Still south I went and west and south again,
Through Wicklow from the morning till the night,
And far from cities, and the sights of men,
Lived with the sunshine, and the moon’s delight.
I knew the stars, the flowers, and the birds,
The grey and wintry sides of many glens,
And did but half remember human words,
In converse with the mountains, moors, and fens.
The above verses, written by J.M.Synge to describe one of his own walkabouts in County Wicklow, do not form part of the following article from the same famous pen – they have been added by the editor of this website.
The Vagrants of Wicklow
Some features of County Wicklow, such as the position of the principal workhouses and holiday places, on either side of the coach road from Arklow to Bray, have made this district a favourite with the vagrants of Ireland. A few of these people have been on the roads for generations, but fairly often they seem to have merely drifted out from the ordinary people of the villages, and do not differ greatly from the class they come from. Their abundance has often been regretted; yet in one sense it is an interesting sign, for wherever the labourer of a country has preserved his vitality, and begets an occasional temperament of distinction, a certain number of vagrants are to be looked for. In the middle classes the gifted son of a family is always the poorest – usually a writer or artist with no sense for speculation – and in a family of peasants, where the average comfort is just over penury, the gifted son sinks also, and is soon a tramp on the roadside.
In this life, however, there are many privileges. The tramp in Ireland is little troubled by the laws, and lives in out-of-door conditions that keep him in good-humour and fine bodily health. This is so apparent, in Wicklow at least, that these men rarely seek for charity on any plea of ill-health, but ask simply when they beg —,”Would you help a poor fellow along the road?” or— “Would you give me the price of a night’s lodging, for I’m after walking a great way since the sun rose?”
The healthiness of this life, again, often causes these people to live to a great age, though it is not always easy to test the stories that are told of their longevity. One man, however, who died not long ago, claimed to have reached I02 with a show of likelihood; for several old people remember his first appearance in a certain district as a man of middle age, about the year of the famine, in 1847 or I848. This man could hardly be classed with ordinary tramps; for he was married several times in different parts of the world, and reared children of whom he seemed to have forgotten in his old age even the names and sex. In his early life he spent thirty years at sea, where he sailed with someone he spoke of afterwards as “il mio capitane,” visiting India and Japan, and gaining odd words and intonations that gave colour to his language.
When he was too old to wander in the world, he learned all the paths of Wicklow, and till the end of his life he could go the thirty miles from Dublin to the Seven Churches, without, as he said, “putting out his foot on a white road, or seeing any Christian but the hares and moon.” When he was over ninety, he married an old woman of eighty-five. Before many days, however, they quarrelled so fiercely that he beat her with his stick, and came out again on the roads. In a few hours he was arrested at her complaint and sentenced to a month in Kilmainham. He cared nothing for the plank bed and uncomfortable diet; but he always gathered himself together and cursed with extraordinary rage as he told how they had cut off the white hair which had grown down upon his shoulders. All his pride and his half-conscious feeling for the dignity of his age seemed to have set themselves on this long hair, which marked him out from the other people of his district; and I have often heard him saying to himself, as he sat beside me under a ditch— “What use is an old man without his hair? A man has only his bloom like the trees; and what use is an old man without his white hair?”
Among the country people of the East of Ireland the tramps and tinkers who wander round from the West have a curious reputation for witchery and unnatural powers.
“There’s great witchery in that country,” a man said to me once, on the side of a mountain to the east of Aughavanna, in Wicklow, “there’s great witchery in that country, and great knowledge of the fairies. I’ve had men lodging with me out of the West—men who would be walking the world looking for a bit of money—and every one of them would be talking of the wonders below in Connemara. I remember one time, a while after I was married, there was a tinker down there in the glen, and two women along with him. I brought him into my cottage to do a bit of a job, and my first child was there lying in the bed, and he covered up to his chin with the bed-clothes. When the tallest of the women came in, she looked around at him, and then she says—
“ ‘That’s a fine boy, God bless him.’
“ ‘How do you know it’s a boy,’ says my woman, ‘when it’s only the head of him you see?’
“ ‘I know rightly,’ says the tinker, ‘ and it’s the first too.’ Then my wife was going to slate me for bringing in people to bewitch her child, and I had to turn the lot of them out to finish the job in the lane.”
I asked him where most of the tinkers came from that are met with in Wicklow.
“They come from every part,” he said. They’re gallous lads for walking round through the world. One time I seen fifty of them above on the road to Rathdangan, and they all matchmaking and marrying themselves for the year that was to come. One man would take such a woman, and say he was going such roads and places, stopping at this fair and another fair, till he’d meet them again at such a place, when the spring was coming on. Another, maybe, would swap the woman he had with one from another man, with as much talk as if you’d be selling a cow. It’s two hours I was there watching them from the bog underneath where I was cutting turf, and the like of the crying, and the kissing, and the singing, and the shouting began when they went off this way and that way, you never beard in your life. Sometimes, when a party would be gone a bit down over the hill, a girl would begin crying out and wanting to go back to her ma. Then the man would say, ‘Black hell to your soul, you’ve come with me now, and you’ll go the whole way.’ I often seen tinkers before and since, but I never seen such a power of them as were in it that day.”
It need hardly be said that in all tramp life plaintive and tragic elements are common, even on the surface. Some are peculiar to Wicklow. In these hills the summer passes in a few weeks from a late spring full of odour and colour to an autumn that is premature and filled with the desolate splendour of decay; and it often happens that, in moments when one is most aware of this ceaseless fading of beauty, some incident of tramp life gives a local human intensity to the shadow of one’s own mood.
One evening, on the high ground near the Avonbeg, I met a young tramp just as an extraordinary sunset had begun to fade, and a low white mist was rising from the bogs. He had a sort of table in his hands that he seemed to have made himself out of twisted rushes and a few branches of osier. His clothes were more than usually ragged, and I could see by his face that he was suffering from some terrible disease. When he was quite close, he held out the table.
“Would you give me a few pence for that thing?” he said. “I’m after working at it all day by the river, and for the love of God give me something now, the way I can get a drink and lodging for the night.”
I felt in my pockets, and could find nothing but a shilling piece,
“I wouldn’t wish to give you so much,” I said, holding it out to him; “ but it is all I have, and I don’t like to give you nothing at all, and the darkness coming on. Keep the table; it’s no use to me, and you’ll maybe sell it for something in the morning .”
The shilling was more than he expected, and his eyes flamed with joy.
“May the Almighty God preserve you and watch over you, and reward you for this night,” he said; “but you’ll take the table. I wouldn’t keep it at all, and you after stretching out your hand with a shilling to me, and the darkness coming on.”
He forced it into my hands so eagerly that I was not able to refuse it, and set off down the road with tottering steps. When he had gone a few yards, I called after him—”There’s your table; take it, and God speed you.”
Then I put down his table on the ground, and set off as quickly as I was able. In a moment he came up with me again, holding the table in his hands, and slipped round in front of me, so that I could not get away.
“You wouldn’t refuse it,” he said, “and I after working at it all day below by the river!”
He was shaking with excitement and the exertion of overtaking me; so I took his table and let him go on his way. A quarter of a mile further on I threw it over the ditch in a desolate place where no one was likely to find it.
In addition to the more genuine vagrants a number of wandering men and women are to be met with in the northern parts of the county, who walk out for ferns and flowers in bands of from four or five to a dozen. They usually set out in the evening, and sleep in some ditch or shed, coming home the next night with what they have gathered. If their sales are successful, both men and women drink heavily; so that they are always on the edge of starvation, and are miserably dressed, the women sometimes wearing nothing but an old petticoat and shawl—a scantiness of clothing that is sometimes met with also among the road women of Kerry.
These people are nearly always at war with the police, and are often harshly treated. Once after a holiday, as I was walking home through a village on the border of Wicklow, I came upon several policemen, with a crowd round them, trying to force a drunken flower-woman out of the village. She did not wish to go, and threw herself down raging and kicking on the ground. They let her lie there for a few moments, and then she propped herself up against the wall, scolding and storming at everyone, till she became so outrageous the police renewed their attack. One of them walked up to her and hit her a sharp blow on the jaw with the back of his hand. Then two more of them seized her by the shoulders and forced her along the road for a few yards, till her clothes began to tear off with the violence of the struggle, and they let her go once more.
She sprang up at once when they did so.
“ Let this be the barracks yard, if you wish it,” she cried out, tearing off the rags that still clung about her. “Let this be the barracks yard, and come on now the lot of you.”
Then she rushed at them with extraordinary fury; but the police, to avoid scandal, withdrew into the town, and left her to be quieted by her friends.
Sometimes, it is fair to add, the police are generous and good-humoured. One evening many years ago, when Whit Monday in Enniskerry was a very different thing from what it is now, I was looking out of a window in that village, watching the police, who had been brought in for the occasion, getting ready to start for Bray. As they were standing about a young ballad-singer came along from the Dargle, and one of the policemen, who seemed to know him, asked him why a fine stout lad the like of him wasn’t earning his bread instead of straying on the roads.
Immediately the young man drew up on the spot where he was, and began shouting a loud ballad at the top of his voice. The police tried to stop him ; but be went on, getting faster and faster, till he ended, swinging his head from side to side, in a furious patter, of which I seem to remember:-
Take the nation,
In the stable,
Cain and Abel,
Tower of Babel,
And the Battle of Waterloo.
Then he pulled off his hat, dashed in among the police, and did not leave them till they had all given him the share of money he felt be had earned for his bread.
In all the circumstances of this tramp life there is a certain wildness that gives it romance and a peculiar value for those who look at life in Ireland with an eye that is aware of the arts also. In all the healthy movements of art variations from the ordinary types of manhood are made interesting for the ordinary man, and in this way only the higher arts are universal. Beside this art, however, founded on the variations which are a condition and effect of all vigorous life, there is another art—sometimes confounded with it—founded on the freak of nature, in itself a mere sign of atavism or disease. This latter art, which is occupied with the antics of the freak, is of interest only to the variation from ordinary minds, and, for this reason, is never universal. To be quite plain, the tramp in real life, Hamlet and Faust in the arts, are variations; but the maniac in real life, and Des Esseintes (see note below) and all his ugly crew in the arts, are freaks only.
The author of this essay, John Millington Synge (1871 – 1909), was born in Dublin. After a period in Trinity College where he studied Irish he travelled in France and Germany with a view to a career in music. However, on the advice of W.B.Yeats, he visited the Aran Islands where he spent several months. His experiences there made him a writer. The few plays that he wrote for the Abbey Theatre, most notably, ‘Riders to the Sea’ and ‘The playboy of the Western World’ are among the greatest twentieth century plays in English. The article on the vagrants was found in The Shanachie – an Illustrated Irish Miscellany, Vol. 1, Dublin, Maunsel & Co., 1906.
‘Des Esseintes’ was the haughty aristocratic character in the novel, ‘a rebours‘ (‘against the grain’), by the French writer, J.K.Huysmans (1848 - 1907), one of the leading exponents of the French ‘decadent’ school.