Death Of Nan Joyce, Co. Tipperary & First Lady Of Civil Rights

Freedom Song

Artist – Luka Bloom.
“Woman singing a freedom song, Woman showing us the way
Woman singing a freedom song, I’d love to hear that voice today.

With blisters on her feet, she moved from place to place, Outside Dublin city ’81
Sick and tired of being a stranger in her own home, Where others had their comforts, she had none.”

It was with great sadness we learned of the passing, on Monday last, August 7th 2018, aged 78 years; one of Ireland’s first Traveller Rights activists, the Tipperary-born Traveller Mrs Nan Joyce (née O’Donoghue).

She was born in 1940 in the village of Cloheen, to parents John O’Donoghue, (Horse Trainer) and Nan (née McCann) here in South Co. Tipperary, the second eldest of a family of 9 children and grand-aunt of the ‘Love/Hate’ star John Connors.

Her father died in a Garda cell when she was just twelve years old; his death an ongoing mystery as to his arrest in the first instance, since he was never known to be in trouble with any of the authorities, local or otherwise. Her mother was later sent to prison for theft committed in her attempt, as a widow, to support her large family. Ms Nan O’Donoghue was now forced to take over the role of mother; roaming the country roads, both north and south, with her other siblings.  Some years later, at the tender age of 16 years, she would marry fellow Traveller Mr John Joyce, and they would have eleven children, all who would reside in the areas of Clondalkin, Tallaght, Finglas, Coolock and Belfast.

Mrs Joyce was living with her family at a halting site in Clondalkin in 1981, when they were first forced to move out by Dublin County Council bulldozers. They moved to Tallaght where Mrs Joyce enrolled her children at school. While the family was settling into their latest surroundings; Dublin County Council again tried to open the new Tallaght By-pass, where over a hundred Traveller families lived, without fulfilling their legal obligation to offer them an alternative halting site.

Some angry locals from the settled community threatened the Joyce Traveller family, ordering them to quit the area. Hostile locals, with the support of community politicians, organized a vigilante mob to visit all the Traveller camps in the area; attempting to intimidate them by wielding hurls and screaming “Out! Out! Out!”. Elderly Travellers and young children became terrified, but some others of the settled Tallaght local community rose to their defence, standing with them against the mob.

On hearing of the incident, then journalist, Irish presenter and host of radio and television, broadcaster Gay Byrne supported them; transmitting his radio programme direct from their halting site, thus giving Mrs Nan Joyce her first opportunity to speak publicly on behalf of the Traveller community; thus highlighting the injustices they were then being forced to endure.

Mrs Joyce, thanks mainly to her late father, was literate and could read the local newspapers. She became disturbed by how some publications totally misrepresented the Traveller Community.  She went on to write a Traveller’s Manifesto, describing their needs and delivered it to all the local newspaper offices. She went on to co-found the Committee for the Rights of Travellers and later became the first member of the Travelling community to stand as a candidate for the Dublin South-West constituency; polling some 581 votes in the general election of 1982.  Another constituency candidate, Mr Richard O’Reilly, ran to oppose Mrs Joyce using an anti-Traveller platform with the slur, “Get the Knackers out of Tallaght”, as his campaign slogan. Mrs Joyce, while not elected, attracted twice as many votes as Mr O’Reilly.

Later she was arrested and wrongly charged with the theft of jewellery, however charges were dropped with many believing she had been framed because of her electioneering stance.

Mrs Joyce attended a Trócaire seminar in Galway some two years later, in 1983, where she impressed the seminar group, which included Nobel Peace Prize-winner, Mr Seán MacBride, and she was selected as chairperson to represent them. She delivered a speech to thousands of humanitarians and senior church clergy from all over the world, stating: “You people are very concerned about the Third World. I think you should also be concerned about us, we are the fourth world. We live among rats in camps or caravans, our children suffer from as many diseases as the children of the Third World.” She received a standing ovation, with the press reporting that, Mrs Joyce had an extraordinary impact on the seminar, receiving more applause than anyone else who delivered corresponding seminar presentations.

In an autobiography in 1985 entitled “Traveller”, Mrs Joyce wrote the story of her life, which was included in the women writer’s volume of the ‘Field Day Anthology of Irish Writing’, in 1988.

For her campaigning work on behalf of the Traveller community over a period of three decades; in 2010, Mrs Joyce was presented with a ‘Lifetime Achievement Award’ by the then Irish President Mrs Mary McAleese.

Irish folk singer-songwriter and younger brother of folk singer Christy Moore, Luka Bloom wrote “Freedom Song” a ballad about Mrs Nan Joyce and one other heroic woman, Rosa Louise McCauley Parks, wife of Raymond Parks, latter who took a pivotal role in the of Montgomery Bus Boycott, and of whom the US Congress called “the first lady of civil rights” and “the mother of the freedom movement”.

Ar dheis Dé go raibh a h-anam dílis.


1 comment to Death Of Nan Joyce, Co. Tipperary & First Lady Of Civil Rights

  • Mary Alacoque Ryan

    It is with great sadness that I have just heard of the death of Nan Joyce. A regal woman physically and with a powerful intellect and power of rhetoric, I am sorry I did not know on time to attend her funeral. I had the privilege of working with her briefly in the 1980s when I taught in Grange Community College, Donaghmede and she, her sister Lily and I tried to develop ways to bring young Traveller teenagers and local teenagers together.
    My deepest sympathy to her family and friends. She was a unique woman. May she rest in peace.

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