“Orange Horses” by Maeve Kelly

A story about women and wives who want to escape


In her review of Orange Horses in 1991, the writer Aisling Maguire described Maeve Kelly as a “late bloomer in the literary field” owing to the fact that Kelly did not publish her first collection of short stories, A Life of Her Own (1976), until well into her forties. Rather than any reflection on the evolution of Kelly’s talent, this late flowering points to the limited opportunities for writing and publication during her early lifetime and reveals much about the cultural climate in which she began her career.

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Though the number of published Irish women writers increased in the 1970s and early 1980s, only one in ten Irish books printed during this period were authored by women, and this ratio drops to one in fifty when considering mainstream, non-women-oriented presses. The relative paucity of women’s writing in these years is bound up with how women writers were received critically, and the subtle bias evident among some reviewers who tended to read women’s books in terms of the gender of the author. Particularly insidious was the way the critical arguments openly acknowledged the difficulties facing Irish women while tacitly perpetuating the prejudices which degraded and delimited their daily lives.

The twenty stories within Orange Horses, including the title story published here, are part of Kelly’s lifelong struggle to dispel such complacency and bring marginalized, particularly female, forms of experience into the larger national consciousness. It is a sign of Kelly’s deftness of touch as a writer that this larger intention does not overwhelm the integrity of her fictional worlds. Key to Kelly’s work is her scrupulous attentiveness to the strange complexities of human behavior and her precision in rendering the intricate and conflicted inner lives of her characters.

She is capable of crafting scenes of gentle humor or chill tragedy as well as generating moments of lyrical intensity bordering on the visionary.

In “Orange Horses” Kelly displays a remarkable palette of tones; she is capable of crafting scenes of gentle humor or chill tragedy as well as generating moments of lyrical intensity bordering on the visionary. “Orange Horses” considers a family of travelers, or gypsies, from the perspective of a mother and wife badly beaten by her husband. In the Ireland of the time, the lack of legal support for abused women was a function of the prevailing moral ideology of the political and ecclesiastical authorities which tended not to interfere too deeply into what they considered the private domain of the family. In mid-century Ireland this led to a veil of silence around the physical, sexual and psychological abuse of women in the home.

Two of Kelly’s greatest strengths as a writer are her technical mastery and her unfailing condemnation of what the writer Juanita Casey termed the “immaculate misconceptions” governing Irish women’s lives. Orange Horses is the culmination of Kelly’s achievement in short fiction and represents a vital contribution to Irish writing of the twentieth century, as well as to the history of women in post-war Ireland.

Simon Workman
Professor of Literature, Carlow College


“Orange Horses” by Maeve Kelly

Elsie Martin’s husband beat her unconscious because she called him twice for his dinner while he was talking to his brother. To be fair, she did not simply call him. She blew the horn of the Hiace van to summon him.

He had never beaten her unconscious before. He was surprised and a little frightened when she lay down and did not get up. He was a small man but she was even smaller, weighing barely seven stone, and she was further handicapped by being five months pregnant. Afterwards his mother said that if Elsie had fed herself better instead of wasting good money on them fags she’d have been able to take the few wallops and get over them the way any normal woman would.

‘He didn’t mean nothin’,’ the elder Mrs Martin said. ‘He got a bit ahead of himself. But she shouldn’t have blown the horn at him that way. A man won’t take that kind of treatment from any woman and I wouldn’t expect him to. He has his pride.’

She leaned on the caravan door while she spoke, staring out at the twisted remains of a bicycle, a rusty milk churn, a variety of plastic containers, three goats, two piebald ponies all tethered to an iron stake, and a scattering of clothes hanging on the fence which separated her domain from the town dump. Behind her, Elsie lay stretched. Her jaw had been wired in the hospital and was still aching. The bruises on her legs were fading and the cut in her head had been stitched and was healing nicely now, thank God.

‘You’ll be grand again, with the help of God,’ her mother-in-law said, watching the ponies reach for a fresh bit of grass on the long acre. ‘Grand,’ she repeated with satisfaction as if by saying the word she made it happen, God’s help being instantly available to her. ‘You’re grand. I’ll be off now and I’ll cook him a bit myself. I’ll get one of the young ones to bring you over a sangwich. You could manage a sangwich.’

Elsie closed her eyes, trying to squeeze out the pain. Her stomach had not shrunk back to normal. The baby was only gone a week. She folded her hands over the place where he had been. She was sure he had been a boy, the way he kicked. She grieved quietly for him, for his little wasted life that never got the chance to be more than a few small kicks and turns inside her body. But she was sorry for herself too, because she had had a feeling about him, that he would be good to her. He might have been the one to protect her when the others were married with their own wives. She could tell by the older boys that they would hit their wives to control them. She wouldn’t interfere but she would not stay around to watch her history being repeated. She had planned a life for herself with this baby. The plan would have to be changed.

Brigid, her eldest daughter, stepped lightly into the caravan and stood beside her. ‘Nana says would you like a drink of tay with your sangwich.’ ‘Shut the door,’ Elsie said crossly. ‘You’re letting the wind in. And sweep out the place. Didn’t I tell you to do it this morning? Do you ever do anything you’re told?’

‘I did it. Them childer have it destroyed on me.’

‘Who’s minding them? Are they all at your Nana’s? Where’s Mary Ellen? Where’s your father?’

‘I dunno.’ The child took the sweeping brush and began to sweep the floor. Her sullen expression annoyed her mother almost more than the careless way she swept the bits of food through the caravan door and out on to the green. A dog poked hopefully through the crumbs, then looked up expectantly at Brigid. She said, ‘Geraway outa that,’ without enough conviction for him to move. He placed a paw on the step. She pushed it off and stared maliciously at him. ‘I’ll tell my daddy on you, you little hoor,’ she whispered and then, a living image of her grandmother, leaned on the brush handle surveying the scene.

‘Look, Mama,’ she called. ‘The sky is orange. Why is it orange?’

Elsie lay back, floating between waves of pain, bathing herself in its persistence. She tried anticipating its peaks, the way she had been learning to anticipate the peaks in labor pains for the baby who was born dead. For the first time in her sixteen years of childbearing she had attended an antenatal class. It had all come to nothing. She should have known better. Her husband hadn’t wanted her to go. He had been persuaded by the social worker to let her try it. But he had grumbled a lot after her visits and told her she was getting too smart. Baby or no baby, he said, you’re due a beating. Keeping in with the country people isn’t going to do you any good. And they don’t care for you anyway. You’re only a tinker to them.

She turned her head to see what Brigid was up to. The child had dropped the brush and was standing very still staring at something. ‘What are you staring at?’ the mother called.

‘The pony is orange too,’ Brigid said softly. ‘The pony is orange.’ She had cross eyes of a strange pale grey and the glow of the sunset lit them and changed their color to a near yellow. One of the ponies suddenly tossed his head and flicked a quick look in her direction before turning his attention back to his patient grazing. Brigid wondered what it would be like to ride him. She was never allowed to try. If she did, her brothers knocked her off. She was beginning to think that she didn’t want to ride. She would soon forget that she had ever had such a desire. Her brothers rode like feudal lords, galloping through wastelands and even through the crowded streets, proud and defiant. Brigid fixed her sombre gaze on the pony’s back. It must be like the wind, she thought. It would be like racing the wind. That’s why her brothers were so proud and cocky. They could race the wind, and she couldn’t. Her father did it once. Her mother never did it. Her mother got beaten and had babies and complained. Her mother was useless.

Elsie called out, ‘What are you sulking about now? Would you take that look off your face? If you can’t do anything for me would you go away and leave me in peace.’

When she was gone, Elsie wanted her back. Brigid, she cried hopelessly, Brigid. It was a pity she wasn’t lovable so that Elsie could cuddle her and tell her she was sorry for being cross. But what was the point? Brigid was eleven years of age and she should be doing things for her mother. What did she do all day? Gave them their breakfast in the morning and pushed the small ones in the buggy but beyond that — nothing. She spent most of the day moping around, listening to the gossip in the other caravans.

The caravans were arranged in a circle around the small caravan owned by Hannah, Elsie’s mother-in-law. When her children married and had their own caravans they took their place in the circle whenever they came for a gathering. Their father was dead. There were nine surviving sons and seven daughters. When the father was sixty he stopped beating Hannah and got religion very bad. He paid frequent visits to the holy nun in the convent who could cure everything but death. He died peacefully, like a baby asleep, and had a huge funeral. From England and Scotland and all over Ireland the relations came to bury him. The casualty department in the hospital was kept going for two days with the results of their mourning. Hannah was very proud, though she wept for weeks, being supported by all her daughters and all but two of her daughters-in-law, Elsie and Margaret Anne.

Elsie remembered Margaret Anne, the way she used to drink the bottles of tawny wine so that she wouldn’t feel the beatings. One night she drank a full bottle of vodka and choked on her own vomit. She was twenty-three. There were no fights after her funeral. There was no public lamentation. Her children cried and her husband cried and took the pledge for six months. Two years later he married her youngest sister and they went away t’England. There were plenty of sites in London for them. They would simply break down a gate, pull the caravan in and stay put until they were evicted. England, Elsie’s youngest sister said, was a grand place. They had been put up in the best hotels for months because they were homeless.

Elsie often thought of staying in the best hotels too. Her husband called it one of her notions. His sisters said, ‘That one has too many notions.’ She had notions about not wanting to do the houses with them, about not wanting to stay home, night after night, while her husband went drinking with his brothers. The worst notion of all was when she arranged to get her dole money split so that she got her own share and the share for half the children. The welfare officer gave her dire warnings that if she changed her mind again, as she had done before, she would be left with nothing. Her husband coaxed, threatened and beat her but she would not surrender.

She had notions about Fonsie when she met him at the horse fair in Spancel Hill. Her parents had pulled their caravan into a by-road a few miles from the village. It was a scorching day when she saw Fonsie tussling with a colt, backing him up, jerking his head to show his teeth, running his hands down his fetlocks, slapping his flanks. The animal reared and bucked and frightened bystanders.

‘Aisy, aisy,’ a farmer said, ‘you’ll never sell him that way.’

‘I’m not asking you to buy him,’ Fonsie said smartly.

‘You’re not, for I wouldn’t,’ said the man. ‘I never saw any good come from a tinker.’

‘You wouldn’t have the price of him,’ Fonsie said and turned his head and winked at Elsie. His red hair was like a mad halo and his eyes were a blazing blue. She was like a rabbit hypnotised by a weasel. She followed him everywhere. She badgered her parents until they consented to the wedding. She was fifteen. She ignored all their warnings about his bad blood. He was the middle of the brothers and above and below him they were all the same. Always drinking. Always in trouble. Always dodging the law, frequently in jail or facing the judge and getting some smart solicitor to get them off on a technicality.

Fonsie never went to jail. He was too smart. But he didn’t want her to be too smart. Smart women annoy me, he said. So be smart and stay stupid. One night when she was three months pregnant, he hit her because she was too smart by half, an ugly bitch who gave him the eye at Spancel Hill and was probably after being with someone else and the child could be anyone’s.

There were different notions in her head then when she picked herself up from the floor and cried for her own people who were travelling up North. Through one of her sisters-in-law she got word to her own sisters. One of them travelled to see her and give her advice.

‘Don’t be saying anything to him when he is drunk.’

‘I didn’t say anything,’ Elsie said.

‘Well maybe you should have. Did you look at him? A man can hate a hard look. He’ll take it as an insult.’

‘I looked at the floor,’ Elsie said. ‘I was afraid to look at him.’

‘Well, there you are then. That’s how it happened,’ her sister said triumphantly. ‘You didn’t spake to him and you didn’t look at him. Sure that explains it.’

‘He says the child isn’t his.’

‘An old whim he has. His brothers putting him up to it. They’re too much together. They should be at home with their wives instead of always in each other’s company. They’re terrible stuck on each other.’

Elsie knew that was the trouble. A man was all right on his own with a woman but put him in with the herd of men, especially the herd of his own family, and he lost his senses.

Her sisters had always given her plenty of advice. Don’t get too fat or you won’t be able to run away when he wants to bate you. Learn the houses that are good to the Travellers. Don’t try them too often. Don’t look for too much the first time. Always bring a baby with you. If you haven’t one, borrow one. Keep half of the money for yourself. Her mother gave her one piece of advice. Keep silent and never show a man the contempt you feel for him. It is like spitting in the face of God.

It was good advice, especially the bit about the money. Her sisters had not told her how to keep the money, where to hide it, what to do with it. For them that was the simplest part. They could thrust their hands down into the recess between their breasts and pull up a wad of notes worth a couple of hundred pounds. When a caravan was needed their men would call on them as others would call on a banker. Their interest rates were negotiable and were never paid in kind but in behavior or favors granted. Her sisters knew how to control their husbands but they were simple men and not as cute as hers. He always seemed to know when she had money accumulated and usually managed to beat it out of her. His spies were everywhere, his sisters and mother always prying and asking questions of the children. She stopped bringing the small children on her rounds. In spite of warnings it was easy for them to let out important information, like where she had been for the few hours of her absence. Elsie knew that she was one of the best of the Travellers for getting money from the settled people. They liked her because she was polite and handsome and clean. She didn’t whine and she didn’t exaggerate. Pride and a certain loyalty to her own people wouldn’t allow her to tell the truth about her husband’s drinking and beatings. For some of her regulars it wasn’t necessary. Her black eyes and bruises were enough.

The latest accumulation was lying under a stone in the mud bank, twenty paces from her caravan. £353.00 in twenty-pound notes and ten-pound notes and five-pound notes and one-pound notes. She had counted it lovingly, feeling the notes, smoothing them out, folding them into twenty-pound bundles held in place by elastic bands, the whole lot wrapped in a plastic supermarket bag. If her husband moved the caravan her treasure was still measurable. It was thirty-five paces from the third cement pole, holding the last section of fencing around the dump. If someone moved the poles it was a hundred paces from the bend in the new road. If the country people decided to change the road, as she knew from experience was a likely occurrence, it was two hundred paces from the last brick house on the estate. If that went then it was straight under the last rays of the setting sun on 23 September. If there was no sun on 23 September she would dig the bank from dump to road in the middle of the night until she found it. If there was no bank — If someone came with a bulldozer — She sat up suddenly. She wanted to rush out to claw at the clay, scrabbling like a dog crazy for his buried bone, in the mud and bare-rooted trees.

She lay down again, her secret like a flame to be kept alive but not so alive that it would leap up and consume her. At long last she had learned discipline. At long last she had learned her mother’s secret of silence. When she used the Hiace horn she almost broke the secret. The sound of the horn had its own words and her husband understood them. Only that morning he had looked at her and said, ‘You’re due a beating and when I have time I’ll give it to you.’ She should have been there waiting for him, dinner ready, whenever he turned up. She should always wait around the caravan, never farther away from his mother’s or his sisters’ vans. He didn’t like her going to his brothers’ vans where she might gossip or plot treason with their wives, or worse, be unfaithful with one of the brothers.

Once only had Elsie and the sisters-in-law plotted. The great idea came to them that they would run away together and leave all the children to Hannah. There were forty-three children under the age of twelve. They sat contemplating the idea in wonder on a sunny morning when the men had gone to collect their dole money and the sisters were gossiping with Hannah. The idea had been thrown out by Mary Teresa and when the magic of it had been chewed over and gloried in it was Mary Teresa who began to destroy it. She said my Danny would never be able to look after himself. After that it was a landslide of surrender. Kathleen said her two boys were wild already and if she left them to their father, no knowing what would become of them. They’d end up in trouble with the law. Bridie said her fellow wouldn’t take a bite from anyone only herself. Eileen said mine are all at school. He’d never bother sending them and they’d lose all the schooling they had. And she’d never mind them — meaning Hannah. She’s all talk. When it comes down to it she won’t look after another woman’s children even if they are her grandchildren. All talk, that’s all she is. Elsie thought uncomfortably of Brigid and how she hadn’t got around to giving her all the loving she should have done and how her father had eyed her a few times but she couldn’t put that thought into words. She said I’d be worried about Brigid. Then suddenly all the women remembered their daughters in surprise and confusion and began to name them off, one by one, picturing each child, pretty or plain, cross-eyed or red-haired, loving or defiant, as if naming them became their remembrance.

Elsie lay thinking about all of this as the sunset deepened into a scarlet glow, filling the caravan with its radiance, bouncing off her brass ornaments and mirrors, turning her faded blanket into a brilliant rug, a kaleidoscope of purest wonder. She dozed for a while, soothed by the sun’s strange lullaby. She was disturbed by shouts and the thunder of hooves around the caravan. She twitched the curtain to peer out. The magic had gone out of the sky but over the town the pale shape of a crescent moon could just be seen. The pickers were beginning to set fire to the dump and its acrid smelling smoke drifted in a long low swathe towards the housing estate. The cries of children at a last game before bedtime reached her and above them came the shouts of her two eldest sons who waved their arms and ran after one of the piebald ponies. As Elsie peered through the window she could see the animal tearing away into the distance, towards the high church steeple, with its rider hanging on for dear life.

More trouble, Elsie thought. Someone had stolen the pony.

Then the door was pushed in and Johnny and Danny burst upon her, pulling at her blankets, crying, ‘Get up, get up, Brigid has taken the pony.’

Fonsie was after them, face red with rage, shouting, ‘That’s your rearing for you, the little bitch has gone off riding like a tinker on the piebald.’

Well then, thought Elsie, stroking her wired-up jaw, here’s a right how do ye do. The little bitch is up on a pony and away like the wind.

‘Wait till I lay hands on the little rap,’ Fonsie said bitterly. ‘Bringing disgrace unto the whole family. She’s your daughter all right. But is she mine? Answer me that will you?’

‘She is yours,’ Elsie said. ‘She didn’t get that wild blood from me. Did you ever see one of my sisters up on a pony? Have any of my family got red hair? Every one of us has brown eyes. ’Twasn’t from the wind she got the blue eyes and the hair.’

‘She could be Danny’s. From day one he was hanging around you. From the minute I brought you back.’

‘He was twelve then,’ Elsie said, wearily playing the chorus to an old tune.

‘What has that got to do with it? You were fifteen. Brigid’s near twelve now. She’s not like a girl at all. There could be something wrong with her. When your jaw is better let you see to it and when she gets back here I’ll give her a lesson she won’t forget. Don’t give me any of your old guff.’

‘Supposing she doesn’t come back?’ Elsie had started to say, but he didn’t want to hear it and he jumped off the step and joined his brothers who had gathered to grin at his discomfiture. Elsie watched them, a few thrusts of fists, a few raised voices, another soothing voice and they climbed into Danny’s van and drove away.

One of the pickers stopped by her window, his sack full of bits of copper and aluminium, the wheel of a bicycle hanging like a huge medallion down his back.

‘You’ve got a bold one there,’ he said. ‘And to look at her you’d think butter wouldn’t melt in her mouth, cross eyes and all. Have they gone to fetch her?’

‘Gone to Old Mac’s,’ Hannah joined in, leaning her large behind against the caravan, looking the picker up and down. ‘Did you get much today? That’s a miserable old wheel you got. I’ll take it off your hands for 50p.’

‘Go back to your knitting, old woman,’ he said scornfully. ‘I have a buyer for this. A proper bicycle dealer.’

‘Well that shifted him,’ Hannah said, as he heaved his load up on his bicycle and wobbled away down the road, disappearing like a ghost in the fog of burning plastic bags and litter. ‘Poking his nose in where he isn’t wanted. I hope you told him nothing.’

Elsie turned her face to the wall and groaned.

‘Hurts you, does it?’ Hannah asked. ‘You shouldn’t have let that black doctor put the wire in. I wouldn’t let a black doctor next or near me. Nor one of them women doctors either. But you were always the one with notions. I’ll go away now and look after your poor childer for you. They’re crying with the hunger, I expect, if they’re not watching the telly.’

The blessed peace when she had gone flowed over Elsie, better than any painkiller. The second pony munched near her window, stretched the full length of his tether. Brigid could have fallen off by now. She could be lying on the road with a broken arm or leg. In the distance the siren of an ambulance screamed hysterically. That’s probably her, Elsie thought. They have picked her broken little body up and brought her to hospital. She’s unconscious or maybe dead. I’ll never see her again.

The dark closed in on the caravan. Elsie listened for the voices of her children as they made their different ways to their aunts’ caravans. If Brigid were here she would come and say goodnight to her. She would cuddle up against her and she would not push her away impatiently. Brigid, Brigid, she groaned aloud.

‘I’m here, Mama.’ Brigid was beside her, hopping up and down on the bed. ‘Did you see me? I never fell off once. Did Dada see me?’

Exasperation filled every inch of Elsie’s body. It took charge of the pain. She wanted to sit up and shake Brigid till her teeth rattled. She opened her mouth to say our father’ll kill you and good enough for you when Brigid said, ‘I wouldn’t have done it if he hadn’t turned orange. The sun turned him orange and I wanted to ride him while he was that color.’

‘He wasn’t that color at all,’ Elsie said. ‘You only thought he was that color.’

‘He was. I saw him,’ Brigid insisted, her crossed eyes glinting with temper. ‘Can I cuddle into you, Mama? Can I sleep here with you?’ What was the use of anything, thought Elsie. The child was safe and sound and wanting to sleep beside her and she didn’t want anyone in the bed with her. She wanted to toss and turn and groan in privacy.

‘I might keep you awake.’

‘You won’t, Mama. And I’ll get you anything you want. Will I make you a sup of tay? Did the fellas see me? What did they say?’

Elsie began to laugh. ‘Oh my God,’ she groaned, ‘don’t make me laugh. My jaw aches. They were raging. They’ll kill you when they get their hands on you.’

‘I don’t care,’ Brigid said. ‘It was worth it. I’ll kick them and I’ll ride the pony again and again. I’ve him tethered now. I fell off loads of times but I got up again. It’s easy. I’ll practise. If they see I’m good, they’ll let me do it. I’m not like you, Mama. I’m like my Dada and no one will bate me into the ground. You shouldn’t let Dada hit you.’

Oh Mary, Mother of God, intercede for me at the throne of mercy, prayed Elsie silently. Give me patience. Help me to say the right thing. She said nothing. She thought of the money wrapped tightly under the stone waiting to liberate her.

Brigid was almost asleep. She flung an arm across Elsie’s stomach and said, ‘I’ll make money for you when I’m big and you’ll be able to buy anything you like.’

‘Won’t you want to buy things for yourself? Maybe your own pony?’

‘When I’m big I won’t care about the pony,’ Brigid said. ‘When I’m big.’ She was already asleep. Elsie looked down at her pale freckled skin and carrotty eyelashes and she smiled. An orange sun and an orange horse and orange hair. She looked with love at Brigid and she understood her world. For a moment she had a glimpse of some meaning beyond the caravan and the dump and the pile of money buried under the bank. Was it heaven that she was thinking about? Some place up there, way beyond the sky where you could go to bed and rest easy, a place like the Dallas off the telly without the fighting and arguing. All the arguing would wear you out. You either got worn out or as fat as a pig like some of her sisters-in-law who stuffed themselves even when they weren’t hungry. It was the opposite with her. Her stomach couldn’t take food when the arguing and shouting was going on. After a beating she couldn’t eat for weeks.

An orange horse was like a flame, she thought. It would burn the air up as it raced by your window. It would warm your heart but never singe your soul. It could fly up to the clouds and down again. It could give you more notions than anyone would ever know. You could touch it and not feel it. You could feel it and not touch it. It could have a meaning that you might never understand but knowing it was there would change your life. It would help you find a way to spend the money you saved. It would save your life if you let it. It would make your jaw ache less. It was better than the holy nun, God forgive her for thinking such a thing. If Margaret Anne had seen it she might never have choked on her own vomit. An orange horse that never was could be the greatest secret of all. She stroked Brigid’s hair and fell asleep.

People in the town said afterwards that the flames of the fire turned the sky the maddest orange they had ever seen. Three of the caravans went up together but the only casualties were a mother and daughter. Their caravan went up first. The heat was so intense it was a wonder the whole lot of them didn’t go up. A gas cylinder exploded. The police were questioning a man who had thrown a can of petrol into the first caravan and set it alight. He was drunk. He didn’t know what he was doing. There were screams from the caravan, terrible screams that those who heard them would never forget. But the firemen found nothing.

It was the heat, they said. It was an incinerator. A Hiace van was burned and left a carcass of twisted metal. A pony died and left a charred body but in the caravan there was nothing. Nothing.

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