Bolling Hall Museum
Cartwright Hall Art Gallery

Telling Kathleen’s story – from ‘Dreams and Songs to Sing’

June 17, 2024

Our newest exhibition at Cartwright Hall is by Bradford-based photographer Cath Muldowney, created in partnership with members of Bradford’s Gypsy and Traveller communities. For Gypsy Roma Traveller History Month, (June 2024) it felt appropriate to highlight one of the stories told within the exhibition – that of Kathleen.

Songs to Sing 0767
Songs to Sing 0767

Roots

A Bradford resident and Irish Traveller, Kathleen is proud of her heritage and aspires to uphold her culture and traditions, ‘It’s how I was brought up and how I brought my children up’ she says. She traces her roots back to County Wexford in the Republic of Ireland, but Yorkshire has always been a massive part of her life.

‘I grew up on the roadside. We’d stay in Yorkshire in the winter, but then we’d move around all over the country in the summertime. She recalls the excitement of reuniting with friends from previous years and the joy of a community where ‘everybody mixed.’ Her upbringing was bursting with community, family, culture, and food. ‘My mother always had a fire going, cooking outside in big black pots, hearty food such as bacon and cabbage or ribs and stew.’

To this day, Kathleen carries on this value of generosity and hospitality, always preparing more than enough food to share with her community. ‘Anyone elderly we feed, I send dinner up and down everywhere.’’

Bradford is renowned as a space of sanctuary and safety, welcoming communities across the world to make it their home. For centuries, the vibrant tapestry of Bradford has been woven together with the diverse threads of the Irish Traveller community, whether it has been a pit stop for those who embody a nomadic lifestyle, or somewhere to call home. When asked about her own experience, she says, “It’s like home. I’ve been here since I was 5, I’m 57 now, so 52 years I’ve lived between Leeds and Bradford.” 

There’s a deep sense of communal living in both Kathleen’s home and the site she lives on, she explains, ‘We’re strong on family values, everyone keeps an eye out for everyone’s child and we take care of the older people.’

Childhood

As the youngest of twelve children, she speaks fondly of her own childhood. ‘Day to day it was just nice, you know, we weren’t playing computer games like today. I was like a tomboy and we played out all the time. It was a better way of life and it was a healthier way of life.’ As travelling communities begin to settle more, she feels the children are missing out on experiencing a variety of life, and explains, ‘It’s not good for children to be cooped up. When you live roadside you mix with different cultures, it helps to teach morals.’

Lost ones

Kathleen moved back to Yorkshire when she was 19 to get married. Sadly, her husband died aged only 28, leaving her to raise their children on her own. Kathleen then explains the importance in the community of keeping loved ones’ memories alive and shares how they value life and death in equal parts.

‘We mention everyone we’ve lost, so they’re not forgotten about. My brother died 45 years ago and we talk about him every day.’ Once a year, Kathleen visits a cemetery in Ireland. ‘It’s a respect thing. All our ancestors are buried there. People come from all over Ireland and England on one specific day, and we all stand by their graves – it’s like a blessing.’ She continues, ‘Our people belong to us.’

Being in Bradford

Kathleen feels more welcome here amongst other minority groups than in other parts of the country. She has encountered numerous instances of discrimination and stereotyping as an Irish Traveller and has always had a feeling of being an unwanted outsider in society, ‘There’s good and bad in us all, but we all get painted with the one brush,’ she says. There is a real sense of persecution and fear within the community. Kathleen describes feelings of being unsafe and vulnerable as soon as she leaves the site, creating a feeling of never truly belonging.

Preserving Traveler traditions

Kathleen and her family pictured in front of a display cabinet containing a white dress

“It’s our culture and I don’t think they’ll ever stop it, but they’re doing their best to try,” she continues “You can’t think you’re better than anyone else, we’re all the same. It’s not right to look down on someone else.” 

“It’s disheartening that our positive efforts rarely receive recognition; the spotlight always seems to be on the negative aspects of our community.”

At the same time she recognizes the need to modernise, specifically in education and work.

‘I never went to school when I was a child because we were roadside. Here today, gone tomorrow.’ However, when she became a parent, ensuring her own children received an education became a priority. ‘I think everyone should have the right to read,’ she says.

Another cultural shift Kathleen has been part of, was supporting her daughter into further education and now championing her choice to go to work. More and more women are going out to find a vocation, and Kathleen feels it’s a good trend.


This particular story was collected initially as part of the Bradford People’s Library project from Bradford for Everyone and was co-authored with Nathan McGill and Tom Harmer

The exhibition is on at Cartwright Hall Art Gallery until the 8th of September 2024

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