Longford singer Sharyn Ward
Jessica Thompson talks to proud Traveller Sharyn Ward on how Ireland’s Got Talent changed her life
There was a lot of negative publicity for the Travelling Community last year, in response to the opinions of EU election candidate Peter Casey.
Understandably, Longford singer Sharyn Ward was worried for her own future and for the future of her two children Bonnie (9) and Jack (7).
But when she swallowed her fear and stepped out onto the Ireland’s Got Talent stage for her first audition, she knew instantly that her decision to put herself out there was the right one.
And, while her rendition of Stand By Me was excellent, the judges were disappointed that Sharyn didn’t stick to her heritage and stay true to herself. When asked to sing an Irish song like she’d usually sing, Sharyn blew the judges, audience and home viewers away with an unaccompanied version of Finbar Furey’s Sweet Sixteen. And the rest is history.
While she sailed with ease through to the final, she didn’t win the competition. But with that experience, Sharyn won so much more for herself and for her young family.
“Honestly, I had been suffering with a bit of anxiety, which was leading me to social anxiety, which was stopping me from socialising and stopping me from going out and I just got stuck in a rut, sitting at home,” Sharyn told the Longford Leader recently.
“And I suppose I wanted to do something to give myself a confidence boost. And there was an awful lot of negativity at the time about Travellers. Everytime I opened the paper, there was more bad stuff and it just felt like you were having to constantly prove your worth and it was just draining.
“And then the whole Peter Casey thing literally sucked the life completely out of me and I was thinking ‘what is my future for my children?’ and I was so scared to even have any more children because I was worried that this is what we’d be facing and what it was going to be like in ten years time or whatever.”
Her thoughts on all of that have changed, though, and Sharyn and her husband Jim Ward welcomed their third child to the family in September - a beautiful baby boy they named Paddy. So what changed her mind?
It was actually when Lucy Kennedy arrived to Sharyn’s home camp in Dublin to film an episode of Living with Lucy in the home of actor, writer and director John Connors, that Sharyn was discovered and encouraged to go for an audition.
“John was always trying to show off my singing anyway. So he insisted I came out to the campfire,” Sharyn explained.
“And eventually when I came out, Lucy was like ‘Sharon, you have to go for Ireland’s Got Talent’ and I didn’t pass much heed.
And then she kept ringing me for a few days after that and, eventually, I was talking to my husband and I said ‘this is the scariest thing I’ve ever had to do in my whole life because I’m so scared to put myself in the limelight because there might be a bit of a backlash or negativity’.
“It’s either going to go one way or the other, that’s what I was thinking, do you know what I mean?
“And especially because I didn’t realise that Peter Casey has so much support being negative about Travellers. And Lucy was like ‘just go for it’. And then all that happened.”
Sharyn nearly fell off the stage when she realised that people loved her and said that it was “the best feeling in the whole world” to stand in front of such a huge audience and have them cheering just for her.
“And to have it to show my children… to stand up there and say ‘yes I’m a very proud Irish Traveller’ and let the children see me doing that... they’re so much more confident about themselves now, you know?
“And I’ve been so confident being myself since that. And I’ve had way more positivity than negativity,” said Sharyn.
“I think people are finally stopping with the whole painting with the one brush thing. They’re finally starting to be not so hard on Travellers - well, not so hard on me in general. I feel so much more support since that. I don’t think even my friends realised how much I wanted to just roar it out to the world.
“It’s a freedom in its own way to say that I’m a proud Traveller.”
While Sharyn is also a proud Longford woman, connected to the Stokes and the O’Leary families, she moved to Dublin when she was dating Jim Ward. The two married and are very happy with their three children and their family home.
“We live in a camp, which is probably one of the last camps in Ireland for Travellers because they were all either turned into sites or else they were bought out and Travellers would’ve moved into houses or whatever. So we’d be one of the last campsites,” Sharyn explained.
“So it’s very traditional here. We have our campfires and we have our family gatherings. It’s like a family. We’ve very much held on to our heritage and I’m very, very proud of it. If there’s a campfire lit here, every family comes out to chat. Once a month we’ll gather for a rosary prayer. All the family get together to pray. And if there’s anyone sick, everybody pulls together for that person, you know? We’re a very close community.”
But there will always be a place in Sharyn’s heart for her home town of Longford, and she’s certainly not slow to point that out.
“It’s gas because when I left Longford, I left thinking nobody really thought much of me,” she recalled.
“But actually, when Ireland’s Got Talent came on, it made me feel so proud to be who I was. Because despite people saying so many bad things, and despite all the negativity that’s said about Travellers, I actually realised that in Longford, people weren’t so bad to me. People were really kind to me, you know?
“And I had some really good friends growing up in Longford. The time Ireland’s Got Talent happened, I was so emotional because of that. It wasn’t about the singing. I felt like I was worth so much, if you know what I mean. It was the best thing ever.
“And the support from Longford - oh my god - it was so good. It was brilliant and I kind of felt a bit… like Dublin is great and I have my family here, but Longford… I always long for it. It’s my home. So it brought so much of Longford back to me. It made me feel so secure here in Dublin because they still all remember me down there. I can go home whenever I want. I will go home some day.”
Sharyn’s father, Ned Stokes, has long been known around Longford for his scrapyard business, which he initially set up in Drumlish.
“Daddy would’ve loved music. When we had the yard when I was a child, I remember Mick Flavin coming for parts for his car. And I remember Declan Nerney coming. And Noel Cassidy was a regular visitor of ours,” Sharyn fondly recalled.
“So every time they’d be coming, I’d be jumping all around the place looking for their CDs and I’d be five years of age belting out their songs in the kitchen. People couldn’t believe it. And I loved Daniel O’Donnell. I loved all the old singers growing up.”
As the scrapyard business got bigger and busier, the family moved to St Michael’s Road in Longford town.
“And I had the best life ever. Everybody was so close. All our family was around us, my best friends. I have the best memories ever,” said Sharyn as she recalled the Longford of her childhood.
“And the difference in Longford now is, when I was Bonnie’s age - Bonnie is turning 10 now at Christmas - I was actually allowed to walk up with my other two or three 10-year-old friends at like six o’clock in the evening for a bag of chips from Luigi’s. But I don’t think it’s as safe now to let your little child or a group of children walk up to Luigi’s for a bag of chips.
“Things have changed. Longford was a very safe, secure town. Everybody knew everybody and it was homely. You couldn’t smoke a fag in the street because you were guaranteed such a one’s neighbour who knew your aunt was going to see you,” she laughed.
“So everybody was so close-knit. They were a close community. And everybody looked out for each other and of course everybody knew me by name. I mean random strangers because I was that little girl that just gabbed the ears off everybody!”
There are a number of places in the town that hold fond memories for Sharyn. The Longford woman has a very strong faith and so she often found herself drawn to St Mel’s Cathedral when she was young.
“I literally would pack up a little bag and head off to the cathedral for a walk by myself. And I’d go to mass on a Saturday evening,” she said.
“From when I was a child, I’ve had very strong faith in God. I don’t really care whether I’m a Catholic, Protestant, Buddha, whatever, as long as I just believe in God. I have no problems with anyone else’s religion. But I always found peace in the cathedral. It’s my place to go down home.”
It’s not her only place to go down home, though. She’s had many a great bag of chips out of Luigi’s and insists that there’s no better chipper - not even in Dublin.
“You will not get a curry chip up here anything like in Luigi’s. A chicken burger and a curry chip. I wouldn’t mind but you have a chipper on every corner up here but none of them taste the same as Longford,” she laughed.
“And then I suppose my favourite kind of auld pub to go to growing up was Eddie Valentine’s. We loved that, me and the girls. Eddie was always so nice to me and so welcoming. I’ll never forget that. We were always more than welcome in there. He’s a lovely fella.”
Those are places that Sharyn would love to visit when she returns to Longford - something which she plans to do around Christmas time when she releases her debut album, which she’s working on at the moment.
“I have about three weeks of recording left before it’s finished and ready to go. I’m hoping to get it out for Christmas because I’m doing a few gigs around Christmas and I’ll probably launch the album at one of them,” she explained.
“The baby loves the music,” she said of little Paddy, who is a few months old now. And it wasn’t off the grass he licked it either. With such a beautiful and powerful singing voice coming from his mother every day while she was pregnant with him, it’s no wonder he’s been taking notice of the music around him since he was born.
“You know people say that babies hear the music when they’re in the womb, but this child, the minute the Wolftones or Luke Kelly come on, he just freezes,” Sharyn laughed, proud that her taste in music has been passed on to her child.
“Two weeks before I had him I was in recording an album,” she added.
“It’s an album of covers for now, just to give people a taste of what I sing. And I write songs as well, so I have a book of songs I wrote over the years and poems and things. So that’s going to be my new thing. From January I’m going to start doing my own songs.
“And most of my songs would be inspired by growing up in Longford with my father and the whole Irish traditional music thing about Longford.
“I will be home, hopefully soon, with my album. I’ll have a launch date somewhere in Longford where I can meet people and probably pick up all my old friends from St Michael’s Road and Anally Park,” she promised.
And Longford will be happy to have her because, for all the negativity that was floating around about the Travelling Community thanks to a certain EU election candidate, there’s certainly no denying that Sharyn has become a positive role model for young Traveller women and changed people’s perception of Travellers for the better.
And, simply by staying true to herself and her heritage, Sharyn Ward has changed her own life and the lives of her children in a positive way. There’s a lesson to be learned there: never change who you are to fit in if you were born to stand out.