To begin ...

As the twentieth century fades out
the nineteenth begins
it is as if nothing happened
though those who lived it thought
that everything was happening
enough to name a world for & a time
to hold it in your hand
unlimited.......the last delusion
like the perfect mask of death

Monday, June 21, 2010

Outsider Poems, a Mini-Anthology in Progress (16): Irish Traveller Narratives from Johnny Cassidy's Tellings


Oh, my name is Dick Daglen, the cobbler,
I served my full time out in Kent.
Some call me an old fornicator
Which gives me great cause to complain.

“When I got you first, I really thought ‘twas a robin with a red breast I got.
Faith and it wasn’t, ‘twas a willy water wagtail I took.”

‘Swith me haw-ba-ba-balda-daladidy
B a-ba-balda-dalee
With me haw-ba-ba-balda-dalady
The hammer and lapstone for me.

“When you got me first, I was a well-reared little girl. There were always three full dishes on my Da’s table.”

“There were. I was looking at them.
Two of them empty, and nothing at all in the other one.”

‘Swith me haw-ba-ba-balda-daladidy
B a-ba-balda-dalee
With me haw-ba-ba-balda-dalady
The hammer and lapstone for me

“Well, I don’t know what way a woman’s tongue is held in her mouth. I could give some idea of a man’s. For the minute my woman’s tongue hits her upper lip, it goes click-clack, click-clack till I’m fairly bothered with her. If I hit her with a lash, she’ll run out in the street and she’ll roar:

‘Peelers, Peelers, Peelers! Look at the lump this old shoemaker’s after putting on my foot for the last!’

They’ve got so used to her now, they don’t mind her. And it’s eight o’clock and I must have those soled again nine.”

‘Swith me haw-ba-ba-balda-daladidy
B a-ba-balda-dalee
With me haw-ba-ba-balda-dalady
The hammer and lapstone for me.

That’s the end of it now.


E’re last night1 I received the letter of an old hag’s death.

Every tear fell from the bottom of my heart would turn a mill.

I run at the rate of eighteen mile a minute, while I was sitting down to rest myself.

I met John Javis, the coachman, driving fourteen dead donkeys under an empty steamcoach, two oId women and they roasting bugs and apples and throwing them to one another.

I asked them:

“Did you hear tell of the shower of old hag’s death?”

“No, but if ye go up to John Mangan’s he’ll tell you all about it.”

“ Where does he live?”

“He lives up a long wide narrow street. It’s a great big tall square house standing only by itself.”

When I went up, ‘twas a great big tall square house standing only by itself, with fifteen or sixteen cabins by the side of it.

When I went up, his two sons was thrashing tobacco into peas.

One of the peas leapt out through a stone wall, had killed a dead dog was barking at a pock-marked cat.

I put my hand in his mouth and I turned him inside out.

I was followed by two eye-glass pensioners, had lost heads, legs, bodies and arms and all in the Battle of Waterloo .

I run till I stepped over a stone wall.

So easy I might, the stone wall was only the length of a cabbage leaf.

The cabbage leaf was only the length from St. Patrick’s Day to America.

Cattie Patrick, she was the cleanest cook that ever was known.

She could scour scaws through her middle finger, my lord.

She lay in the day till the ditch broke on her.

A little bark come out and dogged at her.

She took out her tail and cut his knife across.

NOTE. The Travellers of Ireland (once called "tinkers" or, mistakenly, "gypsies") persist as a distinct people inside or outside Irish society as a whole, their origins still mysterious but sometimes viewed as descendants in part of traveling scholars & bards dispersed in the aftermath of English conquest & ensuing social turmoil. As with other subaltern or outsider cultures, the emphasis here falls on oral traditions & tellings, often with a touch of the marvelous alongside the historical & factual, & in recent times a plunge into written or transcribed autobiographies. Writes Michael Hayes of the account by one such Traveller, Sean Maher: “Maher (1972) cites the Traveller known as the doll-man – the strange, shaman-like figure with whom he has a dialogue regarding the position of Travellers in the modern world – as an exemplar of the challenge to the official or ‘establishment’ view from the oral culture of those who tell their stories ‘from below’ or from the mergins of society: ‘... The written history is very warped in its composition and truth. The history that has come down through the Travellers, however, is more than reliable. It is told night after night around camp fires ...’” (In M. Hayes, Irish Travellers, The Liffey Press, 2008)

Of Johnny Cassidy’s relation to those traditions, the photographer Alen MacWeeney, who recorded & transcribed them, writes: “There was an urgency about Johnny to tell me his stories, as if he anticipated that his recollections were the end of a tradition. Where did they come from? I asked. His father, he told me, used to go around to the big houses in Wexford working on the farms, and in the evening he would tell his stories to the farmers around the fire while Johnny sat between his father’s legs and listened and remembered.” And further, of the actual performance: “Johnny’s hoarse voice can be difficult to understand without reading a transcription, but it’s not essential to follow his words as much as the gist and spirit of his telling a story. His voice rises up to the pitch of a protesting old woman and a moment later goes down to the bottom of the world like the invocation of a shaman.”

For a fuller accounting, check out McWeeney’s texts from the extended Cassidy family at or his equally remarkable book of photos and texts, Irish Travellers--Tinkers No More (New England College Press, 2007).

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