With their shared traveller heritage and respective musical and filmmaking backgrounds, they had lots to talk about when they shared a sofa with Adrienne Murphy.
The 27-year-old actor and documentary-maker, John Connors, first met musical maestro, 70-year-old Finbar Furey, two years ago, when they co-starred in the movie, Wild Goose Lodge, for which Furey also wrote the soundtrack.
Connors the Love/Hate actor, and Furey the living legend, hit it off immediately. Both Travelling people, Connors and Furey soon discovered that they’re distantly related, and that their families have crossed paths before.
There is warmth and respect in the way the two men greet one another at The Spawell Hotel, in the southside Dublin suburb of Templeogue. Furey has come from his house in nearby Rathfarnham; Connors from his home at the Travellers’ campsite in Darndale, north Dublin.
Finbar has just released a stunning new album, Paddy Dear, delivered in a voice that is sweeter than ever. His extraordinary career, stretching back over five decades, has long been a source of pride and inspiration to Travellers. As it should be. With a long lineage of musical sophistication behind him in what was a hugely musical family, Finbar is one of the masters.
The manner in which he has galvanised the Irish musical and songwriting tradition, and passed it on to future generations, exemplifies the crucial historical and cultural role that is still played by Travellers in Ireland: a role brilliantly and definitively uncovered for the first time by John Connors and his team in their groundbreaking traveller history documentaries, broadcast last autumn by RTÉ.
There is a rare and precious sense of vibrancy when culture, politics and formerly suppressed or hidden histories converge, and new understandings – capable of lighting the way along the path of human knowledge – are expressed through conversation.
Being in the presence of John Connors and Finbar Furey offers such a moment. For me, it is an amazing way to be educated on the real significance of Traveller culture in Ireland: that Travellers may well be the last custodians of the Gaelic culture that was so violently wrent from our population by colonialisation – a truth which is confirmed by the gamechanging research of Connors and his team, and illustrated so abundantly by Furey’s torchbearing career.
As a settled person listening to Connors and Furey talk, I feel the scales fall from my eyes, because it shakes me awake to the racist injustice that continues to be meted out to Travellers and their way of life.
But also, and very beautifully, in the company of what I believe are two guardians of the last vestiges of our ancient Gaelic culture, I find healing, comfort and hope for the sad yearning that I carry for what was lost through colonisation – a deep grief that many Irish people, consciously or unconsciously, still bear.
May the words and the work of Finbar Furey and John Connors open the eyes, and heal the souls, of multitudes.
CONNORS: I always wanted to meet you, Finbar. I grew up with your voice. You’re a legend in the community. You have that great old Traveller tradition of telling stories, really animated, like you can see everything. You’d be a massive inspiration to me as a creative person. Because you’re accepted by everybody now on the island. It doesn’t matter that you’re a Traveller – you’re considered one of the greats of Irish music.
You’ve always acknowledged your Traveller culture, and when you listen to your music, you can’t not hear it. It’s in your voice, in the songs that you play and that you’ve written, songs about the culture, too. And you can feel the Traveller pride there strong as ever in your new album, Paddy Dear.
One of the biggest challenges I’ve had is jumping outside the ‘Traveller’ thing. You did that a long time ago. But early on in your career, was there anything that hindered you, or were there extra challenges, because you were a Traveller?
FUREY: We grew up in Ballyfermot in Dublin, and I never experienced any prejudice. I think once at a gig I got called ‘pikey’, but I just ignored it. When I meet a very small-minded person – I call them shallow people – I pity them in a way, because they could learn so much. But they have this barrier in front of them.
CONNORS: My grandparents are around your age, and they say the same thing, that discrimination was rare back then. But now it’s different. There was a huge change, with discrimination and racism getting much worse towards Travellers from the 1960s onwards, when the ‘assimilation’ policies were really brought in, with wholescale evictions of Travellers from their sites.
FUREY: I was at the historic Cherry Orchard campsite, that was violently evicted in 1963. The singing there was unbelievable – the old women, the sean nos singers. And Luke Kelly and Ronny Drew – they’d be jamming there….
CONNORS: I’d have given anything to have been there at that time and seen all that going on. One of me cousins who was there was telling me that when Luke Kelly was coming down he’d bring down loads of sweets for the children; they’d love to see him coming.
Our documenatry went into the evictions that started in the 60s and are continuing right up to now, probably more than ever. It also looked at the real origins of Travellers, and debunked the myth that we came from people dispossessed during Famine times.
That myth was propaganda created when the Irish Free State was formed in the 1920s. The State needed funding, particularly from America. So you started to hear talk in the Dáil about the ugly image of the people in the countryside that would deter foreign investment.
And there was propaganda put out in the newspapers – very similar to the propaganda put out about the Irish by the English – painting Travellers as beasts, alcoholics and thieves. There were various vagrancy laws aimed at Travellers going on throughout the 20s, 30s, 40s and 50s. And then the final thing was the 1963 Commission Report On Itinerancy, which massively strengthened the ‘assimilation’, which led to the increased oppression of Traveller culture, and increased discrimination against Travellers.
The ironic thing was that the sites that Travellers were given were always on the outskirts of towns, so you couldn’t even integrate, never mind assimilate. They were marginalised, and there was no consultation with Travellers about the sites. And their old sites were blocked up with boulders, so they couldn’t go back to them.
So a lot of Travellers were forced to Dublin – they were originally rural people – and there was no consideration of what family goes with each other, so when a site was being built they put in loads of different families who weren’t used to travelling together. People think we’re just the one, but we’re actually a very diverse community. So that started a lot of trouble as well.
That narrative about the Travellers being the dispossessed from the Famine times, that narrative ended up helping the Irish government in 1963, because they could say we’re just helping Travellers, because they’re failed settled people, as opposed to recognising us as our own people.
The way my grandfather puts it is back in the time when you were growing up, Finbar, in the 40s and 50s, you’d go to settled people, you’d be asking them could you do a bit of work on their land, or you might trade them a bit of work, you might mend their pots and they’d give you something in return. It was a 50/50. They’d either turn you away or they’d let you in. And that’s the way it still was up until the 60s. But from the 60s onwards, it started to change.
Right now, it’s in the worst state it’s ever been. If you’re a young Traveller growing up today, the settled people either don’t know about the level of discrimination and racism, or they don’t give a shit. And if you’re a young Traveller growing up in this climate, and you’re reading the newspapers, and you’re scum and you’re filth and your people are barbarians, and politicians are allowed to say that you’re not allowed to move into this place – and that you should be tagged, and put out to an island and castrated – and all that sort of stuff is happening, and then you got to school and get segregated….
I’m only 27 and I was segregated in primary school. After being in a class with settled kids, we were taken out and put into an all-Traveller class, giving us books we’d done in Junior Infants and crayons. Treated like we had no brains. And that’s still going on today. People talk about segregation and what that does to you, and what that mentality does to you – we even had teachers calling us smelly knackers.
If I had to write a list of the amount of times that I’ve been abused, called names, and physically abused by people, because of who I am, that list would go on into eternity. But most settled people don’t want to know about it.
It’s created a lot of anger in the Travelling community, but also a lot of internalised hatred and shame. Five or six years ago, I wouldn’t have been able to have this conversation. I wouldn’t have had the confidence. I wouldn’t even have the know-how to look objectively at what has actually happened to my people. We used to be proud people, we used to be great, great people. Nowadays, most Travellers will pretend to be proud, but I know on the inside we’re often ashamed of who we are.
FUREY: That’s very different to the way I grew up. We were taught as children that we can do anything. Our mother and father filled us up with so much confidence. Growing up in the house, there was always instruments. Me oul fella always had fiddles lying around. And I got me hands on a tin whistle at Puck Fair. Me oul fella sent me to buy a bit of salty butter, and I looked at this tin whistle, and I knew I had to get it, so I said to yer man, “How much is the tin whistle?” And it was exactly the same price as the butter! And me oul fella caught up with me hiding in the corner playing this thing. I’d already learned to play a bit of ‘Home Sweet Home’. “So off you go buskin’ then”, says he, “and bring back the price of the butter!”
CONNORS: What age were you at that time?
FUREY: I was about six. My father when he used to let us off at Puck Fair, said if you get lost, find the Puck – the goat – and don’t leave the Puck. Now in them days, the Puck would be only up the height of that window there, and people could come along and pet it. But then as times progressed, you’d be getting a few blackguards in the middle of the night throwing bottles at the Puck and messing, so they had to put the Puck up very high. Anyway, me oul fella was looking for me, and there I was, fast asleep beside the Puck, about six years of age! With a few bob in me hand and the tin whistle.
Me auntie took me home that night, because me father was going to Dublin. He used to freshwater pearl-fish in the summer, in the Blackwater River. So he had this little bottle of pearls. There was a Scottish buyer that used to come in to buy the pearls from the Travellers. They’re from freshwater mussels. They were very valuable.
My father had a hook and a rod – it was like a fork – that would pull the shell out of the water. Then he’d get the penknife in and turn it sideways, and get his finger in, and the knife would keep the shell open so it wouldn’t hurt the mussel, and he’d put his finger in and take the pearl out, and drop it into his bag, and pick a piece of sand up and put it into the shell, and then pull the knife out, and he’d put the shell back into the sand, and the shell would bury itself.
He’d put the pearls into a bottle and grade them then, so he’d have a few different sizes. Then he’d meet this fella in Dublin, they’d do a deal, big cash, and that was it – my father would take off and play music then for the winter.
CONNORS: Hahaha! Travellers back in them days were very self-sufficient people.
FUREY: There was no dole back then. I remember when we were growing up, we refused to take the dole.
CONNORS: My grandmother says it was the ruination of the Travellers.
FUREY: If a Travelling man was taking the dole, people would say ‘god help him’. It was a sign of real poverty. You always made your own few bob. And by the way, the Travelling women – the wives, the girls – didn’t like their men being on the dole either!
CONNORS: And music is a great way of working. What sort of influence do you think Travellers have had on Irish tradional music? Because I’m hearing stories from non-Travellers, great musicians, that if Travellers weren’t there, the music wouldn’t be alive today, because it wouldn’t have travelled around.
FUREY: There’s a great story from the book, Free Spirits: Irish Travellers and Irish Traditional Music, written by Tommy Fegan and Oliver O’Connell. During the penal times, when Irish music was banned, and our language and songs were banned – if you sang an Irish song, or played a tune on the fiddle, you could be locked up. There was a fiver on a piper’s head during those times – they’d shoot a piper.
At the back of the Travelling people’s wagons, there’s a sort of a cradle you could cover over for keeping dry sticks. So people in manor houses gave the pipes to Travellers to hide in their caravans, in amongst all these sticks. It wasn’t the poor people of Ireland who owned the pipes, it was the rich people who had them in their houses, because the poor couldn’t afford them. So the pipes were handed to the Travelling people to take care of, while the English went in and destroyed the houses looking for instruments.
So the Travellers were moving the pipes from county to county. And by the time they gave the pipes back, they’d learned to play them, and become masters.
CONNORS: The risk of that to keep the music alive!
FUREY: The whole family would be shot if they were caught. And there was a beautiful story I grew up on, told about one of your ancestors, a man called Old John Cash –
CONNORS: The Cashs married the Connors...
FUREY: Yes. In the story, three brothers had died, aged between six and eleven, and this woman was burying her three sons, and they were all keening over the grave. And Old John Cash couldn’t take this deep pain from these women. He said, ‘This is wrong’. And he whipped the pipes out the back of his caravan and started playing, even though he could’ve been shot. He was 6’5” by the way, a big man. The story was that the soldiers went to shoot him, but the scene was so sorrowful, they realised it was taboo. And after that, they let freedom come back to our Irish music again, and our singing and language slowly came back. And it was down to John Cash, that stood his ground at the grave.
It’s these kind of stories that are documented in the book, Free Spirits. The authors went around collecting the stories. It contradicts a lot of the history that we have in schoolbooks and universities, but it’s factual.
CONNORS: It reminds me of that song your brother Eddie sang…
FUREY: (Sings)“The books you read at school do not mention me because I am the invisible man…”
OUR HIDDEN HISTORY
CONNORS: I’ve spoken to lots of Travellers who feel that we carry the real Irish culture. Our documentary last year offered the first historical proof of this. DNA studies that we did show that there was a divergence of Travellers and settled people in the 1600s. In the 1600s we diverged and stopped mixing with each other. And if you look around the 1600s, what was happening? The Gaelic culture was being attacked. But the reality is that the Gaelic culture wasn’t annihilated, as you’ll read in most history books. In fact, it was continued on, in Traveller culture.
The objective was to eradicate Gaelic culture. Why? Most people don’t realise that the majority of the country at the time was nomadic. For the majority of Ireland’s existence, we were nomadic people. We were known around Europe as the wandering Irish. And being nomadic was a great vehicle to maintain a culture, because you weren’t staying in the one place and mixing with the foreign invaders. If you look at that whole martial law period, when there was a split in the DNA, one of the main objectives was to make people settle. Because if you’re settled you can pay taxes; you become an individual; you’re easier to colonise.
If you look at Traveller culture, the way we stay together at a site, that’s a modern-day version of a Gaelic tuath, with your family all around you. The nomadic aspect of the Gaelic culture has been rubbed out of the mainstream history books. You don’t learn it in school.
Travellers have known that we always travelled – that we didn’t come from dispossessed settled people from the Famine. But we couldn’t exclusively say where we came from. So with the DNA results, we found the period in which we split from settled people. Then you look at that period and see what happened – that the split had to come from a big event.
In around that time, three or four hundred years ago, about two to three million people would’ve been nomadic on the island. And then as time goes by, and after the Cromwellian times, the number grows smaller and smaller, and the group grows smaller and smaller, and essentially that’s Travellers, right up to now. It’s been so long that now we’re genetically distinctive to the settled community. And the thing is, the settled government has been far more successful at settling Travellers – ie attacking the Gaelic culture – than the British government ever was.
The thing that people don’t realise about Traveller culture is they say, ‘Oh, but you’re not travelling any more’ Obviously that’s because we’re not allowed, it’s against the law – but they think travelling is the be all and end all of our culture. But in fact, nomadism was a way to protect the Gaelic culture. And that’s what Travellers still try to do, and that’s why Travellers want to live in specific combinations amongst ourselves. Like I have me camp with my aunts, cousins, uncles, grandparents all around me. It’s the way I was brought up and I know it’s the way I want to live. The community aspect – that comes from Gaelic culture.
FUREY: Well that’s the thing. I really love being Irish. And my mother and father gave us a life they started, and their people started before them. It’s a musical family. It’s a continuous thing. And my children have it.
CONNORS: One last question. Forget about Traveller/settled person stuff for one second. Let’s talk legacy. Damien Dempsey is a great friend of mine – our sessions always end up with ballads on YouTube, your ballads. He says to me that he believes that you’re one of the greatest, if not the greatest musician, this country’s ever produced. To hear that from a younger musician, what does that mean to you?
FUREY: Well, I can’t even put that on me head. I play the pipes –
CONNORS: You were Irish champion, weren’t you? Over and over.
FUREY: But there’s a side where I’m putting the pipes away for a little while now and getting into the banjo, like on Paddy Dear, because it’s very important with the singing, and I’m a singer/songwriter. So the pipes don’t just take up my life. And I have the flute as well. I’ve got to make room for all these instruments.
CONNORS: I seen you in Vicar St. last February, and it was one of the best gigs I’ve been at in my life. I just loved it. And you’re switching back and forth between instruments. You really just have the crowd – you know how to entertain them.
FUREY: I did a gig in Claremorris a few months ago, and I started this story at the beginning of the show, and two hours later, I told the punchline.
FUREY: I wove the story all the way through the whole show! It was brilliant. I kept going back to it. I love doing that.
Paddy Dear by Finbar Furey is out now. Info on upcoming gigs at finbarfurey.com