Pops Johnny Connors

I am very sorry to report that one of Aisling’s first returning emigrants has died, we think due to a heart attack.

Johnny was 82 years old so he had a long life when he passed and it was also a very full, varied and fulfilling life. Not only did he leave behind many children and grandchildren but he also left behind a legacy written in words and music to rival many famous authors and songwriters from Ireland and elsewhere. The name Pops Johnny Connors may be familiar to some folk musicians and fans as well as Travellers and those who have documented Traveller’s lives. The wider community will know nothing of Johnny unless you had the great good fortune to meet him on your travels.

Deirdre O’Callaghan was one such person. Deirdre from Cork is a photographer mostly known for her pictures of pop and rock musicians but she is also a very talented documentary photographer who carried out a photo essay in Arlington House, which became a much- praised book called ‘Hide That Can’. The book won her two prestigious international photography awards and Johnny features in one of the many memorable pictures. In it Johnny is smiling at the camera wearing a wooly hat… and a string of pearls around his neck. Johnny was well-known around Camden Town as someone who likes to dress up with a bit of style so Deirdre asked Johnny if the pearls were real and Johnny replied with the words printed in a caption below the image in the book, ‘I wouldn’t be wearing them if they weren’t’. A comment typical of the wit and wisdom of Pops Johnny.

The title of Deirdre’s book gives a clue to the lifestyle of Johnny and so many of the men in Arlington House at the time. It’s slightly ironic too because not many hid their cans except out on the street where the cops were likely to take them and pour them out into the gutter. But Johnny was drinking then, and like so many other Irish men of his generation in the London of the 80s/90s, at dangerous levels. A new product had entered the alcohol market around then called Tennants Super, which came in a blue can with a red letter T on the front. Other breweries followed suit over the following years when they saw the potential for super strength drinks and they have mostly been removed from sale by now. But for a couple of decades these tins of rocket fuel (up to 10% abv) devastated the lives of many like Johnny. It may be true to say that any alcohol is bad for you no matter what package it comes in but in terms of timing and place these little cans of delight that were cheap and available and packed a powerful punch, saw off more homeless Irish men in London than the current corona virus. After a session on these killers you just had to come back for more the next day.

Johnny survived because he managed to kick the habit and for his demographic he lived a relatively long life. He even went into rehab a couple of times and the last time at the Kairos Community Care Centre in South London had a lasting effect. Kairos employs staff with enormous patience and flexibility and a willingness to give a second chance to the more entrenched lifetime alcoholic knowing that it was a tough journey to sobriety. Many Irish men and women have graduated from Kairos and Johnny ended up staying there for a couple of years. In that time he picked up a wardrobe of eccentric clothing that could only look good on him and a 1950’s style space age bicycle that was his pride and joy, not that he ever rode it. The thing is Johnny was first and foremost a Traveller and movement was in his blood and he never felt happy unless some means of transport was at hand. Long before walking aids with space for shopping were seen about Johnny had a child’s pushchair which served the dual purpose of support for his weak legs and a receptacle for his belongings.

In the system Johnny was known as John McCann and there are certainly McCann’s in the family but his birth name was Johnny Connors and that is how he is more generally known and certainly in the Traveller community. More precisely, because of large families in the Irish and Traveller communities he was also known by his nickname ‘Pops’ which distinguished him from all the other Johnny Connors’. Johnny was born in New Ross, Co. Wexford into a large family. In those days (1940’s/50’s), Travellers still followed traditional trades like tinkering (mending pots and pans) and Johnny learned this trade and could turn his hand to many things. It was expected that young boys would grow up quick and learn skills to earn money in the family and Johnny only went to school for one week in order to prepare for his confirmation.

Nevertheless, he learned to read and write, which held him in good stead as during his long and eventful life he managed to write two autobiographies, the first of which was called ‘Seven Days of Schooling’, (which, along with his later reminiscences were recorded and transcribed by folklorist and Traveller historian Grattan Puxton) and hundreds of songs. He also came up with the idea for the film ‘Into the West’, which he sold to the production company, which made the successful film when he was camped in Ballyfermot in Dublin. Lately he received a royalty payment for the use of his song ‘Gum Shellac’ as the opening number on the recently released Irish film about a young Traveller girl becoming a boxer called, ‘Float Like a Butterfly’. Christy Moore has a song named ‘Johnny Connors’ on his album, ‘King Puck’. Several researchers have sought out Johnny over the year and he appears in field studies and anthologies and his songs are archived at the BBC.

A songwriter in the true folk tradition Johnny wrote about real things that happened recounting injustices suffered by his community and the hardship of life on the road, facing prejudice at every turn. He wrote a song telling the story of a famous eviction that Travelers resisted helped by local residents and students in the West Midlands, which must have 60 verses. Other songs by him are more designed for entertainment, some of which are definitely X certificate stuff. Johnny came with us on several Aisling trips and one time in Wicklow, when we arrived we discovered that Johnny had not packed any spare clothing. Luckily the Camden Irish Centre had given us a couple of black bags full of clothes from their clothes store. It turned out the bags were full of bands-men’s uniforms with white trousers and red jackets with gold piping and buttons. Anyone else wouldn’t have contemplated wearing the stuff unless with a marching band but Johnny was delighted and we all went down to the pub that night with Johnny proudly resplendent. There was a bit of a music session on that night and Johnny insisted on getting up in his costume to sing an extremely rude version of ‘The Fisherman’s Song’ with outrageous words and even worse gestures, scandalising the locals. The women anyway, the men seemed to enjoy it.

He was certainly well-known among musicians. We took him to a concert by another Traveller, Paddy Keenan the great Irish piper, now living in California, who was playing at the Camden Irish centre one evening. While the support act were playing a few jigs and reels Johnny, being a bit deaf and hating to wear his hearing aid, couldn’t help roaring out the names of the tunes being played and lilting along with them. It got so bad with half the audience complaining about the interruptions and the other half enjoying the craic that the manager came over and attempted to throw Johnny out. Just then, Paddy Keenan arrived to play his set and seeing Johnny he came straight over to shake his hand, bringing pints of Guinness with him and they enjoyed a few moments together catching up and sharing old times. The manager discretely withdrew.

On another Aisling trip we took Johnny to see his wife’s grave in Baltinglass in Wicklow, which we found thanks to the gravedigger who was working away at another grave side at the time. A little later Johnny’s niece turned up and introduced herself (tipped off by the grave-digger most likely). Later more relatives arrived. It was like that everywhere we ever went with Johnny, he would always manage to meet some friend or relative at the roadside. His wit could be cutting too. Once we were in Co. Clare and many in the group had been drinking a lot on the journey over and a couple of days into the trip they were feeling very worse for wear and more than a little disoriented not knowing if they were in Camden or Clare. Johnny was telling stories by the fireside about finding a cache of Spanish gold coins hidden up a chimney round about where we were staying in Spanish Point. Mary was sitting beside him gazing up at Johnny rapt with his conversation and obviously taken with his charismatic charm. At the end of the tale Mary proposed marriage but Johnny politely thanked her and said that he would rather be dead. Although his wife was long dead he always maintained that he remained faithful to her and had no interest in any other woman.

Johnny was a man short in physical stature but with a strong presence, he wore his jet-black hair long and there was not a hint of hair-loss even at his death. We have already discussed his unique sense of style and when I saw him dressed in the most unlikely garb I often thought of Johnny Rotten who maintained in his book ‘No Blacks, No Irish No Dogs’ that a lot of his own home-made style came from the Irish men he saw frequently around Camden Town. Johnny’s hard life could be seen in the road map of deep wrinkles etched into his face and his wide smile was all gums. He claimed to have so much metal in his body from various operations (carried out by the finest professors in the world) that he would be worth a fortune in scrap, which of course was another specialty of Johnny who could assess a pile of metal for its scrap value in the blink of an eye.

It is in the very nature of Traveler’s lives that they are constantly on the move or thinking about it. This lifestyle is no longer tolerated in modern society and life has been difficult for this ancient community. Johnny’s drinking was probably nor tolerated in Traveler’s society and at some point he ended up in the peripatetic hostel life in London moving between hostels and shared houses or on the streets during the worst of times. He has family members still scattered about England in Yorkshire and West London. Life just got harder for Johnny but as bad as it got he still carried a few bits of his previous life with him, his tinkering tools and his playing spoons. Arlington became a ‘wet’ hostel in 1985 and so became a refuge for hundreds of street people who like Johnny could come in from the cold to sleep in a bed.

Things changed again for the older Irish homeless men around Camden Town when Arlington House was substantially refurbished in 2005, which was the hostels centenary year. The couple of hundred Irish men were slowly moved out in phases to other smaller places without the same sense of community. Johnny, after several moves arrived at Burghley Road, a project which was a good fit for him and the other Irish drinkers who did not fit in anywhere else and he became a feature on the Kentish Town High Road. Eventually Camden Council decided that older drinkers were not a priority any longer and this place was broken up too. The community was banished to far-flung suburbs of London where they barely existed, and as fish out of water most of them died off pretty quick. Johnny found himself in an old folks care home in Camden isolated among dementia patients. On our frequent visits John Glynn and I would battle through his deafness to release his sharp mind. On the last occasion Johnny remembered a few songs including one about a girl with one leg, which he sang for us and reminisced about wild times at Appleby Horse Fair.

During the Covid19 crisis we are not sure when Johnny’s body will be released for burial but his wishes were to be buried with his family in New Ross Co. Wexford. It should be one of those massive Travelers funerals that can be seen from space but we may have to watch on Zoom.