Pride, prejudice and the picaresque life of the Pecker
TALK TO those who have met Pecker Dunne, and anecdotes about the veteran singer soon start flowing – whether it is how he met Woody Guthrie in Boston, the friendship he struck up with Richard Harris, the time he played New York’s Carnegie Hall, or the mooted recording project with Bono. Many of these stories have been recounted by Dunne himself, more by others; some have varying degrees of verifiability, but all attest to the strength of his presence in Irish music circles.
But if yarns about Dunne are the stuff of legend among his peers, the man and his work remain overlooked. Steeped in the musical traditions of the Traveller community, he has been a prolific performer for more than 50 years, a singer whose style has influenced many of Ireland’s greatest folk artists and a composer of raw, resonant ballads. But, whether due to the transience of his performing life or his defiant identification with his Traveller heritage, Dunne still seems a forgotten, half-glimpsed figure in Irish music.
This weekend a small step will be taken to put this oversight to rights, as Dublin City Hall plays host to a gala benefit concert for Dunne. The event, organised by writer, actor and Dublin City Councillor Mannix Flynn as part of this year’s Temple Bar Tradfest, aims to raise funds for Dunne. The singer, who turns 80 this year, is in poor health.
“But more importantly, it’s to honour the man,” says Flynn. “He has made an outstanding contribution to broader Irish society and culture. He’s not just a traditional player, he could compose – for me, he’s up there with Sean Ó Riada and [Turlough] Carolan. Also, we’re always ready to talk about integration, an equal society and cultural democracy, but Pecker is one of the very few examples of this: he gives voice to his community through his art.”
In compositions such as The Last Of The Travelling Peopleand Wexford Town, Dunne sang powerfully and frankly about the lure and hardship of life on the road, speaking of his pride in his culture while lamenting its slow decline. He came from a distinct, disappearing tradition within the community, the Travelling musicians who would earn their living busking at fairs and football matches around the country.
These entertainers spoke their own variation of Cant, the Traveller language: Dunne’s autobiography, entitled Parley-Poet And Chanter, is studded with the dialect. Their music was also distinctive.
“It’s an outdoor music,” says Niall Keegan of the University of Limerick. “It’s loud, declamatory and commercial, as they did it for a living. They were probably the first professional musicians, doing it day to day.”
Born in 1932, the young Pádraig Dunne was steeped in this culture through his fiddle-playing father. He was busking by the time he was 10 years old and was travelling the country – and abroad – on his own in his teens, swapping the fiddle for the banjo along the way. He lived a picaresque existence for decades, criss-crossing the country by horse-drawn and, later, motor-towed caravan, with lengthy stints in Britain and America.
While he drew on the rich tradition of Traveller songs, Dunne also wrote his own material, which spoke of the prejudice he met, while stridently proclaiming his identity. His songs were not polemics but arresting ballads, by turns booming and lamenting, their unadorned sentiments underpinned by his rasping voice.
By the late 1960s, Dunne’s career seemed to enter a new phase, as The Dubliners covered his composition Sullivan’s Johnand he played to fresh audiences.
“He bridged the worlds of Traveller music and the folk revival scene,” says Keegan. “The themes he sang about engaged with the folk world of the 1970s.”
If Dunne received more exposure, he still lived the wandering lifestyle, recording little and signing poor publishing deals, while his problems with alcohol grew. All speak of him being a born entertainer, but he appeared a throwback at times, even occasionally at odds with his own community through his unabashed use of terms that seemed anachronistic and derogatory to some: to quote his autobiography, “I am proud to be a Traveller and I don’t have any fear of the word ‘tinker’.”
In the 1980s, however, he quit drink, married and started a family. After that, he divided his time between his house in Co Clare and travelling the roads during the summer. He worked with Richard Harris on the film Trojan Eddie, the BBC and TG4 made documentaries about him, and he became artist-in-residence for the University of Limerick’s Nomad Traveller music programme.
These days, Dunne is in failing health and no longer performs: he will not be at Sunday’s gala, although his children will be playing the instruments and songs he taught them. And his peers will be there to pay tribute to his legacy as a songwriter, musician and singer.
“When an artist gets overlooked, it can end up being all about a tragic story. But we are trying to get to the contribution his music has made, bring it to a new generation and to acknowledge him while he is still in his boots,” says Flynn.
A Gala Benefit Night for The Pecker Dunne is at Dublin City Hall on Sunday, 5pm, as part of Temple Bar TradFest