Travellers have been part of Irish life for centuries, long before the Great Famine, although it’s only in recent years that they have been formally recognised as a distinct ethnic group within the Irish state. Traditionally nomadic, working and trading and camping in barrel top wagons alongside the road, an important part of Traveller heritage would have always been the carrying of songs and stories from town to town. In fact Travellers were central to the development of traditional Irish music with their distinctive styles of singing and instrument playing. While our society has made it difficult for Travellers to maintain many of their nomadic traditions, a fierce pride remains in the Irish Traveller community around their identity and heritage, which as well as placing huge emphasis on values and traditions like extended family and horse ownership, also includes singing and storytelling. For one young Traveller girl from Macroom, Rosie McCarthy, (15), combining her Traveller heritage and love of singing, has created a really special talent says Mary O’Brien.
Singing in the old sean-nós style, a rarity in itself, especially in one so young, commands attention, but the soulful quality of Rosie McCarthy’s voice, so emotive and powerful, can’t help but still a room.
The young singer and actor from West Cork is already gaining recognition and respect in folk circles nationally, recently performing in the Triskel Arts Centre Cork, the Misleor festival in Galway and the Drimoleague Singing Festival.
Rosie has featured as an extra in Carmel Winters’ film ‘Float Like a Butterfly’ and an episode of ‘Young Offenders’ and on the set of the Graham Norton series ‘Holding’. She was also part of the award-winning film ‘Wheel of Dreams’ alongside filmmaker Toma McCullim and a group of Traveller girls from West Cork.
Irish folk musician Clare Sands first heard Rosie singing in the early hours of a morning on Long Strand beach between Clonakilty and Rosscarbery after a video shoot for her song ‘Awe na Mná’ (Praise the Women). She says she is “excited to follow Rosie’s wonderful journey that lies ahead.”
“Her voice struck me to my core,” shares Clare “and I was transcended to a place where only the deepest soulful music exists.” Clare has since spent some time mentoring the young singer, recording two songs with her, ‘A Tinker’s Lullaby’ and ‘Siúil a Rún’, and she recently invited Rosie to join her up on stage at Connolly’s of Leap, where the Macroom singer’s stirring delivery of the love song ‘Siúil A Rún’ moved the audience to tears.
“Clare told me not to be afraid or nervous. She said ‘we need more singers like you’,” shares Rosie shyly.
Another musician who has taken Rosie under his wing is well-known and respected traditional Irish singer Thomas McCarthy. Thomas and Rosie performed together at the Drimoleague Singing Festival in September. An engaging storyteller and musician, Thomas is passionate about preserving the Traveller culture and heritage and is passing on songs to Rosie from his 1200-strong collection. He’s currently working on ‘Sweet Iniscarra’ with her, or as some will know it by the title ‘Exiles Return’.
“It’s really refreshing to see a young person with such a keen interest in the old songs,” says Thomas “and I find it amazing that she sings in Irish as well as English.
“The way that Rosie delivers a song, with all her heart, is lovely to hear. It comes so naturally to her.”
“It’s part of life for us, passed on and down by people around us,” shares Rosie’s mum Heather.
Rosie grew up singing around a campfire with her extended family. She has also been taking part in her local scoraíocht since she was very young. “I think I was six or seven when I first took the microphone in hand,” she shares.
While she’s a big fan of American Country, Rosie says when she sings herself “the traditional Irish style is just what comes out!”
Now with almost 30 songs in her repertoire, it’s the words of ‘A Tinker’s Lullaby’ by Pecker Dunne that holds a special place in Rosie’s heart, as it’s a poignant reminder of the struggles of her ancestors: ’…Ever since you were a baby / Cradle in your mother’s shawl / The site they said they didn’t want you / And now you have no home at all…’.
“It makes me very sad to think of my grandparents being moved on from place to place,” says Rosie. “But I love telling the stories and the feeling I get from singing them.”
Spirituality and horses are also important to her. Every Sunday Rosie visits her local well with family to remember those who have passed on and start the week feeling cleansed by the life-giving water, so important in the history of Travellers who depended on water springs up and down the country for their survival when on the road.
Rosie’s dad, Martin, buys and sells and trains horses for the jaunting cars in Killarney and Rosie loves helping out with the animals, getting them ready for the fairs.
She doesn’t own a phone and isn’t on Snapchat so she has time. “I’m not bothered,” she says smiling.
It doesn’t appear to hold her back. She’s just home from a trip to Achill Island with her school and is looking forward to going to Barcelona in the Spring. She hopes to travel more in the future.
“She is always so happy, she loves life and is a real people magnet,” shares mum Heather. Both Martin and Heather are very supportive of their daughter’s singing ambitions.
“Rosie’s parents are giving her the chance to go out in the world and carve something for herself, which is brilliant,” says Thomas. “It’s so important she keeps at it.”
Thomas has been working with the Irish Traditional Music Archive for the past year, collecting and recording people singing the traditional songs of Ireland.
He finds it sad that so many people sing these songs without knowing their origins. “It’s important for future generations to know where our songs came from,’ he says “I’m recording the families who created these songs, singing them, and speaking about their background.”
While some older Travellers may not be able to read or write, they are reputed for their extraordinary memories. “Most people who live in houses might know the name of their great grandfather. You’ll find traveller families who can’t read or write but can go back generations,” says Thomas.
“The Travelling community held on to the songs and carried them on when the people in houses forgot them.
“A lot of people sing songs, even the academics, and they make assumptions about the history of these songs. Much of the time they’d be incorrect,” he says. “The entire country sings ‘Patsy McCann’, a song that was recorded in the sixties by a very famous sean nós singer, but little do most people know that it’s actually a travelling song.
“It’s also a Cork song,’ he emphasises “not a Galway song.” It’s a song about distant cousins of mine and their great-great-great grandmother.”
These were “secret” songs in the Travelling community, sang only at family occasions, “but some got out,” shares Thomas.
Like the song that’s known as Sean McNamara by John Riley, about a settled man who goes looking for a wife at a Traveller camp. According to Thomas it’s really about a man called Paddy McInerney. “He changed the name so he wouldn’t get in trouble with the family!”
Originally from Birr in Co Offaly, Thomas’ family moved to London when he was ten. He learnt most of his songs from his mother, Mary McCarthy. “She was a fine singer and sang every day, in every room of the house,” shares Thomas. In the summertime, Thomas’ grandfather Johnny McCarthy, a well-known seanchaí, would take them off in the wagon to Co Clare and Galway to visit people who played music and sang the old songs. “This tradition is called ‘cur darekin’,” says Thomas “and my grandfather was always welcome and loved anywhere he went, for people who knew him as a kind and decent man.”
Thomas’ music career started at the folk song club at Cecil Sharp House in Camden Town, London, where his powerful Irish Traveller style of singing and collection of rare songs captivated his audience. He has since been singing in clubs and at festivals throughout the UK and Ireland, as well as in Europe and the US. Now living between Dublin and London, he is a passionate activist on behalf of the Irish Traveller community.
“Once you learn about other people it doesn’t make them so strange,” he says sagely.
Thomas is currently working on a project involving songs from the famine period; and on a documentary about Travelling singers, which Rosie is also involved in. He is currently organising a concert involving travelling women, where Rosie will join the Keenan sisters from Co Clare and Trisha Reilly from Athlone, at the Triskel Arts Centre in Cork in December.
Thomas and Rosie’s next appearance together will be in Belltable, Limerick on November 4 (tickets available from limetreetheatre.ie).
During the ‘Wheel of Dreams’ documentary Rosie had the opportunity to meet Senator Eileen Flynn and her words struck a chord with the young Traveller girl.
“If you can see it, you can be it,” is what she said to us.”