Donal Ryan on his brush with Traveller magic

Donal Ryan explains how his long ago encounter with a Traveller fortune teller inspired his latest novel, All We Shall Know

When my wife was my girlfriend and we had no plans beyond the next weekend, and our only worry was boredom, we met a Traveller lady on a street in Kilkenny. We crossed her palm with silver and she held Anne Marie's hand in hers and nodded towards me and she said, "You'll marry that boy there. The last fella you were with was a lovely man but ye weren't meant for one another. You'll marry that boy and ye'll have two children very fast and close together, a boy and then a girl. You'll fall sick after that. You won't die of the sickness but you'll be able to have no more children on account of it and your heart will be heavy awhile but you'll be stronger after it, and you'll live a long life, girl. There's your future, now go on." Anne Marie thanked her and we walked away laughing, saying, "Imagine if all that came true."

Two years later we got married. Thomas was conceived on honeymoon and Lucy came a year after him, and Anne Marie was diagnosed with cervical cancer and had a hysterectomy and she's a stronger person now than she ever was. The Traveller woman's fortune came true as told, every word of it. I don't believe she had magic powers, or that her crystal ball was more than an ornament, or that the lines on Anne Marie's palm chart a map of her destiny, but this happened, exactly as I've described, and that fact is a kind of magic.

I think often about that woman behind her lace curtains in her spotless wagon, hawking her talents from town to town, thrilling believers and shocking sceptics, talking all the while in a soft, assured lilt, delivering neat packages of certainty and fate, for twenty euros a time. I think fondly of her, and I'm grateful for the comfort she gave my wife after her diagnosis in the memory of her words: "You won't die of it. You'll be stronger after it. You'll live a long life, girl."

All We Shall Know

I grew up with magic, though the word was never spoken in my house. My mother reads signs, in the sky and the land, in dropped cutlery, in the doings of birds. Robins are doomsayers, doves are life and hope, crows carry the souls of the departed. A tinker's curse is to be feared; they're deadly and irreversible and have laid waste to dynasties.

Travellers are to be respected but always held as other, the gap between us is short but never traversable, our differences are small but, it seems, wholly intractable. There's a kind of magic about these nomads, these landless peripatetic strangers; their existence is an opaque swirl to us 'country people', a bubbling cauldron of teenage brides and blood feuds and hordes of children and towering sepulchres and Olympians and horses and Hiaces and wagons and scrap metal and tarmac and messes and ducking and diving and strange beauty. They're as real to us as a fairy story, a tale set elsewhere, in a different dimension, on a different plane. They're blamed for everything, and, as a certain braying cohort would have you believe, held to account for nothing. They live shorter lives than the rest of us and the rate of suicide and accidental death among their young men is shocking and terrible. Their world is dark to us; they live beyond the trees where the wolves are. They are, in their very existence, a kind of magic.

The character of Mary Crothery in All We Shall Know is based on a girl I once knew. I never even learned her second name. She was around twenty, I'd say, old to be unmarried for a Traveller girl, to be walking around unaccompanied. She was always alone. She'd make a beeline for me and my friends if she saw us at the front of the house they rented, not far from the halting site where she lived. She seemed to like us, and would stand and talk awhile, saying nothing really, asking where we were from and where we worked and how come we all lived in a house together, and how come there was none of us married, and wasn't there something a bit quare about that?

All We Shall Know

I've known lots of Travellers, and never known any

We'd laugh and banter gently back, and twice or maybe three times she let things slip, small things, about being cast out, about being a shame to her family, about having no one in the world to talk to. And then she'd clam up and turn a little bit wicked and tell us we were only a shower of eejits anyway and she'd storm off, leaving us laughing a little, and wondering what the hell had just happened.

She stayed in my memory, this pretty, mouthy, quick-witted, uncertain young woman, who seemed to inhabit a liminal place, a kind of purgatory, and I wondered often about her aloneness, the reasons for it. She had been leverage, I think, and something had gone wrong, some deal's collapsed fulcrum had crushed her; she was left hobbled by blame. She was being shunned, it seemed, dead to her people for the duration of her shame, forced to exist among them but not allowed to exist to them, a living ghost. I hope it's lifted now, whatever danmning decree was cast, and that she's happy and free, and that her wit and her inquisitive nature, her ineffable shine, her magic, are intact.

I've known lots of Travellers and never known any. I've learned Cant and Shalta phrases but they have no effect from my mouth, they don't settle easily on the contours of my tongue. I speak quickly but never as quick as a Traveller. I prepared dozens of them for their driving tests when I worked weekends for my father as a driving instructor and they were all gentle and attentive, and strangely grateful - they nearly always insisted on paying more than I asked for.

I worked in a factory with a Traveller whom everyone called Blackie, because Blackie Connors was the name of a Traveller character in Glenroe, our only and beloved soap opera at the time. He accepted the nickname with silent unsmiling grace, but no man dared go farther. There was no way of knowing him, this dark-eyed thick-limbed youth we toiled beside daily, and one day he wasn't there and we never saw him again.

My father was happy after reading an early draft of All We Shall Know. It was called Melody Shee at the time. "Well done, Do, he said. That's some achievement. To write a book about a married one having a fling with a young lad and to have nearly no sex in it! You're the most respectful writer in Ireland." I was happy with this. We never outgrow our longing for parental approval. "Do you think I got the Travellers right, Dad?" "Who knows?" he said. "Who knows anyone, really? They seem real to me. That Mary is a card," he said, echoing Melody's father from the book, maybe intentionally.

I asked a friend of mine from Dublin the same question about the verisimilitude of my fictional Travellers. He said he wouldn't know, he'd never spoken to a Traveller. I was shocked at this revelation, then realised it wasn't unusual. Traveller numbers are few and falling. The things that define them are slipping away. They're fading fast into society's homogenous settled mass. Their mystery is evanescing in the heat of the spotlight, in the unreality of reality TV. They move through this world and out of it, largely unmourned outside of their own closed, chaotic, fiercely insular, self-protective clans. But we're all the children of one distant mother; they're our brothers and sisters and our flesh and blood, and I've been lifted by their magic in my time.

Sign up to the Penguin Newsletter

For the latest books, recommendations, author interviews and more