Culture

Music from the Margins

A series of gigs are helping to promote the musical tradition and identity of Irish Travellers

The first ‘Celebration of Traveller Music’ gig was held during Traveller Pride Week 2014 and was held in The Cobblestone pub in Dublin. There has since been a series of gigs in The Cobblestone and the first of a regular Celebration of Traveller Music in Tankers Bar in Listowel.

The nights are organised by Poster Fish Promotions, a tiny not-for-profit music promotion outfit, and Blanchardstown Traveller Development Group, a community group that runs CE Programmes, Fetac-accredited training courses and supports the Traveller Community in Dublin 15.

According to Freda Hughes, Chair of the Blanchardstown Traveller Group, the nights are about celebrating and taking pride in Traveller culture, music, identity and heritage, and recognising the contribution Travellers have made, and continue to make, to Irish traditional music. She points out that “Positive events like this help to bolster a sense of pride in the community and also challenge much of the negative stereotyping that we see so often in the media.”

Hughes reveals that the gigs really built momentum after the tragic halting site fire that claimed 11 people in Carrickmines in Dublin:

“Many musicians came together to organise a fundraiser for the families who had lost their loved ones. While the movement had grown and developed throughout the gigs, there was a spark felt by everyone involved in this gig and we decided to take the show on the road and do it in our own way and at our own pace. Despite packing out The Cobblestone at every gig we don’t really want to move to a big venue. We’ve decided instead to link in with Traveller musicians around the country and organise gigs with them.”

Renowned singer Thomas McCarthy comes from a long line of traditional singers and musicians. He argues that Traveller music is a crucial part of the broader Irish music culture.

“The Traveller music tradition is powerful. Looking back most settled musicians were in awe of our forbears. The evidence is plain to be seen; Willie Clancy, Seamus Ennis, his father, Paddy Tunney, Elizabeth Cronin, Joe Heaney, the Keane family of Galway, Christy Moore, far too many others to mention were all inspired by Traveller music. Traveller music has developed enormously over the centuries. Field recordings from the last 60 years have inspired many young Travellers to play instruments and it makes them feel proud of their heritage. To me there is a fire in Traveller music that most settled people have not got. For instance listen to the Raineys play, I don’t think anybody can play like them, but that is just my opinion. It has developed so much in every family. You will find a good singer and more and more are coming out of the woodwork. I feel it is getting stronger and long may it continue to do so.”

Out of the Carrickmines disaster, something mighty and powerful keeps growing

McCarthy, who travels home from the UK regularly to play at the nights, said, “The Celebration of Traveller Music nights are very important. They are actually unique. I don’t think Traveller musicians and singers ever bonded like this. It started with the Carrickmines disaster. We all felt so strong about it and came together in aid of the victims. It has been decades, maybe a lot longer since members of different families got together like this. There is something very special about it when we meet up. I believe through the Celebration of Traveller Music touring we have opened people’s eyes. They are eager for us to come and play and sing. I think it has started something that cannot now be stopped. Out of the Carrickmines disaster something mighty and powerful keeps growing.”

There are many other talented musicians involved. Stephen Dunne, son of the famous Pecker Dunne, is doing his father proud with powerful performances of his songs and renditions. His older brother Paddy played at the gig in Listowel and will continue to perform. Jack Delaney, whose song Lashún Gatna was used in the RTE series Love/Hate, sings in a mixture of English, Irish, Romany and Gammon/Cant, reflecting his own background.

Hughes is excited by the momentum the gigs are building up:

“Once people started to hear about our gigs, news spread far and wide and people started to get in touch and ask us if they could play or sing on the night. We’ve been overrun with offers and requests to perform some nights and literally couldn’t fit everyone on the line up. Our headline acts have often been kind enough to cut their sets short to allow as many performers as possible to get a chance to perform.”

This enthusiasm has been reflected in the range of performers, with artists such as Bernie McDonagh, a singer and tin whistle virtuoso, flute player and singer Katie Theasby, Martin Anthony Collins, renowned blues guitarist Ron Kavana. Trish Nolan, Tadhg Kelleher, the well-known Dublin band Lynched, Eoin Dillon of Kíla, John Connors (actor), Selina O’Leary and Brigid Doyle Collins of the famous Doyle musical clan.

While the events are important in building up pride in Traveller culture, Hughes is keen to highlight the wider issues affecting the community.

“There are still huge injustices done to Travellers by this state on a daily basis. Every year County Councils fail to draw down the funding allocated for Traveller-specific accommodation forcing Travellers instead on to the already over-loaded private rental sector while halting sites remain insufficient in number and in dire condition. Traveller trades, culture and lifestyle have all, but been done away with through sixty years of forced assimilation policies. The Irish state still refuses to recognise Travellers as its only indigenous ethnic minority despite the fact that such recognition exists in the UK and Europe. For many people it is still OK to discriminate and express prejudice towards Travellers. There is glaring inequality staring you all in the face, but people have become so desensitized or contemptuous that they just carry on regardless.”

“We are delighted with how successful the nights have been so far. They are not big money makers, in fact we are in need of some funding to make sure that they continue, but they do generate a lot of positive energy.”

Blanchardstown Traveller Development Group plans to produce a radio show focusing on Traveller music later this year, while guitarist Ron Kavana has been working with some of the artists to release a fundraiser album further into 2016. As Hughes says: “Like many community sector groups, our funding has been subject to many cuts over recent years so we need to constantly think on our feet to sustain the work that we do. Many of these ideas are subject to funding, but where there’s a will there’s most often a way. ”

For more information, see the Poster Fish Promotions Facebook page or contact posterfishpromotions@gmail.com. You can also listen to some of the sets on soundcloud and YouTube. All pictures by Colm Keating.

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