Like many Irish Travellers, singing has just been part of the fabric of Kitty Cassidy’s life since she was young
Her father lost his mother at a young age and, along with his four siblings, had grown up in boarding houses. Living in close quarters with orphans or other families meant there was always a song to be learnt or a story to be shared and, as a result, Kitty remembers her father having a never-ending repertoire.
Kitty’s own mother was renowned for her singing ability. “My mother was a great singer and the crowd in the pub would get her to sing again and again, and there’d be silence. My father would be jealous because although he had some good songs, he wasn’t as good. The crowd would say ‘let the woman sing again’ but he wouldn’t let her. She often didn’t sing,” Kitty recalls.
Female Irish Travellers rarely frequented the pub back then, except after funerals. Many women would sing to themselves as they worked and Kitty learned songs from her mother by ear, hearing them float on the breeze as she cooked and cleaned.
Kitty remembers a time when she wasn’t a great singer herself, when she admired her mother’s talents and couldn’t imagine being as good as her. “When I was younger and singing, I wouldn’t always shut the room up but if you keep singing, you get better,” she says.
A little older, she travelled to Newtown and sang three or four songs consecutively in front of a crowd. “The people went mad!” she laughs. “They wanted more and more; they wouldn’t let me down off the stage!”
Most of her siblings sang, too. But it wasn’t always the case; her eldest sister, Lizzie, never sang. Her husband wasn’t a singer, either. “He wouldn’t sit around in the pub and listen, he wasn’t bothered,” she says.
She was 21 when she married and left the country with her new husband. The newly-weds lived in England for seven years. There, she found the culture very different: people rarely sang in pubs, for instance, unless it was a group of people taking turns in a quiet corner.
When Kitty returned to Ireland, she and her husband settled in a house. “That stopped the singing – no campfires,” she says. “Settling down ruined Traveller culture. They got ashamed of who they are, especially the children going to school.”
But Kitty’s children sing, having heard their mother over the years. “People sing still, but they’re not singing those old songs,” she says, “but in years to come, the songs they’re singing will be old, I suppose.”
It’s not something she feels can be learned from books, either: the younger generation must hear the song, from their elders, see the performance, otherwise it’s lacklustre, forced.
“You need to hear the ‘rowling’ of the song; the feeling of it. You can’t learn that out of a book. You can listen to five singers and they’ll all sing the same song but you pick one to learn it from. It’s like X-Factor, isn’t it?”