This page last revised 23 June 1999
The Travellers, a minority community indigenous to Ireland, have existed on the margins of Irish society for centuries. They share common descent, and have distinct cultural practices - early marriage, desire to be mobile, a tradition of self-employment, and so on. They have distinct rituals of death and cleansing, and a language they only speak among their own. Travellers are not overtly conscious of a sense of group history. Concern with ancestry is an obsession of those who value permanence of place. Rather, the individual is defined by his/her place within the relationship network. They live in extended patriarchal families, prefer trailers, tend to nomadism interspersed with occasional house dwelling, and maintain a nomadic mindset even when settled; a house is considered only a stopping place between journeys, whether the stop lasts 20 days or 20 years! There are an estimated 21,000 Travellers currently living in the Republic of Ireland, over half of whom have no access to toilet facilities, electricity, refuse collection or piped water.
|These are traveller-owned horses which wander near the traveller site (campsite) next to the M50 at Finglas, Dublin 11.|
In the past they invariably travelled, but misguided government policy from the 1960s onward ensured that many were persuaded to settle in houses a policy that, in undermining traditional values and lifestyle, is increasingly questioned, if not actively altered. Traditionally, they were metal workers, hawkers, traders in horses and used goods of all description, and provided services where and when there were gaps in the market. This resistance to wage labour and alternative cultural definition of work led to charges of idleness by the uncomprehending. The necessity of living on their wits led to a stereotype of Travellers as shrewd, even cunning, dealers. Having been persuaded to settle in houses, and consequently, having lost the mobility necessary to their traditional trades, many Travellers today rely on state welfare assistance. This could be construed as a sinister government plot, but for the fact that government policy on Travellers has never been well planned enough to effect any successful strategy! Ironically, Traveller representative Michael McDonagh believes that Travellers that are the most nomadic are also the most economically successful, and also have far less difficulty with their identity than people forced into settlement (quoted in Nomadism in Irish Travellers Identity. From Irish Travellers: Culture and Ethnicity.Eds. McCann et al. Belfast: Institute of Irish Studies, 1994, 95-109). Their position is akin to that of the gypsy of Europe in some respects. However, since foreign extraction has never been ascribed to them, they have never had the exotic, erotic aura projected onto the gypsy which may be the cause of the troubling Irish resistance to defining them as an ethnic minority. Europeans may at times claim a conveniently distant gypsy ancestor in order to convey a certain bohemian cachet, but Travellers rarely marry a member of the settled community, and any such inter marriage would be a source of terrible shame to the settled Irish family to this day. Their alterity has usually been perceived as an undesirable kind of differentness in Ireland. Likewise, the Traveller community will never consider a member of the settled community who marries a Traveller one of their kind, though his/her children will be accepted as such. Travellers marry their own, or occasionally, gypsies. Since they area tiny inter-marrying population, Travellers often marry a relative. Identity is defined by relationships, so Travellers are quick to claim kinship when they meet. One cannot, as is the case with British New Age Travellers, become a Traveller.
We showed ourselves to be caught up in a post-colonial dynamic we the power-holders, we the sedentary people, still with a coloniser mind-set; the Travellers with a colonised one. (Mairin Kenny, quoted in Final Thoughts: A Case for Celebration (179-188) an account of the proceedings of a conference on which the work Irish Travellers Culture and Ethnicity is based.
Travellers are the colonised of the colonised an ignored minority within Irish society who have not so much been written out of history, but rather have never been written in. Nineteenth-century Orientalism ensured that the Indian origin attributed to gypsies placed them above indigenous Irish Travellers in the scale of British commentators. The Irish internalised this colonial hierarchy, ensuring that Travellers are perceived as being on the lowest social level to this day even when trading has made them rich. The perceived local origins of Travellers are the source of settled Irish peoples disdain evidence of the inferiority complex typical of the post-colonial society. Travellers suffer from a uniquely Irish brand of apartheid; they are often refused entry into clubs, bars and hotels. Traveller wedding parties often find it impossible to book a hotel for a wedding reception. In this century, the settled community commonly believe that Travellers are descendants of peasants uprooted by Cromwells ethnic cleansing policy and the 1845 Famine. In fact, according to the 1994 Irish Travellers: Culture and Ethnicity, the word tinker was first recorded in 1175 (64). (The web page Citizens of a kinddiscusses how Irelands transfer from colonial to post-colonial status, with its accompanying new ideology of Ireland as a monocultural monolith, problematised the place of this minority population, and caused internal tensions between the settled population and Travellers to surface in the absence of a colonial presence to demonise.) A common theory among experts is that Travellers have been a distinct group within Ireland for at least 800 years, and probably before, since itinerant metal workers (the traditional Traveller trade) have been recorded in Ireland since pre-Christian times.
|The traditional lifestyle of self-employment through the sale of recycled goods and providing services where there is a gap in the market is alive and well. This sign is from the entrance to a north County Dublin site.|
The post-colonial scholarship of David Lloyd and Declan Kiberd has pointed to the Irish as the Other of the empire, but has neglected the Traveller, who is the Other of the Irish. Indeed, for this very reason, people outside Ireland are mostly unaware of the existence of Travellers or confuse them with the Gypsies of England and Wales. Much attention has been paid to the way in which the indigenous minorities of Australia, New Zealand and America have been represented, but very little to the Irish indigenous group. The same beliefs about the inherent laziness, proneness to alcohol abuse and irresponsibility exist about Travellers also. Consider the following, taken from Report of the Commission on Itinerancy, an early government investigation into Traveller conditions and needs:
a substantial amount of the state and local authority assistance given to those itinerants who have not settled down in a fixed abode or who are not on an approved camping site provided for them should be paid in voucher form exchangeable for food and clothing so as to overcome abuse by dissipation on intoxicating liquor Those who settle down should, after a probationary period be paid and treated in every way the same as members of the settled population (Dublin: Stationery Office, 1963, 76-77).
The above indicates that, to be treated like the rest of the population they must forsake their mobile lifestyle. In the usual pattern of wilful ignorance of the marginalised, Travellers have been alternately romanticised and demonised throughout their history when they have been mentioned at all. Powers to cure infertility, predict the future, curse those who crossed them and uncanny slyness have traditionally been ascribed to Travellers. Wife-swapping was ascribed to them by no less an authority than the dramatist Synge. In a shrewd exploitation of what they represent to the house-dwelling Irish, begging Traveller women in Dublin to this day offer passers-by a blessing in return for money. With the caring 1960s a new, similarly wilfully ignorant myth of Traveller life was born that of their lifestyle as a sub-culture of poverty, an ideology which saw them as fallen Irish, rather than a minority of common descent who have their own history, language, culture and customs. Travellers were re-cast in the drama of Irish identity, from a previous role as untrustworthy vagabonds on the make, to an impoverished minority deserving of pity and charity at central government level at least. Settling Travellers was rehabilitation. An alternative lifestyle was being redefined as inherently criminal:
It will be vitally necessary for the success of any scheme for the absorption and rehabilitation of itinerants, to have local authority committees who are prepared to obtain [the Travellers] confidence and then encourage them to learn and adopt the ways of settled life (Report of the Commission on Itinerancy, 106).
Travellers do indeed have a high infant mortality rate and high rates of illiteracy, and die earlier than their settled counterparts, but not all Travellers are poor, and very few truly desire to assimilate. Their resistance to literacy is the prerogative of a people whose culture is oral, and whose mobility does not sit well with standard school curricula. This re-casting was as a result of the 1963 government sponsored Report of the Commission on Itinerancy. The pre-twentieth century myth emphasises ethnic difference, the new well-meaning myth propagated a kind of there but for the grace of God go I fallen settled person myth. Both versions of Traveller identity have their own political agendas, and whether or not Travellers are truly Irish is a moot point. Before the 1960s no one assumed they wanted to dwell in houses. They had been accepted, if at times uneasily so, as a distinct culture not some lesser version of mainstream Irishness in dire need of assimilation:
All efforts directed at improving the lot of itinerants and at dealing with the problems created by them must always have as their aim the eventual absorption of the itinerants into the general community (Commission on Itinerancy, 106).
Between the law and the civil people theyre going to get rid of the travelling people as fast as they can. Theyre trying to get them off the road. Thats why theyre educating the children, so when they put them in a house, theyll be able to live with their neighbours (Traveller quoted in Sharon Gmelchs Tinkers and Travellers (OBrien: Dublin, 1975, 134).
An intriguing episode in the recent history of Travellers was the case of Grattan Puxton. Puxton, a 25 year old Englishman of gypsy extraction, was appalled by the conditions he saw Travellers living in on a visit to Ireland, and organised the Itinerant Action Group. The group demanded that the 1963 Reports recommendations of education, housing, and halting sites for those who wished to remain travelling be implemented. The 150-member group picketed government offices, confronted traveller evictors, and most radically, opened its own national school, which was torn down when the Corporation evicted the Travellers. A few months later, Puxton was arrested on a drug charge and returned to England, spelling the end of the Itinerant Action Group. However well intentioned, his campaign, based on an image of Travellers as victim, fed into the 1960s liberal racism of the Traveller as object of charity who must be spoken for by the more eloquent. A current misrepresentation, and as damaging in its own way, is the romanticising of Travellers as outlaw heroes, such as their portrayal in Gabriel Byrnes misguided film Into the West, and the contemporary photographic cliché of the defiant Traveller child standing in an urban waste-land. The Traveller voice is appropriated and made the art of the dominant majority.
To this day, the ideology of most Irish government policy on Travellers appears to be one of assimilation - an ostensibly humanistic method of actually destroying difference. What is presented as the natural order is a construct of a settled culture: dominant cultural values are presumed to be universal to the extent that officials constantly express surprise (see Citizens of a kind) that many Travellers reject house dwelling, or attempt it only sporadically or temporarily. Such local officials often only pay grudging lip service to official policy from central government prejudice undoubtedly exists at local government level today (again, see the Galway Advertiser article of 14 May 1998 on the "Citizens of a Kind" page). The Traveller lifestyle is not accommodated by state structures. Health and education services are organised to benefit those with a permanent address. Travellers have been asked to mould themselves to fit rigid state systems. Traveller deprivation since the 1960s has not been caused so much by their resistance to literacy, wage-labour, and permanent abodes. Rather, the cause has been the government policy of refusing them the right to mobility and employment flexibility, and legal access to traditional camping grounds (boulders have been placed across them by many local councils). The government has tried to fit Travellers into moulds created by a different culture, and has been surprised at the disastrous results. Shelta (or Gammon or Cant), the Traveller language, has never been broadcast on Irish television, and is not taught even at all-Traveller schools! There has never been a public debate on the appropriateness of foisting literacy (and only in the English language at that), upon people whose culture is oral. Such being the case, until Travellers are treated respectfully as a distinct ethnic minority - not simply in law, but by all sectors of society - rejection of language (and consequently, culture) is the price Travellers pay for admission to full participation in Irish life. The few Travellers who have made it onto the public bodies which represent their interests at governmental level tend to be more articulate and better educated than the vast majority of their peers. (Articulate in English and educated through textbooks about settled life and its norms of course a Dublin teacher of Traveller children has complained to me that the government-provided textbooks are irrelevant, and consequently nonsensical to most Traveller children.) Shelta is considered by many to be a pidgin or dialect, rather than a language proper. However, as recent indications that Ulster-Scots, spoken mainly by rural Protestants in Northern Ireland, and hitherto considered a dialect, will soon be recognised as a distinct language shows, definitions of what constitutes a language is based on political and social, rather than purely linguistic terms.
Until Travellers have clout within Irish society, their culture will be disregarded. The casual power structures of Travellers means they have, until recently, not been consulted by public bodies representing Traveller interests. They are incredibly resistant to allowing their identity to be subsumed by the dominant group. Travellers whose trading businesses have made them wealthy (proving the viability of the traditional lifestyle) never allow themselves to be perceived as middle class, just as deprived urban Travellers are not absorbed into the working class. Local authorities defuse the potential challenge to their assumptions of Travellers as a sub-culture of poverty, rather than a distinct group within Irish society, by re-classifying wealthy Travellers as traders.
Travellers want to hold on to their unique cultural identity and nomadic lifestyle. Assimilation has not worked. There are more Travellers living in trailers now than in the year of the Report of the Commission on Itinerancy (1963). The Irish government has, in the last decade, begun to listen to the voice of Travellers when making policy decisions. Travellers are beginning to represent themselves on government boards and committees dealing with Traveller issues. However, change at national government level does not mean change at local government level however. Attitudes towards travellers, and opposition to having them as neighbours may have hardened since the 1960s the causes of which are discussed in Citizens of a kind.
Finally, it could be said that the question posed at the start, Who are the Travellers? has yet to be answered. As a disregarded minority Travellers have, until now, defined and been defined by, what they are not, who they are not. They, and we, have yet to truly see who the people named Traveller are.
This project was completed under the direction of Dr. Leon Litvack as a requirement for the MA degree in Modern Literary Studies in the School of English at the Queen's University of Belfast. The site is evolving and will include contributions from future generations of MA students on other writers and themes.
This page was written by Mary Burke. E-mail me with your suggestions.
The Imperial Archive Project is supervised by Leon Litvack. E-mail me with your suggestions.
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