Evicted and forced to live on the roadside, some Irish itinerants joined the travelling people, or the tinkers as they used to be called, and made new homes for themselves in the traditional horse-drawn wagons known as Romani vardos. In my childhood, these brightly painted and highly decorative caravans, with their sloping bodies, large wheels and bow tops, created an exotic blaze in the green and pale grey landscape.
Ever the outdoor couple, my grandparents, Tom and Nina O’Brien Kelly, bought a vardo for themselves to be used on holidays. Setting off from their home on those mysterious excursions, with Grandfather Tom controlling the horse between the shafts (top speed four miles an hour, at most) and Grandmother Nina following behind on horseback, riding side-saddle, as she always did, they were formally attired. The tinkers whom they would have passed must have been bemused by them.
When not in use, our vardo, as I thought of it, was parked by the handball alley which ran to one side of the stables. Here, the turkey also lived – the one that we would eat at Christmas. An ugly creature (fleshy wattles, bare red head), he was pompous and ferocious, a self-appointed sentry of that precious caravan. I could explore the harness room when the groom was not around and climb the ladder to the loft. I could visit Grandpa’s beagles, in their kennels by the hen-runs. I could investigate the house and sneak into family bedrooms where aunts kept interesting baubles. Rooting through the bathroom cupboard I once found interesting packets inside which were ropes of hair – my mother’s (thick and curly, auburn, gorgeous) and her sisters’ (golden-red), cut when they were in their ‘twenties. But with the turkey standing guard I couldn’t get inside the vardo.
I was trying to do that when I heard unfamiliar noises. The memory of what happened next features in A Wrong to Sweeten. In the field beyond the hay barn a group of country men had gathered. Like Milliora in the story, I crept closer and ‘saw through a clearing in the crowd, two figures, each holding a black-hooded game cock in his hands. A fight was about to commence.’
Although cock-fighting was illegal it was still a country past-time. ‘The hoods were removed from the birds’ heads. The red-combed game-cocks – one brown-red, the other, a birchen grey – confronted each other across the grass pit. Intent on the fight, none of those present noticed Milliora reach the back of the line of men. The game-cocks had stepped warily towards each other and she saw that each wore tiny spurs, which were glittering in the light. She heard a weird, purposeful cry.
Suddenly, the birds moved so fast that her mesmerized eyes could hardly follow their furious race to engage…. She had thought their spurs were merely decorative. Now, she realized that their purpose was to kill. The brown-red game-cock cried out, its hatred deep and ancient and inexhaustible, slashing at the head of the silver birchen. Blood spurted freely onto feathers and grass.’
Life in the country life could be cruel.
Next week: The castle that might have been ours.