Ryalla Duffy (1960 – 2021) – in her own words – Writer, Poet, Film Maker & Photographer

The Romani Cultural and Arts Company 26th profile will be of Ryalla Duffy, Writer, Poet, Film Maker & Photographer

Born and bred to the travelling life in the 1950s, I lived through the end of waggon time and the transition into trailer time. The period since then has seen a gradual, intentional and unrelenting erosion of rights of an entire way of life, aided and abetted by legislation and media bias. 

The roadside stopping, the land work, the making of flowers and pegs for hawking door to door, selling holly wreaths at Christmas, old stuffing….. 

By and large they are things from our own childhood that we just tell our grandchildren about now, passing on that oral history, shared memories and experiences.

The 1960s took me to Ireland, and again I caught the end of waggon time there, stopping on the roads with Irish Travellers. Music and step dancing there, was another way of passing on traditions and sharing pleasure, uniting strangers and transforming them into friends.

Working and living at the Romany Folklore Museum in Selborne in the 1980s, included the restoration and painting of horse drawn living waggons to show condition, giving me an insight into how painting and decorative art could be appreciated by anybody and how useful that was for breaking down barriers with our visitors.

When I lived on the site at Edenbridge, my neighbour was Tom Oadley who had just begun his work with the British Romani Union and he encouraged me to try my hand at poetry, something I’ve enjoyed ever since. The first film I worked on was with Tom Baker and the Kent Traveller Education Service, around early years education and reading and writing skills. Writing is another positive creative way of expressing thoughts and ideas. I wrote about my own Gypsy childhood and relived many memories through the written word. 

To celebrate the first ever GRTHM we produced a soundscape of photographs called ‘Pastures New’ which was a very successful exhibition in Nottingham. More film and written work followed. Photography has now become another pastime and art form for me that others can enjoy, as well as being therapeutic in itself. We all remember that biscuit tin under the bunk full of family photos that came out on a rainy day to be passed round the family and commented on.

Having personally run the gauntlet of enforcement orders, evictions and planning permission for the last couple of decades, it is evident to me that ramping up the powers of authority is here to stay. It’s obvious to us all.

Diversity training, conferences, parliamentary meetings, support groups, we’ve done them all haven’t we and there’s a place for that. 

There’s a place for sport too, be it boxing, harness racing, horse breeding….it’s another great leveller.

Culture and the creative arts crosses borders, forms bonds, it’s non confrontational, it’s inclusive, it conveys subtle messages peacefully but with power, part of that power is to tackle prejudice.

In the last few years as my children have grown I’ve been blessed to be able to travel abroad more. Visiting Auschwitz for the first time a few years ago was a powerful unforgettable soul searing experience, it reminds us how prejudice unchecked can end. 

A more recent journey to Rajasthan reinforced the great poverty families there still live in, although many still remain nomadic for economic reasons.

Art plays a part in family life there too….the painted horse carts, the copper and tin smithing, mehndi hand decorating….bringing art into everyday life and sharing it. 

The horse fairs now are better attended than they have ever been and what a popular showcase they are for all that’s great and good about the community, as well as being a great opportunity to get together with family and friends. Evolving and adapting to survive and thrive…..

Long may it continue.