Travellers Camped at Puck Fair, Killorglin.





The Ballad of the Tinker's Daughter

This is the poem that lured me deeper into Sigerson's work when I first encountered it in a primary school English Reader in 1980. It's a spellbinding story and in the best tradition of the Ballad allows the scene to unfold with a tense slowness. I am indebted to Pat Mackenzie and Jim Carroll for the story that they recorded in London from Mikeen McCarthy, a Traveller from Cahersiveen. Sigerson may have developed the poem from his grandfather's stories.

When rooks ripped home at eventide and trees pegged their shadows to the ground
The tinkers came to Carhan Bridge and camped beside the Famine mound.
With long-eared ass and bony horse and with blue-wheeled cart and caravan
And she the fairest of them all the daughter of the tinker clan.

O the sun flamed in her red, red hair and in her eyes there were stars of mirth
Her body held the willow's grace and her feet scarced touched the springing earth.
The night spread its star-tasselled shawls; the river gossiped to her stones
She sat beside the camping fire and she sang the songs the tinker owns.

All the songs as old as turning wheels and sweet as the bird-throats after rain
Deep wisdom of the wild wet earth; the pain of joy, the joy of pain
A farmer going by the road to tend his cattle in the byre
He saw her like some fairy queen between the river and the fire.

And her beauty stirred his brooding blood; her magic mounted all in his head.
He stole her from the tinker clan and on the morrow they were wed.
And when the sunlight swamped the hills and bird-song drowned the river's bells
The tinkers quenched their hazel fires and climbed the pallid road to Kells.

It was from her house she watched them fade and vanish in the yellow furze
A cold wind blew across the sun and it silenced all the singing birds.
She saw the months run on and on, she saw the river fret and foam
At break of day the roosters called; at dim of dusk the cows came home.

The crickets strummed their heated harps in hidden halls all behind the hob
And they told of distant waterways where the black moorhens dive and bob
And shoot the glassy bubbles up to smash their windows on the stones
And brown trout hide their spots of gold among the river's pebbled bones.

And too the ebbing sea that flung a net of sound all about the stars,
It set strange hills dancing in her dreams and it meshed her to the wandering cars.
She stole out from her sleeping man; she fled the fields that tied her down
Her face moved towards the rising sun; her back was to the tired town.

And she climbed the pallid road to Kells against the hill and all against the wind
In Glenbeigh of the mountain-streams she came upon her tinker-kind.
They bedded her between the wheels and there her son was born
She heard the tinker-woman's praise before she died that morn.

Now the years flew by like frightened birds that spill a feather and then are gone
The farmer walked his weedful fields and he made the tinkers travel on.
No more they camped by Carhan Bridge or coaxed their fires to fragrant flame
They saw him with his dog and his gun; they spat and cursed his name.

And when May hid the hawthorn trees with stars she stole from out the skies
There came a barefoot tinker lad with red, red hair and laughing eyes.
He left the road, he crossed the fields; the farmer shot him in the side
The smile went from his twisting lips; he told his name and died.

And that evening when the neighbours came they found the son there upon the floor
They saw the farmer swinging low between the window and the door.
They placed the son upon a cart and they cut the swaying farmer down
They swear a tinker woman came with them all the way to town.

And the sun flamed in her red, red hair and in her eyes there danced stars of mirth
Her body held the willow's grace and her feet scarced touched the springing earth.
They buried them in Keelvarnogue and eyes were moist and lips were wan
And when the mound was patted down the tinker maid was gone.

Traveller leaves husband for the road
Recorded by Jim Carroll and Pat Mackenzie
Storyteller: Mikeen McCarthy, Cahersiveen and London

Well there was a family of Coffeys in years gone by, I just heard the old people talk about it. So there's a place called Carhan Bridge anyway, 'tis about a mile from Cahersiveen town, where I came from. And 'twas a great mollie for the travellers. What we mean by a mollie now is a place we can pull in and stop for a night or a week if we want to, maybe a month. So there was a family of the Coffeys, they were red haired people; they were very good looking people, supposed to be. This particular family used go down to the farm there for milk, whatever it would be, water, we'll say, there was no charge in them times.
But the farmer, he used be waiting for this girl and her father to come around. He used to be thinking about her all the time, she used be growing up and growing up, and he knew the family very well. They were a well-got family around the area.
So jay, he waited and waited till the time came anyway, until this great moment landed that she walks down to the farm one night with the mother. "If she'll marry me", he said, "I've a farm and all, and everything I have she'd own part of it".
But eventually they came to terms and bejay, she married him anyway.
"And you're welcome to stop on the farm as long as you want", he said, "yourself and the wife and the rest of the family".
And she'd great brothers and all to work, bejay, the brother was a great help to her and the man himself, they were running the farm with him, and they came on great during all the winter, until the wild started to call, that's what we call it, when the sun started shining and the birds whistling, and you'll hear the cuckoo.
And if one thing pass by the other won't, and eventually they're like magnets and they'll draw you back on the road again, 'tis very hard to explain about it, I suppose, in a way.
But as he said to his wife anyway, he said, "Bejay, the birds is whistling Mary".
"Oh, they are", she said.
And another morning came anyway and she hint back another way to him, she said, "the sun is starting to shine Johnny".
"Oh bejay, 'tis, and it depends whether we're going to stop here or not", he said, "when the cuckoo starts to whistle, when the cuckoo starts to sing". So the cuckoo came to sing, that's the month of April, and bejay, how are they going to break the sad news to the daughter, that they have to go away for the summer travelling, and ten chances to one if she wouldn't follow them along the road and leave the husband behind and the farm and all this.
So bejay, one of them breaks the news to her anyway, they says, "we'll hit away for Puck Fair and we'll only be gone for a week and we'll be back again". So away they hits anyway for the Puck Fair after the long arguments and struggles and everything. But they were gone for about three days and she used never stop looking on the road to Puck Fair for the three full days that they were gone, and her husband of course had her taped up. So bejay, the first day of Puck Fair anyway, there's a place four mile out, 'tis a hill and he comes back from work, his dinner was already cooked and on the table. And the last he saw of her was her head, her red hair and it shining and she going on for the top of the hill. And she trotting away, no shoes on her and she pegging away for Puck Fair after the mother and father. But she never returned to him.
I imagine things like a fox or a hare, the wild is in people like that and they can't ever settle down.