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The Travelers and the Selkie

He stood among a crowd at Drumahair;

His heart hung all upon a silken dress,

And he had known at last some tenderness,

Before earth took him to her stony care…

From The Man Who Dreamed of Faeryland

by W. B. Yeats

     Since before Cuchulain and the raids of Finn McCool the grey sands of Drumcliff Bay had been pounded to fine-grain powder by wizard’s winds off the Dartry Mountains and the indignant surf of the North Atlantic. Relentless beggars in rags, these two and more, had banged against the cottage door all winter in hopes of a vile handout from peat-fired peasants resigned to another morning’s hunger. They’re here again today. He’s here again tonight. She’s gone now.

     Away on that far beach, near Sligo town, a myriad of polished pebbles spews flattery onto haughty, high-born driftwood, all dressed up in the lace of sultry seaweed for the sailor’s ball. Enchanted seals, specks of black from the beach, wait for a moment of sunshine. The dance goes on all day, all night, then circles back around for more while freebooting revelers gasp, coming up for a breath of air.

     The heavy waves cry out for company, all a constant haze and gaze of the endless luster, the white-eyed sky…only ever blue with a child’s imagination. Laughter wasted on the hardened hide of the planet, a painful monotony to some, a jousting drama to the rest. Is this the end we have long feared or only the very beginning of act one?

     Looking to the horizon there is no separation from the sea. It all comes together like salty crepe paper hung mindlessly in apprehension of the grandest of social occasions…but some were not invited. They are the tinkers, the gypsies that travel in brightly painted wagons, along with faery spells and dark, curious behaviors. There’s music to soothe, poteen to swallow, and feet to dance ancient troubles away. 

     That eerie, earthborn mist seldom blessed by a bashful Irish sun, a reluctant cameo call, as satin spring flows green into summer.  Slick, violent ledges drop to the beach. Rocky spired spirits jutting out into the brine. Puddled pock marks carved into rock, home to eternal sea creatures eaten only in desperation by people deprived of lamb, sausage or pork with their praties.

     She used to sit here on the beach and stare for hours into the surf, your mother, but now, son she’s away. The father sadly put his arm around the shoulder of his only child, attempting to say just the right thing, feel the right feel. How could a boy of five even begin to understand what had transpired here. But where has my mother gone? Is she in heaven? Yes, in heaven and away*.

     Three weeks ago Maureen had disappeared. She was perched above the beach in her familiar posture staring at something out in the water. She often came to this spot in search of peace in the shadows of her skeletal existence. They were always hungry despite her efforts to collect the treasures of the sea, in treacherous boiling pots, survival on the half-shell. One day she just went mad and, wandering down the canting beach in the direction of Carney, was never seen again, a mirage to the fretful tide.

     It is common among the tinkers to run off and not face what is real said the townsfolk. The travelers were not to be trusted. They were thieves and liars…and they had no land of their own. They trusted in leprechauns and selkies. Were they blood gypsies from Romania or orphans of Cromwell’s wars? No one knew and after three centuries what did it matter?

     I remember your grandmother talking of Irish orphans sent to the New World, to the Caribbean, to work for the planters. Blue eyes and African skin and a lilt in the speech…indentured slaves to a heartless empire run by men with vest-splitting bellies and rum-soaked cigars. 

     Maybe she’s with them in Jamaica asked the child, his eyes drawn to the sea. 

     What do you see out there, my beautiful lad? 

     A lovely seal, father.

     Why do they hate us, da? Are we bad people as they say?

     No, son, no worse than any. They hate us because we are free, we are different…because they see us in league with the faeries. They fear our music, our connection to what is beyond their tiny imaginations. They are chained to the land and we are wanderers.

     You were too young to remember, but two years ago gypsy caravan stopped at a fine hotel in Ballysadare inquiring as to the lease of a hall for a large wedding uniting two families from Lough Gill. The proprietor would have none of it and ran us off with the aid of several local bullies. They told us never to come back. Where should we go? This is our land, the land of our ancestors. Shall we cross the Irish Sea to Britain? Shall we embrace the devil? Cursed to travel the roads repairing pots and pans, sharpening knives, acting as midwives, spinning reels on the fiddle. But where is our lullaby?

     What happened then, da? the boy asked his eyes a prisoner of the ocean.

     We went back into the forest and held the wedding under the blackthorn trees. It was quite the celebration. It was then that I danced with your mother for the first time. We were safe from harm in the woods. The gommach (fools) would never follow us there. We were under the protection of the pookas and the townspeople were afraid. That night the slooa shee (host faeries) burned the hotel to the ground. Despite the fact that there was not a tinker within sight of Ballysadare we were unjustly blamed. Now even a fool knows there’s a time for dancing and a time for hotel burning.

     There is no peace, no right in the life of a Traveler…just months spent going in circles in search of another meal, a place to sleep for the night…and no escape from the sadness at seeing another poor child come into the cold, wet world of their grand and glorious Gaeltacht!

     The boy looked like his mother and had the same penchant for salty meditation. He looked to the sea as his father spoke. Look, da, the seal!

     Ever since I was a boy we have been methodically cut off from the rest of Irish society. Farmers with pig shit on their boots, pub owners smelling of stale beer, ladies in second-hand finery look down their noses at the Travelers. The righteous ones run and the unforgiven seek to taste our fruits and drink our poteen, then they go back to their fields, their sod huts, their priests, their churches…

     The boy was spellbound, mesmerized by the seal that had now come closer. But why can’t the faeries save us?

     They are only powerful below the ground and cannot affect change in those who do not recognize them. They prefer to play with us, to sing with us…to dance the jigs of the deeneeshee (the spirits). They see our fate as temporary and harshly amusing. The magic is only for those who will reach out and grab it, then hold it like there is no tomorrow, no yesterday.

     Then the father hung his head. I could not give your mother peace and now she is away.

     His son continued to search to waves resting his eyes on a solitary seal that had landed on a massive rock cropping on the north side of the bay. It looked back at the father and son, lingered for a moment then dove into the surf. The boy continued to stare. Soon the seal emerged again and came even closer, through thickets of kelp and mounds of ancient stone. Then there came a whisper:

     It is your wife and mother. I hold peace and now you must join me in my paradise. Do not hesitate. You have only an instant to decide. Come to me. I cannot linger and I cannot bring myself to come back to your sad world. The sea is the matriarch where the deeds of evil men are washed away. No tinkers, no kings. Take on the pelt. As I could walk upon the shore as human you must come into the sea. Come into the water.

     Taking his father’s hand the boy stood up and walked toward the water. Come da, the tide is rising and my mother awaits us. We are now the children of Fata-Morgana***.  Accustomed to the ways of the selkie** and true believers in the faeries, both father and son held on to each other and then waded into the water until they could be seen no more.

 A great man in his pride, confronting murderous men

Casts derision upon supersession of breath;

He knows death to the bone—Man has created death.

– Yeats

* According to Celtic legend sudden or unexplained death was seen as only a temporary departure, often brought on by madness. In some cases the soul would take on another form until it had decided it was prepared to enter the afterlife.

**Selkies are seals that can shed their pelts and walk ashore as humans. They are known seduce desired lovers into the sea.

***goddess of the sea

Less and less visible on the modern Irish landscape, the remaining clans of Travelers or Tinkers are still not tolerated by Irish society. It is not known if they are the descendants of families destroyed by the Famine of the 19th Century or if they are orphans of the Cromwell wars of the 1600s. Some say they originated in Eastern Europe and are in fact Gypsies. Consorting with the faeries. The Tinkers were thought to be the favorites of the deeneeshe, the spirits that inhabit the underworld in Ireland.

-Kevin Haley