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9 The counter-tradition and symbolic inversion As evidenced in the Irish language archive from which these narratives have been sourced, the tradition of representation as a whole whether hostile or a favourable as regards Travellers is an element of native Irish cultural tradition. The narratives are exemplars of the hegemony of native Irish culture as set against British colonial traditions. The stories are an element of both the settled Irish narrative traditions and the Traveller community’s tradition. They are simultaneously the same and ‘Other’. They are both inside and outside in the same way as the guardians and tellers of these stories were, whether Traveller or ‘settled’. The intersignification of both Traveller and settled, whether in the literary or musical traditions and as encompassed in a variety of cultural impulses and languages (Irish, English, Cant/Gammon, Parlari) and as explored by both Travellers and settled community scholars, is a subject which has seen a growing body of work (Court, 1985; Walsh, 2008; Ward, 20101 ) in recent times. In this chapter I discuss what may be termed a ‘counter-tradition’ to that which proposes an anti-Traveller discourse in Irish tradition. This counter-tradition manifests itself in a story entitled Ortha an Ghreama (‘The Stitch Charm’) where Jesus and Mary act as shamans or healers, ‘outsiders’ who morally arbitrate on the actions of the settled community. There are many different variants of this charm/prayer, which is preserved in the form of a story.2 The most common setting for the story is one where the Virgin Mary and the Child Jesus, in the guise of Travellers, are travelling through the countryside and seeking lodgings for night. Occasionally they are in exile in Egypt or running for their lives from King Herod. They seek lodgings for the night and find ‘hospitality ’ refused to them, in most cases by the woman of the house. The man of the house meets them as they are about to take to the road again and he makes a bed of flax for them in the corner of the house or in an outhouse. During the night a terrible pain afflicts the man and the 09 Insubordinate Irish 152-192 13/6/11 14:40 Page 152 The counter-tradition and symbolic inversion 153 woman of the house asks the Travellers can they do anything to save him. Jesus or more often the Virgin Mary provides the cure while reciting the moral-laden déilín3 : A rude wife with a gentle husband She put the Son of God lying in the flax, Mary’s Mantle and the Five Fingers of Jesus to be placed on the site of the stitch when it is at its most painful. (Iml. 459: 233) In some variants of this charm-story the backdrop for healing is the Nativity, a cataclysmic event which shapes the future history of the very world itself. The fact that the Travellers in the guise of holy people are refused hospitality when the Saviour of the world is about to be born emphasises the churlishness of their would-be hosts and is itself indicative of the importance of the virtue of charity. In other variants the context of the Travellers’ plight is equally profound and urgent. They are the Holy Family in flight from King Herod and in fear of their lives, a situation which makes the refusal of their request for lodgings all the more serious. The charm-story known as Ortha an Ghreama can be linked to the ‘Nail/Pin’ stories because in each tale either Jesus or the Virgin Mary acts as a moral arbiter who assigns a negative ‘recompense’ or punishment (sometimes in the form of a troublesome spouse) to those who are ungenerous towards them when they seek hospitality. It can also be linked to a very old discourse in the Irish folk tradition where the Traveller/beggar is a holy personage in disguise. Ortha an Ghreama also directly elucidates the central role that Travelling people have for many centuries played in the healing tradition of Ireland. I located the versions of Ortha an Ghreama on the archival reels of the Irish Folklore Commission material in the library at the National University of Ireland, Galway. My modus operandi for finding these tales was to search the indexes referring to the different Imleabhair (Volumes) of material held on the microfiche of the IFC material. These tales are listed in the index under a range of sobriquets in including: ‘Ortha...


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