Bridget Hanratty, the last of our local Travelling Women, came to the door well equipped to receive the ‘charities’ that were happily and freely offered. Despite this, she protested loudly when she was given money, or a few eggs, of a bowl of flour or meal, and potatoes for her sack.
‘What’s this?’ she would cry in a hard, dry voice. ‘Did I ask for this? Did I? I’ll not come near yis again.’ She did not ask indeed, but accepted the ‘charities’ to avoid giving offence. She deposited them in appropriate pouches. In her role as a traditional travelling woman she wore a shawl, which fell about her like a tent. Underneath it she carried her ‘pokes’ for holding her ‘charities’. Each ‘poke’ was a half hundredweight flour sack cut in two and she carried four of these strung across her shoulders, two in front and two behind. A deep pocket of red flannel petticoat held the coppers she was given. Along with these she carried a square basket for eggs as well as a coarse jute sack for potatoes. This was always left outside the door. Biddy well knew that it was unlucky to carry anything on her shoulder into a kitchen!
She asked first about the welfare of the people, especially the emigrants. She was an expert in genealogy – also a traditional skill for her likes – and I remember how she used to flummox an old fellow over the new-fangled name of an offspring in America. ‘And how’, she would say, ‘is wee Katrina’ – to a grandparent who’d never set eyes on the child any more than herself and who knew this progeny by the plain name of Kate. How Biddy loved those moments of triumph as she explained who she was talking about!
Her news was news then. Births and deaths, fortune and misfortune, marriages and matches, legacies, wills, a girl with a new coat and how well it suited her, a man with a new horse and so on. She covered about thirty miles in her wanderings, walking in days of wider social units than ours, when everyone was a neighbour within ten miles.
‘Your own neighbour, I’m talking about. You don’t know your own neighbour? – this side of the Long Woman’s Grave above Omeath?..’
In a pinch, any house would provide her with a bed on the hearthstone on two bags of straw or chaff; though she usually had a few well-spaced houses where she stayed for a week when in the district, before she moved on, and of course, calling on her way back. Now and then however hospitality was strained. Because, as the man said, Biddy was known by several nicknames. Used as catch-cries, they roused her to fury. Biddy knew the breed, seed and progeny of everyone in the parish and once she suspected who her tormentors were – and Lord forgive me, I was one of them – we learned bits about our family pedigrees we never knew existed. And though she threatened to leave our faces like ‘well-skelped backsides’, and threatened to tell our parents, she never did – defended us in fact when defence was needed.
She travelled our country until failing eyesight and expanding motor-traffic literally ushered in a new age which banished her from the road. Biddy didn’t have traditional stories, myths and legends, as others of her kind but she was the last of her kind. And kindness itself.