Nomads No More

After centuries of moving through the Irish countryside, a group known as Travellers has come to rest.

In County Cork a group of Irish Travellers, once known pejoratively as tinkers, built a campfire near their barrel-topped wagons and a van in the 1970s.

Photographs by the authors

This article was adapted from Irish Travellers: The Unsettled Life (Indiana University Press, 2014)

For generations a group of people has stood on the bottom rung of Ireland’s social and economic ladder: they have been variously called Travellers, traveling people, Pavees, and, pejoratively, tinkers or knackers. Until the 1960s, they lived in rural areas, roving the countryside, camping on the roadside in tents and horse-drawn wagons, while providing a variety of trades and services for farming communities. While some Travellers had a primary trade such as tinsmithing, they were also opportunistic.

Despite the valuable services Travellers performed—which also included agricultural labor, chimney sweeping, buying and selling horses, peddling small household wares, and carrying news into remote regions—most country people were glad to see them pack up and move on. Nomads are usually regarded with suspicion by sedentary populations, no matter how mutually beneficial their relationship. Irish Travellers were no exception.

Although their lifestyle was outwardly similar to that of the Roma, the group first called “gypsies” (in the erroneous belief that they came from Egypt), Travellers are native to Ireland. They have their own secret argot or cant, known as Gammon, which is based on Irish Gaelic and spoken primarily to conceal meaning from outsiders. The Travellers are one of numerous indigenous nomadic groups to have existed throughout Europe, including the Swedish Resande, Norwegian Taters, and Dutch Woonwagonbewoners. Today, approximately 29,000 Travellers live in Ireland among a population of 4.5 million settled Irish.

Little is known about the Travellers’ early history. As a population that was until quite recently nonliterate, they left no written records of their own. As poor people living on the margins of settled society, they were largely ignored in Ireland’s documented history and literary works. Ongoing genetic research begun in the 1970s and a DNA analysis of forty individuals in 2010 clearly shows, however, that Travellers are native to Ireland and have lived there as long as anyone. It also confirms that they are not Roma. Beyond that, only one thing is certain: not all families originated at the same time or in the same way.

Traveller John Ward fashioned tins along the side of the road in Galway in 1971.

Nomadism in some Traveller families dates back centuries, while for others it is more recent. Many early craftsmen and specialists—metalsmiths, weavers, thatchers, musicians, and bards—traveled the Irish countryside because of the limited demand for their skills in any one place. Over the centuries, some peasants and laborers also went on the road to look for work or were otherwise forced there by eviction or some personal failing, such as a problem with drink or the birth of an illegitimate child. The majority eventually returned to a settled life within Ireland or abroad, but some remained on the road. The genealogies of many contemporary Travellers include relatives who were once “buffers,” or non-Travellers.

Most families traveled seasonally, from St. Patrick’s Day in mid-March (when, it was said, the stones turned over in the water and the cold went out of the winter) until November. Some then sought shelter for the winter in abandoned “waste” houses in the countryside; a few moved into modest cottages in what they considered to be their home village. While traveling, families remained in one place only as long as work was available. Most followed regular circuits within two or three counties, visiting the same farms and villages each year and becoming well-known to local people. But some families traveled widely, even crossing the English Channel to Britain, and consequently had much weaker ties to the settled population.

Joe Maughan and Dickio Connors examining a horse’s teeth in 1971. Many Irish Travellers went from town to town offering their services as tinsmiths, purveyors of horses, and more.

As Ireland modernized in the decades after World War II, the Travellers’ rural economy collapsed. The demand for the tinsmith’s handmade work evaporated with the availability of mass-produced enamelware and inexpensive plastic containers. The need for seasonal agricultural labor, as well as for the horses bought and sold by some Travellers, also disappeared with the introduction of farm machinery, such as beet diggers and tractors. Similarly, as bus service in rural areas expanded and more country people could afford to own cars, shopping in towns became easier, eliminating the need for the Traveller women who once brought small household wares to farmhouse doors. In response, some Irish Travellers migrated to England to work on construction sites or to collect scrap metal. Most, however, moved into towns and cities within Ireland, such as Dublin, Limerick, and Cork, in search of a new livelihood, and often in order to sign on for the “dole” (unemployment benefits).

There, most Traveller men turned to collecting scrap metal, which they separated by metal type (iron, steel, copper, brass, aluminum) and then sold by weight to metal merchants. Women and older girls walked through suburban neighborhoods asking housewives for handouts in a modified form of rural peddling. A few begged on city streets. It didn’t take long for urbanites to start complaining. Virtually everyone found the Travellers’ frequent requests for water or a “bit of help” a nuisance; they also objected to their camps, which seemed to be springing up everywhere—on roadside verges, amid abandoned buildings in the city center, in open fields adjacent to suburban housing estates and schools.

In response to this public outcry, the central government appointed a commission to investigate what had become known as “the itinerant problem.” Its report, published in 1963, not only documented the problems Travellers created for urban residents, it also highlighted the Travellers’ poverty, illiteracy, poor health, and short life spans. And it recommended the provision of serviced “sites” (similar to trailer parks) where families would have access to such basic amenities as electricity, running water, and toilets, and from which their children could begin attending school. The report’s findings were covered extensively in the media, generating sympathy for the Travellers’ plight.

Soon a national crusade—the Itinerant Settlement Movement—was underway, staffed by volunteers from all walks of life. At its height, approximately seventy local committees across Ireland were working to settle Travellers and improve their lives. Although some attention was given to providing for families who wished to remain nomadic, the hope was that most Travellers would eventually move into houses and assimilate into mainstream Irish society. Indeed, the logo of the movement was a winding road leading to a house.

Traveller Anthony Maughan surveyed a row of newly built houses in the 1970s, when the Irish government began discouraging a nomadic lifestyle.

It was in the early days of this dramatic change, in 1971, that we (Sharon and George) moved into a Traveller camp called Holylands on the outskirts of Dublin to begin a year of field research. It was a rewarding and at times challenging initiation into Traveller life—personally maturing as well. We were young Americans from comfortable middleclass homes, with backgrounds radically different from the hand-to-mouth nomadic existence most Irish Travellers then lived. Although we spoke the same language, at times it hardly seemed so, given how different were our life experiences. We were graduate students in anthropology working toward our PhDs, while few Travellers could read or write. We came from small families—George’s was considered fairly large at four children compared to Sharon’s, with two—while Travellers had some of the largest in the Western world. The three oldest women at Holylands had each given birth more than twenty times, although not all their infants had survived. This fact suggested another difference between us, which could also be read on most people’s deeply lined faces: the hardship of their lives. Women’s lives were especially arduous, as they bore the brunt of feeding, clothing, cleaning, and minding their many children without the basic amenities and services that we, and most settled Irish people, took for granted.

Spring Lane, a crowded Traveller site on the outskirts of Cork City, in 2011

We returned to Ireland several times in the 1970s before turning to other research topics in other places. Then in 2001 Sharon went back to Ireland on a Fulbright Fellowship, bringing some slides and photographs from our first fieldwork with her. She gave a slide show for some of the families we had lived with at Holylands. Adults laughed at their appearance thirty years earlier and stood up frequently to point out relatives on the screen. Most of their children and grandchildren were fascinated, although some teenagers were embarrassed by their families’ past poverty, so evident in photographs showing dirty faces, tattered clothes and wagons, and battered trailers parked amid piles of scrap metal and debris. Several images showing Traveller families living in tents in other parts of the country were completely foreign to the younger generation. To us, it seemed impossible that these younger Travellers knew so little of this former, yet comparatively recent, way of life. Those reactions made us think about coming back with additional photographs to more systematically elicit Travellers’ thoughts about the dramatic changes that have occurred in their lives.

A now-settled Irish Traveller holds up a black-and-white print from 1971 that brings back memories.

We were prevented from doing so by other commitments until 2011, which coincided with an exhibition of George’s photographs at a Dublin library. To the surprise of its organizers, crowds of Travellers arrived, most of whom had never before set foot in a library. Although people in most cultures find photographs intrinsically
interesting, they have special significance for Travellers, who have few images of themselves from their time on the road. The photographs are valued not only for the personal memories they evoke, and as family mementos, but also as evidence of their former way of life. Librarian Breda Bollard described the scene to us in an e-mail: “[T]he response was immediate. Extended families contacted their extended families, and they traveled here from all parts of Ireland and one couple from England. Often these were the only images available of those who had died—often tragically. There were heartbreaking scenes, with grown men fighting back tears at seeing pictures of long-dead relatives. Great elation at finding photographs of relatives now scattered. They were often anxious to tell us their stories.” Some Travellers wanted prints, which the library provided. We would later see some of these prominently displayed in Traveller homes.

The Ireland we returned to in the summer of 2011 differed dramatically from the place we had known so well in the early 1970s. Just a year after we left the field in 1972, Ireland joined the European Economic Community, which later evolved into the European Union; it was a move that boosted the country’s economy and over the next several decades introduced a host of new perspectives and legislation, radically transforming the nation. Central government also stepped up its efforts to settle Travellers, which escalated during Ireland’s Celtic Tiger years (1995 to 2007). This, together with new laws against roadside camping and other restrictions, gradually eliminated nomadism. Today, 86 percent of Ireland’s Travellers now live stationary lives, either in houses or in trailers permanently parked on crowded Traveller sites. At Holylands, our old camp and field site, eight substantial stucco-clad bungalows have replaced the clutter of wagons, trailers, campfires, and scrap piles once belonging to twenty families.

While settlement has brought Travellers amenities and comfort, it has also left many people, particularly men, feeling lost. Those old enough to have once lived on the road miss having horses and the frequent change of people and places that nomadism inevitably brings. They also miss the camaraderie and daily subsistence activities of camp life, the open air, and the romanticized personal freedom they once possessed. Virtually every photograph depicting Travellers’ former nomadic life prompted nostalgia for a time when—despite the hardship—life had variety and was less complicated, and people shared and cared more for each other.

Many men have not yet found a substitute for their former way of life. The trades and services they once performed are obsolete, and mainstream employment is difficult to obtain due to discrimination and a lack of appropriate training, especially in a bad economy. Not surprisingly, many long for the past. Their despair contributes to alcohol abuse and to a suicide rate that is six times that of men in mainstream Irish society. We heard many stories of suicide in the homes we visited as Travellers pointed to people in our photographs or pulled Mass cards (prayer cards customarily distributed at Catholic funerals) from their fireplace mantels and recounted the tragic circumstances of their loved ones’ deaths.

Traveller women have fared better, due in part to their unchanging role as their families’ primary caregivers and to their greater willingness to engage with mainstream society. They are more appreciative than men of the amenities of settled life—running water, sanitation, electricity, and appliances—that have made their lives easier. They also have generally been more enthusiastic than men about education, both for their children and for themselves. Women today are having fewer children than past generations, thanks to the availability of birth control. (In the early 1970s, the sale of contraceptives was illegal in Ireland, their use deemed by the Church a sin; in a hard-fought battle culminating in 1985, the government overruled the Church and changed the law.) With fewer children, women now have more time for education, work, and community engagement. Rather than longing for the past as older Traveller men are inclined to do, they are looking to the future. Traveller women also have more legal protections today and greater equity in the home.

Besides settlement, the most dramatic change to affect Travellers has been education. Gone are the days when they lived on the side of the road, unschooled and illiterate. Today most children attend school until the legal leaving age of sixteen. A small minority of Travellers have completed secondary school, and a few individuals have gone on to attend a polytechnic or university. Travellers are considered adults at a much younger age than adolescents in mainstream society, which contributes to their lack of interest—especially boys’—in continuing school. And with few prospects of obtaining a regular job, and in some cases little desire to do so, they see scant value in further education. Nevertheless, literacy and basic education have broadened Travellers’ awareness of the workings of Irish society and of the wider world, and in time will open up more opportunities and choice.

Another significant change has been the emergence of political activism among Travellers. Traveller-led local and national organizations have supplanted the original Itinerant Settlement Movement and its many local committees. Travellers now speak for themselves, rather than standing silently by while non-Traveller volunteers and government officials—no matter how wellintentioned— make decisions affecting their lives. Today, through the work of such national organizations as Pavee Point and the National Travellers Movement, Travellers not only have a voice in public debates about the issues that concern them, they increasingly set the agenda—such as calling upon the Irish government to formally recognize Travellers as an ethnic group.

Despite such advances, Travellers remain apart. Recent research on the mainstream population’s acceptance of immigrant and minority groups has found that the majority still reject the idea of having Travellers as “neighbors” or “family members.” In fact, the study found that settled Irish feel more social distance from Travellers, who are themselves Irish, than they do from recent immigrants from Eastern Europe and Africa.

The persistence of negative stereotypes is due in part to the limited interaction most people have with Travellers: short-lived economic exchanges or brief, instrumental meetings between Travellers and such representatives of Irish institutions as teachers, hospital staff, social workers, clergy, and police. Hence, few settled Irish ever get to know Travellers. Fortunately, there are exceptions. In the town of Tuam, in County Galway where Travellers settled quite early, Travellers and other residents work together for the benefit of the entire community. Indeed, the town’s community crèche and many of its sports programs are run by the local Traveller organization. Tuam is also the first town in Ireland to have elected a Traveller mayor.

But Travellers are also victimized by the behavior of some members of their own group. Widely publicized reports of violent interfamily feuding, bare-knuckle boxing, dangerous sulky (two-wheeled horse cart) racing on public roads, and crime only strengthen ongoing prejudice. One outlaw group, dubbed the “Rathkeale Rovers” by international media and Europol, was at the time of our return ripping rhino heads from the walls of natural history museums and the trophy rooms of great houses and castles across Europe. The horns were then sold at enormous profit, to middlemen or directly to Chinese and Vietnamese clients who value powdered rhino horn for its reputed medicinal value as an aphrodisiac and—given its cost—as a new form of conspicuous consumption when mixed with wine. The group was also involved in art and antique thefts, money laundering, and the trafficking of drugs and counterfeit products. Such gangs are always identified in the media as Travellers, and their criminal behavior is typically generalized to all Travellers. Not coincidentally, Traveller men are up to eleven times more likely to spend time behind bars than other Irish men.

Members of a 2011 wedding party pose next to the bridal carriage. In spite of changes, the identity of Travellers remains strong.

As might be expected, the changes Travellers have experienced over the last forty years have had both positive and negative outcomes. While most Travellers have escaped poverty and now live quite comfortable lives, settlement and their new affluence have fostered materialism and competition among them—conspicuously evident in many Travellers’ extravagant funerary displays and weddings. The latter were sensationalized in the British documentary series My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding, which is now broadcast in North America on TLC.

Has there been a loss of community since so many Travellers have found permanent housing? As Jim Connors, an elderly Traveller we know, wisely observed, “A house can be like a prison. It keeps you in the one place all the time. I’d give me right arm to be back on the road. There is freedom in living on the road, freedom in abundance. But we didn’t know it until it was gone.” While Travellers in Ireland can no longer pursue an independent nomadic life, they are beginning to acquire a different form of freedom—the opportunity and choice afforded by education and political empowerment. Unfortunately for all but a handful, these recent gains in schooling have not translated into jobs or reduced Travellers’ social marginalization. Serious health problems also exist. Traveller men live an average of fifteen years less than men in mainstream Irish society, women eleven fewer years.

Settlement and housing have also resulted in confusion about their identity. Many Traveller men, especially the younger generation, wonder, “Can we still be Travellers if we no longer travel?” But being a Traveller is more than the act of travel. It involves heritage, customs and traditions, and a unique perspective on life. Culture is always changing. And while Travellers may no longer be nomads, they are not likely to lose their unique identity.

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--SBM and GM