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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 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 one hundred and two 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 1848. 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 some one 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 Kuilmainham. 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 the 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 kissing, and the singing and the shouting began
when they went off this way and that way, you never heard 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

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

'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 could not 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, holding the table in his
hands, and slipped round in front of me so that I could not get

'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 every one, 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 barrack's
yard, if you wish it,' she cried out, tearing off the rags that
still clung about her. 'Let this be the barrack's 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 he 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 he
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 and all
his ugly crew in the arts, are freaks only.

J. M. Synge

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