Bernadette Fagan (Conroy)

Bernadette Fagan, Tallaght

I have worked in St.Basil’s Educational Centre for the last nine years and officially, I am the Drama teacher, though I also take the Art, Childcare and Intercultural studies classes. I am in my fifth year in the DIT writing an M.Phil thesis on the ‘Impact of the Arts on Traveller Education’. Previously I trained as a nurse in University Hospital Galway and as a midwife in the RotundaHospital, Dublin. I studied Drama in the Brendan Smith Academy and the Leinster School of Music. I was raised in Boston, San Fransico and Dublin but my parents are from north Connemaraand I maintain close connections with that area. I live in Tallaght with my husband and two grown children.

Interview with Sinéad ní Shuinéar

The history of the Conroys goes back, as I know it –

S: How do you know it, by the way?

I know it from my father and also from little bits from Richard Murphy, the poet, who wrote his autobiography. Richard Murphy’s grandmother lived beside my grandmother, and the two families know each other for generations.

S: And where was that?

Oh, in North Connemara, on the Little Killary, in a place called Salruck. Now, my grandmother’s mother was a Conroy from Glencorbett in the Kylemore Valley in North Connemara. And I think it was an uncle married a Traveller woman, one of the Wards, and the Conroy family, as far as know, are all descended from them. It would have been about 1840, as far as I know. And my father was saying, Richard Murphy later adopted some of the Conroy children, in the 60s, I guess, or the 70s. And my father was saying that it was because of the connection. His family always had a very close relationship with the Conroys, because they used to visit my grandmother. And one of them joined the army, and was in India, and he was the batman of Richard Murphy’s granduncle, who was a major in the British army. And that’s why the familes always stayed in touch. Because of that. And I think that’s about all.

S: Didn’t you say something about brothers in the Aran Islands?

That’s a different family. That’s my aunt’s husband, and his father was a Traveller, as far as I know. And my cousins told me that the grandfather had been a Traveller, but he died quite young. And I think there was three brothers, and I think two of the brothers are – were – still on the Aran Islands. They’re dead.

S: The brothers being descendants of this Traveller man who married into the island?


S: And left children behind him. But presumably if he died very young they were reared by the mother’s people, and were not raised as Travellers.

No. They were raised – But I remember my cousin saying that he could speak a bit of Cant.

S: So this cousin of yours is one of that family?

Yeah, through the grandfather. Now, he’s dead, because – he died in his 80s, but he was a lovely man, and he used to live next door to them in Boston, so I knew them really intimately, the family. But one of my cousins was a social worker, and she was veryinterested in the Gypsy/Traveller side of her heritage. And she was the first person who ever told me that Travellers had a separate language, because she said her father had a little of it –

S: Her father being one of these descendants?

Yeah. They used to vist, and they used to bring in brushes and tinsmiths and things like that into the islands.

S: Okay. She was actually living on the islands at the time, and Travellers used to go out to the island with bits of swag-

No, she wasn’t. She was living in Boston. But, like, she had heard it, from her father, say. That this was swag, exactly – that’s the exact term.

S: They used to go all the way out there just to sell a few brushes? Wow!

They used to sell a few brushes, yeah.

S: And, here’s another question! Presumably if she’s from the Aran Islands, Irish was her first language. Did any of those Travellers speak Irish to locals in the Aran Islands?

They must have , because they were all only Irish speakers.

S: You’re guessing, now.

I am. I’m guessing!

S: Because I have yet to talk to a native speaker who’s spoken to a Traveller in Irish. The other day I met a Traveller woman who claims her brother has good Irish, because they travelled the 3 Gaeltacht areas, Kerry Donegal and Connemara. But I’d want to meet the person, and talk to them myself!

I know my uncle had no English until he was 13 years of age, when he moved to Galway City.

S: I know Irish is the spoken language.The question is: there are Travellers known to have frequented these areas, and yet they seem not to have had any Irish. Did they simply barter with gestures, or what?

And he also seemed to have a bit of Cant, or Gammon. So whether it was that they spoke that? If that was the lingua franca?

S: And I remember your saying that Seán Connery, the Scots fellow, was some ways connected as well?

That’s right! I heard that Seán Connery’s real name is Thomas Conroy, and that his grandfather was one of this man’s sons, and they moved to Glasgow. Now, all of the Conroys – like, most of the Connemara people emigrate to London. But the Conroys always emigrated to Glasgow. So I’ve heard that, in Connemara, that they are related to him. And I’ve read in the popular press that Seán Connery’s grandfather was an Irish Traveller, so that ties in. And I’ve also heard that he is a third cousin of Peter O’Toole, the actor. And my father, whose grandmother was the Conroy woman, is a second cousin of Peter O’Toole, the actor’s.

S: How does Peter O’Toole come into this?

Because Peter O’Toole is from North Connemara. His people would be. I think he had an Irish citizenship, at one stage. He was raised around North Leeds which is, again, a spot that Connemara people used to go to, around North Shields, around there, was another spot,

S: And the name Conroy: is that a common name among either country people or Travelllers?

It’s a fairly common name in Connemara, and it actually means Dogs of the Sea? – con is hound – But it’s very common in Connemara. Like, the word Connemara comes from the word con.

S: And Traveller Conroys?

As far as I know, they’re all descended –

S: So, there’s not that many of them?

No, there’s not that many of them. And also they travelled around North Connemara, and some of them settled there.

S: Since I have you here, and I’m picking your brains: North Connemara. What sort of Traveller names would have frequented up there? And gve me some idea of timeframe.

I know the Clerys used to, and again they used to winter in Clifden, and I’ve heard interesting stories about them.

S: Would Clifden be the nearest big town?

Clifden is the nearest big town. But it’s 20 miles from us, and it’s only 3 streets!

S: So are you near the Abbey?

Near enough to Kylemore Abbey, yeah, and near enough Leenane – it would be farther on, again. And the story that I heard about the Clerys – this would have been in my parents’ time, my parents heard them all talking about it – was that they had a little house on the grounds of the covent in Clifden. It was more like a shed, that the nuns would give them for winter. The youngest in family were two little girls, and so the nuns brought them in to school, and they’d go to school. And they did very well in school, and did their Inter Cert, and later on during the War years they went to England, and got in nursing, and the two of them married doctors. So, like, it was (laughs) like, a great source of surprise.

S: Yeah! How did their parents feel about the whole thing?

I don’t know!

S: And what other names would there be in North Connemara?

The Maughans as well. The Maughans used also travel around, and I’ve heard someone say that both the Conroys and Maughans were much poorer than, say, the Raineys.

S: Did you know the Raineys as well?

I didn’t know them, but my father knew them, and he said that they stayed in his grandmother’s house, and they used to stay.

S: How did they stay in his grandmther’s house? Did they rent a room, or…?

Because they were travelling musicians, I think they would usually stay a night or two in the house, then move on.

S: I’m very intrigued by this! Were they travelling with their families? Or on their own?

On their own… I don’t know! I could ask.

S: There’s a myth about – how do you shelter 12 kids?

I know the Conroys used to visit my father, and the Clerys would visit my grandfather, and they camped in a sheltered spot.

S: Yeah! Which is what Travellers do to this day, visiting relatives in houses.

Yeah! But what he said was that the Raineys used to stay in the house.

S: Sleeping on the sofa?

Well, it would have been like a shake-down type bed. And he said, also, like, the local tailor used to stay in their house as well.

S: Okay. That sort of thing. So, individuals, but not families.

No. No, much more individuals.

S: I stand ready to be contradicted, if somebody says, “Yes, we took in families with 12 children.”

No! You couldn’t!

S: You couldn’t. So – we’ve got Clerys, Raineys, Maughans. Anybody else, in North Connemara?

Not that I know of.

S: No Wards? No McDonaghs?

No. I never heard of them saying that.

S: Incredible!