Irish Travellers in America: The Three Wishes of Jamie McRuin

The Tree Wishes of Jamie McRuin

The Tree Wishes of Jamie McRuin

I recently wrote about a film that Jimmy Cagney planned to make but didn’t. It wasn’t described well in the sources I found, just that it was about Irish Travellers and would be a musical. I have become convinced that this was to be a film adaption of a novel called “The Three Wishes of Jamie McRuin.”

I have no solid evidence for this, but some circumstantial evidence. Firstly, the book is about two Irishmen who travel to America, one older, one younger, and Cagney’s film was to star him as an older man and Dennis Day as a younger man. Secondly, the book concerns itself with the community of Irish mule traders who met annually in Atlanta, and that was to be the subject of the film; the book explicitly references Peachtree Street, as did Cagney when talking about the film.

The entirety of Ireland’s pagan-seeming sense of the world as a mystical place comes with Jamie and his cousin, and so America becomes a land of ancient curses, holy wells, syncretic Catholicism, and antiquated courting.
The book was published in 1949, a few years after Cagney made his announcement about the film he wished to make, and so it is likely the book was being shopped around when Cagney gave his interview. And the book’s author, Charles O’Neal, was a screenwriter. I can’t find any direct connection between him and Cagney, but I have managed to get my writing into the hands of some very established actors and I am nowhere near as established as O’Neal was — in fact, O’Neal has a son who is a very famous actor named Ryan O’Neal.

I contacted the O’Neal family to see if they knew more, but haven’t heard back, and might not. So, for now, we can say that either O’Neal’s novel was the basis for Cagney’s unmade film, or it wasn’t an is just an example of the enormous coincidences that sometimes occur.

The book was made into a musical called “Three Wishes for Jamie,” but I will address that in a future essay. For now, I will discuss the book.

Firstly, a quick summary of the plot: It tells of a fanciful young Irishman named Jamie McRuin and his older cousin, a matchmaker. Jamie believes himself to have been given three wishes by the queen of the fairies: That he will travel; that he will marry the girl of his dreams; and that he will have a child who speaks Irish. Each wish comes true, after a fashion, and never in the way you might expect, and this quickly leads Jamie and his cousin to join the Irish Travellers trading mules out of Atlanta.

O’Neal told the press he had never been to Ireland when he wrote the book, and I think it shows: His Irish characters are the sorts of twee, florid, half-comic and half-cosmic figures Americans love, speaking in a lilting brogue about ancient battles and fairy folk. But O’Neal is supposed to have spent two years researching the Irish Travellers in his novel, which means that, despite it being a fiction, the novel would show an intimacy with its subjects that I have yet to find elsewhere.

The book’s Travellers are suspicious and clannish, but hard-working an honorable. They are explicitly linked with Travellers back in Ireland, who are also livestock traders, and while both groups are superstitious and quick-to-fight, the novel treats this as a typically Irish affectation, rather than one specific to Travellers. In fact, the characters who engage in the sorts of behavior usually associated with Travellers, including thieving and dishonest dealing, are the heroes, Jamie and his cousin, who are everyday Irishmen.

The book is set around the time of the Spanish-American war and shows the Travellers growing rich providing mules for the US Army — a story from Traveller history that I have read elsewhere, but have yet to find confirmation for. O’Neal has the Travellers set out in Gypsy-style caravans, taking their mules and their belongings with them and living in tents when they stop for any length of time. In his telling, the Travellers have a reputation for excellence when it comes to dealing mules, although mostly this comes from them tending to their animals and treating them well. Mules who belong to outsides are not treated as well, staved and worked to death, and one gets the sense that the real genius of the Travellers is simply that they buy mistreated animals and tend to them until they are healthy again, at which time the animals sell for a considerable profit.

O’Neal’s Travellers are fiercely Catholic — each tent has a Crucifix on the center tentpole, and an Atlanta priest is one of their few friends outside the world of Travellers. They prefer life on the road, and when their fortunes rise as a result of the war, they grow uncomfortable with the fact that this interrupts their annual perambulations around America. And they are very Irish — so much so that Jamie McRuin — with his hot temperament, flowery Irish oratory, and fantastical worldview — fits in very quickly and is accepted as a fellow Traveller, despite being an outsider.

In fact, I don’t know how correct any of this is. It is consistent with newspaper accounts of Travellers of the era, which tended to treat the group as honorable and hardworking but Gypsy-like and mistrustful. It is possible that O’Neal’s research consisted mostly of the same sort of research I do: he just read about the subject in newspapers.¬† A Greensboro Daily News article from ¬†August 14, 1949 explicitly states that O’Neal had very little dealings with Travellers.

But, then, this book does not claim to be a documentary, and is so filled with fancy and whimsy that nobody would ever mistake it for one — there is a moment when one of the characters literally transforms into a fairyfolk. So the book is probably best understood as a fiction inspired by then-common perception of Travellers and less by real encounters.

It’s hard not to wonder how much truth there might be in the book, though. O’Neal may not have had many direct encounters, but he demonstrated himself to be a superlative researcher. For a non-native Irish speaker who had never been to Ireland, O’Neal filled “Three Wishes” with so much Irish language that he really should have provided a glossary at the back of it; based on my own experiences with the language, he seemed to use it right, too.

Ultimately, what works best in the novel is how effectively O’Neal transfers Irish myth to American soil — or, at least, his version of Irish myth. The entirety of Ireland’s pagan-seeming sense of the world as a mystical place comes with Jamie and his cousin, and so America becomes a land of ancient curses, holy wells, syncretic Catholicism, and antiquated courting.

This book proposes that staying in one place isn’t necessary for the Travellers. Wherever they step, there is Ireland.
This works because O’Neal set the story among the Travellers, even if he fictionalized them. Jamie McRuin is able to stay as Irish as he is in America because the Travellers, by very nature of the fact that they have clannishly maintained their culture, are so Irish. McRuin’s cousin carries a satchel with dirt from Ireland wherever he goes, but he really needn’t have bothered, because the Irish Travellers might as well just be carrying an Irish county around with them wherever they go.

It’s an interesting conception of Travellers, who are usually treated as being rootless and peripatetic. But this book proposes that staying in one place isn’t necessary for the Travellers. Wherever they step, there is Ireland.

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Max Sparber

Max Sparber is a playwright, journalist, and history detective in Omaha, Nebraska.