Every once in a while I like to share with my readers something you may NOT know about Ireland! Today I’m letting you in on the secret of the Irish Travelling Community – something I had never even heard of before moving here and something I am still learning to understand!
Travellers are a minority unique to Ireland, making up at least 21,000 of the 6,000,000 Irish population. (There are also Irish Travellers who have emigrated to Britain and the USA.) They are often compared with Eastern European gypsies because – you guessed it! – they live a nomadic or “travelling” lifestyle and may be referred to as Pikeys, Tinkers, Knackers or Pavees. According to this article, they’ve been documented in Ireland as far back as the 1100s. They were/are traditionally tradespeople, going from town to town selling horses, tinsmithing, collecting scrap metal, dog breeding, paving driveways, selling used goods door-to-door, and so forth.
When I heard about Travellers first, though, it was in a very negative sense. The modern member of the Travelling Community is usually stereotyped as being lazy, shifty, unhealthy or unclean, violent and above all, tacky! Some of the more fair characteristics, perhaps, are the strong family ties, devout Roman Catholicism, occasional inbreeding, very young marriages, extravagant weddings and funerals, low life expectancy, and high percentage of dependency on social welfare. It’s an interesting study… to say the least. The longer I live here, the more Travellers I come across, though I’m still not sure I would be able to pick one out of a crowd, whereas the Irish can usually tell right from the accent and manner of dress. And while I would definitely say some of the stereotypical characteristics do tend to ring true for the majority – i.e. picture two or three very young mothers in tight, bright clothes with big jewelry and heavy makeup – there are always exceptions.
More often these days, we come across “Settled Travellers,” who are the families that have been encouraged by the government to stay in one place, even buying homes and putting their children in school. However, it almost goes without saying that this settlement of a traditionally nomadic culture does not usually take. For the most part, studies have shown that the Travellers who are allowed to keep travelling are much more financially secure, not to mention happier (though the means of their work is sometimes less-than-reputable)! The Settled Travellers, though, tend to flounder and live for even decades on social welfare because they cannot find work in their field.
What then comes next? Lots and lots of animosity from the “host” communities. Travellers are disdained by many of the non-travelling citizens of Ireland and are thus treated with unmasked prejudice! Now, I’m not going to lie – some of their customs and manner of dress ARE completely jaw-dropping! But still not worth the unkindness many suffer.
Overall, it’s a messy and rather sad situation… not dissimilar to the Native Americans in the States or the Aborigines in Australia… except that the appearance of most travellers borders on the lines of what we might call Carnival People in America! The unfortunate thing, as with these other groups, is that it seems very difficult to find an answer to the problem. There is righteous anger on both sides, but I think in the end, the Traveller himself is losing out the most. So many of the Traveller children I see, for instance, are dirty, malnourished, suffering health problems like worms or inability to digest food, and are dotted with scrapes, bruises, broken teeth, eye injures, etc. I believe it’s also something like only 1% of adults who live past 65! So obviously, there needs to be education of some sort, and definitely work to sustain these peoples. There is still the issue of overcrowding in their caravans, even the “settled” ones, and I’m sure that also lends itself to many of the problems at hand.
I’d love to learn more about the positives of Travellers… why their traditions are so important, and what they mean… how they see themselves in society and how they’d like to be seen… what their family histories are like… and what they dream of in a future! For above all these things, the greatest tragedy to me is that the Travellers I do come across seem so devoid of hope and of even wishing for a better life for themselves or future generations.
Well, that about sums it up! Hope you enjoyed this little social studies lesson, haha, and if you are interested further, there are websites below.
16 Year-old Traveller’s 100K Wedding in England (as seen in picture above)
Blog with Traveller Pictures (warning, author can be a bit mean)