The Irish Travelling community or “Travellers” are an indigenous ethnic minority group. Throughout Irish history, the Travelling community has been present however greatly separated from the general Irish population, or the “settled community”. It was only until as recent as 2017, that the Travelling Community were recognised as an indigneous ethnic minority group by the Irish government. The Travelling community is mainly itinerant, with its own culture, language. The community is predominantly English speaking, however they mostly speak Shelta, which is more commonly known as ‘Cant’ or ‘Gammon’ by Travellers themselves . The 2016 census in the Republic of Ireland reported the number of Irish Travellers as 30,987.
It is thanks to Travellers that our traditional Irish songs and music have survived so long. My research makes me wonder how small the collection of songs would be without the influence of Travellers holding onto them and passing them from generation to generation. It has become a lot easier for songs to be collected and held onto in modern times with the invention of recording devices which last forever. I think that the contribution of Traveller song to Irish traditional music up until recordings began is huge and the traditional music community would be lost without it. The following is an introduction to my research on Travellers, their way of life and their music.
Unfortunately, Travellers quite often experience high levels of discrimination, impacting many aspects of their daily lives. They typically tend to camp in groups within their own network with numbers ranging of anything up to about twenty. They would meet in large groups at fairs, markets and family occasions such as weddings, funerals and christenings. At these occasions, songs and stories would be told. Traditionally male Travellers would stick together for most of their activities and female Travellers and young children would spend the majority of their time together. The stories are both of entertainment, as well as a means of sharing and passing information generationally. Travellers were very much the guardians of old traditional songs and music. Most families would have members who would be renowned for their repertoire of songs and stories.
A Traveller is not something you can become, one cannot suddenly decide to become a Traveller and nor can someone who marries a Traveller become one, however, a child bore between a Traveller and a settled person can be a Traveller.
About two years ago (January 2017), by chance I had my first real interaction with a large group of Travellers while performing at a gig. There were requests for some songs that I knew and some I didn’t but they were very specifically traditional Irish songs. I soon realised that my entire audience were Travellers. The gig turned into a singing session and at the end, I sat with them and we all took turns singing songs. It began as all male travellers in the room but led to the females joining in. Their attentiveness to the songs I was singing was that of respect and which I immediately gave them in return without thought. I probably didn’t really appreciate the situation that I was in at the time. I heard so many different voices singing old Irish songs, looking back at this experience was only the beginning for me.
I discovered that a collection of Traveller songs was available to the public in the University College Dublin. My first approach to UCD brought my research to a new level. I didn’t know what to expect when I arrived, thinking that I might be able to listen to a few songs and obtain some more information about Travellers music. I was aware of Tom Munnelly, in particular, Tom Munnelly’s research. Tom Munnelly was a full-time song collector with the department of Folklore in UCD. He was responsible for compiling the most comprehensive collection of traditional Irish folk songs, in particular those that came from Irish Travellers.
When I arrived I was greeted by a lady by the name of Anna Bale. Anna was a great help to me. Upon meeting her, one of the first questions she asked me was “Where would I like to start”? I replied, “Maybe just let me listen to some of the oldest songs you have or anything that Tom Munnelly had collected”. She then said “Okay Stephen, but we have over twenty-two thousand songs of Travellers collected here so I will try to direct you as best I can.” I was completely taken aback as I couldn’t believe that there were so many songs. I had no idea how or if I would ever possibly get through them all. Anna then directed me to a computer with earphones and opened a folder with thousands of Travellers songs.
When comparing different types of traveller songs, there are massive similarities on subject matter. The songs tend to be based on real-life events. The old tradition of changing words to suit the melody seems to be evolving to more modern styles and new songs. I have found that Travellers themselves tend not to be keen on songs written about their community by outsiders, unless they are a respected songwriter who have experience with the travelling community.
The more I listen to Traveller songs and the more contact I have with the tight knit travelling community, the more I discover and the more fascinated I become.