Irish Travellers: The Unsettled Life

Irish Travellers: The Unsettled Life

by Sharon Bohn Gmelch, George Gmelch

Anthropologists George and Sharon Gmelch have been studying the quasi-nomadic people known as Travellers since their fieldwork in the early 1970s, when they lived among Travellers and went on the road in their own horse-drawn wagon. In 2011 they returned to seek out families they had known decades before—shadowed by a film crew and taking with them hundreds of

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Anthropologists George and Sharon Gmelch have been studying the quasi-nomadic people known as Travellers since their fieldwork in the early 1970s, when they lived among Travellers and went on the road in their own horse-drawn wagon. In 2011 they returned to seek out families they had known decades before—shadowed by a film crew and taking with them hundreds of old photographs showing the Travellers' former way of life. Many of these images are included in this book, alongside more recent photos and compelling personal narratives that reveal how Traveller lives have changednow that they have left nomadism behind.

Indiana University Press

Editorial Reviews

Lawrence Taylor

"Bring[s] together photographs taken over a forty-year period with Traveller commentary on the photos and the lives they represent, along with 'snapshots' of the authors' experience.... As such, it offer[s] a unique contribution, in its combination of methods and representations, to the study of Travellers, but also to our understanding of Irish society through an especially dynamic period." —Lawrence Taylor, National University of Ireland-Maynooth

Ray Cashman

"The authors are proven fieldworkers and talented writers with long-term expertise in Traveller culture; the images are excellent, crisp and professional, informative and evocative." —Ray Cashman, Ohio State University

From the Publisher

"The authors are proven fieldworkers and talented writers with long-term expertise in Traveller culture; the images are excellent, crisp and professional, informative and evocative." —Ray Cashman, Ohio State University

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Indiana University Press
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Irish Travellers

By Sharon Bohn Gmelch, George Gmelch

Indiana University Press

Copyright © 2014 George Gmelch and Sharon Bohn Gmelch
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-253-01453-5



The travelling people have, for generations, stood on the bottom rung of Ireland's social and economic ladder, a poor and stigmatized minority group. Until the 1960s most traveled through the countryside, at first on foot and later in horse-drawn carts and wagons, performing a variety of trades and services. Despite the value of the services they provided, they were regarded as inferior and regularly discriminated against, especially once they began migrating to urban areas in search of work. They were commonly called "tinkers" (from the trade of tinsmithing), "knackers" (from the practice of selling old horses for slaughter), and, beginning in the 1960s, "itinerants" (the less pejorative term introduced by government).

Although their lifestyle was and continues to be outwardly similar to that of English Gypsies or Roma, the Travelling People are native to Ireland. They are one of numerous indigenous nomadic groups—including the Swedish Resande, Norwegian Taters, Dutch Woonwagonbewoners, and Scottish Travellers—that have existed in Western Europe. Today approximately 29,000 Travellers live among a population of 4.5 million settled Irish, and they remain one of the least assimilated of Europe's itinerant groups.

The early history of Ireland's Travelling People is obscure. Being illiterate, they left no written records of their own. As poor people living on the margin of settled society, they were largely ignored in Ireland's recorded history and literary works. Genetic research conducted in the 1970s and an analysis of the DNA of forty individuals in 2010 clearly show, however, that Travellers are native to Ireland and have lived there as long as anyone. Such research also conclusively shows that they are not Roma. Beyond that, only one thing is certain: not all Travelling families originated at the same time or in the same way. Some families' nomadism dates back centuries, while for others it is more recent. And many have genealogies mixed with both Travellers and settled people. Some undoubtedly began to travel as itinerant craftsmen and specialists because of the limited demand for their work in any one place. Others were originally peasants and laborers who voluntarily went on the road to look for work or else were forced onto it by eviction or for some personal reason—a problem with drink, the birth of an illegitimate child, or marriage to a "tinker."

Throughout Ireland's history a variety of occupational groups were nomadic. As early as the fifth century, metal workers or "whitesmiths" traveled the countryside fashioning jewelry, weapons, and horse trappings out of bronze, silver, and gold in exchange for food and lodging. Other specialists, including weavers, thatchers, musicians, and bards, also traveled Ireland's roads in past centuries. Ward, the Anglicized form of the Irish Mac an Bhaird, meaning "son of the bard," is one of the most common Traveller surnames, and the Wards are regarded by other Travellers as one of the oldest families on the road.

In the twelfth century, "tinker" and "tynkere" appear in written records as trade or surnames for the first time. (The word "tinker" derives from the sound of the smith's hammer striking metal.) By the sixteenth century, itinerant tinkers were numerous enough in Ireland and Scotland to give newly arriving Roma stiff competition. Tinkers are specifically mentioned in the numerous statutes enacted from the sixteenth to the nineteenth century in the British Isles against vagrancy and begging. By 1835, when Britain's Poor Inquiry Commissioners visited Ireland—then a British colony—to collect evidence on the state of the poor, local people differentiated tinkers from other people then living on the road. A resident of county Mayo reported, "The wives and families accompany the tinker while he strolls about in search of work, and always beg. They intermarry with one another, and form a distinct class." A resident of Donegal similarly stated that they were "the only class of beggars whose habits of mendicancy become hereditary; the other vagrants beg through ... [temporary] want of employment." Yet another respondent described three generations traveling the roads together, which, at the very minimum, meant that they had been itinerant since the late 1700s.

At the outbreak of World War II, Ireland's Travellers were still a nomadic and rural people. Their most common occupations, besides making tinware, were cleaning chimneys, dealing in donkeys and horses, peddling small household wares, and picking crops, all in exchange for food, clothing, and cash. While many Travellers had a primary trade, they were also opportunistic. As one man we knew astutely stated, "The tinker was a man who thought of a hundred ways of surviving. If he was selling delph [crockery] and the delph failed him, he'd switch to something else. Maybe he'd buy something else or resell it. There were always a hundred ways out. This was the real tinker, not the tinsmith. He was a better survivor than the rest." Travellers also made clothespins, brooms, and baskets; repaired umbrellas; sharpened knives; collected and recycled horse hair, feathers, and bottles; and exploited the superstitions and hopes of the settled population through begging, fortune telling, and bogus money-making schemes. They were truly jacks of all trades.

Most families traveled and camped on the roadside from St. Patrick's Day in mid-March (when, it was said, the stones turned over in the water and the cold went out of the winter) until November, when wet, bone-chilling weather returned. Some then moved into modest cottages in what they considered to be their home village, while others took shelter in abandoned "waste" houses in the countryside. While traveling, families seldom remained in one place for more than a couple of weeks, staying only as long as work was available. Most families traveled regular circuits through two or three neighboring counties and were well known to local people, even acquiring affectionate nicknames like Bawling Moll. But some families traveled widely and had weaker ties to the settled population. And although Travellers were valued for the services they performed and for the news and stories they carried, most country people were also glad to see them go. Nomads are usually regarded with a degree of suspicion by sedentary populations, no matter how mutually beneficial their relationship.

As Ireland developed following World War II, the rural economy of Travellers changed dramatically. Plastic containers and the availability of cheap mass-produced tin and enamelware eliminated the tinsmith's work. Other trades and services also rapidly became obsolete. With the introduction of tractors and farm machinery like the beet digger, the demand for the horses some Travellers dealt in and the need for seasonal agricultural laborers disappeared. As rural bus service expanded and more country people could afford cars, shopping in town became easier, and people no longer needed the small goods that Travelling women once brought to their doors. Some Travellers moved to England at this time to work on construction sites or to collect scrap metal. Most, however, migrated to large provincial towns and cities within Ireland like Dublin, Limerick, and Cork in order to find work and sign on to the "dole."

There they camped on any open land they could find: roadside verges, fields, and derelict building sites in the city center. Most Travelling men turned to collecting scrap metal from homeowners and construction sites, separating it by metal type and selling it by weight to metal merchants and foundries. Some salvaged cars, selling parts directly from their roadside camps. Meanwhile, Travelling women with a baby and at least one young child in tow pushed their prams from door to door in the suburbs asking housewives for "a bit of help" in a modified version of rural peddling. Some women and teenage girls begged on city streets.

Largely in response to this migration—which created problems for urban residents and starkly highlighted the poverty under which most Travellers lived—a national volunteer movement emerged to deal with what became known as the "itinerant problem." Its goal was to settle Travelling families on "sites" where they would have basic services (for example, electricity, running water, toilets) and from which their children could attend school. Although some attention was given to providing for families who wished to remain nomadic, the hope was that Travellers would eventually move into houses and assimilate into mainstream Irish society. The logo of the "settlement movement" was a winding road leading to a house. It was in the early days of this dramatic change, in 1971, that we moved into a camp on the outskirts of Dublin to begin our first research among the Travellers.


In the jargon of anthropology, we would be doing "fieldwork" based largely on "participant observation." It was a rewarding and at times challenging initiation into Traveller life—and personally maturing as well. We were young Americans from comfortable middle-class suburban homes, a radically different background from the hand-to-mouth nomadic existence most Irish Travellers then lived. Although we spoke the same language, at times it hardly seemed so, so different were our life experiences. We were graduate students working toward our PhDs, while few Travellers could read or write. We came from small families—George's was considered fairly large at four children and mine typical at two—while Travellers had some of the largest in the Western world. The three oldest women in camp had each given birth more than twenty times, although not all infants had survived. This fact suggested another difference between us, which could also be read on most people's deeply lined faces, namely the hardship of their lives. Most Travellers at the time lacked the basic amenities and services that we and settled Irish people took for granted, like running water, toilets, and medical and dental care. Women's lives were especially arduous, as they bore the brunt of feeding, clothing, cleaning, and minding their many children.

When we returned to Ireland in 2011 much had changed. In 1973, a year after we left the field, Ireland joined the European Economic Community (EEC), which boosted the country's economy and over the next several decades introduced a host of new perspectives and policies that radically transformed the nation. But the most significant change that had taken place was that Travellers in Ireland were no longer nomads. Today the vast majority live in houses; others live stationary lives in caravans (trailers) on official sites. How has settlement changed Travellers' lives and their understanding of who they are? How do different generations of Travellers make sense of it all? Armed with several hundred photographs that George had taken during our early fieldwork, we returned to Ireland to explore such questions.


Although most people find photographs intrinsically interesting, they have special significance for Travellers. They are valued not only for the personal memories they evoke and as family mementos but also as "evidence" of a former way of life and their history as a people. This is true even for photographs taken as recently as ours. Travellers in the 1970s had virtually no written history or literature of their own. Fortunately, this is no longer the case. Today everything from social science studies, journalistic accounts, and government reports to novels, personal memoirs written by Travellers, and videos posted on YouTube document their lives. This is a positive development and means that future generations of Travellers and historians will have a rich trove of material to work with. But this does not change the fact that many pages of prior Traveller history are virtually blank. Photographs fill some of the void. And for many Travellers whose literacy is still limited, photographs remain more accessible than text.

Photography is a powerful medium. Recognizing its capacity to evoke emotion and to reveal rather than merely tell, we published in 1976, together with Irish Times photographer Pat Langan, a photographic book about Travellers. We hoped then that the positive and non-stereotypical glimpse it provided of Travellers' everyday lives might reduce the prejudice that existed against them. We also knew that photographs would make the book appealing and accessible to Travellers. The book proved popular, received significant media attention, and to our surprise it won the Irish Book Publishers' Book of the Year award. To what extent it softened public attitudes toward Travellers, especially in the long term, is impossible to judge.

In 2001 I returned to Ireland for research and showed some of George's photographs—black-and-white prints and color slides—to several groups of Travellers. One was a small and rather subdued mix of middle-aged and older women at Exchange House, a Dublin organization providing addiction, education, and youth services to Travellers. After chatting over biscuits and tea, the women sat back to watch the slide show I'd prepared. Murmuring to one another as the images flashed on the screen, their uniform reaction was nostalgia for life on the road, its open air, and "freedom," despite the hardship.

Several weeks later, I showed the same slides and some black-and-white prints to two families we had lived with during our fieldwork. Adults laughed at their appearance thirty years earlier and stood up frequently to point out relatives on the screen to their children. Some images showed Travellers in other parts of the country living in "bender" and "shelter" tents. The children and grandchildren had never seen such tents before and knew little of this former, yet comparatively recent, way of life. When the lights came back on, one twenty-year-old sat silently on the living room sofa, surrounded by animated cousins and siblings, with a furrowed brow and pensive expression. When I asked what he thought of the slides, he finally muttered, "Embarrassed." He was ashamed to see his family's and other Travellers' past poverty so evident in images of dirty faces and tattered clothes and tents, wagons, and battered trailers parked amid piles of scrap metal and scattered debris. His reaction in particular made me think about the possibility of returning someday with additional photographs to more systematically elicit Travellers' thoughts about their changing lives.

Ten years later, in 2011, we were finally ready to do so. Our decision to return was reinforced when we learned of Travellers' reactions to an exhibition of George's photographs at a South County Dublin library. To the surprise of its organizers, enthusiastic crowds of Travelling People, most of whom had never before stepped foot in a library, arrived. Librarian Breda Bollard described the scene to us in an e-mail: "When the exhibition arrived we had a young Traveller girl here, and she helped me choose which photographs to display. We picked a few to put into the local community magazine The Wag Mag. When the magazine was delivered to the Traveller sites in the area, the response was immediate.... Extended families contacted their extended families, and they traveled here from all parts of Ireland and one couple from England." They were often "anxious to tell us their stories," she went on. "Often these were the only images available on those who had died—often tragically. There were heartbreaking scenes, with grown men fighting back tears at seeing pictures of long dead relatives. Great elation at finding photographs of relatives now scattered." Many of the Travellers who came wanted prints to take away, which the library provided. We later saw several of these prominently displayed in Traveller homes. Some had been professionally enlarged and printed on canvas. The librarians also reported some tension, with a few Travellers asking them not to provide copies of certain images to particular people because of family feuds. Clearly, George's photographs from the 1970s had great meaning to the families portrayed in them.

What follows is the story of our return to Ireland that summer and of what Travellers—and some of the settled people who have worked closely with them—told us about how their lives have changed. George took new photographs, too, to help document these changes. What appears here, though, is not an exhaustive account of these changes; we use statistics and new scholarship on Travellers sparingly. Instead, it recounts a more personal and selective journey, one that focuses on the topics Travellers raised during our conversations—prompted both by photographs and questions—and on our own comparisons of what their lives are like today with what they had been in the early 1970s, when we lived among them. Since this is primarily their story, we have included the personal narratives of five individuals, which more evocatively convey than we could many of the nuances of the transformation that has taken place in Travelling life.

Finding and revisiting families we had lived with forty years earlier was a profoundly rewarding experience, as was meeting new families. There was also sadness. Many of the people we had lived with, including all of the adult men, have since died, and so have a startling number of younger people—a stark reminder of the hardship of Travelling life. Today, fewer than 3 percent of Travellers live to age sixty-five, compared to 11 percent of the general Irish population. Fortunately, many people we knew remain. Most were children during our fieldwork but now have children and grandchildren of their own. It was gratifying to discover that we had become part of the history and folklore of these families. For us, living with Irish Travellers will always be one of the most profound experiences of our lives.


Excerpted from Irish Travellers by Sharon Bohn Gmelch, George Gmelch. Copyright © 2014 George Gmelch and Sharon Bohn Gmelch. Excerpted by permission of Indiana University Press.
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