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Walking in the footsteps of giants

His heart begins to lighten as the cart turns and finally faces south-west towards Ballynacally. A man of many homes and none, the tiny village on the Shannon Estuary is one of his very favourites. As the horse brings him clopping along, the familiar taste of sea-salt on his teeth, his belly tingles with anticipation and excitement.
The old faces and the new, the tunes to remember and to share, his famous stone, sat outside what was once George Chambers’ house.
The excited chatter of the locals is already building as Johnny Doran pulls his horse to a stop and searches the cart for his uillean pipes. A traveller and a Traveller, for the next few days, Johnny is home.
Dublin musician, Steo Wall, has every reason to call Clare home. When he moved west around 12 years ago, he was unintentionally travelling in the footsteps of his ancestors, the famous musicians Johnny and Felix Doran.
Originally from Wexford, the Dorans travelled the country from the 1920s, bringing new tunes and poems from one corner of the land to another.
As the ancient culture of Ireland came under attack from modernising, English speaking, forces, the Dorans, and many Travellers like them, were an essential way to keep the past alive.
“I have always known and celebrated the fact that the connection was there. It comes through my grandmother, Sally Walsh, as she was known, but she was born as Sarah Doran,” said Steo.
“I wrote a song called Sarah Doran for my first album, just imagining what it would be like for her, born in the first half of the last century and travelling around, setting up camp with these master pipers.
“When I moved to County Clare, 12 years ago now, I don’t know man, I felt a spiritual connection to the place. When I moved here, it was the last year of the Doran Festival that used to happen in Spanish Point, Oliver O’Connell and Tommy Fagan used to organised it.
“Back in 2012, that was the last of these festivals, I had just moved down to Clare and I didn’t know a thing about it. But I knew that Johnny and Felix Doran used to travel down to Clare a lot.
“Then, when I moved into this house, the farmer who I was renting the house from, he found out that my son’s name was Felix, after Felix Doran, he gave me a book that Tommy and Oliver had written. That book was called ‘Free Spirit’ and when I got that book, I learned about the huge impact that the lads had had on the local community.
“For the two lads, music was their trade. Johnny especially, his full-time living was made from music, from busking and travelling around the country.
“He used to get a magazine every few months which would list all the fairs, the hurling matches, all over the country, and he would travel out to all the these events. There used to be a fair out in Quilty, out on the beach I think, and he would come down, set up the trailer just outside of Quilty and he would play.
“A young Willie Clancy used to cycle out from Miltown and sit at the door and listen. I don’t know did Johnny actually teach Willie Clancy but he had a big impact on him. The people of Miltown and Quilty used to love seeing the trailer coming over the hill in the summertime.
“I heard stories that they used to hide his horses on him when it was time for him to leave, to try and get him to stay on. Johnny used to visit a lot over in West Clare but then Felix would have played a lot in East Clare, over that side. They are both held in high regard.”
The unseen impact that the Travelling community have had on traditional Irish music, and Irish culture in general, is something that Steo is very keen to highlight.
“When I came down here and started to get into the music myself and doing it as a profession, then I started slowly learning about the impact that Johnny and Felix had,” said Steo.
“Everyone who I have met and spoke to along the way, people like Damien Dempsey, Christy Moore and Davie Spillane, all of these people are blown away when they hear about the family connection.
“Anyone within the Irish music scene knows the impact that they had, and not just Johnny and Felix, its Pecker Dunne, the Fureys – the impact that the Travelling community have had on Irish traditional music is huge.
“I feel that Travellers have been so important to the preservation of Irish music. There have been studies done on the bloodlines of Travellers, and Martin Collins, co-director who runs Pavee Point, his mother’s lineage goes back 3,000 years unbroken on the island of Ireland.
“The Traveller way of life was so unique, the nomadic way of life, so when the English came and colonised us, they wanted to destroy the folklore, mythology and our way of communicating.
“They broke all of that down, but because the Travellers were outside of that, they were nomadic, they didn’t conform to any of it, they travelled around the country with these songs and poems and stories.
“I know that Johnny and Felix learned the pipes from a family called the Cash family in Wexford. Their roots [the Cash family] in the songs and the uillean pipes is hundreds of years old. There is a real lineage there.
“People are only just now waking up to the idea that Travellers may have had a bit of an impact. I did a lot of work with TradFest about this over the past few years.
“They got onto me and said that they were very ignorant [about the connections between the Travelling community and traditional music], they have been ignorant but they are eager to learn.
“I first did a series of podcasts about the impact that Travellers have had on music. In that I interviewed Christy Moore, and some Travelling people as well as Tommy and Oliver O’Connell. The next year we had a few venues around Dublin where we could curate Traveller artists and musicians. We will be doing the same thing again this year.”
Steo recently returned to Ballynacally, where a monument has been created from the stone where Johnny Doran used to sit and play. During that trip out west, which was recorded for a TG4 documentary, he played for an excited West Clare crowd at the Estuary Sessions , just like Johnny would have done 100 years ago.
Besides the song ‘Sarah Doran’ which appeared on Steo’s first album, his connection to the travelling musicians and Johnny and Felix Doran in particular, has had a bit impact on his life and his art.
“I take inspiration from all of this for sure. My grandmother had a big impact on me. When I learned of the impact that Johnny and Felix had, that was a massive thing for me. Like in Ballynacally, where that stone has been erected,” said Steo.
“Songs like ‘My People’ would have come from that. I definitely take inspiration from it. I’m not a bona fide traditional music player, but I do my own little bit to try and preserve that tradition. I still don’t know where my songs come from but I definitely think that my history and family and my ancestors are all part of it. It all comes out in me when I write songs.
“I can’t explain it. There is a bit of magic in there. Sometimes.”

About Andrew Hamilton

Andrew Hamilton is a journalist, writer and podcaster based in the west of Ireland.

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