- For other uses of the term see Traveler.
Irish Travellers (Lucht siúil) are an itinerant people of Irish origin living in Ireland, Great Britain and the United States. It is estimated that 25,000 Travellers live in Ireland, between 200,000 and 300,000 in Great Britain, and 7,000 in the United States.
Travellers refer to themselves as "Pavees", whereas some English people often refer to them with the derogatory terms "Pikeys", "Gypos" or "Jidders". In Irish, Travellers are called an Lucht siúil (literally "the people of walking"). Many non-Pavee people (called "buffers", or sometimes "rooters") still use the term "tinkers from the Irish tincéirí, sg. tincéir or "tinsmith." Rarely, Travellers were referred to as the "Walking People" by English speakers in Ireland. Other names are also used, such as "pikeys" or "knackers" (considered derogatory).
The historical origins of Travellers as a group has been a subject of great dispute. It was once widely believed that Travellers were descended from landowners who were made homeless by Oliver Cromwell
's military campaign in Ireland
and in the 1840s famine
. However, their origins may be more complex and difficult to ascertain because through their history the Travellers have left no written records of their own. The closest to a legend of origin known to exist describes the Travellers as descended from a tinsmith who helped build the cross on which Jesus Christ
was crucified. According to this tale, Christ cursed the tinsmith's line to wander the earth
until Judgment Day
Furthermore, not all families of the Travellers date back to the same point in time; some adopted Traveller customs centuries ago while others did so in more modern times, yet all claim ancient origins regardless of noted assumption of the habits and customs.
Dr. Sharon Gmelch, who has studied and written about the Travellers, states that the Dooley Clan is acknowledged by other Travellers as one of the "oldest families on the road". There are also many Irish people surnamed Dooley who are not Travellers.
Genetic studies indicate that the Roma of Eastern Europe are genetic isolates, but Irish Travellers are sometimes considered to be derived from the general Irish population, as indicated by surnames. However, genetic studies by Miriam Murphy, David Croke, and other researchers identified certain genetic diseases common in the Irish Traveller population which are quite rare among the rest of the community, perhaps resulting from marriage only within the Traveller community, or suggesting descent from either a select group of Irish long ago or ancestors unrelated to the rest of the Irish population.
Language and customs
Irish Travellers distinguish themselves from the settled communities of the countries in which they live by their own language
and customs. The language is known as Shelta
, and there are two dialects of this language, Gammon (or Gamin) and Cant. It has been dated back to the eighteenth century, but may be older than that.
Travellers are keen breeders of dogs such as greyhounds and lurchers. They also have a longstanding interest in horses, and the main horse fair associated with them is still held every year at Ballinasloe.
Cultural suspicion and conflict
Irish Travellers are recognised in British law
as an ethnic group
, however, does not recognise them as an ethnic group; rather, their legal status is that of a "social group. An ethnic group is defined as one whose members identify with each other, usually on the basis of a presumed common genealogy or ancestry. Ethnic identity is also marked by the recognition from others of a group's distinctiveness and by common cultural, linguistic, religious, behavioural or biological traits.
In Ireland and in Britain, Travellers are often referred to as "gypsies", "diddycoy", "tinkers" or "knackers" (although many now consider these terms offensive). These terms refer to services that were traditionally provided by the Travellers—tinkering (or tinsmithing) being the mending of tin ware such as pots and pans, and knackering being the acquisition of dead or old horses for slaughter. Irish Travellers are sometimes referred to as Gypsies in Ireland and in Britain (the term more accurately refers to the Roma people, represented in Britain by the Romanichal and Kale). The derogatory terms pikey and gyppo (derived from Gypsy) are also heard in Great Britain while the Cockney term creamer (rhyming slang of "cream cracker", hence knacker) is occasionally used in Ireland. "Diddycoy" is a Roma term for a child of mixed Roma and non-Roma parentage; as applied to the Travellers, it refers to the fact that they are not "Gypsy" by blood but have adopted a similar lifestyle.
The Traveller lifestyle has often produced friction with local communities, especially in urban areas.
A recent report published in Ireland states that over half of Travellers do not live past the age of 39 years.
Disputes over land use
A complaint against Travellers in the United Kingdom is that of unauthorised Traveller sites being established on privately-owned land or on council-owned land not designated for that purpose. Under the government's "Gypsy and Traveller Sites Grant", designated sites for Travellers' use are provided by the council, and funds are made available to local authorities for the construction of new sites and maintenance and extension of existing sites. However, Travellers also frequently make use of other, non-authorised sites, including public "common land
" and private plots, including large fields. Travellers claim that there is an under-provision of authorised sites—the Gypsy Council estimates an under-provision amounts to insufficient sites for 3,500 people—and that their use of non-authorised sites as an alternative is unavoidable.
It has been claimed that Travellers are sometimes involved in robbery, cons, violence and other delinquent behaviour. An October 11, 2002 Dateline NBC episode reported that American Travellers habitually defraud their neighbours, demanding high prices for substandard day labour. A consequent investigation by South Carolina law enforcement resulted in a single conviction for fraud and a handful of truancy violations.
The Georgia Governor's Office of Consumer Affairs issued a press release on March 14 2007 entitled "Irish Travelers Perpetuate a Tradition of Fraud".
Traveller advocates, along with the Commission for Racial Equality in the UK, counter that Travellers are a distinct ethnic group with an ancient history, and claim that there is no statistical evidence that Traveller presence raises or lowers the local crime rate.
The struggle for equal rights for these transient people led to the passing of the Caravan Sites Act 1968 that for some time safeguarded their rights, lifestyle and culture in the UK. The Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994, however, repealed part II of the 1968 act, removing the duty on local authorities in the UK to provide sites for Travellers and giving them the power to close down existing sites.
Planning issues in the UK
Recent criticism against Travellers in the UK centers on Travellers who have bought land, built amenities without planning permission, then fought eviction attempts by claiming it would be an abuse of human rights
to remove them from their homes. The families applied for retrospective planning permission whilst they were living on their land. This received much media attention during the British 2005 General Election
The use of retrospective planning permission arose after the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994, which Michael Howard brought through the Commons, started closing down many of the sites originally provided for the community. Howard advised that Travellers should buy their own land instead and assurances were made that they would be allowed to settle it, despite allegations that Travellers find it difficult to secure planning permission approval.
The census of 2006 reported 22,435 Irish Travellers living in Ireland. Of them, 20,975 were in urban areas and 1,460 were living in rural areas. In Tuam, Travellers constituted 7.71% of the total population, but overall the figure for Ireland was 0.5%. 9,301 Travellers were there in the 0-14 age range, comprising 41.5% of all the Travellers. A further 3,406 of them were in the 15-24 age range, comprising 15.2%. Children of age range 0-17 comprised 48.7% of the Traveller population.
The birth rate of Irish Travellers has decreased since the 1990s, but they still have one of the highest birth rates in Europe. The birth rate for the Traveller community for the year 2005 was 33.32 per 1000, possibly the highest birth rate recorded for any community in Europe. (By comparison, the Irish National Average was 15.0 in 2007.)
Members of the Traveller community are 10 times more likely to die in road accidents. At 22%, this represents the most common cause of death among Traveller males. Infants are 10 times more likely to die before reaching the age of two, while a third of Travellers die before the age of 25. In addition, 80% of Travellers die before the age of 65. Some 10% of Traveller children die before their second birthday, compared to just 1% of the general population. In Ireland, 2.6% of all deaths in the total population were for people aged under 25, versus 32% for the Travellers.
In addition to Ireland, Travellers live in other parts of the world. There are about 250,000 in the UK. A further 7,000 live in the USA.
Famous Irish Travellers
- Bartley Gorman was the "king" of the Gypsies and undefeated bareknuckle boxing champion until his death in 2002.
- Francie Barrett has been a professional boxer since August 2000, and now fights at light welterweight, out of Wembley, London.
- John Reilly was a traditional Irish singer and source of songs. During 2004's "Live at Vicar Street", recorded by newly-reformed Irish folk act Planxty, Christy Moore mentions hearing Reilly sing for the first time and calls it a "life changing" experience, going on to dedicate the song "As I Roved Out" to his memory.
- Margaret Barry was a Traveller from Cork who became a well known name on the London folk scene in the 1950s, with her distinctive singing style and idiosyncratic banjo accompaniment.
- Pecker Dunne is a well known Traveller and singer from Wexford, Ireland.
- Michael Gomez, a professional boxer based in Manchester England, was born in an Irish Traveller family in Longford, Republic of Ireland.
Irish Travellers in popular culture
Irish Travellers have been portrayed on numerous occasions in popular culture.
- The Riches — An FX television series starring Eddie Izzard and Minnie Driver as Wayne and Dahlia Malloy, the father and mother of an American family of Irish Traveller con artists and thieves. The series revolves around their decision to steal the identities of a dead "buffer" family and hide out in their lavish mansion in suburban Baton Rouge, Louisiana.
- Star Trek: The Next Generation, Season 2, Episode 18, "Up the Long Ladder" (May 22, 1989) — In this episode of the television show, the Enterprise encounters a society, the Bringloidis, (cf. brionglóid: meaning "dream" in the Irish language), that was founded by humans who left Earth centuries earlier to found a colony. They appear to be descended from Irish Travellers, possessing their accented form of the English language and a culture that appears very similar.
- Law & Order: Criminal Intent, Season 2, Episode 21, "Graansha" — This episode of the NBC television show focuses on the murder of a female probation officer who springs from a family of Irish Travellers.
- Into the West — A film that tells the story of two Traveller boys running away from their drab home in Dublin.
- The Riordans (1964-1979) — In this Irish television soap opera, many issues affecting the Traveller community were portrayed through the challenges faced by the Maher family.
- Glenroe (1983-2001) — A spin-off of The Riordans featuring the Connors, a family of settled travellers.
- Snatch — A 2000 film featuring Brad Pitt as a comically stereotyped "Pikey" who is also a bareknuckle boxing champion. In one humorous incident, his Traveller Clan defrauds the film's protagonists by selling them a caravan that falls apart the minute they try to tow it from the premises.
- Rob Roy — A 1995 film featuring Liam Neeson that details the exploits of the early 18th century Highland clan chieftain Rob Roy MacGregor. The film opens with MacGregor clansmen retrieving stolen cattle from robbers they call "Tinkers". Later on, the wife of Rob Roy, when commenting on potential economic misfortunes for their clan, dismisses any relationship between their status and that of "Tinkers",
- Chocolat — A 2000 film featuring Johnny Depp as Roux, a leader of a group of Irish Travellers.
- Traveller — A 1997 film, starring Bill Paxton, Mark Wahlberg, and Julianna Margulies, about a man joining a group of nomadic con artists in rural North Carolina.
- Killinaskully — This RTÉ Irish sitcom features a Traveller character named Pa Connors, played by Pat Shortt.
- Man About Dog — A 2004 film featuring a group of Irish Traveller characters.
- Southpaw: The Francis Barrett Story — a documentary following Galway boxer Francis (Francie) Barrett for three years and showing Francie overcoming discrimination as he progresses up the amateur boxing ranks to eventually carry the Irish flag and box for Ireland at the age of 19 during the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta. This film won the Audience Prize at the 1999 New York Irish Film Festival.
- Pavee Lackeen (Traveller Girl) — A 2005 documentary-style film depicting the life of a young Traveller girl that features non-actors in the lead roles. Its director and co-writer, Perry Ogden, won an IFTA Award in the category of Breakthrough Talent.
- FightGame and Firefight by Kate Wild — teenage/young adult novels with a charismatic gypsy boy hero called Freedom Smith. They are thriller/sci fi based but they also deal with the real problems Gypsies and Travellers face
- Strength and Honour — A 2007 film deals with a man joining a Traveller boxing tournament in order to win money for his son's operation.
- The Wheel of Time — Robert Jordan's series of fantasy novels featuring a group of nomadic people based on the Irish Travellers, the Tuatha'an, who share the name "Tinkers" and a reputation (portrayed in the books as largely undeserved) for petty theft.
- Midsomer Murders, Episode 4, Series Two, Blood Will Out (1999) — This episode of the British television drama features a local magistrate in an English village attempting to oust Travellers from his jurisdiction by means of a paramilitary vigilante attack.
- "Without a Trace — One episode of this CBS television show features a woman of Irish Traveller descent who had left the community and gone missing. Interestingly enough, this episode is one of the few on the show where the person had not been the victim of foul play but had instead simply decided to return to her birth community without informing anyone.
Laois Nationalist - 2007/12/06: Families evicted from halt site
- My Life On The Road (ISBN 978-1-899047-58-1) by Nan Joyce, first published 1985, republished 2000.
- Nan: The Life of an Irish Travelling Woman (ISBN 0-88133-602-5) by Sharon Gmelch, 1991.
- The Irish Tinkers: The Urbanization of an Itinerant People (ISBN 0-88133-158-9) by George Gmelch, 1997, 2nd ed. 1985.
- The Road to God Knows Where (ISBN 1-85390-314-0) by Sean Maher, Talbot Press, Dublin 1972, republished by Veritas 1998.
- Becoming Conspicuous: Irish Travelers, Society and the State 1922-70 (ISBN 1-904558-61-5) by Aoife Bhreatnach, University College Dublin Press 2006
- Drummond, A. (2006: A) ‘Cultural Denigration: Media representation of Irish Travellers as Criminal’, p: 75-85, in, Counter-Hegemony and the Postcolonial "Other" (Eds. M, Hayes, T, Acton), Cambridge Scholars Press, Cambridge.
- Drummond, A. (2007: A) ‘Keep on Moving, Don't Stop Now: Anti-trespass Laws on the Island of Ireland’, (Eds. Micheal Hayes & Thomas Acton) p; 37-53, in, Travellers, Gypsies, Roma: The Demonisation of Difference, Cambridge Scholars Publishing, Newcastle-Upon-Tyne.
- Drummond, A. (2007: B) 'The Construction of Irish Travellers (and Gypsies) as a Problem', pp: 2-42, in, Migrants and Memory: The Forgotten "Postcolonials”, (Ed. Micheál ỒhAodha), Cambridge Scholars Publishing