Have you noticed the absence of street ‘characters’ over recent decades? If it wasn’t for Bearded Marty, ever present at all hours of the day and night, we’d have totally lost all ‘local colour’ – as my schoolmaster used to put it! Stop and chat with him some time – he’s got an interesting life style and a good line in craic.
I mean to draw no comparison! The Travelling Woman is truly a phenomenon of bygone days. But the following anecdote of Michael J Murphy is worth re-telling. Michael, from Dromintee, has unfortunately passed on but he leaves us a wealth of folklore and tales of Slieve Gullion. If you can get your hands on any of his books, you will be well rewarded in reading them closely. There’s a list at the end of this!
The bards, poets, harpers and scribes largely disappeared with the crash of the Irish Gaelic clan system at Kinsale, Co Cork in 1601. The Earls took flight and their going scattered to the roads all those figures that had found a welcome and favour under the Gaelic cult. They could impose on hospitality surely, but that hospitality was there right down to our own day. In their wake came other wanderers (I have alluded to one in Jamesy’s story: Ed) who took over some of the minor functions of the bards and scribes- such as the Travelling Woman, the last of that long line.
She told stories or acted as a walking newspaper in days before radio was heard of. Only the schoolmaster or clergyman bothered with a daily newspaper. Bridget Hanratty was within that tradition.
It was said that Biddy – as we called her – was a native of Dromintee in South Armagh, though she lived in Newry. That is, during most of the winter months. But you could expect her in the Spring, so that she was often welcomed with a hail and a cry of ‘Biddy an’ dambut you’re better than a cuckoo!’ I doubt if she heard the greeting because she came to every half-door chanting a litany, breathlessly like this:
‘.. An’ may the merciful Lord a’ His Holy Mother an’ all the Saints high and low shower blessings about yous, an’ have mercy of all the poor sowls gone to their rest afore yous through this door – Ock an’ how are yous all?’ By then she was over the threshold, while everyone inside was offering her a chair, telling her to come up to the fire.
She always protested when tea was made for her; not wanting to offend anyone she must have drunk thirty big mugfuls every day in each house she went into.
The rest later. Michael’s books include: At Slieve Gullion’s Foot [Dundalgan 1941]
Mountainy Crack – Tales of Slieve Gullioners [Blackstaff ’76]
Mountain Year [Dolmen, Dublin] Tyrone Folk Quest [Blackstaff] Now You’re Talking [Blackstaff]