Folk music hero and champion of Traveller culture

Sat, Dec 29, 2012, 00:00

PATRICK "PECKER" DUNNE:As a singer, songwriter and musician, Patrick “Pecker” Dunne was a striking presence in the traditional music world for more than six decades. However, his lasting contribution to the Irish folk canon occasionally went unheralded.

He was also one of the last surviving links to a distinctive Traveller culture of touring entertainers, from busking musicians to carnival people, a heritage of which he was immensely proud. Both in terms of his musical influence and the social and cultural legacy he personified, he was a unique figure.

Dunne was born into the life of the peripatetic musician, and there is some doubt even as to his date of birth. His father, Stephen, came from Traveller circus stock, though his mother, Anne, was a Wexford woman from a settled background. (He was given his nickname by an uncle.)

Born in Castlebar, where his father was busking, he spent the first years of his childhood criss-crossing the country in a wagon.

His father taught him the fiddle so he could earn his keep. While immersing himself in this hard-grafting tradition, the young Dunne also displayed his determination to follow his own path by taking up the banjo – which would become his musical trademark. “In music,” he later explained, “you have to follow your instincts.”

Having spent his adolescence in the Dublin area of Crumlin, where his parents settled to spare his sisters the hardships of the road, Dunne succumbed to the lure of the road again when he was 15.

He travelled around Ireland to busk at country fairs and football matches, where he cut a recognisable figure with his imposing frame, his shock of black hair and his resonating vocals. His went further afield too, ending up in Australia when he was 17, but always returned to Ireland. It was a lifestyle that suffused the songs he started to compose early on, as he chronicled the challenges and injustices he and other Travellers faced daily, while also singing about the joys of his journeying.

From early in the 1960s, he was a regular performer with the Dubliners, the biggest folk stars of the era. He appeared on television and played in Britain and America. His compositions got more exposure too, most notably his ballad Sullivan’s John, which was covered by the Dubliners. But despite this, Dunne never established a lucrative career. Apart from appearing on a 1967 live LP alongside Shay Healy and Paddy Reilly under the collective title The Gatecrashers, he released no recordings of his own until 1976, when he recorded his debut album, Introducing the Pecker Dunne.

At various stages of his life, he would combine music with other jobs, such as working in a rubber factory in England.

Having had his first taste of alcohol at 12, on his Confirmation day, Dunne drank heavily for the next 40 years, to the point he could not remember entire years. In the early 1980s, he gave up drink.

Throughout it all, his love of Traveller heritage loomed large. As well as performing songs on the subject and going out in his caravan, he studded his conversation with Busker’s Cant, a largely bygone variation of Traveller dialect. He was not only knowledgeable about Irish Traveller lore, but also well acquainted with the culture of Romany Gypsies and other migrant peoples. (On one of his trips to America, he met Woody Guthrie, identifying with the seminal American protest singer’s outsider status and experiences on the road.) He did not always fit easily into contemporary Traveller circles, not least because of his defiantly proud use of terms such as “tinker”. At the same time, songs such as Last of the Travelling People have been recognised as authentic portraits of Traveller life.

In more recent times, Dunne’s music enjoyed a resurgence of interest, as he featured in documentaries and acted alongside Stephen Rea and Richard Harris in the 1996 film Trojan Eddie.

He also gained recognition in academic circles, becoming artist in residence for the Nomad Traveller music programme at the University of Limerick. He even published an idiosyncratic but enjoyable autobiography, Parley-Poet and Chanter, which showcased his storytelling.

He settled down in Killimer, Co Clare, to provide a secure home for his family. He is survived by his wife, Madeleine, and his children, Stephen, Tommy, Madeleine and Sarah.


PATRICK "PECKER" DUNNE:Born April 1st, 1932 Died December 19th, 2012