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Pecker Dunne

Shay Healy recalls his friend, the legendary banjo player championed by the Clancys and The Dubliners

As myself and my new bride, Deedee, stepped out the door of Ballyfermot Church into a waiting throng of curious passers-by, there, serenading us with his banjo, was one of the great, larger-than-life characters I am lucky to have known, Paddy "The Pecker" Dunne.

Our wedding reception was being held at The Embankment in Tallaght. About two hundred yards from the venue, we switched from the wedding car to a donkey and cart.

When we reached The Embankment, we acted out a little scenario for my friend Paddy Lockhart, who was filming the wedding. As soon as we dismounted from the donkey and cart, Pecker came running from nowhere, pretending to grab my new bride. She took off running and Pecker, shirt open to the waist, chased her round the car park, with me, the hapless bridegroom, in hot pursuit, trying to save my wife from this hulk of a man. Pecker enjoyed the craic and we got a memorable bit of footage.

The first time ever I saw The Pecker was in a pub called The Jug of Punch in Kilkenny. Liam Clancy introduced me to him and I was absolutely fascinated by this extraordinarily exotic man. He had a large head and his strong features had echoes of famous faces, ranging from Zorba the Greek to Geronimo, the famous Apache Indian warrior. His jet-black, long hair ended in ringlets lapping at the collar of his anorak and his dark black moustache was a final flourish of masculinity from this man of the road.

Despite his forbidding appearance, Pecker was soft- spoken and passionate about family and friends. I was lucky to become one of those friends.

As the ballad boom of the Sixties touched more and more people, the Pecker's star was on the rise. He was a compelling performer, noted for his singing of his own songs, Sullivan's John and the tender Tinkers' Lullaby. The Clancys and Tommy Makem were the first to champion him – and then The Dubliners embraced him. Suddenly, with shrewd management behind him, Pecker was headlining major concerts. They even brought him off to New York in an effort to make him a star in America.

In 1966, Noel Pearson produced a ballad evening at The Gate Theatre called The Gatecrashers. Pecker was top of the bill and he was so enamoured of this new arena that he usurped my intention to say a few words at the end of the show and gave a curtain speech that was funny, inspiring and impossible to follow.

I had bought a new shirt for the show and after the performance, I hung it on a hanger in my dressing room and went across the road to Groom's Hotel for a few scoops. The following night when I arrived at the theatre, I searched high and low but there was no sign of my new shirt. More worryingly, there was no sign of The Pecker, and it was five minutes to curtain-up.

Then, at about three minutes to eight, around the top of Parnell Square, being transported on a horse and cart, came The Pecker, sitting up regally with my brand new bri-nylon shirt tied in a knot across his ample belly!

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Pecker had a fair old belly betimes. He walked into a bar one night, put his belly up on the counter and said, "Fill'er up."

Pecker made his one and only album of his career in 1987, and I was honoured that he asked me to produce it. We recorded it in three days at Emerald Studios in Belfast and when we were packed and ready to go, the boss of Emerald Records, Mervyn Solomons, called Pecker into his office. "Now Pecker," he said, "I can give you an artist royalty of 12 per cent, which you will receive 60 days after blah blah blah ... or I can give you £600 in cash right now."

It was a no-brainer. The £600 fitted snugly into The Pecker's paw. He understood the simple efficiency of the cash transaction. Years later, he told me that the reason why he didn't want to become a star in the Sixties was because he couldn't take the pressure of having to be in a certain place at a certain time, all the time. He was born in a caravan and he had a need for the Traveller's freedom of the road.

The last time I saw Pecker was a good few years ago, when I interviewed him on television. By this time, he was living permanently in Killimer, Co Clare and as the interview was drawing to a close, I asked him how he felt about finally being settled. His answer was profound.

"I don't know how a man can look out his window every morning and see only the one tree."

Patrick 'The Pecker' Dunne was born in a traditional tinker's caravan in Castlebar, Co Mayo on April 1, 1933. His family were Travellers from Wexford and his father was also an accomplished musician. He grew up in Crumlin and Drimnagh in Dublin, learning to play the fiddle, melodeon and guitar, but excelling as a banjo player. He earned a living busking at GAA matches until he was 'discovered' during the ballad revival of the late 1960s. He performed with Richard Harris and Stephen Rea in the 1996 movie Trojan Eddie. He settled in Killimer, Co Clare, where he was married with four children.

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