Casey, Juanita (Joy Barlow) (1925–2012), novelist, poet, artist and expert horse breeder, was born on 10 October 1925 and adopted soon after. In the 1980s she tracked down her birth certificate, which revealed that she had been named Lorna and born within London’s outer suburbs at Elm Drive, Teddington, the daughter of Bertha Louise Newman; no father’s name was listed. She was adopted into the wealthy brewing family of Gerald Haw Taunton Barlow and his wife Mary (née Bischoff), who raised her as Joy Barlow. The couple lived near Southampton before moving to Bournemouth during the second world war. Always something of a renegade, Joy, who was an only child, was forever at odds with her conventional parents; they sent her to four different boarding schools.
Nicknamed Juanita at an early age by her larger-than-life uncle, (Andrew) Walter Barlow, she spent much of her childhood on Walter’s Herefordshire farm, where the mixed menagerie of farm and circus animals had a formative influence on her writing, art and identity; the name ‘Juanita’ came from a lioness left behind by the circus that routinely overwintered on his farm. Walter introduced her to horse breeding, animal fairs and boats, sailing with her to Waterford to buy horses. He fraternised with British Romanies and spoke their language, which Juanita also picked up, and told his young niece that she was the daughter of an Irish Traveller mother and a British Romany father, a story that shaped Juanita’s identity and creative work for the rest of her life. (This may represent a garbled version of the truth as her biological mother’s surname, Newman, was a common Romany surname in Berkshire while Casey’s birth name, Lorna, was popular among British Romanies.)
In her mid-to-late teens, Juanita was raped by an unknown assailant while out walking one night. Telling no one, she was shocked seven months later when she realised she was pregnant. Taken out of boarding school, she gave birth to a daughter who was immediately adopted. Although the pregnancy was hushed up and Juanita was allowed to return to school, it became widely known after she confided in a friend. She had to leave the school, her education at an end. Her autobiography suggests that she did not, however, allow this traumatic experience to define or constrict her.
During work experience with horses on a Dorset farm, she met John Fisher, an older, well-to-do farmer. They married in 1945 and had a son, Will, two years later. The Fishers sold the farm to live on a boat moored in Cornwall, sailing to Ireland during their marriage. She abandoned her first husband to live in Cornwall’s St Ives art colony in the late 1940s, and was soon exhibiting her Japanese-cum-Lascaux cave-style drawings and monotypes of horses. In Cornwall she met her second husband, the artist Sven Berlin, with whom she had a second son, Jasper, in 1953.
After they married that same year, the Berlins halted a horse-drawn caravan in England’s New Forest, a historic tract of unenclosed land, where they were welcomed by resident Romanies. A 1958 description captures the bohemian persona also evident in photos taken during her Irish years: ‘Juanita, a very Gypsy-like figure, with her long black hair falling over her orange coat, with her earrings made from short strings of Victorian farthings glinting through the hair; horse brasses for her jewellery with further a coral necklace from which hung a strange, old coin thought to be of ancient Russian origin. Yet … the artist’s personality was quiet and shy’ (de Baïracli Levy, 100).
The Berlins were all but penniless until 1953, when her father’s will bequeathed her £1,000 and placed a further £3,000 in a trust on her behalf; her first son Will received £6,000. She bought a farm in Emery Down within the New Forest and turned it into a stud. She was skilled at handling fiery horses, and her reputation became such that she was sent Zaman, a headstrong stallion owned by Queen Elizabeth II. Juanita also pursued one of her other obsessions, which was to produce a zorse (a hybrid horse–zebra). In 1963, however, she divorced Sven, surrendering her inheritance in the process, having fallen for their Irish groom, Fergus Casey. This relationship led to Juanita’s sustained connection with Ireland and the most creatively fruitful period of her life.
An occasional journalist and scion of the well-known family connected to the Drogheda Independent, at twenty-seven Fergus was eleven years Juanita’s junior. Like her, Fergus had been raised by a prosperous family but had thrown off a conventional, settled life. Fergus and Juanita began a roving life together, going back and forth between southern England and Drogheda, Co. Louth. In 1963, they married and had a daughter, Sheba, settling afterwards in a beach chalet in coastal Mornington, Co. Meath, until 1971. This picturesque location suited Juanita much better than the uninspiring Drogheda, which, she quipped, ‘seemed as though Cromwell had barely left’ (Casey, Azerbaijan!, 614). Fergus shared Juanita’s humour and outlook (he inscribed ‘Roost in Peace’ over the door of a henhouse that he built), though their marriage was a tempestuous one. Nevertheless, it is notable that although she had carried many names, Juanita bore Fergus’s surname for the rest of her life.
Casey’s most accomplished creative writing was inspired by these years in Ireland. She garnered some critical attention with a 1966 short story collection set in England and Ireland, Hath the rain a father?, published in London by Phoenix House, and her 1968 poetry collection with Dolmen Press in Dublin, Horse by the river, which includes the reputed first published haiku in Irish literature. However, her breakthrough came with The horse of Selene (Dolmen Press, 1971). Acclaimed on both sides of the Atlantic, it was, noted the New York Times, ‘a remarkable first novel by a remarkable woman’ (12 July 1971). Reviewers made much of Casey’s astonishing biography, which was hard to disentangle from the novel’s inventiveness, the most fascinating aspect of which was her Irish Traveller links. The horse of Selene (hereafter Selene) was reissued in a paperback edition in 1974 and again in 1986. The Irish American film director, John Huston, considered making a film adaptation in the early 1970s.
Selene was begun in summer 1964 while Casey camped on Achill Island with Fergus and baby Sheba. Its tenor and theme suggest that she readily got the pulse of Irish character, history and foibles. A darkly comic work, Selene skewers the cynical islanders of the fictional Aranchilla, who inhabit a tourist trap of their own perpetuation. The novel’s descriptions of nature are rhapsodic, but the perceived reverence for Irish islanders often favoured by male creatives, from J. M. Synge (qv) to Robert Flaherty (qv), is absent. Like much of Casey’s output, Selene is poetic, allusive, descriptive and subversive; its colourful insights on Irish oppression renders ‘Our Lady of succour’ as ‘Our Lady of suckers’. ‘Not very long ago,’ Con Houlihan (qv) suggested in an admiring assessment, ‘it would have been banned’ (Kerryman, 11 Jan. 1974).
A story of a culture clash between lovers, Selene celebrates the island’s transient or uninhibited summer residents: hippies, Travellers, wild horses and returned emigrants. In the novel, Miceal resists his desire to leave behind farm and island to go roving with Selene, a cosmopolitan visitor and expert horse handler, a denial of instincts for which nature exacts vengeance. A self-consciously ‘female’ and ‘Traveller’ novel, Selene privileges the nomadic over the conventional, the free-spirited woman over the settled man, and the wild horse over the tamed islander. (As with almost all of Casey’s publications, the novel is embellished with her own beautiful ink drawings of horses.) Miceal and the conflict stirred in him by a liberated woman were inspired by a farmer’s son with ‘wild collie’s blue eyes’ (Casey, Azerbaijan!, 376) who fell for the then Mrs Fisher during her stay in Kinsale in the late 1940s.
Traveller culture had traditionally been non-literate, so Casey’s ability to write from a nomadic point of view was revolutionary in 1971, due to the near absence of Irish Traveller self-representation in print. The novel’s celebration of nomadism is defiant: Selene was written and published during a turbulent period when the government urged Traveller assimilation and violent attacks on encampments by vigilantes were rife. To live a Travelling lifestyle was to invite opprobrium, as Casey knew from her own experiences, recalling ‘I too have had a tent pulled down and broken up around me … been forbidden entry to hotels, been even spat on’ (Irish Press, 11 Aug. 1973).
In the wake of her first novel’s success, Casey went on to publish further with Dolmen: an autobiographical second novel, The circus (1974), which fictionalised her childhood using Joycean prose, as well as the poetry collection, Eternity Smith (1985), which bore the influence of William Butler Yeats (qv). The May 1972 and September 1981 issues of the Journal of Irish Literature also featured short stories and poems by her that were almost all otherwise unpublished. Casey’s tumbling 1972 description of her creative process suggests that it was of a piece with her energetic, open and spontaneous approach to life: ‘when I do start writing, I release fountains of words … I can’t sort of sit down from like nine to five, steady writing. It has to come in a bang … a rush’ (Henderson, 45). The critic Robert Hogan – who knew her well – declared that she ‘never became a liberated woman because she was never caught’ (Hogan, 213).
As she was deeply familiar with the Irish literary tradition, the music of Hiberno-English came easily to Casey. Her writing suggests a profound identification with animals from a young age and conveys the personalities of specific dogs and horses with humour and allusion: McCool, her dignified Irish wolfhound, observes the foibles of the madcap Caseys from ‘beneath his overhanging eyebrows with the martyred expression of a Celtic saint’ (Casey, Azerbaijan!, 627). She was also a vocal environmentalist, being roused to fury when the Irish authorities appeared to encourage hunters to kill heron for the purposes of protecting salmon stocks on the River Boyne.
In her heyday Casey was welcomed into the Irish literary set. Her c.1971 playscript, ‘Thirty new pence’ (also ‘Thirty gnu pence’), a torrent of allusive language inspired by a tramp she met at Bewley’s Café, Dubin, was considered by the Abbey Theatre in the 1970s. Brendan Kennelly (d. 2021) excerpted from Selene in his ribald 1971 show, ‘The Irish make lousy lovers’. Between 1968 and 1972 Casey published stories with the Irish Press’s famed ‘New Irish Writing’ series while also writing occasional book reviews for the same newspaper, and, in the early-to-mid 1970s, she was a fixture at the Listowel Writers’ Festival, where one observer called her ‘that strange, wild travelling woman’ (Kerryman, 12 June 1971). During the 1970s and 1980s, her works were included in assorted Irish poetry and short story anthologies, in both English and German, but she was generally neglected thereafter, despite gaining a short entry in the 2002 Field Day anthology of Irish writing: Irish women’s writings and traditions.
In March 1971, Fergus Casey went missing, and his body washed up in Galway that May, the month that Selene was published. At a low point, Juanita Casey and the young Sheba decamped to a caravan in an orchard at Churchtown, Co. Dublin, before moving on to Rosemary Bradshaw’s studio in Sneem, Co. Kerry, where Casey decorated pottery and exhibited her animal paintings. In 1974, she and Sheba settled in a caravan at Okehampton, Devon. Thereafter, she worked for a spell as a horse-master with the Roberts Brothers Circus and continued to write, draw and work with horses, publishing her autobiography, Azerbaijan!, in 2008, and a poetry chapbook, Ballybunions, in 2012.
Juanita Casey died in Okehampton on 24 October 2012, and her ashes were scattered in the New Forest. Ten years later, Dublin’s Tramp Press reissued The horse of Selene, which has led to renewed interest in the writer in Ireland. The University of Delaware Special Collections contains her letters for the years 1972–88, as well as poems, short stories and illustrations; some of her papers were also acquired by Boston College.