Amongst my books I treasure a small red covered volume published by the Talbot Press in 1972. Titled "The Road to God Knows Where" it records the story of Sean Maher, traveller, balladeer, busker and above all gentleman.
Born on the 15th of January, 1932 in the County Home, Tullamore, Sean who learnt to read and write with considerable skill and talent in an industrial school in Cork, was the son of a travelling family. The winter months were spent by the Maher family in various County Homes throughout Ireland where the sometimes harsh regimes of the 1930's and 1940's were endured because they offered respite from the cold and rain. The male and female members of the family were always kept apart while in the County Homes and Sean's father could not see his wife at any time during their sojourns in what was referred to as "the Spike". The summer months were spent out in the open air "tenting" under the stars and travelling from town to town dealing in delph, rosary beads, needles and anything saleable. Supplies were obtained from the "Monster House" in Kilkenny, where travellers traditionally bought their stock of goods for re-sale while on the road.
An early move into a house in Co. Kildare proved unsuccessful. The family found themselves alienated from their neighbours who believed they had little in common with the travellers who kept in their front garden their cart, rigging poles, wattles and cover, all essentials for camping out in the summer. Within a short while the young family were again on the road and Sean remembers with sadness his mother's tears as she left the first house she had ever lived in.
Sean made his First Communion in Thurles where he was prepared for the great day by the Ursuline nuns. The part played by the religious orders of nuns in Ireland in helping travellers to live out their lives with dignity can never be underestimated. They have always offered kindness and a helping hand when it was required by a group treated as an underclass by the settled community. Sean's memories of the Ursuline nuns in Thurles reinforced his belief in the essential goodness of the settled community and was later to enable him to cross the divide which separated the two communities.
In 1943 he ran away and spent a couple of months on the road living by begging, selling and what he refers to in travellers language as "chanting" (singing). As a streetwise 11 year old he survived on his own for a few months until found by the Gardai sleeping on Tramore beach. Undernourished and suffering from pneumonia he spent two weeks in hospital before being admitted to St. Joseph's School in Cork where he was to stay until he was 16 years of age. It was while there that Sean learned to read and write and as he admitted “school was a God send”. He enjoyed every day of his schooling years. However, his travelling instincts could not be suppressed for as he says himself "to the tober (road) born - to the tober I must return."
He did return to the nomadic way of life some time after leaving St. Joseph's School but not before he had stayed for a short while with his family in their new Council house in Athy. The call of the road was too strong as Sean eventually left Athy to roam the Irish countryside. As he travelled from town to town Sean developed his musical skills and learned to play the tin whistle, the mouth organ and the accordion. Sporting a long beard and calling himself "Rambling John" he became a familiar sight at all the important football matches and fairs in provincial Ireland.
About 20 years ago John decided to settle in Dublin for the winter months and more recently he is to be occasionally seen busking in Grafton Street. As one of the last of the travelling buskers Sean attracts large crowds wherever he plays. With his distinctive appearance he is one of the most easily recognised buskers whose memories are beautifully captured in the skilfully crafted autobiography "The Road to God Knows Where".
I first met Sean in 1984 when outside St. Michael's Cemetery in Athy I saw his van bearing on it’s side in bold letters "The Man From God Knows Where." He was in the cemetery searching for the graves of his mother and father who had settled and died in Athy amongst neighbours who welcomed them into the community. When he signed a copy of his book for me it was with words which Sean could apply with equal measure to many he had met during his life "With many thanks and especially fond memories of your father Sergeant Taaffe".
Sean Maher ended his book with the following words "Life is like this, we all waddle through life, the short span it is. In reality each and every one of us are on the road and one day please God we shall all meet at the final mollying (camping) ground, then the road shall end and for some it will be a very happy molly. There too we will, by the Grace of God, meet the Saviour who travelled and mollied in his humble earthly life. With such thoughts life has meaning and with meaning I can journey with the rest of humanity on the road that leads to God knows where."