AS Pecker Dunne was being laid to rest in Burrane graveyard, Killimer, last Saturday afternoon, the foghorn on the Killimer-Tarbert ferry echoed across the estuary. Kilrush parish priest Fr Michael Sheedy had been the chief celebrant at the 79-year-old singer/songwriters funeral mass in St Senan’s parish church, Kilrush before he was brought to Killimer for burial. On approaching the graveyard, which faces the North Kerry coastline, Pecker was led to his final resting place on a horse-drawn carriage.
Oliver O’Connell, co-author of Free Spirits, along with Tommy Fagan, spoke at the funeral mass, which also featured a rendition of Pecker’s best-known song, Sullivan’s John, performed by his son, Steve.
“For me, he represented an Ireland that we no longer have. He was part of what we are as a people. Munster final day won’t be the same without listening to the distinctive sound of the banjo in the distance and you knew t’was the Pecker Dunne,” Oliver O’Connell reminisced.
“All he ever did in his life was play music and sang songs. He enjoyed a few pints but he never hurt anybody. He was an iconic figure. I feel that when people like the Pecker Dunne die, Finbar Furey, The Blind Dunne’s and the Travelling Doherty’s in Donegal, a piece of ourselves dies with them. He was an extraordinary character and an extraordinarily talented man known all over the world. Plus the fact he had a singing voice that hasn’t been matched by any of the new singers coming up,” Mr O’Connell added.
Pecker was also a noted story teller. Some of the tales had him at the epicentre including one incident in the Outback in Australia, where he said that an aeroplane landed on a deserted road to give him a lift.
Oliver O’Connell maintains the Pecker Dunne’s singing style owed everything to his Traveller lineage.
“In the Traveller tradition, they have a different way of interpreting tunes and songs. Everybody recognises that. It’s a tradition that has been handed going back to pre-Famine times, hundreds of years ago. When they were singing and playing, they were busking outdoors to make a living. So they had to be heard and they had a unique way of creating an atmosphere around their playing, which a lot of settled musicians don’t have,” Oliver O’Connell said.
The funeral service lasted two and a half hours, while the church was unable to seat the throng which attended. Amongst those present were Christy Moore and members of The Fureys and The Dubliners as well as Professor Mícheál Ó Súillabháin of the Irish World Academy of Music and Dance at UL.
“A lot of people travelled from abroad. There were a lot of people there and nobody knew who they were. They had travelled long distances to be at his final journey,” the Free Spirits co-author said.
The Pecker Dunne was born in Mayo on April 1, 1933. His family were Travellers from Wexford. He was raised in Dublin, where he excelled as a banjo player. Pecker earned a living busking at GAA matches before his profile rose significantly in the 1960s. He played New York’s Carnegie Hall, met Woody Gutherie in Boston and became friends with Richard Harris. In fact, he performed with Harris and Stephen Rea in the 1996 film Trojan Eddie.
BBC and TG4 made documentaries about him and Pecker Dunne also served as artist-in-residence for the University of Limerick’s Nomad Traveller music programme. His only album, The Very Best of Pecker Dunne, was recorded in 1987 in Belfast.
Last January, Dublin City Hall hosted a gala benefit concert for Pecker Dunne. The event, organised by writer, actor and Dublin City Councillor Mannix Flynn was part of the Temple Bar Tradfest.
Pecker Dunne is survived by his wife, Madeleine, and children.