Nicole O’Driscoll: Two poems on traveller themes, with the editor’s commentary

Photo Credit: Alen MacWeeney, in Irish Travellers,Tinkers No More
Photo Credit: Alen MacWeeney, in Irish Travellers,Tinkers No More



I tried to outrun the steepening slope

But slipped and burned my hands in the blood of half-beings

Plotted along a crippling hill.

Their faces hissed their sibilant indictments

Against my unmindful bid for escape,

And a man’s voice shouting “BACK! BACK!

You should be happy to stay where this field has your name on it!”


Smoke unfurls from the embers,

Gathering about the bowed heads of the women

like fog around a carriage-lamp.

The speaker clasps her hands in her lap,

Free of their industry until daybreak but

Coarsened by a truce with the weather,

Its terms scored deep into her knuckle-cracks.

Tobacco and burning peat adorn each crown of hair,

The incense of deities.


The husk and murmur of their voices intone

the dusking prelude

to their night’s dreaming.

Images are stacked like cards in the firelight,

A corner flickers here, there a shadow reveals its premonitions.

The women twist them through their preternatural fingertips,

Coaxing knots into twine

and weaving encounters into their kinship tapestry,

The Bayeux of seers.


Our ways of permanence have never been fathomed.

We etch out our immortalities on our likenesses,

And tin and pewter.

Not on place and ancestry.

Our etchings are our art and economy.

Free trade and market gaps fill our jugs and pails.


I dreamt of my brother’s portrait and tried to smuggle it into waking

But it slipped through my fingers.

He sits on a stump, legs splayed and feet capped

With an odd pair of shoes and no laces.

Bits of tin and tools are scattered about to his left,

And the ragged old cur snouting sawdust into a cloud.

A jet of fag-ash teeters untopped in a frozen arc

From a cigarette that dangled a life-time from his mouth.

His hands expertly dance a punch along a milk-pail

(That will be recovered - dented and dusty –

From the corner of a barn twenty years from now),

Each half- step of the tool fleshing out a fan of nettles.

The road-map of Shelta.


In our language we name a place only while we stop there –

Be it for twenty days or twenty years.

Place means a rest between journeys,

an encounter or a caressed face between half-lives.

All moveable milestones.

There is no song in a settler’s rigid-rooted heritage

That a traveller’s art does not sing truer.


Etching is the stay of the faithful.

When you look in the mirror, it’s me you’ll see.

Speak and it’s me you’ll hear.

Ancestry is the obsession of those

who value permanence of place

and remain frozen on their forebears’ landscapes.

Our history endures in the nettle-fan of barn-treasures

Long after we have wandered towards new incarnations.

You, with hazel burning in your soul

To fire a hunger in your belly and a fierceness within.


I dreamt of a sleeping tousled head in my lap,

Of soothing our spirit into his hair with love and tugging strokes.

My hand will never again let his crown grow cold.





If you came to me and asked for help

With counting off your quarantine

I’d send you whaling.

You, who aspires to reach the sky with your fists

And feel its texture,

While bound up in an ocean of stars and a thin moon.


And although the sting of brining

makes you want to flee your hands

I’d give you a brace of harpoons

And send you out to collide yourself

With the spirit of your beast.

You’ve heard the stories of how whalers

Would unpeel their kills like a giant orange

And hoist the blubber up onto joists like blankets,

Believing that they know something now

About ‘sacrifice’ and ‘comfort.’


You’ve heard those stories, and they remind you

Of all the times you took shelter

From a sudden rainstorm in a dripping cave,

Inhaling the rarified air.

There you encountered your own sacrificial comfort,

In all those times you thought of whiteness

And sought it in the thing that clings to you and repels you.


You’d never seen it up so close,

The impossibility of white.

But you would if you went whaling

With a brutal, heroic crew.

They’d suspend it for you,

The filthy tapestry of a polar bear’s pelt

hanging like a soggy wet rag

from a strip of rigging;

alongside a row of vests and long-johns.


There is no perfect white-out,

Not even the bony great whale wings

That swoop you out of the reach of petty land-battles –

Tears and upsets, broken hearts – that sort of thing.

The rise, arc and slow flip of a whale-fin

Has a sureness to it, and grace,

But it breaks the waters that house it,

Every time.


I can see you approaching a picture of sacrifice –

A whale lying washed up on a shore

Within a circle of stale, darkened sand.

From a distance you trace its bluing hills

And careworn heights,

Its chalk and lichen wire brush skin

And the blue-cheese brandings of its decay.

It has to be you who cuts into its side,

To reveal a stony seam of soil

And the laying of thorn on stone.

This is the lesson of how the earth shows kindness

To the flesh, returning you to ground.

You know without looking the stolen loot

That is pouched in its belly –

Your silvers, sorrows, and the lost keys

That unlock your myopic gaze.

You recall the feel of a whale’s breath

on your face, that muscular wind.

Sitting, you take up your grieving residence

And begin again to count off your quarantine.


[NOTE. In the wake of my ongoing interest in forms of outside writing & thinking, but here in particular the culture of Irish “travellers” (tinkers, pavees), I was made aware by Nicole O’Driscoll of a series of her poems from which the two posted here are taken. The derivation, as much else, is local, “inspired by growing up in an Irish Traveller culture … my husband an Irish traveller [who] feels that the old stories [told in chant and rhythm] will probably end with his generation.” What follows here is more than simple transcription but the old lore informs the work throughout – “a poetic turn of phrase” in travellers’ talk that follows her transition from Ireland to the UK & a sense of “luminous details” that remains a mark of true poetry wherever found. Of the two poems above, she writes further: “Nightshade is about the stories my husband told me of how the traveller women would sit around the fireside at night and interpret each other's dreams. It's interspersed with memories of the ‘shades’ of those who are no longer with them. [And] Whaling moves from the mystical tradition of traveller life to the harsh realities -- the violence and alcoholism. My husband had to work hard on himself to banish these demons from his psyche before he could really embrace adulthood. Whaling is about this journey, which took him into heroin addiction and prison before he could truly emerge as the monumental individual he is -- and an incredible artist and musician.”

All that & something more. (J.R.)]