johnny?’
I told her about the night I had and I gave her the money I had collected. She gave me my supper.
‘Johnny, it would not surprise me if you will be a president when you grow up.’
I went to bed after my supper, and the next morning, about six o’clock, Spring came up in the wagon and he pulled the bedclothes off me, and he barked into my ears.
After my breakfast I harnessed the pony and yoked her under the first cart and I went out hawking, buying and collecting scrap metal. I bought a fair bit of scrap and rags and so on.
One gentleman said to me, ‘What kind of scrap are you collecting?’
‘All classes of scrap, sir. Such as old brass, copper, lead, batteries, machines and any class of scrap metal, or old, wet, dirty, dry or clean old rags. I would give you a good price for them.’
‘If you say that again,’ said the man, ‘I will look about the place and any scrap that’s here I will give to you.’
I did repeat the collecting words and the gentleman gave me a good pile of scrap and rags.
That evening I came back to camp and I sorted out the scrap and the rags and packed them, and I then went to the Convent.
On the way I thought to myself I should have been at the Convent that morning. I forgot blank about it. I said to myself, ‘What am I going to tell the Nun?’ I was
going to make up an excuse, and then I thought it would not be lucky to tell the Nun a lie.
I knocked at the door of the Convent. The Nun came to the door. When she saw me she was not too pleased.
‘John, you know you should have been here this morning.’
‘Sister, I am very sorry, I forgot all about it till a few minutes ago. I am very sorry, Sister, and please forgive me. I know, Sister, what a disappointment it must have been for you. But honestly, Sister, I did forget.’
She smiled and said, ‘Well, I will forgive you for this time. But make sure you are here tomorrow morning.’
‘Yes, Sister, I will.’
The next morning I did go to the Convent, and I got my breakfast from the Nun. After my breakfast, myself and the little Nun went down the city to a big shop that sold all classes of clothes and she bought me a suit and a full rig-out of clothes. From there we went to Domicans of the Quays and the Nun bought me a Saint John Basco relic and a silver medallion. Myself and the Nun came back to the Convent and she told me to put the new clothes on to see how they fitted me. While I was fitting the clothes on me, the Nun went to the kitchen to make the tea. I was
dressed when she saw me, she hardly could speak. She did not cry from her eyes, but in her heart she cried.
‘John, John, you look marvellous.’
‘Sister, if it was not for you I would not look marvellous.’
She pulled a hanky from the sleeve of her robe and she hurried out of the room.
The next morning I made my first Communion and, after, I received the sacrament. Myself and the Nuns left the chapel in Meath Street and we came back to the Convent.
My breakfast was laid out on the Jacobite table and myself and all the Nuns sat around it. There was all kinds of cakes and fruit and other different kinds of food on the table. It was a high-class reception I received. After myself and the Nuns got our breakfast the Reverend Mother asked me to sing a song.
‘Of course I will, Sister,’ I said. And the song I sang was ‘The Green Shades of Yon’:
Come on me jolly young fellows
A warning take by me.
Don’t you ever fall in love
With any young girl you see.
For they will leave you broken-hearted
Around the green shades of Yon.
Tomorrow is the Fair day,
We will all go to town.
There will be five and twenty kisses
For my own darling John.
I will be content for ever
Round the green shades of Yon.
Oh me Mammy, she told me to get married in time,
Get some handsome young girl that will keep up
But I would rather have my own darling for her own
sport and play,
Nor all the gold and silver came by land or by sea.
It’s now that we are married
And settled down for life,
With our old tents and wagons
By the old roadside
And our children playing their games
Round the green shades of Yon.
They would rather have their own Daddy and Mammy for their old sport and play,
‘Nor all the gold and silver, comes between land or by sea.
‘That was a lovely song, John,’ all the Nuns said.
‘Well, Sister, I must say one thing. That I am very grateful to yous all for what yous have done for me.’
I really enjoyed being at school. But one night when I came back to the wagon, my Daddy said, ‘Johnny, tomorrow is your last day at school.’
‘What?’ I said, ‘I am not going to stop going to school.’
‘Well, if you don’t you will have to follow the wagons a very long road.’
‘Why?’ I said.
‘Because we are being shifted on Saturday.’
The police and corporation had given my Daddy three days’ notice and I had to leave school.
I could not sleep that night, I was fed up.
The next morning I went to school, and I told the teacher that this was my last day at school. She was very upset.
‘Why must you stop going to school, John?’ said the teacher.
‘Because we are getting shifted.’
‘Oh, I am sorry to hear that, John.’
At playtime all the girls gathered round me, ‘Please don’t leave, John.’ Some of them was crying.
That evening I was forced to say good luck to all.
I was a very happy little boy and I wanted to go to school and I would not be able to go to school. So I said to myself, ‘I will learn myself how to read proper.’ Every sweet-paper with writing on it I would collect them all day. Tea bags, sugar bags and butter wrappers. I would stay at shop windows reading everything that was in the windows.
When I would be sent to the shops on errands, I would be hours reading everything in the shop. My Mammy often told me to get Lyons’ tea. Instead I would get some other strange brand of tea so as I could read the strange words on the packet. Because I knew every word on the Lyons’ tea packet.
The same way when my Daddy would send me for cigarettes. He would say to me, ‘Make sure you get Woodbines,’ and I would say, ‘Maybe they have no Woodbines, what kind will I get if they have no Woodbines?’ My Daddy would say, ‘Get any kind.’ I would get the strangest packet of cigarettes the shop had in stock so as I could read the writing on the packet. And if I was beaten at a word, I would go back into the shop
and ask the person in the shop what the word meant. There were times people got angry with me over me asking so many questions. And they would simply say, ‘Buzz off, you are a nuisance.’
Sweets with strange wrappings was the sweets I liked very much, even if they were horrible sweets. I don’t think I ever enjoyed a sweet in them times, because I was not interested in the sweets, the wrapping was what I got more enjoyment out of. In other words, strange things were more helpful to me.
Also milestones, finger-posts, and most of all the rubbish-dumps were my teacher. When I would see a dump I would rather collect the old newspapers, comics and books out of the dump than go to the movies.
Big words like ‘Palmolive’, I would split them up, Pal-mo-live. And ‘Corporation’, Cor-por-ation. The only words that had me beat were medical words. ‘Physician’ was a killer. I did really lose my temper with that word PHYSICIAN. What really was making me angry was that words like PHYSICIAN, LAMB or KNIFE were silent letter words, and I would say to myself, the man that spelt KNIFE was a fool.
Furthermore, I have been locked up on many occasions by the police and convicted for taking old books and papers and educational articles of my own choosing from
dumps. So you could say I paid the hard way for the little bit of knowledge I have.
Since I have been with the Gypsy Council, I have dined, wined and danced with many Heads of State and I have met Government officials from the ordinary local council men to the men in Whitehall, International Gypsy Committees and European organisations and officials of the European Commission, the UNA, the Council of Europe and the National and International Councils for Civil Liberties, Conciliation Committees and the Race Relations Board, Lords and many statesmen.
I can thank only one person for that, and that person is the little Nun. She taught me how to defend the rights of the Travellers. Her work was not in vain. Strangely enough I never knew the little Nun’s name. But their work is in the name of humanity, peace and understanding. They are miracle workers for the human race, and God bless them.
It was coming into the spring of the year when we left County Dublin. That morning my Daddy said to me, ‘Johnny, son, will you yoke Queenie under the benog?’
‘I will, to be sure,’ said I.
So I got the harness and I yoked Queenie. It was a grand sunny morning as we got prepared, and the sun was dancing on the green and red paint on the cart. It was as
if the brasses on the harness was alive. The reflections of the highly polished brass would dance on the shamrocks by the road making them an emerald clear green, and at the same time the reflections from the harness would light up the copper and bronze and brass articles inside the wagon. It was really a grand sight to see the cherry blossoms on the wild cherry trees like healthy pink faces, the children blooming with nature, and the tom-tit and the blue-tit whistling to their heart’s content while the blackbird and the thrush showed off with their clear notes as they whistled in the blackthorn bush to find their partners. The wren (the little king of the birds) bobbed up and through the fir bushes as the smoke from our camp-fire threw a low cloud through the ferns. The small ponies, donkeys and foals, getting herded by my brother and the goats and their kids wandering all over the country road. My Mammy making a patchwork quilt and my Daddy singing ‘The Flowers of Sweet Strabane’ as my brother and sisters loaded the newly made tinware on to the carts.
Then my Daddy shouted, ‘Are yous ready to move lads?’
We all shouted, ‘Yes, Daddy.’
He blessed himself and my Mammy got a bottle of Lourdes Holy Water and she sprinkled it over the road that we were to take. My Daddy then let the lash of the whip fall gently on Tom’s back. ‘Away with you, Tom.’ And Tom
put his large chest to the collar and pulled our wagon on along the road. Tom was our Irish draft-horse. He would pull a house down he was that strong, but he was very gentle.
When the wagon was pulled out all the carts then followed and the lurcher dogs and terriers walking along under the wagons and carts.
As we crossed the bridge, my Daddy shouted at Tom, ‘Go on out of that will you, Tom.’
Tom went into a nice steady jog as he lifted his heavy legs spring-like as a ram into the air, the double beat of his hoofs hitting the road, one could jig a reel to the steady beat of Tom’s hoofs. Clip, clop, clip a clip, clop clip clop.
At Leixslip we camped that night, and my Daddy told me to get the cans and go to the nearby house for water. Away I went swinging the two cans as I ran to the little farmhouse. In the yard of the farm was the farmer.
‘Good evening, sir.’
He never answered me but he just stood there staring at me. I stared back at him, I could see he was not too pleased to see me.
‘Away, away to the devil with you,’ he said to me.
‘Sir, I would be thankful to you, sir, if you could give me two cans of water to boil for us to make our tea,’ said I.
‘The devil a water I have for the likes of you,’ said he.
‘Ah don’t be so hard as you are, sir. You will have luck if you give me a drop of water,’ said I.
‘The devil a drop will I give you,’ said he.
This man had a nose on his face and it was crossed between a two-year-old onion and the top of an olden-times blunderbuss gun. He had the biggest nose in the whole thirty-two counties of Ireland. I could not stop looking at his nose, it was unavoidable, it covered his whole face (God forgive the remark).
‘Well sir,’ said I, ‘you have the best nose in Ireland.’
‘The devil take you and my nose,’ said he.
‘Faith, you are wrong, sir,’ said I. ‘If the devil took me he would take me as I am, and I would be doing him a favour and furthermore my Daddy would not be too pleased with the devil. But if he took your nose he would be doing you a great favour,’ said I.
‘Bad cess to you and my nose and the devil. I will put this pitchfork through you if you don’t get to blazes out of here,’ said he.
‘Well,’ said I, ‘your nose is big, sir, sure as there’s a roof on that house of yours, and since you are a wicked bad cavil ill-inclined man, I hope that your nose will grow as big as the Wicklow Mountain, because before you die and when you die, the last thing you will ask for is a drink of water and even that - that - that,’ I stuttered, ‘large compulsory nose you have will not save you.’
As I walked away he called me back.
‘Hi, young fellah, come here, come here.’
At this time I was half afraid of the man with the overgrown nose.
‘No. No. You can keep your dirty water now. I would not count it lucky to take it from you because you have your heart stuck in it,’ said I.
‘Well, listen to me, young fellah, I have not my heart stuck in the water,’ said he.
‘Oh yes you have, Mr Nose, indeed you have. You looks on that water as if it was gold. You are what I call a water miser,’ said I.
‘Damn my poor misfortunate soul, you can have the whole wellful if you want it, young fellah,’ said he.
‘Thanks very much, sir,’ said I. ‘I will take two cansful for the time being.’
I filled the two cans out of the well.
‘Are you satisfied now?’ said the man with the nose.
‘Yes, sir, I am thankful to you, and I hope you will have good luck, sir,’ said I.
‘Listen to me a minute, young fellah. If you can give me a cure for my nose, I would be very grateful to you,’ said he.
‘Well sir,’ said I, ‘why would you want a cure for that nose of yours? It is God’s will that you have it and you should not fly in God’s face. And not only that, sir, but there is many’s a fine woman would be glad to marry that nose of yours,’ said I.
‘Well, well, well, be the holy man that’s the grandest few words I’ve ever heard said,’ said he.
‘Indeed if you were a kind of half sociable, sir,’ said I, ‘you and that nose would get on in this world.’
‘Ah well, from now on I will be a lot sociabler to people,’ said he.
‘Yes, sir, I think you are right, but that nose of yours is a bit uncommon and unusual,’ said I.
‘I suppose you are right, young fellah, but will you tell me one mortal thing and I will never forget you.’
‘What do you want to know, sir?’ said I.
‘I would like to know what uncommon means,’ said he.
In my own mind I said to myself, corbed if ever I was in a trap, I am trapped now, said I, in my own mind.
‘Well, sir, uncommon means something we don’t see every day. We will say for instance a film-star; we don’t meet film-stars every day,’ said I.
At this the man started stroking the nose with his hand. There was times I wanted to burst out laughing, but I was afraid.
‘Well, young fellah, you have made me grand and happy and I am grateful to you, God knows, I am grateful to you.’
He went into the house and he brought out a bucket full of eggs and about three pounds of home-churned butter and a large cake of home-made bread, and two big two-pound pots of home-made damson jam.
‘Here,’ said he, ‘that’s for your family.’ He even carried the food for me down to the camp. As the two of us walked down the lane he kept muttering to himself, ‘Uncommon, uncommon, be Jaysus, uncommon.’
It was a grey autumn evening, the sky with patches of fast-moving cloud as dark as a sloe, now and again the clouds would cover the moon and depriving us of the only natural bit of light in the sky, and when this would happen the blazing light from the camp-fire would blaze up our faces and woods and plantations all around us.
Travellers are famous for their stories. Among us Tom Murphy was sitting at the fire with his ould clay pipe in his mouth. I have been often told one of his stories since, but not the way that Tom told it to me. If I was to travel the world, I will never find a better story-teller than Tom Murphy.
The campfire was the setting for the story, a natural background, and the owls and woodcocks, ‘coo-coo’ they were saying as they sat in the thick growth.
Here is the story:
One time in Ireland there was this ould travelling man and the settled community couldn’t bear the sight of him camping around the area, and every time he was in the area he would bother the people in the houses for water, and to make it worse the poor ould fellow was deformed (God bless the mark). He had a hump on his back. Every time he would knock at a door, the people would say, ‘Get away, you dirty humpy Tinker.’ So that winter he was found dead in his tent.
And the local priest made a collection from the parishioners, but the collection only mounted to a few shillings. The people were glad to see the poor ould Traveller dead. A very bad made coffin they put the poor ould fellow in, and they had to pack the corpse down in
the old box-like coffin. They had an awful time with the hump, and the body was frozen stiff.
So they waked him in the chapel, and a very bad rainy night it was. The priest got into the pulpit to give a sermon about the poor ould fellow. ‘Well, my dear brethren, we are gathered here tonight to show our last respects to this poor misfortunate poor soul and, mind you, you were very bad to this poor man when he was alive. I know some people in this chapel right now that called him humpy Tinker, humpy so-and-so, and so on. Well, brethren, in the face of God this was a very un-Christian thing to do.’
Just then, lighning struck the chapel, and with the vibration the badly made coffin burst open, the corpse fell out and the priest ran for his life down along the aisle of the chapel, as he ran his cloak very near tripping him up.
As he was going out the door the strong wind closed the door on his cloak, and he screamed, ‘Let me go, you humpy Tinker, let me go! I never done nothing to you!’
Camp-fire stories like this often made me jump when I was a child. Now I will tell a true tale of my own. It speaks of justice towards the Travellers in Ireland:
Approximately in 1920, my grandfather, my wife’s two grandfathers, and their wives, were at a fair in Aucrim. Five small children came running into the fair crying, ‘Mammy, Daddy, Mammy, Daddy, the police is after burning the tents and the rest of the yolks.’
My grandmother, Mary Anne, was expecting my aunt Barbara at the time.
A sergeant came over to the women and he hit my grandmother a punch.
My grandmother was drinking a bottle of Guinness. As soon as the sergeant hit her, she hit him with the Guinness bottle. He fell to the ground and then he went for his gun.
The swiftness of the ashplant in my wife’s grandmother’s hand knocked him kicking. Five policemen came and they were hit to the ground like hailstones. A battalion of policemen came. By this time the travelling men had joined the women, the battle was started, and the travelling men charged the battalion of police.
There were fifteen Gypsy men and ten women against one hundred police. These fifteen travelling men had fought for Britain and some of them had been decorated for valour in the 1914-18 war by the King himself. Within thirty minutes, one hundred and six police were left out to dry in the streets of Aucrim.
Night rolled on and the Travellers had no place to sleep as everything was destroyed by the police. So what ran into the Travellers’ minds was that the police had destroyed their home, so they were going to destroy the police station. They went into the police station and they broke up all the furniture and they slept in the policemen’s beds and cooked and ate their food. One mistake the Travellers made and that was to take the Crown sign down, and they burned it.
The next morning, all the men went to the pub. Squads of police and Black and Tans moved into the town with full battledress that morning. The travelling men were stupid drunk at this time, but they fought with ashplants till my grandfather fell very seriously injured. Six of the men were arrested, they were tried the next morning. The judge dropped all the charges except one, and that was destroying the Crown of His Majesty. The judge sentenced them to from one month hard labour to three months hard labour.
And now I will tell another true story of injustice. No getting away from it, I have seen manys a travelling child the condition they would be in after leaving a police station. One thing I will never forget is the time outside Stockport, Cheshire.
All our people were arrested, I think it was ten men and two girls. This was over a piece of copper pipe about one foot long that one of the Travellers was using for an earth rod on a radio.
All the Travellers were lined up in court like cattle and the magistrate, the words came out of his mouth like bullets out of a machine-gun, ‘Six months.’ ‘Six months.’ ‘Six months.’ ‘Six months.’ ‘Six months.’ Six months,’ and Borstal training for the two young innocent girls, they did not steal anything.
I suppose that magistrate was so proud of himself that he must have pissed in his trousers. If I had been two years older, I would have been arrested and jailed the same as the rest.
Oh God, what the wives of them poor innocent men went through for four hard months, God only knows. Shifted night, noon, day and morning, sometimes without their breakfast, and those women had to provide for their children.
The poor women, some of them pregnant, had to yoke up the wagons in the spilling rain and snow and go out and collect the price of the children’s food, as well as being shifted.
The life a Traveller leads is an up and down life. There are sometimes some good jolly times with the police and Travellers. I remember one policeman near Bristol, he would come up to the fire and he would sing folk songs for us, and we would sing a few songs for him. He was a great man and he was very fond of me.
Myself and him, when he would be off duty, would go to a pub and drink like fish till closing time. Then sometimes I would go to his house and both himself and his wife would treat me like a gentleman and I must say his wife was a pure picture. She was a fine, good-looking woman, God bless her and save her.
One day, I think it was a Sunday, the policeman pulled up and asked me would I go over to his house with him, he said he had a surprise for me. I did, I went with him. As we pulled up at the house I could hear the banjos, guitars and fiddles playing ‘The Beggar Man’, and fair play they could play.
When we went into the house there was a small open-top oak barrel on the middle of the floor. The barrel was full to the neck with real good rough cider.
I know, before I left the party, most of the cider was inside me. There was a young girl there, she was a really good singer. She sang ‘The Rocks of Baun’, and fair play she sang it well.
Then I remember one time in Manchester, I was after drinking very heavily during the winter and I was nearly on the rocks, and my lorry was not taxed. I had about £4 in my pocket and I was hawking a range of houses for scrap. I was getting a good bit of scrap in the houses, when I looked and I saw a policeman at the lorry.
I don’t think he looked at the window-screen of the lorry, but I did not go back to the lorry, as I thought he was going to summons me for no road-fund licence. He walked away from the lorry and as soon as he did, I went back to the lorry and drove it on.
He followed me up streets and down streets in his car, so I pulled up.
‘Well,’ said he, getting out of his car, ‘I have been following you for over an hour.’
‘What for, sir?’ I said.
‘Well,’ said he, ‘my father has a lot of scrap and he wants to get rid of it; you can go to this address, tell him I sent you.’
I went to the address the policeman gave me and I got £22 worth of scrap from his father and a good dinner as well. I did not pay his father any money for the scrap, but I shifted the fill of the lorry of old bricks and rubble, in lieu of money, or as the Traveller says, for other services rendered ...
It would be good if all policemen could be decent like that one. Most of them are not. I recall now, one week in Walsall Town Hall, a meeting took place between the police chiefs and head councillors. The press was barred from this meeting, and so was myself because it was a secret meeting. I don’t know what was said against the Travellers in the meeting, but one thing I do know. There were many Travellers camped at that time in Walsall and the police and council members talked of a plot to get rid of the Travellers.
The police told the council to tow us from the council owned land, as they themselves could not tow us from the land. Once the caravans were on the road the police would summons us then would charge us with all kinds of offences. The police were giving false statements to the press to be used against us or to make the settled community turn against us.
The council did as the police told them and towed us onto the road. Once we were there, the police began to arrest the Travellers, charging them with being Gypsies camping on the highway, stealing, assault, breaking and entering, failing to give their names to the police, dropping litter, camping within a distance from a dwelling-house, spitting in the street, no lights,
obstruction, using indecent language, failing to show their driving documents.
Twenty-eight times that day I was made to produce my driving licence and insurance. The persecution went on and on, night, noon and day. The first day’s summonses totalled sixty-two and the full total was three hundred. Every two minutes of the day we were summonsed for an offence. The police thought we would move away from the Midlands, but what a terrible shock they got when we turned up at court.
A lot of the charges were dropped but the magistrates were throwing out the fish to get the salmon. We appealed to the Quarter Sessions, we won some of the cases, but the judge was more like Hitler than the magistrates. He proved that he was prejudiced. He said in his summing up, ‘I am going to drop the fine, but any Traveller that comes in front of me again, and any Traveller refusing to move their caravans, I will not be so lenient with them.’
I am sure if one of those so-called policemen or councillors, or the judge, was in a higher authority’s chair, they would have had us put into gas chambers, every single one of us.
The question was where could we move to? All camping sites were banked up with piles of earth, and trenches were dug across all open land to prevent us from camping on them.
The police were summoning the Travellers and trying to move their caravans off the magistrates’ car park.
This is the truth. There never was a policeman who can tell the truth.
Once, when I was tried, the judge said to me as he sentenced me, ‘Mr Connors, the police must be protected from men like you.’ This was the time when I had been protecting my wife and children from police officers who attacked us in the middle of the night. One of the policemen who attacked my family was on trial in the same court. I saw him in the police cells.
I have respect for policemen who respect their uniform, and I think everyone has. But I cannot respect a man that nearly kills my little son through prejudice and kicks my wife unconscious a few hours before her child is born, and breaks my caravan and beats me stupid.
As my father would say, the worst mistakes are made in bed; how right he is, but prejudice is not a mistake, it is an evil.
On 4 June 1969, I was escorted from Birmingham prison to London where I met Marc Sand, the Secretary of the Social Commission of the Council of Europe, and another member of the Social Commission, Mr Wiklund, a Swedish MP, and many others.
On 5 May 1969, I sent a forty-one page statement to the European Commission of Human Rights in Strasbourg and
on 16 May 1969 I received a reply from Strasbourg. They wanted details of all the cases of brutal treatment that the travelling people had suffered in Britain, as they wanted this information to use at the Oslo Conference in July.
My wife and children went to the House of Commons and parked their caravan at the steps. My wife was expecting her sixth child, she was also suffering ill-health, she had TB and thrombosis. She was fed up; I was in prison, and she was getting shifted every day by the police. Later my wife gave birth to our son, Grattan Joseph Patrick.
So, what must we suffer to prove we are human? What must we do to prove that authority is wrong? What must we suffer to prove we are not getting justice?
And what pain must our women suffer when we are not with them? Just because prejudice minded people are against us?
There is no fair play for a Traveller in a court of law. The police, when they harass Travellers, they are armed with a uniform. Some police and councillors are proper gentlemen and very good natured, but often we meet dirty blackguards, like the policeman who nearly killed me in a police cell. He met my curse a few days later - he was convicted of a charge of sexual assault on a young child.
‘The public must be protected,’ as a judge said to me when a policeman kicked my wife stupid three days before her baby was born. I hit the policeman because I would want to be even a mongrel dog and stand by to see two police kicking my wife, and I not protect her. The judge will meet his downfall yet. The wrath of the seven angry deaths will meet him sooner or later.
At one stage of a case in Walsall, I shouted that there was no justice in the court. That it was more like an auction room than a court of law. This was the time that a police witness said he saw a Gypsy’s lurcher dog taking bottles of milk from the doors.
A policeman said he saw a travelling woman throwing out tea-leaves from her caravan and he charged her with a litter offence. But, at that very same time, demolition workers were knocking down old buildings nearby, the dust and rubble was falling from the old buildings; a far greater mess than the tea-leaves.
Three little travelling children were burned to death during police harassment in Walsall, the police told newspapers that the mother and father had been in the pub. This was just propaganda. In fact, the parents were being questioned in Walsall police station when their children were burned to death.
Walsall councillors said, ‘Kick them out at all costs.’
A harmless young child blown to bits at the hands of the local authorities. Ann Hanrahan, two and a half years old, crushed to death during an eviction near Dudley, two miles from Walsall. My own little son very badly injured and my caravan smashed to pieces and I asked the police to give me time to take the child to hospital, and him bleeding in my arms and in agony with pain: ‘No,’ was the answer.
About nine miles from Walsall, twenty-eight Travellers arrested from their beds in the night, the charges being drunk and disorderly.
In Walsall, during an eviction, three little girls burned to death.
In Walsall, my wife kicked black and blue by the police in her own caravan three days before her baby was born.
In Walsall I was kicked unconscious.
In Walsall Hospital, a sister refused to treat us.
Walsall: that my heavy curse may fall on your jackboot mob and every magistrate in it, and that the suffering my people have suffered may fall back on the police and courts and councillors of Walsall.
A Traveller’s curse is fatal at times.
In Dublin, one morning, a certain travelling woman was after giving birth to a baby, and the mother of the baby has an abscess on each of her breasts. The mother could not feed her week-old baby from her breasts and the baby was crying for a drink.
Just then, a man came along the road with a ten-gallon churn can of milk on the front carrier of a carrier’s bike. The mother of the child asked the man to sell her a bottle or a cupful of milk as the baby was badly in need of a drink.
The man replied, ‘That is your problem, not mine.’
‘For God’s sake, sir,’ said the woman, ‘sell me a couple of spoonfuls of milk for the baby.’
‘Not for you, or any baby’s sake will I give you one drop of it,’ said the man.
The man got on his bike, the woman cursed him, he looked round and fell off his bike. He broke his two legs and his arms; all the milk was spilled out on to the road, except for the fill of the lid.
That man crawled back with the lid full of milk, handed it up to the woman, saying, ‘I am sorry, missus, God forgive me, here is the milk.’
On another occasion I saw a fine healthy policeman telling lies in a courthouse against a travelling woman.
At a split second’s notice, in a low voice, that woman said, ‘May he fall out of the witness box.’
Before she had the words out of her mouth, the policeman fell out the witness box like a parachutist out of a plane.
A very badly inclined magistrate that was prejudiced against Travellers fined a Traveller for camping and while he was summing up, he said to the Traveller, ‘We don’t want to see you around here any more.’
‘You won’t see me any more, sir,’ said the Traveller.
In fact, he did not see anyone, let alone a Traveller; the magistrate took a heart attack and died.
On another occasion in Birmingham, a very old travelling woman walked into a pub where I was.
‘Sorry, missus,’ said the bartender, ‘we don’t serve your people here.’
‘For God’s sake, son, sell me a half-glass of whisky, I am very cold and I am not too well.’
‘No,’ said the bartender, ‘I will sell you nothing and get out.’
‘Well,’ said the old travelling woman, ‘I am afraid again the day is over, you will have to go some place yourself.’
The old woman walked out of the door. It was snowing at the time. Just as she put her foot on the path, the pub went on fire.
She was watching.
She got her bottle of Guinness and her half-glass of whisky in another pub across the road.
Now I will tell of more of the customs of the Travelling people. What kind of dog do the Travellers have? Well, they breed their own breed of dog, and one breed is a lurcher. The lurcher is a very hardy and cunning dog. He is bred between a collie and a greyhound. The mother of the pup would be a greyhound, and the father would be a collie, and when the pup would be about six months old, they would be brought out in the land to chase a hare or a rabbit, then at about fourteen months, they would hit the daisies after a hare; it is not many hares that get away with their lives from any one of the lurchers.
Then the terrier that the Travellers use is bred between a Manchester terrier and a wire-haired fox terrier. This breed would follow a rabbit or a fox or badger no matter where them rabbits, foxes or badgers went, and there would always be a kill.
A Traveller’s dog will not let any man or dog from the houses come near the camp. Most of the Travellers’ dogs know Shelta or Gammon, and some Travellers call their dogs in Gammon, Romany and Shelta.
What work do Travellers do?
The first employment was from coffin-makers, before Christ, as well as metal running, from smiths in metal of all known kinds, tinsmiths, dealers, horse-dealers, farm-workers, scrap collecting, road making and property repairs.
More recently the Travllers are buying and selling antique furniture, and tarmacadaming private drives, demolishing and rebuilding. The scrap collecting is still going strong.
But all through the ages the Traveller has been, and still is, and always will be, entertainer in traditional Celtic folk song and music.
What kind of drink do the Travellers drink?
Well, for the last two hundred years or more they have been drinking Guinness mostly; poteen and whisky are their next favourites.
Guinness has often reared a child. If the child started crying in the night, and there was no milk handy, a travelling woman often opened a bottle of Guinness, put a teat on it and gave it to the child to drink. It’s a matter of fact, I have often done the same to my own children and every day I still buy a couple of bottles of Guinness for my children to drink
What kind of transport did the Travellers have through the ages?
Well, the earliest form was walking with the knapsack on the shoulder or the bag on the back, then they would cut a branch from a big bush or tree and they would put all their belongings and small children on it and drag it manly across valleys and dells.
Then the common cart, and from the common cart to the barrel cart and round-back, or back to back trap cart. From the trap cart to the four-wheeler with turntable, and from that to the Ford five cwt motor-van or car, and now the present day heavy motor-lorry.
What kind of sleeping accommodation through the ages?
The earliest form was a manger or cow-shed or stable, from that to the wattle tent. There are still Travellers
living in wattle tents in Scotland and Ireland. Then the shelter tent, then the horse-drawn wagon and the luxurious new trailer of the present day.
What kind of sport do Travellers have? There is boxing and hunting and fishing.
And the Traveller is a good card-player, and then there is the game of horseshoes, and quoits; jumping, running, hurling, handball, skittles, side-kicking. Side-kicking is a game with two people kicking one another sideways, and none of them can kick the other frontways or backways, whoever does will lose the game.
What kind of particular food do the Travellers eat and cook?
A meat stew or rabbit stew is to get a rabbit, skin him and dress him, cut the rabbit into small chunks, put the pieces in a pot or saucepan, half fill the saucepan or pot with water, get a lemon and cut the lemon into four quarters and put the lemon in the pot with the rabbit and add a small spoonful of salt.
Boil for about ten minutes, remove the four parts of the lemon from the pot, add about four pounds of potatoes, each cut in two halves. Mix about three tablespoonfuls of cornflour with water in a cup, make sure there are no
lumps in it, stir the cornflour into the pot; then get a good size parsnip, cut it small and also get a few young carrots, or a couple of big red ones, and cut them small; get a half cupful of pearl barley.
Don’t forget that pearl barley will burn and taste the stew and ruin your pot if you don’t stir the pot now and then.
Get a small bit of thyme and about a quarter of a pound of cabbage; cut the cabbage very small, get a turnip and cut that into small chunks, and get about fifteen leaves of nettle, the nettle won’t sting you if you put it in a bowl and pour hot water over it. Cut the nettle leaves very very small and add to the boiling pot.
Greasy water stew is different. Get a piece of bacon weighing about one and a half pounds, put the one piece of bacon into the pot and boil for twenty minutes, the leaner the bacon, the better.
Then put in three or four pounds of potatoes in the pot, don’t cut the potatoes, put them in whole, then get a good head of cabbage weighing about two pounds, strip the leaves from the head of the cabbage and put in whole, cut any big stalks off the leaves, of course. Then add two teaspoonfuls of baking powder, stir the pot once and take out the bacon; put it on a plate to cool and let the
remainder boil till the potatoes are cooked, and the cabbage is well softened.
Take your potatoes up with a ladle and put them on plates to serve with the cabbage; then cut your bacon into small slices. Any good fruit sauce is very pleasant and nice on the bacon.
The greasy water that remains is a good tasting soup, if you add colouring and flavouring.
Hedgehog stew is the same way: cook as the rabbit or meat stew, but is is not often Irish Travellers eat hedgehog. I have eaten hedgehog, it is the nicest meat I have ever tasted, it is a sweet delicate pork taste.
With the hedgehog it is best to kill him fast, I would not kill a hedgehog slow and I never have. He is too harmless looking, but when he is cooked, boy he tastes good.
Roll the hedgehog in clay, put him into an open fire till he is baked, break the clay, leaving you with succulent sweet pork.
How do you cook a hare?
Cut the hare in about six or seven pieces; after skinning and dressing, boil the hare with two lemons cut in half. When the hare is half cooked, we fry it in a pan full of fat or butter till the meat is golden brown. We
serve with roast potatoes and boiled mashed turnips and carrots.
Culcannon is well-boiled potatoes boiled in milk and water, mashed, and spring onions cut into pieces and thrown in when the potatoes are being mashed.
Trout we serve with white sauce. We cook the trout in butter fat until it is golden brown, and we sprinkle it with lemon juice and white vinegar mixed fresh.
Snipe, pheasant, moorhen, partridge and wild duck we roast on a spit on an outside open fire.
Bread we bake with four pounds of SR flour, or ordinary flour, mixed with butter, milk and cream of tartar. Or, four eggs, four pounds of SR flour, six spoonfuls of sugar, one spoonful of salt, one packet of custard powder; mix eggs, sugar, salt and custard in a bowl with a good helping of butter and beat well. Put the dry flour in a bowl and mix all the ingredients together into a thick paste and bake in separate baking dishes.
Honey balls are little round cakes about half the size of a hen egg. Get two or three large spoonfuls of honey and mix them with flour and well stewed apple and a
well beaten egg. Make into little balls, put them in a pan of butter fat and cook till they are done. Remove them to cool and serve with cornflour or custard.
For potato cakes, get four or five cold boiled potatoes and about two pounds of SR flour. Mash and mix well together. Roll out the paste, add a shake of pepper and cook on a flat shallow pan.
One of the nicest and sweetest things to hear and see is to leave a noisy fair and to walk out along a quiet country road to a camp and find a travelling woman singing to a child and the birds whistling and the bees humming at the one time, it is pure heaven on earth.
The sweet echoing voice of a loving mother pleasing the child and pleasing herself and the nature all around her. One favourite song of the travelling people is a mother’s lament; it is a cradle song, it has a very low air and it is a song about a child that was taken away by the bad fairies, and the mother died broken-hearted when she saw her child after two long years floating down the stream with the floods. When a travelling woman would come to that part of the song the tears would fall down along her red cheeks and on to the face of her own child
in her arms, while a feeling of nature would crawl up the listener’s spine ...
I believe the reason why a Traveller is persecuted so much of the time by the police and local authorities is because the Traveller is full of nature and tradition. Tradition is a Traveller’s way of life. Nature is himself. He has great time for people that have time for him.
A settled community person who respects a Traveller, the Traveller respects him, and the Traveller will wish them all good luck in the world.
But if a settled community person, such as the police, local authorities or a bad farmer do harm to the travelling community, then the Traveller will curse that person and strongly invoke that that curse will meet that person.
I have had personal experience of a broken-hearted travelling person’s curse; it is the last weapon they have.
My grandfather and his father and father before him were great musicians, story-tellers, singers and dancers. On a fair-day they would go to the town and busker the fairs till evening playing fiddles and the ulean pipes,
and now and again they would swap or buy a pony or a donkey in between playing their instruments.
I often saw a travelling piper playing the reel ‘The Maid Behind the Bar’, or ‘The Maid of Mount Sisco’. While one hand would be on the chanter, the other hand would slap some other tune, and a jig and a reel would be going on at the same time.
If a Traveller sees one magpie on the road or in a field we count it as bad luck. If that magpie hops along the road in front of us, we will turn around and wait till the next day before we pass that spot. Two magpies are for good luck, three magpies are for a wedding, four magpies are for a death, five or six are for money, seven represent some story that will never be told.
Travellers believe in poltergeists and ghost stories, superstitions and happenings.
A four-leaf shamrock or clover is very lucky to find.
A badly rusted horseshoe found in a stubble field is very lucky to find.
A rabbit’s foot is a lucky thing to have, but the rabbit must be a doe in young that was killed by mistake.
To argue in the morning is counted as very unlucky.
To miss going to church at your own fault is very devilish, and unlucky.
A dog howling with his head towards the sky is counted as pining some human life away.
Lots of young and old Travellers have seen the banshee, though I have not. She appears as a token of bad news to people with ‘O’ in their surnames.
The banshee is a ghost of a young woman with very long hair which she always combs at night when she appears with the comb in her hand.
There is nothing to fear from her, but when she appears without the comb, there is trouble in the wind.
As I say, I have never seen the banshee, but I heard her. It is the most frightening roar that ever could be heard. When she roars, the echo of her voice vibrates you and anything that is around you.
I will never forget that night a friend of my Daddy and Mammy was in hospital in Dublin and we were camping near Coleraine in the North of Ireland. There were about five other families camping with us at the time. There were about thirty people there altogether, and we were all in bed about twelve o’clock, and on she comes.
When she starts to roar it is real low at first, and all of a sudden - WHA, WHA, WHA.
My Daddy got up out of bed after saying a few prayers and he walked outside into the dark night with Holy Water in his hand. He threw the Holy Water into the road and
around the shafts of the wagon saying, ‘God give you rest.’
You could hear all the rest of the Travellers saying to my Daddy, ‘Did you hear her, Mick?’
‘I did,’ my Daddy said, ‘I did. There is something wrong with one of the lads.’
Two or three of the men went with my Daddy to the phone box, my Daddy phoned a hospital in Dublin.
‘Hello,’ he said, ‘can you let me know how Mr Peter McCann is, please?’
‘Who is calling, please?’
‘Mr Michael Connors,’ said my father.
‘Well, Mr Connors, I am sorry, Mr McCann died fifteen minutes ago.’
‘God rest his soul,’ said my Daddy, ‘I knew when the banshee came there was something wrong.’
Strange, but true. I can’t explain it. I hope someone will, but I swear to God and all belonging to me that is dead, I heard the banshee that night with the rest of the Travellers.
Some people would laugh at a person when he would tell things like that, maybe that person doesn’t know what will happen to himself, and anybody is entitled to not believe, or believe.
There is a road that leads out of Newry, not the Warrenpoint Road, but the road the hospital is on. Well, that road is badly haunted up at the crossroads near the little stream. Travellers have camped there, and many’s a bad fright they got from a ghost.
We were camped there with about twenty families. It was a moonlight night and there were a good few of the men at the fire when we heard a scream, ‘My child, my child, my child.’
Something had come into a caravan and took a child from its mother’s arms who was sleeping in bed. Whatever or whoever it was that done this had to go past the men at the fire, climb up the steps of the wagon, open three bolts and take the child from the mother’s arms. Then walk down the ladder past the men at the fire and leave the child on the middle of the road.
How could this be? For a start, it is impossible to open bolts from inside a caravan door when you are outside. I mean it is impossible to open them without making a noise or breaking the windows or doors.
There were five or six men sitting by the fire, three or four yards away from the door, and they say they saw nobody go in, and nobody come out of the caravan.
Yet the child was found in the middle of the road, and the doors were still bolted.
Now suppose the child fell out of the back window, he would have about seven feet to drop on to rough gravel. That would have left a scratch on him. There was no scratch. Then, how did he get as far as the road? Crawl? No, he was only three weeks old. He could not crawl. That child is a married man now, and he has children of his own. Still he cannot tell what happened that night.
Another time we were camping at Brocke near the Realing Bridge, County Donegal. There is a good rebel song about the same place called ‘Johnston’s Motor-car’. Well, we were camping near the wood and it was the first time we were ever camped there, and it will be the last, on that part of the road anyway.
At about twelve or one o’clock, we heard noises and there was nobody outside, all the children were in bed and so were the adults.
We saw the pots and kettles and cups being thrown on to the road and large stones were thrown for about ten minutes.
The horses were galloping up and down the road, and yet there was nobody leading them. The dogs were afraid of their lives and they were yelping as though someone was hitting them.
Whatever it was that was breaking the things outside, it was frightening the lights out of our dogs and horses.
All the lads got up and went out. But there was no one outside.
We met other Travellers a few months after who had been in that same place and they told us the same thing happened to them in that same place, thirty years previous to our happening.
There are thousands of stories like this. But why I mentioned these three is, I was present when they happened.
One story I heard and I checked was that of Willy Loveridge. This happening happened in the middle of a bright summer’s day near Blackwater.
Willy was camped near the river; a man with a raincoat came down the road, he was well dressed but what made him look odd was the raincoat in the middle of the summer, and the sun was splitting the trees.
‘Good day, sir,’ said Willy.
‘Yes, it is,’ said the man.
‘Tell me,’ said Willy, ‘would you be buying something out of the basket off me?’
Willy went up in the wagon and he brought out the basket. When the man saw what was in the basket, he
turned into a whole lot of colours and he disappeared. He just vanished into thin air.
What was in the basket to frighten him, or what article in the basket made him vanish? Well, when I asked Willy and his four sons about it, they told me the exact same story as their father and mother did, and it was a story that was told to me years after it happened and I checked the story many’s a time with the same people.
The articles the basket contained were shirt studs, tie-pins, laces, nail and clothes brushes, razors, razor blades, elastic, snow storms in a little glass, articles which are filled with water and a religious figure inside, holy pictures, Holy Water fonts, combs, fine combs, tooth brushes, and small mirror glasses and religious crosses.
One of those articles in that basket made that man disintegrate.
Which one was it? I would like to know.
I was always fond of good-looking girls. The first time I ever fell in love was with a girl that I worshipped the ground she walked on. Although I never spoke to her till one day I was swimming in a river near Appleby Fair in England, and I felt a lot of pebbles hitting me on the back.
I got out of the water to find who was firing the pebbles at me and there behind the bank was this girl. God made her to be loved and love her I did.
In about five minutes’ time, the sun was shining on my back and the shade was shading her.
When I got up my face was as red as a turkey-cock’s.
I had already met my wife before that. I was five years old, and she was about the same. My mother bought me a pair of Wellington boots and myself and my wife scratched each other’s faces, she wanted my new boots and I would not give them to her. That was only for about a half an hour and I never saw her again for fourteen years.
I can tell you when I met her again then I had no intention of scrabbing her face because it was beautiful, but she did not know me, nor I know her. She thought I was a settled community boy and she used a rude word as she asked me for a match, thinking I would not know.
‘Have you got a match please, conya?’
I used a rude word back. ‘Yes, I have, nupe,’ I said.
She got very embarrassed, she very near died of shame.
‘I am sorry,’ she said, ‘I did not know you were a pav.’
I talked to her for about five minutes. She asked me where I was going, I told her I was going to the dance. I asked her if she went to dances, and she said, ‘My Daddy would kill me if he knew I went to dances.’
I made a date with her for the next night. She turned up at the dance and I popped the question to her and we ran away, and it would not be fair to tell what happened that night or early next morning, but whatever happened, it was old nature himself trying to please himself, and any cat will drink milk if it is put in front of it.
I can assure you I found out what I wanted to find out; I was the first and last, I can assure you. And we lived happily ever after.
The Travellers’ love affairs are something of a wondrous nature. A little boy and girl, seven or eight years old, may play together at that age as all children do. The family may split up and that little boy or girl may never see each other again for maybe ten years or more.
When they meet again in their teens, they might start courting and maybe the family would split up again.
No matter how long it will be, that boy and girl will still love each other; the girl would keep in touch with him through other girls, and the boy would keep in touch
with her through other boys. None of the other girls would try to go with that boy, and none of the other boys would try to go with that girl.
Although they may be hundreds of miles apart from each other, the message would be brought by word of mouth. Then when they would meet, they may ask their fathers and mothers for permission to get married, but if the fathers and mothers don’t want to lose the only big boy or girl they have, the boy and girl would run away to other Travellers up and down the country and the next day they would be brought to the priest, and their names given to get married.
The Travellers that the boy and girl run to would make sure that that boy and girl had kept apart till they got married. But I suppose the damage would be already done on the run, or on some lonesome road or haystack or barn. Nobody can stop nature, I suppose, and that would be it.
Ninety-nine percent of all travelling girls are virgins till marriage. They do not believe in intercourse before marriage.
I am writing this part of my memories in a prison cell. As I think back now to my childhood days as I sit
in this ould lonesome cell, it makes a young chap of me again.
Ah faith, what would I give, this very tormenting minute, to be able to sit and have my natural freedom like the fox, badger, and partridge. I can only just memorise what it was like to have the ould barrel-top wagon pulled by the side of a grassy road and a clear spring river running like quicksilver along by the side of the ditch, and the rainbow and brown trout showing off, jumping out of the river as if they had not enough freedom in it.
And at that time, like an artist, I would be catching them with my own two hands that God gave me. Ah, what makes a man? Only his mother and a little tough blessing from the man above her. Misfortune hits the best of us at times, as I often said to myself when I would be after taking the freedom from the hare or the rabbit for to cook them over the open stick fire.
Ah, and the grand few trouts, and my mother dressing them in all kinds of herbs ready to meet their doom; and the lurchers and terriers having a feast for themselves out of what would not be fit to eat for human consumption.
God be with those days, ‘cause they were the days of freedom, the days of the barrel-top wagon.
My great, great, great-grandfather and my father and my mother and myself had wagons as our home for many’s a
year, and we still do today. Is it not a pity that some asses fool made the motor-car?
It’s many a slice of begged bread I ate in the barrel-top wagon. It’s many a rabbit or hare or deer I’ve cooked on the stove. It’s many a hard time I’ve had and manys a rousing time I’ve had in the barrel-top wagon, or bender tent.
It’s many a time we were shifted by a big fat guarda or policeman.
‘Tis many a time I danced a good reel on the floor of a wagon when a good ulean piper would be playing the tune ‘Down the Broom’, the notes would be flying out of the chanter like doves out of a nest. Ah, how peaceful it would be, how comfortable it would be to witness this once more with my own two eyes and ears.
I can well remember the beat of the horse’s feet as he pulled the wagon along the twisted lanes, across valleys and dells, at the same time the bright sun dancing on the red and blue paint on the wagons, as the shade of the trees deprived the colour of its gloss when we would pass a woody road with our barrel-top.
Don’t it make a man fret his heart out when he memorises all those things. Soon I pray I will be sitting beside my old open stick fire with my own true love sitting on my ould knee, like a wild Irish rose and, when there is no light left in the sky for that day, I will say
to my true love, ‘Come on my ould thrush, up in the wagon we will go to bed and pray and make a few natural mistakes.’
Ah, it’s a terrible world, a compulsory world is that of the Gypsy in a bricked prison cell. One thing I am sure of, I cannot be stolen. But isn’t it a terrible pity that they would not let me do my time on the lawn of the prison with my old barrel-top and open stick fire.
Life is as strange as a wagon. ‘Tis never here nor there. But there are a lot of morrows behind me now and compulsory matters won’t let me be gone, ‘tis a pity indeed. I suppose this ould world is not as bad as we make it. Human selfishness has destroyed it, and we will some day destroy the world ourselves for all.
The cell was never made for me
Nor was I never bred for it.
Nor was the little wren bird hatched
To be put in a cage.
Jeremy Sandford FanClub Archives
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