Irish Travellers’ distinctive way of life, values, culture and traditions are manifested in ‘nomadism’, the importance of the extended family, their own language described variously as Shelta, Cant and Gammon and, of course, their music. Irish Travellers have, in Colm Power’s words, “played a significant role in maintaining unique aspects of Irish culture” (Ed. Hayes & Acton, Pavees and Muscers inTravellers, Gypsies, Roma: The Demonstration of Difference, Cambridge Scholar Publishing, Cambridge 2007). Although current official policy towards the Travelling community recommends ‘tolerance’, in the words of journalist Jake Bowers; “many within the community feel it’s time our culture was not just tolerated, but celebrated” (Ibid). In the same collection of papers, Mary Burke declares that when considering this mainly oral culture, we need to be mindful of the Travellers’ “considerable and centuries-old body of Irish balladry and folklore… of minor identities in consideration of the construction of ‘Irishness’ “. (Ibid).
The balladry and folklore of Ireland’s Travellers performed at Poster Fish Promotions concerts to celebrate Traveller culture includes the work of a number of highly dedicated young artists committed to spreading awareness of their unique culture. Jack Delaney of the Kilkenny Traveller clan, the Delaneys, is currently conducting invaluable research into Cant, and has even written songs in the Travellers’ language. Patricia ‘Trish’ Nolan (grandniece of the most highly acclaimed Traveller singer, John ‘Jacko’ Riley) has composed material reflecting the difficulties of coming from a mixed settled and Traveller background. Tommy McCarthy, comes from a family (related to the piping dynasty of the Cashes and Dorans) of Traditional singers and composers dating back centuries whose repertoire, sayings and stories have been passed down as part of the oral tradition within the family and which he performs magnificently both in concert and recordings. The various Dunne family members also take great pride in their family repertoire, particularly the songs written by their father, the late, great Pecker Dunne. Other regular Traveller participants in this ongoing concert series include acclaimed actor Johnny Connors (TV series Love/Hate), superb whistle player and singer Bernie McDonagh and Katie Theasby, a traditional singer and flute player.
A Place In Society:
As part of the ground-breaking Radio Ballad series, the renowned playwright and folk singer/songwriter Ewan MacColl wrote that “in the olden days, the nomadic peoples had a place in society. They were useful to the communities through which they passed and there were places where they could stop for a night, for a week, for a season. That place is increasingly denied them by our modern, mechanised, property-obsessed society… regarded as third-class citizens… they have been harassed and discriminated against to such an extent that both their culture and way of life are now in danger of vanishing”. MacColl went on to say that the Travelling People of England and Scotland are the custodians of traditional culture in these islands. In one of Meabh O’Hare’s excellent TV documentaries, when asked in an interview to summarise the importance of Traveller culture, I adopted and amended MacColl’s statement by responding that Irish Travellers are the true custodians of much that is important in Irish culture. I emphasised Irish Travellers because, of the various nomadic clans of Ireland, Britain and even the USA, only the Irish Travelling People are an indigenous part of Ireland’s population. In their article Genetic Drift and the Population of the Irish Travellers, J.H. Relethford and M.H. Crawford found that “members of the Irish Travellers’ nomadic subculture of Ireland are of ethnic Irish descent and not genetically related to the Roma people” (American Journal of Physical Anthropology, Feb. ’13).