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Monday 15 September 2014

Video: Sarah Jane, a woman who travels light

She is the first Traveller entry in Miss Ireland. On the eve of the pageant, Sarah Jane Dunne tells Barry Egan about the racism she suffered, her love life, her late father Pecker and her famous godfather

Published 13/07/2014 | 00:00

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Pecker Dunne, legend has it, was born in a horse-drawn wagon in Castlebar, Co Mayo, on April 1, 1933. His beautiful daughter's arrival into the world wasn't quite as bohemian and free-spirited. Sarah Jane was born on February 9, 1990, in Our Ladies Hospital in Drogheda. Her famous dad (one of Ireland's most internationally respected musicians and troubadours), sadly, was to spend a lot of the latter part of his life in hospitals. It is a painful reawakening of memories for model, Trinity College graduate, and the first Traveller entry in the Miss Ireland contest, Sarah Jane Dunne.

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Sarah Jane recalls being 15 when her dad was diagnosed with throat cancer and had to get a tracheotomy. "He had dementia as well. It was horrible to see my father go through it. It affected the whole family, not just me. I was in school at the time, so I found it really hard."

"My mother cared for him," Sarah Jane says. "She wouldn't put him in a home. She just wouldn't do that to him, because nobody wants to see their family in a home. She took care of him. She got a bathroom built on to the house for him and looked after him. He gave her such a good life and she really returned the favour to him."

"Before that, I was about ten when he got an aneurysm in his main artery and it was about to explode and he should have died. He got through that. He had a six-hour operation. He was cut open. I remember my mother crying and everything. A nurse had to come out to fix his wounds because he had an open hole in his stomach."

When Pecker recovered from that, she continues, a few years later it was cancer. "He was a pure fighter. When he died, he was 79 years of age. I never heard of anyone suffering the way my father suffered." He died in Ennis hospital on December 19, 2012. The year before that happened, her boyfriend Cal Walsh's father Johnny died on Christmas Eve of a heart attack. "So that was a crap Christmas too. That was horrible and then the following Christmas, my dad died. I am at peace with it now, because he was so sick," she says of Pecker's passing. "He was really sick. I think that his time came and he was meant to be taken when he was taken."

Two weeks before he died, Sarah Jane, who was in college in Limerick at the time, came back to the family home in Killimer, Co Clare, and played the concertina with her father. "He played along with me with his fiddle." He had long lost his voice because of the tracheotomy ("so his voice was more of a whisper than anything"), but, recalls Sarah Jane, he was able to communicate. Not long before he died, Pecker said to Sarah Jane: "If you are shy or ashamed, you will starve to death."

On the basis of her lack of shyness, it is safe to assume that Sarah Jane will never go hungry. When she walked into The Bailey pub on Duke Street in Dublin last week in a stylish guna and legs that go on forever, it was almost like she was bringing oxygen into the pub. Suddenly, every eye in the place was on the 24-year-old dark brown-eyed beauty. Who is hotly tipped to win the Miss Ireland pageant on July 19 at the Ballsbridge Hotel in Dublin.

"I'm on a platform now where I'm seen as a positive representation of the Travelling community, and I am very happy with that," she says, adding that she knows "for a fact" that Pecker is looking down from heaven proud that she is the first Traveller to enter Miss Ireland. "He would have loved it. I remember when I went into other pageants and I'd be in the local papers , he would be in hospital and he'd have the paper and he would be showing it to the nurses: 'That's my girl there.' So to see me get this far in a competition," Sarah Jane, who is Miss Kilkenny, says, "he would have been proud as punch. He was my biggest fan." Sarah Jane's second biggest fan appears to be none other than Miriam O'Callaghan.

The RTE star, who had Sarah Jane on her chat show last weekend, told me, "I was incredibly impressed by her and truly honoured to have as a guest. I wish her all the best in the future," Miriam said. "She deserves only the best. What a wonderfully composed, thoughtful, impressive, bright and beautiful young woman - confident of her past and proud of her Traveller heritage."

"Being a Traveller is a very big part of my life," Sarah Jane says herself. "My dad was very proud of it and he always made sure that I was very proud of it."

Sarah Jane adds that the racism she suffered growing up was relatively mild (if you can being called abusive names in a nightclub mild) compared to what went before her in Ireland. "I have had a few experiences," she says.

"Nothing nearly as bad as my dad. When he was in school, he was segregated. He was made sit in a different side of the classroom to the other kids. I have relatives who were brought to school and they were deloused and they were given a change of clothes and they were treated awfully brutal. But thank God I never faced any discrimination like that."

Six years ago, when she was in first year at college in Carlow, Sarah Jane was coming out of a nightclub, when a girl approached her. "I was out with my friends and I was going back in to get my jacket. This girl started screaming 'Knacker!' at me. Like screaming it directly at me. I was mortified. That wouldn't have been something that happened to me often. My friends knew my background. This girl had discovered that I came from a Travelling background and decided that it would be nice to scream that at me. "

I ask Sarah Jane how did that make her feel.

"Ah," she says, "it didn't make me feel very good. It was embarrassing. It was more embarrassing for her, I'd say, because she was obviously full of booze. It made her look really bad. It didn't make me look bad. Obviously it made me feel awful. I actually felt worse for her. People were staring at her as she was screaming at me. 'What is your wan on?' I was minding my own business."

That toxic blip aside, Sarah Jane has nothing but fond memories of her childhood in county Clare. Although they had a 'settled' house, the Dunnes also had a caravan, or a wanderly wagon, as Sarah Jane makes it sound. "So we would go off during the summer. Sometimes we'd stay in holiday parks, but then most of the time we'd camp on the side of the road. It was fairly old-school. That was a great experience. We loved it. That was a big part of my life growing up, because it was every summer. We'd camp in Cork or Kerry and we'd go off busking in Killarney. My dad would play the fiddle and sing and I would play the concertina. " Her older brothers Stephen (now 28) and Tommy (now 27) would play banjo and the uilleann pipes respectively while her sister Madeline Jr (now 25) would the play accordion.

You were The Corrs meets the von Trapp family, I say.

"A bit like that! We were a family of musicians!" she smiles. "Daddy had me singing me when I was very small. I suppose I would have been four or five."

Her mother, Madeline Arundel, was a settled woman, Sarah Jane explains, from West Cork. "Both my parents were married before. My dad was married to a woman from Listowel and my mother was married to a man from West Cork," she says. (Sarah Jane's mother has three sons from a previous relationship: William, 42, Philip, 40, Johnny, 37. Her father has five children from previous relationships: Patricia Connelly, 50, Ann-Marie McCormick, 45, Patrick McCormick, 44, Roisin McCormick, 43, and Collette McCormick, 40. "They were never Travelling," she says. "They were settled.")

After Madeline's marriage finished she met Pecker in a pub called The Blue Loo, which she used to run in West Cork and in which Sarah Jane's future dad was singing. At that time in her life, 30 years ago now, Madeline was not in a good place. "My father saved her life," Sarah Jane says now. "My mother and father were alcoholics . My parents were very open about their alcoholism. My dad took my mother off the drink. He brought her into AA. To this day I have people telling me how my dad helped to turn their lives around through his help and support with their recovery. But that was a tough time in her life, but the two of them bonded together."

So much so that Madeline went travelling with her fiddle-pickin' saviour. They would camp on the side of the road where the mood took them, "and then daddy would go off and do gigs. Then they made a family together. They really loved each other."

Did her parents have to overcome any perceived differences between settled people and Travelling people? Or does the heart not see those things?

"My dad wouldn't have forced me to get into a relationship with a Traveller person," Sarah Jane says of boyfriend Cal, who she lives with in Kilkenny. "If I fell in love with somebody and if they were black or if they were white or Traveller or settled person, that's all that matters, because that's the way I was raised by my parents."

"By the time I came around," she continues, "daddy was supposed to go touring with the Wolfe Tones, but my mother had a few problems after I was born," Sarah Jane says referring to the surgery her mother underwent to have both her ovaries removed. "Mammy actually had the coil put in and then she got pregnant with me. So I was a miracle child. A surprise!" she laughs.

The Miracle Child and the Dunnes settled in county Clare. Still, every summer, they would go travelling. "Daddy always wanted to keep that aspect of our life. He was very passionate about it. He was like the biggest Traveller in Ireland. He was traveling since he was a baby. He went off on his own when he was 17. He went to Australia and was living with the Aborigines. It was a very free life that he lived."

Did he pass that sense of being a free spirit on to her? "I am mad to travel. I don't like being in the same place for too long . I have finished college now. I always wanted to get my education first and then go off travelling."

With a maturity that belies her tender age, Sarah Jane places huge importance on the creative and spiritual influence of Traveller music of the past on Irish culture now. As Van Morrison once sang, 'I want to rock your gypsy soul. Just like way back in the days of old.'

"It is a fact that the Irish traditional music that we love and are so familiar with today, would not be what it is if it were not for the Travelling people. Families like the Dohertys, the Fureys, the Keenans and the Dunnes are a few of the many who have made this contribution to Irish music," she says. "Travelling people brought their own style which is copied and adopted, to this day, by both settled and Travelling people." Sarah Jane mentions that a friend of hers, Oliver O'Connell, along with Tommy Fegan wrote Free Spirits: Irish Travellers and Irish Traditional, while she also cites her father's own book, Parley-Poet and Chanter: A Life of Pecker Dunne. "I feel that if people read more books like these they would understand the deep-rooted nature of the Travelling community and what the life of a Traveller is really about." 
She adds that before "Daddy passed away," Finbar Furey visited and brought a lovely banjo for Pecker. "He was really happy with it. My dad really looked up to Ted Furey, Finbar's father. That's where my dad got a lot of his banjo skills, from old Ted Furey."

"Music is all I've ever known," she continues. "Music is a big part of my life." Indeed, a certain living, breathing demi-god of Irish music is a big part of her life.

"My dad and Christy Moore knew each other from being in the same business," she takes up the story. "They were very close friends and they helped each other through some tough times. When my parents were camped in Louth, before I was born, Christy used to call to see them at their mobile home. After I was born, and when I was only a couple of weeks old, my dad asked Christy to be Godfather. Christy was absolutely delighted and he really treated it as a great honour. Christy has a great respect for the Travelling community and has worked with Travellers on many occasion - most recently performing at the Traveller Pride Awards which were held in Dublin only a few weeks ago."

What does she think of programmes like My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding? Her face immediately provides the answer."I don't think of them," she frowns. "I don't like them. I know many Travellers who would tell you the same thing: that they don't like it and they don't like how it portrays Travellers. One of the programmes I watched, there was something about 'grabbing' - you know, this notion how Travellers get into a relationship!" she says. "The man grabs the Traveller girl. It is ridiculous. Like, if my dad ever saw a man grab me like you see on that programme," she says in disbelief, "it just wouldn't happen."

As opposed to her own phat gypsy wedding one day, sultry Sarah smiles she'd like to get married to Cal and have kids, "one day. But not for the minute. I've just graduated. I'm a secondary school teacher [English and Religion] and my boyfriend is going into Health and Fitness in college. So when we both have steady careers we will plan a family. I would like to get married before I start having kids."

She has been with boyfriend Cal, "an impressive looking Kilkenny man of over 6 foot 8," for nearly six years. They met each other when Sarah was in her first year in Carlow." I say I'm almost embarrassed to ask if he is 'settled'. We have a discussion about labels and life. "People are just mad to put labels on everything. That's just the way it always is."

That said, I hope Ms Dunne gets one new label next Saturday in the Ballsbridge Hotel. That of Miss Ireland. 

You can watch Sarah Jane Dunne's interview on independent.ie

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