Keenan’s struggles to find his own identity and sense of self were rooted in many ways from the day of his birth to a Pavee family, the gypsies of Ireland. In their own language, they were Pavees. Polite settled folk called them Travellers—the not so polite might have called them "Knacker, Gypo or whatever they could think of to hurt you with."

Born in Trim, Co. Meath, on a snowy January 30, 1950 to Mary Bravender (of a highly respected settled family in Cavan Town), and John Keenan, "who was the descendent of a family who were forced to leave their farm and land behind to the ludicrous high rates and taxes, imposed by English law." The family traveled around the roadways of Ireland in horse drawn wagons and tents. Finally, Mary Bravender Keenan, wanting education for her six children, persuaded John Keenan to settle the family in a house southwest of Dublin in a town called Ballyfermot.

"This estate was built just after the Second World War, by the Corporation of Dublin, for people with very low income, and some from the deprived corners of the inner city with no trade or work at all, but drawing the dole to feed very large catholic families," Keenan says. "Unfortunately, this could be the perfect setting for class distinction." John Keenan told their settled neighbors "we are of a settled family from the country," trying to protect his young family from the discrimination and bigotry that worked against them in their new surroundings. It didn’t work.

"Straight away we were branded and alienated," Keenan remembers. "Going to the shop in the evenings I would have to fight my way through. Most times there would be the local gang of young lads. They would have a different guy each time to fight me. If I allowed myself to be scarred or hurt, my dad would kill me. So I was really fighting something much bigger than their gang."

"Even with all this testing me and trying to put me down, I remember one night the guy who was chosen to fight me lost. His friend gave him a weapon and the rest of the gang grabbed him and took the weapon off him. I think that they were beginning to respect me, in some way."

It wasn’t always desperate, though, and Keenan’s gentle humor shows up in several of his anecdotes of the time.

"We moved into a house amongst the so-called civilized settled – ‘buffers,’ we called them – with our animals, dogs and such. They saw us as dirty gypsies. I'll never forget the look on a neighbor’s face passing our house one Sunday morn. Queenie, our piebald mare, was chewing her cud at the front door, just her head and neck stretched (out). Looking up and down the street as if she owned the place."

"And then there was the time the mare foaled and my dad brought the foal back on the horse and cart from the field – followed by Jampots, Ted Furey's horse, who thought he was the father of the foal, and tried to follow them into the house. Not being a Traveller, I'm sure my Mum must have been so embarrassed! My dad brought the foal into the house and put him by the fire on a bale of straw. The foal would certainly have died if he hadn't kept him inside for that freezing night."

From a remove, the life of a Pavee sounds romantic and carefree – the popular tinker of stories and myth was a Pavee, as was the itinerant musician or bard. "Looking through time at pictures of the past, the life of the Traveller could very easily be seen as romantic," says Keenan, "and yes, I believe it very well could have been, if it weren't for class distinction and the mind of the materialistic type."

He explained some of the "traditional" occupations that the Pavees took on. "There was the tinsmith, who was also known as ‘Tinker.’ This guy made and repaired pots and pans, mugs, copper coal scuttles, umbrellas, and sharpened your knifes, lawnmowers, and whatever else, right outside your door. He was also the source of news and gossip from far afield, to people who may not have traveled any further then a mile from a cow dung, in their entire life-time. All of this work was powered by the pedals of his big twenty-eight inch wheel bike."

"The rag and bone man, as the English called him, this guy collected everything that was recyclable on his horse and cart, and made his living from selling it back to where it came from; the children loved this guy because of the toys he carried as well."

Some Facts About Travellers

There are an estimated 25,000 Travellers in Ireland, making up more than 4,485 Traveller families. This constitutes approximately 0.5% of the total national population. It is estimated that an additional 15,000 Irish Travellers live in Britain, with a further 10,000 Travellers of Irish descent living in the United States of America. Travellers, as individuals and as a group, experience a high level of prejudice and exclusion in Irish society. Many have to endure living in intolerable conditions, with approximately one third having to live without access to the basic facilities of sanitation, water and electricity. A report of the Health Research Board (1987) revealed that Traveller men live, on average, 10 years less than settled men, while Traveller women live on average 12 years less than their settled peers. Discrimination and its effects are a daily feature of Travellers' lives.

University of Liverpool's
Gypsy Collection (historical info)

The Irish Traveller Movement (activist info)
Theresa Keenan's IT page (personal info)

"Then there was the musician, the travelling Bard, who would be commissioned to compose and perform at the house of the wealthy." (Even with what Fintan Vallely calls "an unforgiveable handed-on racism, incomprehension of and intolerance with difference" that marks the settled Irish’s dealings over the long years with the Pavees in their midst, the settled welcomed the Pavees’ news and their music—the Pavees were the central core of the survival of what we now call traditional Irish music. Keenan’s family is a well-known example of this, along with the Cashes and the Dorans.)

"My grand uncle was a coach builder for the rich, and a wagon builder for the Traveller. All of these people have been on the roads, some since day one, others since the land grabbers of the 18th and 19th centuries. Over time the Pavees were shifted out from all over Ireland, to Scotland, England, Wales, and the USA."

"Back in my years growing up, life was hard in Ireland, not just for the Traveller, but also for most of the people in Ballyfermot," Keenan says thoughtfully. "Some of those Pavees who had been forced off their land in the 1700’s and 1800’s had no choice but to go on the road. Try to make the best of things. Only to find yourself and family being dogged for centuries on, by the Irish police and settled people. I think they envied our sense of freedom and courage to be alone and survive."

"We were recycling old cloth, bottles, jam jars, ‘Glass’. We, the Pavees, could make money from what the poorest buffer would throw out, and even managed to pay for it with cheap bright sparkling trinkets purchased from Hector Gray's, cheapest of the cheap. Hector was the equivalent to your dollar store. We then brought our daily takings to the scrap yard, rags buyer, or bottle jar place."

In recent years, the minority Pavees have been the focus of programs similar to those in the United States for minorities and under-privileged groups. "There's much more awareness through education and, very recently, housing," explains Keenan—although always "pretty poor housing conditions, and always in very badly designated industrial sites."

"There are some small organizations, such as Pavee Point in Dublin and a few others in Cork, Limerick and Galway." But in Keenan’s estimation, the only way that they will successfully settle the Pavees is give them some land, "like they did in Georgia, USA, in Murphyville."

Keenan’s humor peeks out again. "When the Pavee Travelled in Ireland, they were seen as litterbugs. In the Irish guide for tourism you will find badly built horse drawn wagons advertised, dangerously traveling along roads not fit for two cars to pass. But they are tourists and tourists bring money. So you will see that they have proper halting sites with facilities. If those tourists were not to have the halting sites and facilities you would have litter and all kinds of garbage. If they would survive at all!"

Cherry OrchardKeenan has helped in the movement for Pavee rights since the early sixties, playing on television documentaries and at concerts. "We helped defend the biggest ever demonstration in the biggest Pavee camp ever in Ireland—Cherry Orchard. My dad's cousin Joe Donohue was the then Chief. Again with Gratten Puxen, Liam Weldon, and actor John Molloy. Playing concerts in such places as the Gaiety and the Irish Life Theaters in Dublin."

"Recently I had a film crew Travel with me in my old Sixties Airstream. The project was concerning the Traveller, the true Bards of Ireland and how they held onto their culture, simply because they were not stationary and therefore escaped the schooling of the time. This was a time when the culture had been whipped out of the settled kids. We traveled from Loudon, NH, all the way to Murphyville, Georgia."

"I was amazed with the Travelling community in Georgia," Keenan adds. "They had held on to a lot of traditions that had been lost back home. (Thanks, Jim, for taking the time to talk with me.)"

And what kind of effect did growing up Pavee have on Keenan as he became an adult? "Most of the seventies through the eighties, I was so insecure most of the time, afraid to open my mouth in fear that they might see that I was not 'uni' educated like the people I was with. My education was formed through a haze of alcohol and drugs, through a lack of confidence and fear. It wasn't until the nineties that I started to wake up and see for the first time that I had to accept and move forward."

But that was a bit in the future. In between the family settling in Ballyfermot and Keenan leaving to go to London at seventeen, a great deal happened, for which devotees of Irish traditional music must be thankful.


Next—Fame and fortune, trials and tribulations...and the music
Paddy Keenan's website


© 2001, Zina Lee