In ancient Ireland poets underwent a rigorous training, an apprenticeship. The severity of the process reflected the high status and recognised power of the poets, the bards. In this reading I have attempted a meditation upon these ancestral poets of mine. The images are all my own and taken variously in the foothills of Na Staighre Dubha, the Blackstairs Mountains and Rinn an Dubhain, The Hook Peninsula, The dolmen is Brownstown Dolmen, Co. Carlow with reputedly the largest capstone of all the dolmens.
The last true hobo
If you looked too closely at him you could imagine him giving you the Evil Eye. That’s what the old women called him, ‘The Evil Eye’. You’d hear them call as he passed down their streets.
“Here Johnny-Jamey-Jacinta-Mary-Michael-Dawn-Deirdre, (or pathetic forgotten celebrity of eight years previous) come on in, I’ve got orange-ice cream-biscuits-clean T-shirt-cartoons-games!”
All reasons to leave the street, to come in before he got too close, before he might look at them, or worse attract their attention and have them teasing him. Who knew what the consequences of that might be?
I don’t suppose the children thought much about him anyway. To them he was just a shadow passing through. A muttering scarecrow of ill-fitting clothes flapping behind him in the breeze. Sometimes he pushed an old shopping cart, directionless wheels announcing his impending arrival in high pitched squeals. When I picked one like that I seethed with supermarket rage. He was oblivious to that, scruffy Karma followed him like a dusty halo.
He came, he went. He was noticed, then unseen. There was no pattern discernible. He wasn’t a swallow, arriving in Spring, disappearing heralding late autumn. Master of his own Odyssey he came, he went.
Others somewhat like him were known around town. Never good enough to rise to higher modern standards to be called buskers, still they performed on the streets. We were all familiar with their limited musical repertoires.
One woman sat on cardboard sheets at the edge of the street. She endlessly sang sad songs, stories of poor lost children. Designed to tug at the heart strings, followed by the purse strings of passers-by, they usually failed with locals. Tourists sometimes gave, took pictures and perhaps wondered how could a town be so heartless. It depends on what you know really, doesn’t it?
Competing with her for street rankings was Mr. Saxophone Man. No-one knew his name but everyone knew his tune, or rather his lack of one. At a distance from the sad lady, lest the competition for coins drag them both down, he plied his trade. Some said he played endlessly differing parts of the melody of “La Vie en Rose.” Others said he simply overlaid a backing track with a few notes from practice scales. None gave money, except perhaps the poor tourists who may have smiled at his slight touch of the exotic.
These and others like them were almost fixtures, part of the street furniture. The wandering man was never like that. He was in no way predictable, if he received alms he gave nothing in return. His was a name I never learned. He was the man with the wild grey hair, even wilder beard. When not pushing a trolley his hands swung wild and free, as if he didn’t know how to control them.
If his comings and goings were erratic, there was one feature I eventually noticed was a fixed one. He always carried a battered satchel. The colour might vary, like-wise anything resembling style, but it was always there, some sort of satchel slung across his chest like the bandolier of an old time guerilla. What it might contain, I could not imagine.
One evening, simply enough, solved the mystery. On a warm, summer’s evening I arrived early at a cafe where myself and fellow poets often met to share our words and enjoy fine coffees into the bargain. Sitting outside, enjoying the pleasant air I found I was on the same public bench as the wayfaring stranger. He glanced at me as I sat down, making eye contact, even going so far as to nod.
This was intriguing indeed.
Pretending to be fascinated by the swallows swooping carelessly across the clear blue sky I watched as he untangled the straps across his chest. Curiosity piqued, I waited to see what would emerge.
A laptop he laid across his knees was quickly opened and before he began tapping the keys I noticed he glanced across the street. A fast food outlet was in our line of vision, quiet now ahead of the later evening rush.
I must have been staring in astonishment because he grinned and for the first time ever I heard him speak. What accent he had, where he came from, I couldn’t afterwards say, being so surprised that he spoke at all, never mind what he said.
“They have an unsecured wi-fi over there.”
He nodded towards the shop across the street. Tapping away expertly he added, “the signal’s strong enough to cross over.”
My friends were arriving by now, calling greetings, inviting me in, so I left the bench and repaired to the Cafe with them. Behind me I knew I left a true knight of the road, the last of the hobos, hitching a ride on another man’s connection to the Internet SuperHighway.
A long time had passed. When asked
the King could only thus reply,
“Brigid? Oh yes! I knew her well.
She was, she was, let me tell you,
some woman. Oh yes, some woman!”
He thought again, remembering.
“When she asked, I promised.
‘The ground beneath my cloak’, she said.
Her cloak that grew to the grazing
of even twice two hundred cows!”
The folk of whom I am bred
of her still say
as always they said
This is her well
on her Holy Day
This is the bush
where she knelt
Here we hang cloths of red
that the young may return
whence they have fled
These are dark green rushes
we gather together
from wet wasteful lands
These we weave in the shape
of her cross
with prayerful hands
Over the door they hang
that safe from fire
our house may last
Outside over the byre
they protect the beasts
from sickness and harm
Always and ever, above the rest
we will seek
we will take
waters of the well
that she has blessed.
Born of slaves, yet blessed at birth,
in turn she blessed so many,
always seeing their inner worth.
Babies, young infants, the troubled
children from suffering homes,
for these her prayers were doubled.
Blacksmiths, mariners, fugitives,
chicken farmers, dairy workers,
to all these her prayer she gives.
Workers at our printing presses,
along with midwives and dairy maids
are but some she daily blesses.
Boatmen, watermen, travellers
as they go their various ways,
these she protects, they too are hers.
For scholars turning learned books,
for poets she had such loving time,
her hands hold the hands of my friends,
and when moved to write, of mine.