Irish Travellers (Irish: Lucht siúil) are a traditionally nomadic people of Irish origin with their own language and traditions, living predominantly in Ireland and Great Britain but also in the United States of America.
Traditionally called “Tinkers”, they refer to themselves as Minceir or Pavees in their own language or in Irish an Lucht Siúil, meaning literally “the walking people”. The European Parliament Committee of Enquiry on Racism and Xenophobia found them to be amongst the most discriminated against ethnic groups and yet their status remains insecure in the absence of widespread legal endorsement.
The historical origins of Travellers as a group has been a subject of academic and popular debate. It was once widely believed that Travellers were descended from landowners or labourers 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. Others claim there is evidence of nomadic groups in Ireland in the 5th century, and by the 12th century the name Tynkler and Tynker emerged in reference to a group of nomads who maintained a separate identity, social organization, and dialect.
Furthermore, even though all families claim ancient origins, not all families of the Travellers date back to the same point in time; some familes adopted Traveller customs centuries ago, while others did so in more modern times.
Irish Travellers are recognised in British law as an ethnic group. Ireland, 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.
Although now considered offensive by many, Travellers are often referred to by the terms “gypsies”, “diddycoy”, “tinkers” or “knackers”. These terms refer to services that were traditionally provided by them, tinkering (or tinsmithing), for example, being the mending of tin ware such as pots and pans and knackering being the acquisition of dead or old horses for slaughter. Other derogatory terms such as pikey and gypo or “gippo” (derived from Gypsy) are also heard. “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.
Travellers are stereotyped as anti-social, drop-outs and misfits, notorious for their illegal settling on land not owned by them. The Commission on Itinerancy, appointed in Ireland in 1960 under Charles Haughey, found that ‘public brawling fuelled by excessive drinking further added to settled people’s fear of Travellers … feuding was felt to be the result of a dearth of pastimes and illiteracy, historically comparable to features of rural Irish life before the Famine’.Their women, being just as likely to take part in brawling, along with other anti-social activities such as begging and intimidation, often find themselves victims within their own communities as well as in society at large. Children often grow up outside of normal educational systems.
In Northern Ireland, such prejudices become sectarian, Travellers being seen as an “invasion from the south of Ireland” and politicised by Unionist politicians accusing them of “milking the Northern Irish economy” and threatened by the UDP. In Ireland, they have been subjected to killings, allegedly by IRA groups. In many places they are denied access to public houses and businesses where “No Travellers” signs can be still seen. As recently as 1999, one Tory politician was reported as suggesting they should be “starved out of town”. Families often have difficulties getting access to health, education and social services.
To read more about the Irish Travellers.
Nan Donohoe’s life story is told, mostly in her own words, as representative of the native Irish gypsies known as travellers, or tinkers. It is a story of the will to survive despite poverty, disease, illiteracy, abuse, and well-intentioned but ineffective bureaucratic interfer ence. For generations these itinerants peddled wares and services to the rural populace. After World War II, with mass produced goods and machinery readily available to farmers, their means of livelihood vanished and they began to camp nearer urban centers, causing great social problems. They are now mostly in government camps and receiving welfare because assimilation into the mainstream appears impossible. Similarities with the migrant farm worker in the United States abound.
This edition of The Irish Tinkers focuses on the Tinkers’ attempts to cope with the changes that the development and modernization of rural Ireland have forced upon them. Gmelch lucidly describes the Tinkers’ cityward migration, their adaptation to their new urban environment, and the drive by government and others to settle them. The Tinkers represent a classic case of a small, powerless society struggling to cope with a new lifestyle that threatens to overwhelm them.
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