Another surly October morning on Rathdangan Farm, the name of our rocky little homestead in the foothills of the Sugarloaf Range, and Mother Nature was in a nasty mood. Her swirling wind bossed the sycamore leaves around the farmyard, and wisps of her clammy fog still clung to the steep mountain peak in the distance. My mother—we called her Mammy— was a whirlwind of work, as usual: milking cows, feeding calves and pigs, washing clothes, holding it all together.
We lived in Wicklow, Ireland, on one of the most remote farms in the county. It was 1962; I was still five, not yet eligible for first grade. My four older sisters had gone off to school in the village, and I was playing mechanic—fixing rusted bikes—in the little shed beyond our kitchen door. I remember feeling very important, King of the Castle, surrounded by my loyal army of ferocious border collies, when they suddenly came alive, barking and bristling, streaking as one in the direction of the road gate.
As always, my canine brigade signaled the presence of a visitor long before we knew who it was. Our farmhouse was tucked away at the end of a long, winding lane, covered in a canopy of jagged hawthorns and gnarled sycamores—about 100 yards from the Wexford Road—with two iron gates, like a fortress, to keep the animals from straying. Known for my vivid imagination, I was always in the grip of suspense—embellished with fantasies of alien invasions—until our (familiar human) visitor opened the inside gate, about 30 yards from the house. Quieting the collies was impossible; the most we could hope for was to keep them from attacking, and that wasn’t always assured. Captain, the big, black alpha, was particularly hard to control, especially if he smelled my fear. It usually took Mammy a good ten minutes to back all the beasts down and shut them up so that we could greet people with a proper (failte) welcome.
This morning, I was in suspense longer than usual. The pack sounded the alarm around 10 o’clock, and it went on for ages, it seemed. I usually ran out to peek through the inner gate so that I could give a scouting report; but not this morning. I was too afraid. The borders were ballistic; I knew from the hair on Captain’s hackles that he was set for an attack. I was alone in the isolated farmyard, and I picked up an unusual sense of foreboding from the dogs. “Mammy, Mammy, someone’s comin’ n’ Captain is goin’ to ate ‘em. Come, quick!”
Led by their vociferous Captain, the borders had lined up like an aroused, vengeful army defending home turf; all six of them barked and snarled in hideous harmony, fangs bared, ready to inflict mortal damage on whoever or whatever dared come through that gate.
Mammy came out of the dim kitchen wiping her hands on her faded blue apron, smoothing her auburn curls against the wind. Always shy when visitors appeared, I clung to her skirt and stared at the gate, more curious now than scared. She called off the dogs just as I saw the familiar black shawl and jet-black ringlets fall across the red iron gate. Now I knew why the borders were so agitated.
This was Nora Kavanagh, a “tinker” woman—part of a large clan of itinerants— who roamed the countryside in horse-drawn caravans, eking out a living camping by the roadside, begging and trading second-hand wares and horses. Nora was no normal visitor, and border collies— reflecting their owners—are deeply suspicious of strangers.
Tinkers were Ireland’s ‘untouchables’ in the 60s, marginalized and despised, especially in remote farming communities like ours. They had an unsavory reputation among the locals: liars, thieves, drunks, thugs, whores, and layabouts. And, worst of all, godless, incestuous rapists. Everyone seemed to have a first-hand tale to lend credence to these craven stereotypes: Drunken brawls overheard or witnessed at the campsites; sheep and cattle gone missing from farmer’s fields when tinkers camped nearby; the shocking appearance of teenage tinker girls, children themselves, nursing infants.
Such was their reputation that it was an instant and indelible stain on the whole family should a farmer’s son decide to “run off with the tinkers.” Most likely with a tinker’s daughter, who, though she might be blond and beautiful, was still seen as tragically tainted. It was believed to be “in their genes,” which were linked by rumor to European gypsies and circus shysters; a classic case of original sin. ‘Fraternizing’ with tinkers was strictly taboo; bad blood, believed to be dark and “foreign” in origin, could only contaminate ‘dacent’ Celtic bloodlines. It was God’s will that this “race” be kept in its place: invisible, always on the move, heading to another part of the country. No laws were required to enforce the unspoken apartheid; it might as well have been the Eleventh Commandment.
Being one of the rare people in Rathdangan who’d traveled abroad, Mammy did not see tinkers through this pernicious racist prism. She just saw them as poor people trying to make the best of the bad hand fate had dealt them. She recognized the community’s stance for what it was: rank prejudice and discrimination against strangers—people who happened to look and act differently from the locals; people who, through no fault of their own nor genetic flaw, had been pushed to the edge of subsistence. She’d explained their origins to us as The Great Hunger in the mid-nineteenth century, when evicted survivors had to adapt to being on the move, and it became a preferred way of life, however punished and stigmatized. Characteristically, she treated them with respect and compassion and taught us to do do the same.
The first time I saw Nora Kavanagh at the gate, I nearly died of fright. She appeared well over 6 feet tall, with long, jet-black curls that sprung out from under her black shawl like live, corkscrew creatures. She had piercing black eyes, glistening like coals and flashing with passion when she spoke. She visited Rathdangan about twice a year in her regular nomadic cycle.
We never saw her without at least six children, an infant or two in the dilapidated baby carriage, and the others trailing along. The children were always in tatters, often barefoot—even in winter. Hiding behind Mammy, I would watch them intensely, sometimes making eye contact, observing the sores on their little freckled faces and the pus rimming their sad, bright-blue eyes. Though I had no way to know this, it was clear to me—even then—that these children were sick and hungry.
Mammy and Nora were friends, sort of. They always greeted each other on a first name basis: “Good morning, Nora, glad to see you again. Seems like only yesterday.”
“Hello, Kitty, and how have you and the family been?”
Nora and her children were then usually invited in to warm up by the fire, have some milk, tea, and fresh bread—which I gleefully watched them rip from each other like a pack of wolves on a fresh kill. Mother would give Nora some milk for the baby, butter and bread to take away, and new potatoes when the season was right.
This might seem like normal hospitality if Nora were a regular visitor or a relative who came by once in a while. But she was not; she was a tinker. And to invite a tinker into your home and serve her and her brood at the same table as your own family…! Whoa! That’s when the yammering of the squinting window (rumor mill) kicked into high gear.
Had Kitty Hogan lost her mind? She was going way beyond the pale this time. For one thing, how would she ever get rid of that smell?—the one all tinkers had, having about the same sense of personal hygiene as a goat? What was Kitty trying to prove, anyway? That she was superior to all the rest of us? Sure, there’s no accounting for those Yanks…
If you spent any time around Mammy, this you knew: she did not seek approval for what she knew was the right thing to do. And no one ever dared to inquire about these visits. Like so much else, it was her business and would stay that way. Let the squinting window gossip behind her back all they wanted. Nobody, particularly the needy, was ever going to come to Rathdangan Farm and go away hungry, as long as there was food in the house.
But this morning was different, as we all soon found out. After the customary greetings, they chatted about the weather, the rain that had just started, and where Nora had been of late. I was getting wet and trying to edge back toward the house, expecting the entourage to follow the normal ritual.
Instead, I heard Mammy say in a tense, apologetic voice: “Nora, I’m sorry to tell you this—but I don’t have anything for you or the children today.” I turned back, staring at Nora, afraid again. She drew herself up to full height, black eyes flashing in disappointment and suspicion. I buried my head in Mammy’s skirt, hoping to avoid Nora’s ferocious glare.
Clutching her hungry children around her, Nora suddenly assumed a new persona—launching into a pitiful, whiny, begging voice. “Kitty, ya can see the poor little childer is starvin’. Sure, as God is me witness, ‘tis not for meself I’m askin’ ya. But if ya have any heart, ya won’t turn away innocent childer. I’ll say ten Our Fathers and ten Hail Marys for ye, and God will reward ye. I promise ya, ya won’t be sorry.”
Mammy sighed, looked around as though for an escape route, nervously wiped her hands in the apron, and tried again. “Nora, rest assured that if I had anything in the house, I’d share it with you. You know I would. I always have.” Not convinced, but reconciled to defeat, Nora turned and started back out the gate, empty-handed and dejected.
Reaching for the latch, she wheeled on us once more in desperation, filling the farmyard with flashing, black- eyed fury. Her voice now a low, ominous growl, she fired her final, portentous shot: “Kitty Hogan, ya’d better not be lyin’ to me. If y’are, I’ll put a curse on yer whole family that ya’ll live to regret.”
Mammy, her voice calm and steady, clasped her hands as if in prayer, looked straight at Nora and replied, “Oh, Nora, trust me— I’d never lie about somethin’ like that.”
For a long, tense moment the two women stared at each other across the windswept yard, rain cascading down their worn faces. Not a tinker; not a farmer; just two mothers searching for the common humanity that was all they had to share.
Then, slowly, slowly, Nora’s eyes softened, her shoulders relaxed, and a hint of a smile crossed her lips. She walked toward Mammy, arms reaching, and they clung to each other in anguished silence.
Soaking wet, I tried to smile at the Kavanagh children, sensing something good had just happened. Eventually, the women gently disengaged, hands still outstretched—holding each other’s gaze—murmuring faint assurances of God’s mercy and offers to pray for each other.
Nora then turned abruptly, squared her proud shoulders under the black shawl, and trudged back up the lane, pushing the pram, bedraggled children in tow. We watched their backs till they disappeared around the bend in the lane under the dripping sycamore canopy.