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Hitting the right note for Gypsy, Roma and Traveller History Month

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Published on 29 June 2023

Richard O’Neill (left) and George Hoyle at the University of Sunderland
Richard O’Neill (left) and George Hoyle at the University of Sunderland

The University of Sunderland has welcomed back multi-award-winning storyteller, author and playwright Richard O’Neill, and professional musician and songwriter George Hoyle, as part of its Gypsy, Roma and Traveller (GRT) History Month celebrations. 

Richard and George have been working together since 2020 to create unique and exciting folk songs and stories to bring GRT culture to life. 

This month (Wednesday 23 June), the pair returned to the University to deliver an array of events to hundreds of school pupils, teachers, University staff and students at Hope Street Xchange on City campus. This included an online interactive ‘Story Into Song’ masterclass, which was streamed to schools across the country, including Kent, Cheshire, Wiltshire and Hertfordshire, as well as the north-east. In total, 990 pupils registered to attend. 

There was also an in-person ‘Speed Song Creating’ workshop with pupils from Hetton Lyons Primary School and Grange Park Primary School, and an exclusive live performance of Richard and George’s new songs.

Richard, who was born and raised in a large traditional nomadic Romani family, said: “I was born in nearby Peterlee and it’s great to see north-east and Romani Gypsy culture come together in new songs and for them to be shared across the country. The University of Sunderland is once again leading the way on inclusion and creativity.”

George added: "It is great to share with a wider audience an approach to creating an honest and ethical songwriting practice about Richard's valuable history."

Currently only 6.9% of Gypsy and Roma people access higher education. The University of Sunderland has a deep-rooted commitment to widening access and recognises the barriers and challenges that Gypsy, Traveller, Roma, Showman and Boater (GTRSB) communities may face within education and are working directly with students to provide personalised support based on individual needs.

In January 2021 the University were one of the first in the UK to sign the GTRSB into Higher Education Pledge, a firm public commitment to support GTRSB students to access and succeed in higher education. 

Wendy Price OBE, Head of Widening Access and Participation at the University, said: “At the University of Sunderland we offer transformative experiences to talented students from all backgrounds. We hope to increase the number of GRT students accessing and succeeding at university by offering a personalised support plan for each student, based on their individual needs.

“Since signing the GTRSB into Higher Education Pledge in 2021, we have worked directly with GTRSB communities to ensure we provide a supportive and welcoming community at the University. Celebrating GRT History Month is so important to raise awareness of GRT communities and their contributions to society, and to offset negative stereotypes and prejudices.”  

Wendy added: “We were delighted to welcome Richard and George back to the University as part of the celebrations, and of course we also wanted to extend these events to include local and national schools. 

“Through these sessions we were able to promote knowledge of GRT history, culture and heritage in an innovative, memorable and enjoyable way. Richard and George are true professionals and I’m so grateful to them for sharing their creative partnership with us all.”


Richard O’Neill

Richard O’Neill is a multi-award-winning storyteller, author and playwright born and raised in a large traditional nomadic Romani family, whose history in England and Scotland goes back hundreds of years. Richard continues the tradition of travelling across the UK and mainland Europe, delivering storytelling sessions and workshops. He has a particular interest in using literature to promote inclusion and social mobility. Website: richardthestoryteller.weebly.com

George Hoyle 

George Hoyle is a professional musician, songwriter and music producer with over 20 years of experience. He has toured extensively internationally as a bass player. He is currently live bass player for acclaimed folk band Stick In The Wheel. George makes his own music under the name Cunning Folk. George is inspired by magic and folklore and is also a professional storyteller. Website: ffm.bio/cunningfolk