The Ballad of the Tinker's Son

This is a fictional account set in the troubled times of Ireland's War of Independence (1919 - 1921) and the Civil War (1922 - 1923). Sigerson presents a romantic view of life on the road but the writing here and on track nine, showing his strength as a storyteller and his affinity with Nature, represents some of his best. Apparently he was in sixth class in Cahersiveen and preparing for Confirmation when a father and son came to the classroom door. Addressing the teacher, the father said: "You'll hold on to my son until the bishop comes, sir?" Off he went and off too went Sigerson's fertile imagination roaming the roads with his Traveller friend.

I was in school 'twas the first of May and the day the tinker came
With his wild wide eyes like a frightened hare's and his head with its thatch on flame:
We liked the length of his bare brown legs, the patches upon his clothes,
The grimy strength of his unwashed hands and the freckles about his nose.

The master polished his rimless specks and he stared at him hard and long
Then he stood him up on a shaky bench and he called on him for a song.
O the tinker looked at our laughing lips then a voice like a timid bird's
Did the master's bidding and these were his singing words:

"My father was jailed for sheep-stealing and my mother is black as a witch.
My sister off-ran with the Sheridan clan and my brother's dead-drunk in a ditch.
O Tralee jail would kill the devil but Tralee jail won't kill my Da
I'll mend you a kettle for one and four and I'll bring home porter to me ma."

Then he bowed his head as the schoolhouse shook with the cheers of everyone
And the master made me share my desk with the raggedy tinker's son.
O the days dragged on and he sat down there his brown eyes still afraid
He heard the scholars' drowsy hum and turning to me he said:

"What would I want with X and Y and I singing the crooked towns
Or showing a drunken farmer the making of silver crowns?
Or will Euclid teach me to light a fire of green twigs in the rain
Or how to twist a pheasant's neck so it will not cry in pain?

And what would I want with ancient verse or the meaning of Latin words
When all the poetry I'll ever need rings the throats of the singing birds?"
But he stayed at school and his flowering mind it grew swift as the swooping hawk:
Then there came a day when we said goodbye to the master who smelled of chalk.

He went to the life of the ribbon roads and the lore of the tinker bands:
They chained my bones to an office stool and my soul to a clock's cold hands
But I often thought of my tinker friend and I cursed my smirking luck
That didn't make me a tinker man as I fought the road to Puck
With a red-haired wife and a piebald horse and a splendid caravan
Roving the roads with Cartys and Wards the O'Briens or the Coffey clan.

Now the years went by and the Troubles came, and I found myself again
I was back where I whittled the worn desks, with the mountains and the rain.
They put a trench coat on my back, placed in my hands a gun
And up in the hills with the fighting men I found the tinker's son.

And there on the slopes of the Kerry hills our love grew still more strong
And we watched the wren on the yellow whin spill his thimbleful of song
Then came a truce and I shook his hand for a while our fighting done
But I never spoke one word again to the red-haired tinker's son.

'Tis many a year since he went away and over the roads the vans
Wheel gaily to horse and to cattle fairs with the O'Brien's or the Coffey clans.
The tinker's son should be back again with the roads and the life he knew
Ah but I took the life of my red-haired friend in nineteen and twenty-two.