Although Nan Connors lived on the road for the early part of her life, she has always called County Wexford, in the South East of Ireland, home.
Born to the renowned Travelling family called Cash, Nan learned a wealth of songs from her relatives, especially her grandfather. She recalls all family members singing and regularly joining other Traveller families in song. “Every Traveller man or woman would have their own songs. I had loads of them, but I can’t remember them all now,” she says.
Dance also featured highly in Nan’s life and she taught herself the complicated steps of old style Irish dance by absorbing the movements of the dancers she saw at the Feis, which was held frequently in the villages and towns of the county. Each county prided itself on its own distinctive dances and Nan remembers the complexity of the dances she learnt: “The double as we call it, most people call it a jig, that was very complicated: you had to plait your feet at the front, plait your feet at the back.” Today, though, Nan feels that standards have slipped and contemporary Irish dance is “more like hopping. There’s no tap, they’re all up in the air.”
Nan and her friends and family used music and dance to make their own entertainment. As there were no cinemas or public dance halls, local people would hold dances in their homes, bringing out accordions and fiddles to accompany the dancers. Singing was always encouraged, too: “Most Travellers can’t read or write,” she says, “but when it comes to picking up a song, Travellers are brilliant at it.”
These were friendly, sociable occasions: many met their future spouses at these events, and Nan remembers no animosity or hostility between the Travellers and the settled population. Few drank alcohol either: young Traveller women rarely drank, and Traveller men waited until their father took them to the pub for their first pint aged around twenty.
Nan was well known for her dancing and singing, and was in demand for wedding entertainment. But her tastes didn’t stop at the traditional ballads and airs she sang: she loved music of other countries and cultures too, such as the reggae of Bob Marley and country songs of Jim Reeves.
She and her friends and relatives spoke ‘Gammon’, or Shelta, the language used by Irish Travelling people, on a daily basis. Gammon never crept into the songs they sang, though; it was reserved purely for spoken communication. Nowadays, she has noticed that usage is dwindling and her grandchildren only know a few words. It is something she is determined to keep alive.
Nan’s family caught rabbits and fish for their meals, and her dad was a superb hunter who particularly enjoyed coursing, though she remembers that the rabbits caught by dogs were rarely edible ‘unless you had a gentle dog’. They would fish in both the rivers and sea, and she recalls her family members taking buckets of mackerel to sell at fish markets.
Though Nan married Tommy Connors many years ago, she is still known to many as Nan Cash. She misses travelling life in the summertime, but is grateful for the warmth of her home in winter. Though singing in pubs was a regular occurrence for Nan and her family, she feels that pubs have lost their atmosphere and spirit, and feels that the introduction of the smoking ban is partly to blame. Songs are rarely sung in the pub these days, and she has noticed that even the younger generations shun the pub in preference to socialising at home.