With all the socio-political discussions surrounding Irish Travellers in the media, we can be forgiven for forgetting that there are positive things happening in the background, including a fresh new approach to expression through the medium of music and song. Ireland has a long history of advocating for our artists and creatives, and we are known for the high quality of music we produce, from trad sessions to contemporary pop and rock. But we rarely hear about music from the margins, and specifically, music from the Traveller community. I took some time to talk to five new and emerging singers and musicians from that community.
Steo Wall: ‘At the end of the day, we all enjoy music in the same way’
Steo Wall is from Dún Laoghaire but now lives in Ennistymon, Co Clare. His genre of music is normally contemporary urban folk. “I write all my own songs,” he tells me. “I learned to play the guitar when I was 12, it was an uncle that taught me how to play. I grew up with my grandmother, I was exposed to her favourite music. Since my grandmother’s uncles were Felix and Johnny Doran, we would listen to a lot of Irish trad music, and this influenced me greatly.”
For Steo, the highest point of his career was “writing a song for my grandmother, called Sarah Doran. At the RTÉ Radio 1 inaugural Folk Awards, when inducting John Reilly, Christy Moore introduced him on stage to sing Sarah Doran, “which for me was a magical moment in my career”.
On his experience as a Traveller musician, Steo says, “I have found most people to be extremely supportive of me and my music. Maybe there is something in the fact that music can often transcend our differences, because at the end of the day, we all enjoy music in the same way.”
Steo is working on a project with musician Thomas McCarthy and actor Michael Collins, which has been funded by the Arts Council. They will be exploring the National Folklore Collection in Dublin and old footage and photographs of Travellers stored in the Irish Film Institute. Steo is also performing in Marlay Park for the Féile Nasc on August 27th. "My new album, Street Wisdom for Lost Souls, is out at the end of 2021 and my previous album, Where I'm From, is available on steowall.ie."
Sharyn Ward: ‘The older I get, the more I am becoming aware of how beautiful our community’s singing, poetry and art is’
Sharyn Ward is originally from Longford but now based in Dublin. Her style of singing would mainly be sean nós.
“My influences were always family members, especially Big Daddy – my grandfather. There was someone always singing in our home. The highest point in my career was getting to perform on Ireland’s Got Talent, because it was a great opportunity to perform to the nation and to show a positive side to Travellers.”
Sharyn also recalls that “the lows, unfortunately, were the hundreds of negative and discriminatory comments that followed it. The comments attacked me, my family, and my community.”
“The older I get, the more I am becoming aware of how beautiful our community’s singing, poetry and art is,” she says. “It is unfortunate that the reality behind it would tell you that 90 per cent of it will never be recognised. I would not have bothered with singing if it were not for Lucy Kennedy and Ireland’s Got Talent encouraging me to take part.”
Making it in the music industry is difficult for everyone, says Sharyn. “But it is even more so when you are a Traveller trying to book a venue. There is a fear amongst venues that a Traveller artist will attract a crowd of Travellers.”
Her advice to next generation musicians? “Stay proud of who you are and never change or stop what you are doing for anyone. You are perfect and beautiful the way you are.”
Sharyn will complete and release her own album this year. She is also performing in a few shows across Ireland. "I have a special concert that highlights mental health, planned for the Axis in Ballymun this year. We are just seeking supports at the moment." When not on stage, Sharyn can always be found singing on live feed sessions on her Facebook page @sharynwardsinger.
William Casey: ‘I’m the type to figure out why I can’t do something and educate myself to the point where I can at least put up a good debate’
“I’m from the rap capital of Ireland, Limerick city,” says William Casey, aka Willzee. “My genre of music would be rap/hip-hop and spoken word. I started a few years back as a source of self-therapy, I guess. I have been influenced by many people, but the ones that stand out are Dyrt Davis, Mynameisj0hn and Mic Righteous. Over the past while, Enda Gallery has been the producer behind my tracks. He inspires me to return the greatness.”
Speaking on the highs and lows of his career, Willzee says: “The lows of the industry would be that it is sometimes lonely... The highs to me have to be winning Virgin Media’s Dublin International Film Festival short film competition in 2019 for a short I wrote called Innocent Boy, while finally releasing my debut album this year will also be a massive high.”
And what does Willzee believe sets him apart from everyone else? “I’m not afraid to speak the truth on a level most say they are but never do, love me or hate me, my honesty can’t be denied.”
What is it like to be a Traveller rap artist? “If I am honest, I haven’t had many setbacks from being a Traveller when it comes to performing, only if some pub owners find out I am a Traveller they become cagey, which in some cases I can’t blame them, but most give you the trust and if you don’t mess about all is good for another one if you need it.”
Asked if he has faced any of the barriers other Traveller performers encounter, he says: “I’d say none, I don’t let anything hold me back, I’m the type to figure out why I can’t do something and educate myself to the point where I can at least put up a good debate.”
Willzee's debut album Kuti Gris, which means "a piece of heart" in Shelta, will be released this year. His most recent song released this month, called A Dream of Peace is, available now on YouTube. Willzee is on Twitter @WillzeeTWOW.
Kathleen Marie Keenan: ‘I also now spend time working on ways to highlight mental health issues and suicide amongst Travellers’
Kathleen Marie Keenan is from Ennis, Co Clare, but now lives in Co Galway. Her music genre is Irish folk and country. Fifteen years ago, Tommy Tiernan and Hector Ó hEochagáin were doing a live show at the Iveagh Gardens. Hector had asked me to do them a favour, they wanted some talented Traveller singers to join them on stage. Until then I had only heard the Keenan sisters and brother Davie, busking on the streets of Galway. When they took to the stage, they were outstanding, even putting Tommy in his place when he brought out one or two of his banked Traveller jokes. Kathleen was, and is, a natural performer and a lovely soul.
“I have been singing since I was about four or five years of age,” she says. “Most people would say that their inspirations are singers they listened to. For me, it was my parents. Sadly, we lost our mother in 2019 after a battle with ovarian cancer and with that one of my main inspirations in life.”
“Some of the high points in my life were performing in Dublin with Paddy Keenan and with the Hothouse Flowers, and in 2015 I performed with Daniel O’Donnell. I also appeared on the Saturday Night Show with Brendan O’Connor. Unfortunately, the lows in my career came from not getting opportunities beyond that or being able to book venues to perform shows, which has been down to who I am, and not what I sing.”
“I am using this time to write my songs, but I also now spend time working on ways to highlight mental health issues and suicide amongst Travellers. Since we lost our brother to it recently, it has been something I feel strongly about. I hope to raise awareness of this issue through my music because suicide is such a big issue for Travellers, and something we don’t speak about enough.”
Kathleen's music can be found on her Facebook page, @illerstate for more on Twitter.
Shelley Ward: ‘The highs of my career will always be the appreciation for my music I get from live audiences, while the lows would have to be the recent pandemic, which stole that away from all performers’
Shelley Ward, born to a Traveller mother and a Jamaican father, grew up in Moss side, Manchester, and his genre of music is hip-hop.
“My main influence would be Tupac, listening to his lyrics and the quality of his music inspired me to just go for it, to at least try. I started about 13 years ago with some rapping, but both my parents would have played a lot of music around me. I grew up listening to old Irish ballads and reggae.
“What is interesting about the music myself and my band (Illerstate) make is that it is a blend of hip-hop with rock, as in, you can hear the guitar in it, it is an authentic sound, there’s no one that sounds like us.”
On discrimination he has faced: “There was one time I booked a venue for a show and when they found out I was a Traveller, they came up with some excuse about overbooking the room. There is a lot of anti-Traveller stuff like that happening in the UK. We even have politicians trying to stop our way of life. It’s a crazy time. As a black man, I know what it is like to get hated because of who you are, but it is my surname and the fact I often speak proudly about my Traveller heritage that prevents me from gigging. I am a proud black Jamaican and Irish Traveller; no amount of racism or hatred will change that. In fact, it will only make me more determined to succeed. I want both Travellers and Black people to realise we fight the same fight, just in different colour skin.”
Shelley has a few solo tracks coming out soon, and he and his band are planning another music video in the coming weeks. "We are cooking a storm," he says. "And I cannot wait for everyone to enjoy it, Illerstate need to make a trip to Ireland, someone book us," he says with a hopeful laugh. Follow @illerstate for more on Twitter.