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Horse breeder and 'remarkable wordsmith' had a passion for life

By Western Morning News  |  Posted: November 03, 2012

Among Juanita Casey's many passions were horses and King Charles spaniels

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The writer, poet, artist and horse breeder Juanita Casey has died at the age of 87 in Okehampton.

Juanita's writing won her fans here, in Ireland and the United States. Rich with imagery and a deep understanding of the human condition, her short stories, novels and poetry are peopled with carefully observed characters who come to life through an empathy, wit and an amazing grasp of dialect – one of the most difficult things to write successfully.

Her signature drawings, particularly of horses, captured the spirit which she perceived in the animal world and which she conveyed in a style utterly her own.

Juanita's best-known novel, The Horse of Selene (Dolmen, 1971), exploring the emergence of the freedom of spirit which characterised the late 1960s, brought her a cult following, particularly in the US and Ireland, with The New York Times calling it 'a remarkable first novel by a remarkable woman'. In the 1980s a story The Seagull, included in her first book of short stories Hath the Rain a Father (Phoenix House, 1966) became required reading for the GCSE examination. In all, her eight books, poetry and short stories as well as additional contributed poetry, stories and chapters, most recently two Haiku in the Irish Haiku Society's Our Shared Japan, have expressed her profound love and understanding of life, nature and the complexities and quirkiness of the human race.

"Add life to your days, not days to your life" was a favourite adage and when one considers Juanita Casey's epic autobiography Azerbaijan! (Millersford Press 2008) was more than 12 years in the making, it was one that served her well.

Born on October 10, 1925, and adopted as Joy Barlow (renamed Juanita by her uncle after his favourite circus lion), she was brought up in Southampton in the respectable surroundings of a family of brewers still clinging to Edwardian sensibilities and rituals.

Her uncle, on the other hand, was a flamboyant, enigmatic personality who had connections with circus and Romany folk and instilled in Juanita, with little persuasion, a sense of the fantastic and imaginary world. Horses very quickly became important and her passion for everything equine remained throughout her life as a well-respected breeder and handler.

Juanita's "comet-like progress through life" as she once put it, included three marriages. The first, at just 16 while working on the land in Dorset during the Second World War, was to John 'Crusoe' Fisher who farmed a large estate in Mappowder. Here she met and became friends with Theodore Powys and his family. After the war, they lived and sailed in a number of vessels, among them Brixham trawlers, including Provident, one of the few still remaining. Their son William was born in 1947.

Soon after, Juanita, drawing and painting and selling her work to the Newlyn Art Gallery while moored in Penzance, was introduced to the St Ives artist Sven Berlin.

By 1948, Juanita and her gypsy wagon were parked outside Berlin's studio, The Tower on the Island in St Ives. They made an extraordinarily bohemian couple, Sven already cast as one of the main attractions of the burgeoning art colony. Juanita found herself slightly outside the wild and often inebriated social life, but is still remembered in St Ives as she and Sven drove through Carbis Bay in a Bullnose Morris tourer with her black hair flying and her colourful clothes. (Some of Berlin's many portraits of Juanita are on show at the Out of the Shadows exhibition currently showing at Penlee House, Penzance.)

With their newborn son Jasper as best man, Juanita and Sven were married in 1953 and soon after, with Berlin increasingly ostracised by the art world, left Cornwall and travelled by gypsy caravan in a long and arduous journey to the New Forest. Juanita was quickly welcomed back by the Gypsies of Shave Green and lived first in the wagon in the forest, followed by a wooden chalet in a field of a local smallholder. The composer Vaughan Williams visited and collected Juanita's version of Raggle Taggle Gypsies Oh! while artists and writers such as Robert Graves, Denys Val Baker, Bryan Wynter, Augustus John and others searched them out.

An inheritance enabled Juanita to buy Home Farm in Emery Down nearby and there she endeavoured to maintain domesticity, indulge her love of horse breeding, including keeping Appaloosas, and training liberty groups for circuses. Among the horses at stud was Queen Elizabeth's Russian stallion Zaman. At the same time, Juanita was aiming to produce a zorse – a hybrid of horse and zebra (the latter she would ride around the lanes of the village led by the Irish groom, Fergus Casey).

By 1962, the marriage had ended and they were divorced in 1963, Juanita having left with Fergus and begun a new chapter in her life in Ireland. The years that followed involved numerous moves between Devon, Cornwall, the New Forest and Ireland, where Juanita concentrated on writing, working with Phoenix House on Hath the Rain a Father and the legendary Dolmen Press, even producing a short-lived newspaper while living in Drogheda.

Juanita wrote that her children looked upon her "the way steam enthusiasts admire a hissing antique boiler". Often, she would be the first to admit, her creativity and spontaneity took over from her domestic duties and responsibilities. But the birth of her daughter Sheba in 1963 while living in Lerryn, near Lostwithiel, brought a new adventure and one they would share in the most remarkable way.

Tragically, Fergus, while working as a journalist, was found drowned in Galway and Juanita and Sheba had to fend for themselves, moving to Sneem in Co Kerry, where she worked in the pottery, decorating plates and pots and continued to write. With three books already published, she was welcomed as a literary figure at the prestigious Listowel Writers Week and just before the publication of The Circus in 1974 the two returned to the UK and settled in Okehampton. Shortly after, Juanita joined Roberts' Circus as horsemaster and Sheba's 11th birthday was celebrated on tour at Leamington Spa.

At the age of 50, Juanita remembers having her hair cut, writing in Azerbaijan! she felt she "could no longer go about looking like the Witch of Endor – and I miss it still!"

Her other passions included King Charles spaniels, of which she had several, collecting fossils, on which she was a considerable expert, and her quest to discover the truth about her heritage, which may well remain something of an intriguing mystery.

A truly remarkable wordsmith, Juanita Casey's work will remain as a literary experience to be treasured; we can continue to marvel at her ingenuity, gasp with pleasure at each new turn of phrase and cry tears of hilarity at her characters – or weep at the simple beauty of her imagery.

Juanita Casey died on October 24.

Sonia Aarons

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  • Okekoke  |  November 08 2012, 10:27AM

    What a lovely tribute - and an amazing life!