Recalling a Traveller life

Kathleen Ward and her granddaughter Emma, who wrote this article.

Kathleen Ward and her granddaughter Emma, who wrote this article.

Have you ever sat with an elderly Irish Traveller and asked them what their life was like?

Well, I did, as an Irish Traveller woman, I wanted to learn more about how life was for the older generation, and I couldn't have picked a better woman to ask questions of and listen to than my grandmother, Kathleen Ward who lives in Kilconnell, Ballinasloe.

Kathleen was born in February 1931, the fourth oldest in her family, which meant she had a lot of responsibilities from a young age. There were 14 in her family.

"My older sister was married, so I had to help my mother rear the younger children while my daddy was working’

She was born in Tuam, her mother and father were Laurence and Mariah Ward, and they came from Tuam and Mountbellew. Her father was a chimney sweep, and a tinsmith, and her mother looked after the children and did a lot of sewing.

Her first memory was when she was coming back from school, and she didn't know her way home. Her father had forgotten to collect her, and a man who knew her put her on the back of his bike and brought her back to her home on the side of the road. She was about seven or eight years old. At that time everybody knew and trusted each other, that’s why that man brought her home. She told me she could only go to school for a short time because her family had to keep moving.

"I loved to do playhouses with the girls I knew and my younger sisters. One of the girls I played with was a girl called Mary Ward, and we had a dinner set, and we played with that for hours at the back of the tent I lived in.

"I would make flowers as a young girl, this was a great pastime for me. I also played bobbie houses with them; bobbie houses was a game where we made houses from boards and pieces of branches, they were hard but happier times."

How did people treat her due to her being an Irish Traveller?

"Some would be good, and some would be bad, but you have to go out and meet people. By doing that I have made many friends throughout the years that I am very grateful for. Because of that my family wouldn’t have to worry for money as settled people would help out by giving us food.

Kathleen is very well known among Irish Travellers and even settled people from where she now lives.

Love at the water pump

She met her husband, my Grandad Michael at a water pump getting water. She got married when she was 19 in Tuam, and my Grandad was six months older than her. She told me she had run away with my Grandad because she felt she had no other choice because her parents were constantly making wedding matches for her every Tuesday. It was normal for the parents or older brothers of young Irish Traveller women to choose who their daughters married.

"I had to run away or the wedding would have been pushed back for 12 months and when we did run away on the back of the bike, we ran into a big field and I lost my shoe. I got married a week after," she said.

There were only six people in attendance at her wedding, her parents, her brother and sister-in-law and her father-in-law, she had a Swiss Roll as her wedding cake.

"Every time I eat a Swiss Roll cake now it brings memories back from my wedding day. I had to borrow an overcoat to wear for my wedding. I didn’t have my first alcohol drink until I was nearly two and a half years married because it was the tradition that an Irish Traveller woman would not have an alcoholic drink until after their first child was born."

They were happily married until my Grandad suddenly died in 1985 from a heart attack. She always shares the lovely memories of him with her grandchildren who unfortunately never got to meet him.

it was because of her sharing her memories that I found out my grandad was a tinsmith and cleaned chimneys. He made many tin buckets and this was a source of income for them. Through her strong faith, Kathleen got through her grief.

Life must have been tough on the side of the road for Kathleen.

"It was very hard, especially in the winter: I became a mother around 21 and had 13 children: to feed them, I had to beg for food, and while doing that, I had to bring the children with me.

"I cooked the food by putting the pots and pans on top of an iron triangle over a box with fire; the type of food I cooked was bacon and cabbage and turnip and bacon. We wouldn’t get chicken often and when we did, there was very little of it. They were hard times but I had to do what I did to get by; to describe the smell of it to you; the most memorable smell was of rabbit stew and the other smells were of bacon and cabbage and pigs' heads.

"They were lovely smells, and also Michael used to skin the rabbits and the smell of that wasn’t very nice. Other smells I can still remember are the turf fire and I can still smell the freshness of the grass and the smell of silage on the side of the road."

She lived in a caravan for ten years, and in 1978, she moved into her first house.

"I was grateful to finally have the house and a permanent roof over my head and my family, but I felt like it came too late for my older children because if we got the house earlier, they could have stayed in school longer and got a better education than they had. I did miss living on the side of the road, because that’s all I knew from a young age but I was happy to finally have a house.

Missed the fresh air

"I never got sick until I went into our house and I missed the fresh air on the side of the road because I found it healthier and because I wasn’t used to having a switch on the wall for heating to come quickly.

"I was used to having one temperature in the trailer or in the tent; the summer months were warm but the winter was extremely cold and because of that I was happy to have the same temperature heat all-year-around’

Cant is the language that’s used in the Irish Traveller community. I asked her how much 'Cant' she knew growing up.

"The older generation would understand it a lot better than the younger generations today: she said ‘I knew a good amount of it when I was younger and I still know some words today.’

In the Irish Traveller community the ‘Cant’ language is still commonly spoken by the older generation; not a lot of the younger generation would know as much Cant language because a lot of the older generation who knew it fluently have passed away and sadly, the language has died with them.

She recalled what it was like when she got her first dog, Lass, and when my Grandfather was gone off working, a few men came and were messing around and pulled the cover off the tent they were staying in.

They had four young children at the time and were living on the roadside, the dog wouldn’t let the men in and essentially saved my Grandmother and my aunties and uncles because the men were afraid of the dog. She called them blaggards."

Kathleen is philisophical about life and advises the younger people to stay away from drugs and too much alcohol.

"Let them be honest and trust their partners, let them trust you, and have no anger towards their wife/husband because you marry them for love; you don't marry them to be angry or violent towards them," she said.

I was delighted to speak with Kathleen and ask her questions about her unusual life, but I couldn't be more proud to be her granddaughter. She is an amazing woman who I am very privileged to know.

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