Monday, February 20, 2017

Men of the Roads

Men of the Roads
Rónán Gearóid Ó Domhnaill

Men of the roads who walked country roads at their leisure, were a common sight in this country and existed very much in living memory but Irish society has changed so much since that it might as well have been a different age. There was long tradition of people rambling this country. For centuries the bards and poets travelled the land regaling the nobility and later, when they lost their status, the peasantry. In the aftermath of the Great Famine, thousands took to the roads in a desperate attempt to survive. For much of the 20th century, the tramp was fondly regarded in popular culture and figures such as Charlie Chaplin were popular.  The man of the road lived outside of society and was his own boss.  He was unconcerned by such things as mortgages, taxes or laws. His only concern was to keep out of the workhouse or poor house, where strict rules and lack of freedom would threaten his way of life. Very often they came from normal middle class families but at some stage in their lives decided to drop out.  One of the most famous Irish writers of the 20th century, Pádraig Ó Conaire from Galway left his wife and family to become a man of the roads and gain inspiration for his writings. When he died in Dublin in 1928, all he had on him was an apple and his pipe. Men of the roads knew where they were welcome and where they were not. While some houses never let them stay, others would never turn them away and it the woman of the house who decided whether or not they could stay. If there was no welcome there or if they was an angry dog which might injure their fellow travellers, a sign, decipherable only to those in the know, was left for the next man of the road. In times gone by when people did travel very far, a traveller turning up at a farm had news of what was happening in faraway villages, summed up in the Irish proverb bíonn an siúlach scéalach, the traveller has tales to tell. John B Keane portrayed this quite well in his famous 1959 play Sive, where two travellers, Pats Bocock and his son Carthalawn, proclaim the local news. Many of them were regarded as eccentric and some of them had black skin because they used to rub engine oil on themselves to keep warm. The Fureys had a great song called Old Joe, written by Allan Taylor, the text of which I have provided at the end of this article. It deals with an old man who tramped around South West England, but his description would match many a man of the roads here and I am sure many readers will know of such men. I remember one man who used to come to my grandparents’ farm in North East Galway in the eighties. Like many men of the roads he had left a normal life behind for a solitary life of wandering the roads and was quiet content with his own company and spoke very little. He must have walked the roads of Connaught for thirty years and followed a definite circuit of over a hundred miles. He slept in the cart house where he stored his few possessions, though on severely cold winter nights he would sleep on the kitchen floor. He was always gone before the family stirred and never ate with them. Nor indeed would he ever accept a lift if you met him on the road. He had been coming to the locality for as long as anyone could remember and grown on people to the extent that his appearance was welcomed by many. By the nineties more cars were coming on the roads and unlit country roads had become dangerous. One night a car ran him down and though he survived, it put a stop to his days of rambling the county. By this time however, social attitudes had changed and the man of the roads was no longer looked upon with the same fondness and they began to fade from the landscape and became little more than a memory.

Old Joe
 And if nobody wants to talk to him
 Well that's okay
 'Cause he's not too keen on talking anyway

Old Joe is a man who just wanders around
 He says he moves much better when he's on his own
 He walks the lonely roads from town to town
 He pushes his home around in a broken cart
 And he wears his ragged clothes and he plays the part

Old Joe is the man who'll fix the door
 When the hinges break and it catches the floor
 Then he'll spend the night in the barn on a bed of straw
 In the morning he'll be gone when you try to find him
 Some flowers by the door is all he leaves behind him

And when it's winter time and the wind blows cold
 And the sheep are settled in the fold
 People wonder where the old man goes
 'Cause he disappears for two or three months or more
 But he'll be back on the road in spring just like before

When I was a boy he was an old man then
 And the old folks knew him when they were young
 And now I'm grown and he's still around
 I wonder if he's one of many that look the same
 Or maybe he's just a small part of the game

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