By Noelle Mann
Images Colm Keating
Traveller Culture was well represented this September for Dublin’s Culture Night. Despite a bus strike making it more difficult for people to attend the free events around the city, the back room of the Cobblestone in Dublin’s Smithfield was packed to the rafters once again for the sixth Celebration of Traveller Music Night.
The great Ron Kavana was in attendance to launch his charity CD ‘Respect!’ with all proceeds going to the survivors of the Carrickmines tragedy. Speaking with Ron before the night got underway; he told me that he had “always been around Travellers”. Growing up in Fermoy, County Cork, Ron said that his mother would encourage Travellers to come into her pub and perform music at a time when this was not something most landlords did. Years later whilst he was in London, Ron met the legendary Maggie Barry, and has since collaborated with many other Traveller musicians, including Paddy Keenan and Thomas McCarthy.
Ron’s attitude towards Traveller discrimination is crystal clear, saying, “To all those people who say negative things against Travellers, I have to ask, do you really know a Traveller? Have you even met a Traveller?” He feels strongly that the people who lost their lives in Carrickmines have been forgotten by Ireland, and wanted to do something about it. “I couldn’t let a year go by and there be no mention of Carrickmines.” Ron was appalled at the living conditions the survivors were now enduring having been denied the use of a nearby temporary site due to local objections. “The kids are playing out in a car park in the rain surrounded by powerlines. They are now in a worse situation than before.”
May peace be with them all tonight.
On stage, and after a gentle rendition of ‘One Starry Night,’ Ron and Katie Theasby performed the first song from the charity album, also called ’Respect! (Remember Carrickmines).’ The lyrics capture the anger felt by Ron towards sweeping government cut-backs to Traveller accommodation, ‘seventy million down to four;’ and the ‘brazen sham’ of the 1916 centenary celebrations, summed up in the line, ‘the pledge of equal rights for all that has never been.’ The audience joined in with the touching chorus: ‘May peace be with them all tonight, remember with respect.’ Further information about the CD can be found on the www.aliasronkavana.com.
Stephen Wall provided a new and exciting face amongst the regular players. Originally from Dublin, now living in Ennistymon, County Clare, Stephen impressed everyone with his heartfelt lyrics and sense of humour. His eclectic fusion of folk singing with rap rhythms brought the representation of Traveller culture bang up to date. Despite admitting that he was “bricking it”, Stephen wore his heart on his sleeve, and sang about the pressures of trying to get ahead in the music business with ‘This Little Fella.’ The second song, ‘Best of Kin,’ painted a picture of his two cousins Michael and Elisabeth, “who were like brother and sister to me,” but were tragically taken away too soon. Finally, Stephen depicted the dark and drug-fuelled grime of modern city life in ‘Where I’m From.’ Stephen is currently working on his first EP, and is due to launch a Fund It campaign towards it in the next few weeks. If you want to know more about Stephen, log onto www.steowall.com.
It always feels as though Thomas McCarthy brings several generations of culture onto the stage with him whenever he performs, and tonight was no exception. Holding the audience in the palm of his hand, he sang about the 1916 rebels Robert Emmett and Sean McDermott, who was his grandmother’s first cousin. Explaining proudly that, alongside having an eminent settled ancestor, he is also related to the Traveller families of Dunnes and Cashes, Thomas could rightly say “I have great blood in me!”
The talent continued to flow onstage with Uilleann piper extraordinaire Eoin Dillon with Graham Watson on guitar. Known most widely for playing with the band Kíla, Eoin played a selection of spellbinding original pieces, including ‘Dancing on the Radio’ and ‘Marina’s Kitchen.’ He also read out a poem he had penned in response to the ignorant comments of a woman “from what you’d call a good family” who had stated to him that Travellers contributed nothing to Irish society. Eoin reeled off a list of incredible musicians and artisans, such as Pecker Dunne and the Doran brothers, before adding the question “what contribution did they make?” to stunning effect.
Organiser Freda Mullins Hughes took the opportunity to explain the idea behind the Traveller Music nights to the audience. She reminded them that in decades past, Travellers brought Irish music to the small towns and villages, and “were once welcomed and were extremely popular in this country, not told to move on”. Addressing the upcoming one year anniversary of Carrickmines, Freda described the state of several un-serviced halting sites in Blanchardstown, and how everyone living in those conditions felt that the accident “could have happened to any one of them” at any time.
Bringing the music back, Bernie McDonagh showcased his dazzling tin whistle playing and fine voice, singing ‘Black is the Colour,’ ‘Pat O’Donnell’ and ‘Daniel O’Connell,’ with accompaniment from Thaddeus Buckley. Not to be outdone, Trish Nolan further raised the bar by simultaneously playing guitar, mouth organ and foot tambourine whilst performing ‘The Tri-Coloured House,’ ‘Broken Lines’ and an instrumental piece composed by Finbar Furey.
Thomas McCarthy returned to the stage and managed to reduce the entire audience to tears of laughter with his song ‘No Balls at All,’ before following it up with the haunting ‘The Wind that Shakes the Barley.’ Thomas took time out of his performance to thank Liam Weldon and the kindness his family has continued to show towards Travellers in Ballyfermot and beyond. He described how Liam’s grandmother came out of her house and “fought the whole street” to stop them evicting a family of Travellers who had pulled into the lane. Michael Collins, MC for the evening, then asked Nellie Weldon for a rendition of ‘The Blue Tar Road.’ Visibly touched, Nellie brought her late husband’s song to life, and dedicated it to Michael’s father, returning the respect he had shown her.
The music seemed to flow by even more quickly as the night drew on, and soon it was time for Ron Kavana and Katie Theasby to return to the stage. One of the biggest highlights of the evening was the song ‘Reconciliation,’ and Niamh Parsons dropped by to provide some haunting harmonies. Ron explained that he wrote the song about the Irish civil war, but had now come to see it “as more and more relating to the struggle of Travellers”. In true open-session spirit, Katie invited an obviously delighted Sean McGovern to play bodhrán with them for a version of ‘Her Father Never Liked Me’ and ‘Sullivan’s John.’
Throwing the mic open to the performers in the audience, Freda welcomed a parade of talented singers onto the stage. Declan Coyne began with the comedy narrative of a fairground romance gone wrong, ‘O Rosie Reilly,’ and followed it with an American song about a chain gang. In the fine company of Nellie Weldon, Frank Callery sang his own powerful composition, ‘People of the Margins,’ which describes the discrimination many Travellers in Ireland have suffered over the years. He dedicated the song to Paddy Flynn, who had recently been denied a place at school while every other pupil in his class had been accepted. The legendary Manus O’Riordan also contributed ‘The Cattle at Swords.’
Stopping off before his flight home to Berlin, Andreas Schulz sang ‘The Tinker’s Poitin’ before Mick Dunne and his brother Brian belted out ‘Old Ronnie Drew’ and session favourite ‘Hot Asphalt.’ One of the more surprising contributions came from local councillor Paul Donnelly. Announcing he was going to sing ‘Raglan Road,’ many people in the room held their breath, as possibly the most beloved of Irish ballads is often ruined by the inexperienced. However, Paul blew everyone away with his handsome voice. There was just enough time for Allen O’Brien and Bernie McDonagh to perform a version of ‘The Foggy Dew’ before everyone returned to the stage for the very last tune of the evening: ‘Tinker’s Lullaby.’
The success of the Celebration of Traveller Music Nights has grown and grown, with new sessions already held in Kerry and Cork. Freda says that she would like to collaborate with more regional Traveller development groups and bring the night to even more towns and cities. The aim is now to reinstate the network of Traveller musicians that once existed throughout Ireland.
With the help of Ron Kavana, the first Celebration of Traveller Music CD is due for release in the New Year, featuring many of the regular musicians from the nights so far. Both Ron and Freda hope this forthcoming CD will be the first of a series, and will help bring Traveller music, and the appreciation of Traveller culture, to an even wider audience.