Short Stories, Irish literature, Classics, Modern Fiction, Contemporary Literary Fiction, The Japanese Novel, Post Colonial Asian Fiction, The Legacy of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and quality Historical Novels are Among my Interests

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Desmond Hogan Week Day Four

The Irish Quarter Year Two
:  A Celebration of the Irish Short Story
March 11 to ?
Desmond Hogan Week-June 18 to June 24
Irish Travellers 
Day Four

My Posts on Desmond Hogan

"some secrets were given to the Gypsies to preserve against centrifugal history and some to Kabbalists,  the Templers, the Rosicrucians"  -Gravity's Rainbow

The Traveller community in Ireland experiences social exclusion and discrimination at all levels of society. Travellers live with the daily reality of being refused access to a range of services including shops, pubs, hairdressers and laundrettes. 

I think some secrets were also given to the Irish Travellers and there is no one but Desmond Hogan to tell us these stories.   I would say he is as non-centrifugal a writer as you are likely to find.  

This week (and possibly longer) I will be posting in a number of short stories by Desmond Hogan.   There is some very good background information in Shauna Gilligan's introductory post on Hogan and I suggest those new to his work read it first.  

Today I will post on two of Hogan's most famous stories, "Caravans" (in his 2010 interview on RTE Radio he said he thought this was his best story) and his "Winter Swimmers".  People from the cultural or ethnic group called Irish Travellers figure prominently in these stories.   My first incorrect thought  was that it was an Irish expression for Gypsies but that was totally wrong.   I now knew if I am to go far at all in my understanding of these two stories, I must educate myself a bit on the "Irish Travellers"..  

I have learned enough about the history and climate of Ireland to know that it does not behove me to jump in with any sort of claim to real knowledge of the Irish Travellers.   I read a number of articles on them and found none better than the one on Wikipedia.  I will simply quote a bit from it first:


The historical origins of Irish Travellers as an ethnic group has been a subject of academic and popular debate. Such discussions have been difficult as Irish Travellers left no written records of their own.[In 2011 an analysis of DNA from 40 Travellers was undertaken at the Royal College of Surgeons in Dublin and the University of Edinburgh. The study provided evidence that Irish Travellers are a distinct Irish ethnic minority, who separated from the settled Irish community at least 1000 years ago; the claim was made that they are distinct from the settled community as Icelanders are from Norwegians.[20] Even though all families claim ancient origins, not all families of Irish Travellers date back to the same point in time; some families adopted Traveller customs centuries ago, while others did so more recently.[21] It is unclear how many Irish Travellers would be included in this distinct ethnic group at least from a genetic perspective.

There is evidence by the 12th century the name Tynkler and Tynker emerged in reference to a group of nomads who maintained a separate identity, social organization, and dialect.[18] The genetic evidence indicates Irish Travellers have been a distinct ethnic group in the Ireland for at least a millennium.


Irish Travellers speak English and sometimes one of two dialects of Shelta, Gammon (or Gamin) and Cant. Shelta has been dated back to the 18th century, but may be older.[22] Cant, which derives from Irish Gaelic, is a combination of English and Shelta.[15]


Travellers have a distinctive approach to religion; the vast majority are Roman Catholics with particular attention paid to issues of healing.[23] They have been known to follow a strict ethos called 'The Travellers Code' that dictates their moral beliefs and can influence their actions.[24]


Traveller children often grow up outside of educational systems.[25] The Irish Traveller Movement, a community advocacy group, promotes equal access to education for Traveller children.[26]


The health of Irish Travellers is significantly poorer than that of the general population in Ireland. This is evidenced in a 2007 report published in Ireland, which states that over half of Travellers do not live past the age of 39 years.[28] Another government report of 1987 found:
From birth to old age, they have high mortality rates, particularly from accidents, metabolic and congenital problems, but also from other major causes of death. Female Travellers have especially high mortality compared to settled women.[29]
In 2007, the Department of Health and Children in the Republic of Ireland, in conjunction with the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety in Northern Ireland, commissioned the University College Dublin's School of Public Health and Population Science to conduct a major cross-border study of Travellers' welfare. The study, including a detailed census of Traveller population and an examination of their health status, is expected to take up to three years to complete.[30]
The birth rate of Irish Travellers has decreased since the 1990s, but they still have one of the highest birth rates in Europe. The birth rate for the Traveller community for the year 2005 was 33.32 per 1,000, possibly the highest birth rate recorded for any community in Europe. By comparison, the Irish national average was 15.0 in 2007.[31][not in citation given]
On average there are ten times more driving fatalities within the Traveller community. At 22%, this represents the most common cause of death among Traveller males. Some 10% of Traveller children die before their second birthday, compared to just 1% of the general population. In Ireland, 2.6% of all deaths in the total population were for people aged under 25, versus 32% for the Travellers.[32][33] In addition, 80% of Travellers die before the age of 65.


End of quotes.   Reading other articles on Travellers I learned they are very closed in, they almost never marry outside their groups, they face wide spread discrimination in Ireland (they are most common in the Galway area.)  One survey I read said 70 percent of the Irish would not be friends with a Traveller and would be appalled if a family member married one.   Many communities use laws against vagrancy to keep them out of their community and they are often stereotyped as petty criminals.  There are laws in Ireland to protect their civil rights but the general attitude toward them is very negative.  I could find no writers of Traveller background though there are a number of well known boxers.   Travellers have their own language and even when they speak English or Irish they have their own argot.  Some think their culture goes back as far as the 5th century.    Travellers are outsiders by definition.   The government approach, in an ironic reversal of roles putting the Irish in the role of the cultural oppressor, is to try to assimilate the travellers into mainstream Irish culture.

To understand Hogan's work one needs to at least know who the Travellers are and in the end we may find they do in fact know a secret we can learn from Hogan.  If not him then no one.


"Caravans" is told in the first person by an adult man of indeterminate age.    The man is just getting out of the September River.   There is an older Traveller man standing next to him.  He lives in a "cream ochre ledge-top Yorkshire wagon with a green dado, near the river".    In the context I know "dado" must mean the cloth covering of the wagon but I Googled it and the word was not found.   I am taking it this must be Travellers argot.   This shows how with just one word Hogan opens up a new to 99.999 percent of us world.  The old man has been living in the field in his wagon for 14 years but he has to move now as there has been trouble with the neighbors, some of it his fault.    The narrator is not a Traveller but lives in a nearby caravan. (OK not totally sure of that assertion)  Neighbors file complaints of Travellers sometimes and drive them out.    Here is the heart of the experience:

"In my first few weeks living in a caravan I realized that living in a caravan there was always the laceration, the scalding of a nettle on you, the fear of a briar, the insult of a settled person".   

On the other side, in a caravan he noticed things in nature that settled people miss.    Living in a caravan parked by a busy road at night you realize how in danger you are.  (The life expectancy of Travellers is significantly lower than the Irish population as a whole.)   Children run from travellers, as they have been trained to do.    

There are so many marvelous lines in this story with a world in them.   "Dogs were often digging for pigmy shrews in the field". (this is spelling of the standard "pygmy" in the text).   The narrator often sees the old man who was beside him when he got out of the September river.    He goes to the United States and comes back (no idea why-this is part of the wonder of Hogan, so many mysteries, when you are an outsider you are used to lack of knowledge and in a while you may learn to like it).   He sees the man riding his horse up to the river to swim him.   The travellers fear the IRA for they tar and feather travellers, easy to fear what you do not understand and the travellers do not care about politics of outsiders.    

There is just a huge amount to be learned from this story about Travellers.   I loved this, not sure why.

"Every year settled travellers in Ireland-buffers-made a long walk to commemorate  the days of travelling.   One year it was Dublin to Down-patrick, County Down.  Despite the insults, the contumelies heaped against Travelling people, you keep on walking".

A great story on every level.

"Winter Swimmers"

"Here's to the storytellers.  They made some sense from these lonely and driven lives of ours".

There are lots of images and mentions of swimming in the stories of Hogan.   Swimming in a river is a way to escape from the land, from out earth born existence.   Travellers are also called, this is a pejorative expression, "Tinkers" based on the notion that all traveller men repair pots. often do fight and even kill one another but they do not fight with anyone else as it would bring ruin on the whole caravan.   The same man appears to narrate this story, maybe I am on weak  ground when I say we should not see him as a Traveller.   Part of the issue is travellers look just like everyone else they just live in a different way so even travellers do not always know each other.   The narrator is asked if he is a buffer or a traveller.  (per Irish census figures, there are about 25,000 travellers in Ireland)   Every morning the man swims in the river.  There are numerous words in this story that are new to me, just as "spate river", meaning fast flow.  There is a very interesting line about what the narrator sees as he is being dragged along by the flow of the river.  "In Ancient Ireland they used to eat bowls of rowan berries in the autumn".   There are rumblings in more speculative web pages that Travellers are descendants of old Druadic communities that went underground when Christianity took over Ireland. There are secrets the Travellers are not telling us.    There are references to homoerotic encounters in the story.  Here is another new to me word "tamacadaming roads".   Here is another very interesting passage, (horses are very important to Travellers and are a big factor in older Irish literature in general), I tried to find the meaning of "horse gou" and "feak" online but did not.  

"Look at the horse's gou" he said referring to a second Shetland pony a boy with skirmished hair was holding, "Would you like to feak her?"

I was wondering what this meant, what does feaking a pony mean (OK and I hoped my first guess was wrong!)   The narrator speaks of being sexually haunted by the men and women, girls and boys he  had slept with, we go to a Teddyboy's funeral (another subgroup)   The narrator at 16 tried to kill himself with sleeping pills,   he speaks of groups of traveller boys as a "harem of them", making us wonder as to the sexually implications of this. There are scattered sexually ambiguous images throughout the story.    Travellers trash is called "spoor".

I have not tried to retell the plot of this story, in a real sense there is not one.   There are secrets not told in the buffered world in this beautiful story.   It is also simply a lot of fun to read.   

Mel u


shaunag said...

I have to say, I love Winter Swimmers. The narrative is like swimming in a dangerous tide, you're just taken along.

valerie said...

This one sounds unconventional. I like the sound of it. Must look it up.