Celtic Junction Arts Review
Irish Travellers Work to Define the Road Ahead in Contemporary Times
Over the past half century, many ethnic groups have experienced social advances that improved their quality of life. Irish Travellers are no exception to this in some ways. Modernization since the 1960s has brought a sea change to the Irish ethnic group that has existed for centuries. But, to borrow a line from past U.S. presidential campaigns, are Travellers better off today than they were say 50 years ago (or longer)?
The history of Irish Travellers goes back centuries. Their itinerant nature came about when the demand for their skills waned, and they were unable to make a living in their typically small towns. This led them to an itinerant existence; eventually, they developed an ethnic identity as Travellers.
“There is a lot of ignorance about Travellers as an ethnic group,” notes Fergal O’Brien of Armagh, No. Ireland, a licensed social worker who has researched Irish Travellers and today performs musically with them. “You have to be born a Traveller,” he recalls telling singer Sinead O’Connor who once inquired if she could become a Traveller simply by pulling up her trailer alongside a Traveller community.
Travellers have their own shared culture that includes a separate language, matched marriages, the trades they practice, and more. In 1997, the No. Ireland Race Relations Order recognized Irish Travellers as a racial group within the meaning of the law. This was a momentous acknowledgment considering how long Travellers existed in Ireland. It took yet another 20 years before the Republic of Ireland gave such recognition to Travellers.
Making a living
Aside from the term Travellers, research refers to this community as “tinkers” “Gypsies” or “itinerants.” They prefer to be called Travellers and find the phrase “tinkers” to be pejorative. Gypsies refer to Roma people who are an Indo-Aryan group.
The name “tinkers” originated from their trade as tinsmiths. The sound of a hammer hitting metal was called tinkering and therefore the name became synonymous with Travellers because not only was tin smithing a popular trade among the men, but it was also one of the more highly regarded types of work. Using new sheets of tin or empty biscuit containers, tinsmiths made cups, kettles, milk pails, lanterns, buckets, and more.
Travellers also were knowledgeable horsemen and adept at horse and donkey trading. This skill earned them a good income when they would ply their trade at country fairs. Travellers were known to drive horses from the west coast of Ireland and bring them to Dublin and surrounding areas where the animals were sold at a good price.
Travellers also took on work as chimney sweeps, peddlers, and fortune tellers. It was typically the women Travellers who would peddle the merchandise created by their husbands, going into the Irish settled communities and earning money. Many describe the rural farm families and Travellers as having a symbiotic relationship – the farmers needed the wares the Travellers sold, and the Travellers needed an income.
Typically, Traveller families would go from one rural community to the next in groups of three families. Once they had called on the residents of one area, they would pull up stakes and move to the next. Travellers did not wander aimlessly; instead, they planned their routes and moved from one location to another in an ordered manner.
Wagons: a place to call home
Almost a century earlier, Travellers roamed throughout Ireland in colorful covered wagons. They resided in tents in the early years but that changed after World War I when Gypsies in England were threatened with conscription, and they fled to Ireland. Irish Travellers were intrigued by this type of transportation/ home on wheels; after purchasing some covered wagons, it didn’t take long for Travellers to begin constructing their own. By the mid-1930s, about half of the Irish Traveller population owned covered wagons. As recent as 1960, some 61% of the then 6.5 thousand Travellers still lived in wagons.1
The covered wagons were but one symbol of the Traveller culture. Irish Travellers were also considered gifted musicians and storytellers, two aspects that, unlike covered wagons, allow their culture to be preserved and sustained.
Volunteers with the Irish Folklore Commission in the 1930s ventured into the countryside to capture local storytellers using a heavy and bulky recording device, the Edison Ediphone. One individual, Páidraig Mac Gréine, is estimated to have transcribed 10,000 pages of folklore material in the course of his work.2 After the folktales were recorded, Mac Greine and other field workers transcribed the recordings in the exact words of the recorder.
Many of the folk tales of that era were published in Bealoideas, a journal of folklore that began in 1927. Today, folktales recorded by Irish Travellers in the 1930s are available in Bealoideas accessible through JSTOR, a digital library that includes journals in the social sciences and humanities.
In describing Bealoideas in the early- to mid-1930s, author Bairbre Ni Fhloinn writes, “Certainly, no other body was then engaging with Travellers in an attempt to document their history, their life experience and their wealth of oral tradition.”3
Music continues to be an important aspect of Traveller culture. After a long day of working at their craft and services, and selling their wares, Travellers would gather around campfires in the evening and engage in storytelling and music. The songs also served to preserve the history of this itinerant community.
Today there are a number of musicians influenced by Irish Travellers of the past. Some well-known contemporary Irish Traveller musicians include Paddy Keenan who was born in Co. Meath. He hails from a line of musicians who are steeped in traditional music. Keenan has even performed several times at the Celtic Junction, the last time being June 18 of 2022.
Sharyn Ward is another successful Traveller singer and songwriter. Born in Longford and the mother of two children, she made it to the “Ireland’s Got Talent” final with her rendition of “One Starry Night.” She notes that “the song makes me proud to be a Traveller.”4
Keenan and Ward are but two of successful singers/musicians. Others include Michael O’Connell, Co. Clare; Pat Broderick, East Galway; and Martin Nolan, Dublin, (pipes).
Contemporary Irish Traveller music tends to focus on the hardships experienced in the past and the discrimination and isolation felt by Travellers today. In the stirring song, “Move Along,” written by Finbar Magee, singer William Dundon laments,
“We just pulled in on the edge of town, You don’t know us, yet you want to put us down, You don’t like our ways, You don’t like our turn of phrase, You sure know how to show we don’t belong …Move along.”
While this song speaks to how Travellers have been treated both in the past and presently, singer Dundon displays a positive outlook for his family. “I’m settled now,” says Dundon. “My kids are settled. They’re going to school to have a good education to have all the means to survive and have a happy life.”
A personal ambition for Dundon, who works in security, is to own his security company. But he says if that doesn’t work out, “I’m going to go into music.” According to Dundon, when it comes to music, being a Traveller doesn’t really matter. He notes, “When you’re a musician, everyone wants you.”
One of his greatest accomplishments was a trip to China a few years ago when his musical group was invited by Simon Coveney, the deputy leader of Fine Gael since 2017, to perform in Beijing. Dundon said it was incredible enough to play in China, but then he was given the opportunity to play music on the Great Wall of China – something less than 100 musicians have ever been allowed to do. It’s opportunities like these that give Dundon hope for a brighter future for Travellers as they make their way into the 21st century.
But yet there are many hurdles to deal with in contemporary times. Irish Travellers have undergone a major shift in their lifestyle within the past half century. While “modernization” is generally a positive concept that brings with it a more prosperous and enlightened society, for Travellers, the change hasn’t necessarily been positive.
A recent article in the Irish Times5 points to a report published in February 2023 that shows how suicide is impacting Travellers in South County Dublin and Ballyfermot:
- Travellers have a suicide rate six times that of the general population
- Over two-thirds of Travellers have lost a loved one to suicide
- Almost 90 percent of Travellers are worried about suicide in their community
These shocking statistics go hand in hand with the reality that a large percentage of Irish Travellers cannot find employment and are then forced to live in government-funded housing. To add to this, their children tend to leave school early for a variety of complex reasons.
Some countries struggle with itinerants who come from ‘outside.’ But in Ireland, “the itinerants are their own people with Irish names,” notes Aimee L’Amie, editor of The Irish Travelling People: A Resource Collection.
Discrimination, the feeling of not fitting in with the “settled” Irish population, and poverty may seem like insurmountable problems facing today’s Irish Travellers. But one needs only look at their many contributions over centuries to recognize how vital this ethnic community is to the Republic of Ireland and No. Ireland. People like musician Dundon can see a brighter life ahead. While it’s true the itinerant lifestyle may be coming to an end for many Irish Travellers, their past will always remain a vital piece of Irish history.
1 George Gmelch. Shorten the Road, (Dublin: The O’Brien Press, 19xx) p. 18
2 The Irish Times, “Folklore Collector Who Specialised in Traditions of Travelling Community,” March 3, 2007.
3“On the Edge: Portrayals of Travellers and Others in Irish Popular Tradition, Bairbre Ni Fhloinn, Bealoideas, Iml. 83, p. 5.
4Traveller Collection website, https://travellercollection.ie/items/628370a5be5aff4ed2883074
5“The Irish Times View on Suicide in the Traveller Community,” Editorial, The Irish Times, Feb. 23, 2023
6“The Irish Traveling People: A Resource Collection,” Aileen L’Amie, Volume 2: The Republic of Ireland 1951-81. Part F: Galway 1967-70. 1984. JSTOR, https://jstor.org/stable/community.
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