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August 5,, 2009

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Pecker Dunne
The Pecker Dunne
I never met Bob Dylan but I sang with Pecker Dunne - Christy Moore

Pecker Dunne was born into a Wexford travelling family. He was actually born in a horse-drawn caravan in Castlebar, Co Mayo, on April 1, 1932. He tells us in the song Wexford that his father was a fiddle player and was known as “The Fiddler Dunne”. He also says his father taught him how a man will never starve with a banjo, fiddle or song.

He was christened Padraig. “We were living on the side of the road in New Ross and I used to ride horses for a Major Peckard - they called me 'Major Peckard' after that and then shortened it to ‘Pecker’.”

He performed on the street, outside race meetings and GAA matches, most memorably the Munster Final in Thurles (the joke at the time was that he played more Munster Finals than Cork). He also busked in England and France and performed in Australia and New York.

Resembling a Mexican bandit with his trademark beard and stocky build, he is a colourful character, as widely known around Ireland as Margaret Barry was to a previous generation. He is best known for Sullivans John, which he wrote and which was recorded by Sweeney’s Men and The Dubliners. He also wrote The Miximatosis Rabbit and a humorous version of The Black Velvet Band called The Old Morris Van.

In a book* published in 2005, he recalls his travels in Australia, playing for huge audiences in New York, working with The Dubliners and with Richard Harris on the film Trojan Eddie. He gives a glimpse into many aspects of Traveller culture which are under threat today and discusses the history of his own group, the fairground or showpeople. His description of his battle with alcoholism, the hardships of life on the road, and the prejudices and racism endured by Travellers give a special poignancy to his life story.

In the 1980s and 90s, he could be heard singing and playing the banjo in Killarney. Nowadays he lives in Killimer in south-west Clare, with his wife Madeleine and four children, all of whom play musical instruments. 

Aged 74, he was treated in Limerick Regional Hospital in November, 2007, for a throat illness. His spirit was as high as ever. Sr Carmel O'Sullivan said: "Part of his healing process is playing music and we've found that he has brought a lot of pleasure to other patients in the hospital as well. He has been playing the banjo behind his back, playing it with a biro and also with a part of a bicycle pump." - RN

Shay Healy wrote the sleeve notes in 1976 for the album Margaret Barry & Pecker Dunne: Travellin’ People from Ireland:
The Pecker Dunne is one of Ireland’s last surviving Travelling Musicians. He is a brilliant storyteller, musician, father and above all one of the greatest of Travelling people.
The Pecker uses many of the techniques that are essential features to the Traveller style of fiddle playing such as “hacking”, “snapping” and feathering along with other rhythmic devices. He is a highly accomplished banjo, fiddle, melodeon and guitar player.
The first time I saw Pecker Dunne was in the basement at the Jug of Punch pub in Kilkenny. This awesome man looked like a cross between Zorba the Greek and Cochise.
He still looks the same. He sings much better now. Pecker is a tinker. He has travelled the length and breadth of Ireland for years, playing his banjo and singing his songs. Tinkers are a restless breed and Pecker is no exception.
Since that day in Kilkenny fourteen years ago our paths have crossed many times. As no more than a tender youth, I produced Pecker in his first real stage show at the Gate Theatre, Dublin. On closing night, he upstaged my curtain speech and stole all the thunder. He looked so fearsome, I was afraid to complain.
Surprisingly, nobody bothered to put Pecker in a recording studio until now. The results are extremely pleasant. He has a warm voice, that has the character one would expect of a man who has spent his life travelling.
Some of the songs are Pecker’s own compositions. We have tried to concentrate them on one side. His lyrics are as strong as the resentment he has met in his days on the road. Tinkers have never been the most popular breed of men. These songs are evocative of the times and places that have scarred and inspired Pecker.
We had good fun making this album. I swore three years ago that I would never write sleeve notes again.
But I had another look at Pecker and this time I wasn’t afraid to complain. I was happy to do it.

Margaret Barry & Pecker Dunne: Travellin' People from Ireland, Emerald. 1976. EMCD 8001.
Re-released as The Very Best of Pecker Dunne in 2001. EMCD8003

In Print
Parley-Poet and Chanter - A Life of Pecker Dunne, transcribed by Micheál O hEadha. Published by A. and A. Farmar Press, Dublin. Price 14.99 euro (including free CD).

Irish Music Festivals 2009 

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