Trad musicians begin two-week journey in tribute to Traveller forefathers

Paddy Keenan and Mickey Dunne travelling by horse-drawn wagon to Donegal

Musicians Paddy Keenan (left) and Mickey Dunne are travelling from Boyle to Donegal. Photograph: James Connolly

Two of Ireland’s best-known traditional musicians Paddy Keenan and Mickey Dunne have embarked on a two-week journey by a horse-drawn, barrel-top wagon in a tribute to their Traveller forefathers.

The uileann pipers left Boyle, Co Roscommon on Sunday and will retrace the steps of Traveller musicians of the past, who they believe helped to keep the music alive.

They will be joined at campfire sessions along the route through Leitrim and Donegal, by a selection of musicians paying tribute to musical Traveller families such as the Reillys, the Dorans and the Dohertys.

The musical pilgrimage is entitled the Long Grazing Acre and began in Boyle, home of singer and song collector Johnny Reilly, whose repertoire came to public attention through the recordings and performances of Christy Moore.


The two pipers will be joined on the pilgrimage by Dunne’s daughter Niamh, a fiddler and member of Belfast trad band Beoga who has collaborated with Ed Sheeran.

“Niamh is kinda half famous,” joked her father. “She is the Galway girl,” he said referring to the lyrics of Sheeran’s hit single that refers to a woman who plays “the fiddle in an Irish band”.

For Dunne the trip will revive memories of his childhood and of his family including his uncles Christy, Michael and Joseph (Hanta) known as “the blind Dunnes” who travelled to horse fairs and hurling and football matches throughout the country to busk.

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The slow pace of the journey by horse-drawn wagon will not be alien to the musician and uileann pipe maker.

“This is how my family lived for generations. I was about three or four when we settled into a house,” he said. “I remember the wagon well.”

Dunne said it was important to celebrate musicians like Johnny and Felix Doran who had inspired generations.

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“Without them that style would have died out. Now there are thousands of people playing pipes all over the world. They kept it going when no one was interested,” he said.

Dunne met his wife Aideen O’Rahilly, granddaughter of the 1916 figure known as The O’Rahilly, when he gave her tin whistle lessons. He is looking forward to spending two weeks on the road with Keenan, one of the founding members of The Bothy Band.

“To be travelling with Paddy Keenan – he is an exceptional talent. And nobody talks about that side of it,” he said, referring to negative stereotyping of the Traveller community.

Paul Flynn, head of traditional arts at the Arts Council, welcomed the project.

“The Travelling community has, for generations, been a main source of preservation and dissemination of the rich traditional arts of this country.”