Juanita Casey – a forgotten traveler-Roma writer rediscovered

As unconventional and transgressive as her recently republished novel, The Horse of Selene, is the remarkable life of Juanita Casey: novelist, poet, artist and horse breeder, writes Mary M. Burke.

Casey was adopted by a conventional Southampton couple in 1925 and brought up as Joy Barlow. She was expelled from school early, where she had excelled in both art and rebellion. Nicknamed “Juanita” by her larger-than-life adoptive uncle, Walter, after a circus-abandoned lioness who regularly wintered on his farm, Casey remembered hatching python eggs in her uncle’s oven. Indeed, Walter’s menagerie of farm and circus animals had a formative influence on his writing and art. He also introduced his niece to horse breeding and boats, sailing to Waterford with her on horse-buying trips.

Walter fraternized with the British Roma so much that he could speak their language fluently, and repeatedly told young Juanita that she was the offspring of an Irish traveling mother and a Roma father. Casey later suspected that Walter himself fathered her, but there seems to have been some truth in her insistence that she was descended from Travellers: she discovered in the 1980s that her biological mother was called Newman, a well-documented Roma surname in the south of England. East. Regardless, throughout her life, Casey identified strongly with the traveling Irish and British heritages which she considered her birthright.

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During experience working with horses on a farm in Dorset, teenager Juanita entered into a brief marriage with John Fisher, with whom she had a son. The fishermen lived on a boat, even sailing as far as Kinsale at one point. In the late 1940s, Juanita abandoned Fisher for Cornwall’s St. Ives Art Colony. There she gained attention for her horse drawings and met her second husband, artist Sven Berlin, with whom she had a second son. The 1950s saw Berliners stop a horse-drawn caravan under an oak tree in England’s unenclosed New Forest, which they called the Tree of Stars for the effect it had when they slept under it . A description of the “Gypsy” Juanita at this time is worth quoting:

…long black hair falling over her orange coat, with her earrings made of short strings of Victorian farthings glittering in her hair; horse brass for her jewels plus a coral necklace from which hung a strange and ancient coin that was believed to be of ancient Russian origin… [which had been] unearthed in the New Forest by a Gypsy, and presented to Juanita by the discoverer.

The idyll with Berlin ended in 1963 after Juanita met Fergus Casey, who, at 27, was eleven years her junior. Like her, Fergus, a scion of the Caseys of Drogheda Independent connection, had abandoned a conventional life and they began to wander between England and Ireland together, during which time they had their daughter, Sheba. (Juanita’s three children from her three marriages inspired a traveling trader at the Ballinasloe Horse Fair to remark, “Whoever the father is, there’s a big drop of blood on the mother’s side.”) Compare Casey to fellow Irish writers whose work follows the changes brought about by ‘Women’s Lib’, Robert Hogan said she ‘never became a liberated woman because she was never taken’.

Casey was once put in charge of a troubled stallion that belonged to Queen Elizabeth, but this extraordinary proof of her reputation in the equine world barely stands out in her colorful biography.

Throughout her life, moving between the often intersecting subcultures of circus, Roma, Travelers and Irish and British artistic and equestrian circles, Juanita lived a variety of lives under many names: in the years 1940, she exhibited her horse drawings in galleries; the BBC archives list a 1957 radio play (“A Gypsy’s Tribute to Horse”) by a certain Juanita Berlin; a 1960 essay by that name titled New Forest Gypsies was republished six years later under the “Juanita Casey” line; she appears as a Romani translator in a 1961 documentary about “gypsies”; in the 1970s, while working as a potter in Kerry and relying on a recalcitrant donkey named Thundering Mike for transportation, Juanita shows up at Listowel Writers’ Week; an Irish Times column on the 1981 Cannes Film Festival reports that a film adaptation of Selene’s Horse was being planned; a 2019 biography of Vaughan Williams describes the composer’s wild night of drinking with Juanita and her New Forest Roma friends. Poignantly, for all her enthusiastic characterizations, Juanita was old before discovering her first identity: her biological mother had, it seems, named her Lorna.

Selene’s Horse, republished this summer by Tramp Press, was written in six weeks during the summer of 1964 while Juanita was camping on Achill Island with Fergus and baby Sheba, during the pre-Troubles period when tourism was booming in Ireland . The cynical islanders of the novel inhabit a tourist trap of their own making in which heritage is sold to the highest bidders. Tourist interests were of little use to Selene (or Juanita and Fergus) as there was no profit to be made from broke vagabonds camping on the beach. Additionally, the novel’s celebration of nomads challenges the endemic anti-traveler rhetoric of that era. Despite such prejudice, however, at its height in the mid-1980s, Casey was included in the canon of Irish literature, but has since been overlooked. Arguably, the label of “traveling writer” served him well in terms of initial impact, but in the long run it may have contributed to his marginalization. Casey’s Traveller-Romany associations and her transnational, bohemian lifestyle made her “unclassifiable”, as she was described in a 1984 roundup of Irish female writers. Unfortunately, writers who do not fit specific nationality or ethnicity classifications may be overlooked.

At Juanita Casey’s Selene’s Horse was acclaimed on both sides of the Atlantic when it first appeared in 1971. Set on the fictional Irish island of Aranchilla, Selene’s Horse concerns the complicated romance between a handsome but repressed young island farmer named Miceal and Selene, a free-spirited visitor to the “Gypsy” Association and Traveler who camps on the beach. The New York Times called it “a remarkable first novel by a remarkable woman”; critics made much of Casey’s astonishing biography, indistinguishable from the novel’s themes and inventiveness, the most fascinating aspect of which was his connections to Irish travellers.

Selene’s Horse deserves to be rediscovered in this century. It is increasingly evident how the alternative communities of 1960s and 1970s Ireland he documents foresaw the growing acceptance by contemporary Ireland of what were once seen as ways of life and identities marginal. It’s a novel of our time

In 1974, Juanita and Sheba returned to England, where Casey became a circus horse master for a time. In the decades that followed, she continued to write and draw, alternating between a caravan and a cottage in Devon’s vast Dartmoor, where she kept many animals. She remained razor-sharp as she grew older and celebrated her 80th birthday by returning to the New Forest to find the Tree of Stars. Juanita Casey, aka Lorna Newman, Joy Barlow, Juanita Fisher and Juanita Berlin, died in Devon in 2012 aged 87. At his request, Vaughan Williams’s The rising lark was played at his funeral and his ashes were scattered under the Star Tree.

Mary M. Burke directs the Irish Literature Concentration at the University of Connecticut. She wrote the afterword to a new edition of Juanita Casey’s Selene’s Horsepublished by Tramp Press.

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