The Avondhu - By The Fireside
The outdoor type
“Oh to have a little house, to own the hearth and stool and all
The heaped up sods upon the fire, the pile of turf against the wall,
I could be quiet there at night beside the fire and by myself
Sure of a bed and loathe to leave, the ticking clock, the shining delph...”
Those are the unforgettable lines composed by gifted poet, Padraic Colum and it struck a chord as we all learnt it by heart at school. It is a treasure of the Arts surely that instilled in the reader a sense of serene contentment, utter peace and safety from the elements and the dark outdoor.
It is hard to imagine then, the mindset of the lonely traveller who chooses the absolute opposite environment. That idyllic haven that poet Colum presented, would be so alien to the human-being trudging along the highways and byways under the starry sky, which would happily be their nightly open roof as long as their life’s journey stretched ahead.
I recall my dear mother telling of a small little man who called on them regularly in the Borlinn valley, for a pot of strong black tea, a morsel of bastible cake and a bed of hay in the old barn which seemed to be his idea of unbridled, heavenly bliss. They were the days when the undaunted, carefree trek of this harmless, peace-loving nomad was allowed and acceptable, but is sadly out of their reach in today’s world.
I read a story recently by Peter Gleasure who had obviously done a study on the life and times of such a traveller of these local regions, named Johnny The Gallons. Peter often crossed paths with this ‘old man of the roads’. He earned his humorous title because he always carried two gallons in one hand and a brown leather bag in the other; one gallon was for fresh food he collected and the other was for the stale bits which he kept for the dogs he came across and for those canines, he apparently had a real charm. The leather bag was for a wee drop of whiskey or poteen-warmer and any bit of money he possessed was kept in a cloth bag on a string around his neck.
Johnny visited the same pubs regularly and left at closing time to find a hammock somewhere on the outskirts, never in a village or town. He called to Peter’s house often and always asked for boiled milk at night before retiring to the cosy barn; there was never a worry about fire as he never smoked or carried matches, only a small flashlamp and spare batteries - wasn’t he the caring and wise journeyman of his time! Mai Houlihan in Castlelyons told me that he called to their gate every Christmas Day and sat on a stone there. Her mother always treated him to a hot beverage and some Christmas cake, which he relished before going on his way again.
Everyone knew Johnny as part of their townland, boreen or welcoming haybarn but no one really knew the real Johnny, until one evening Peter was calling his sheepdogs to round up the sheep on the hill, but no trace. He returned to his kitchen for a hot cup and there was Johnny with the two dogs, the leather bag plus gallons on the table, a half-pint bottle of whiskey and a pot of freshly made tea! Indeed Peter, being weary after a morning’s hard work, welcomed Johnny’s offer of a cuppa with tasty fresh buns from the gallon and a shot of whiskey! The bottle was near empty two hours later and the chatty trekker related his life story from his birth in 1919, to joining the Army, his lady wife who refused to take to the roads with him from a lonely countryside where they lived.
Johnny loved meeting people along the way from the Galtees in Tipperary to the valley of Slievenamon and along by the Comeragh mountains in Waterford. He had boundless knowledge of fair days, markets, festivals, carnivals and even pattern days to step it out and enjoy the camaraderie of all these jolly gatherings. What a life story of fulfilment, adventure and total contentment had just unfolded from the lips of this frail figure, who was familiar to many along the winding roads, and yet a stranger. I suppose the many severe drenchings from the elements, sleeping in wet attire and being adrift so long from any form of comfort, Johnny developed a serious leg ailment and due to amputation, he finished his dashingly dauntless life’s journey in Fermoy Hospital on September 11th, 1997. He had made many friends there and all loved chatting to him, especially children, who asked to visit him, a true sign of the grámhar warm heart that beat strong within this small frail wandering being.
I often ponder on whether Johnny fought off those low days and sometimes felt like the traveller in Padraic Colum’s poem, feeling “weary of mist and dark.. tired of bog and road... the crying wind and the lonesome hush”. He is not forgotten, his gentle spirit lives on.