Ireland’s Travellers

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Irish Travellers are traditionally a nomadic people of ethnic Irish origin, who maintain a set of traditions and a distinct ethnic identity.  Although predominantly English speaking, some Travellers also use Shelta, commonly known as Cant.

  • Shelta is spoken by Irish Travellers in Ireland and in parts of Great Britain.  To its native speakers in Ireland, it is known as Gammon (or Gamin) and has been dated back to the 18th century, or possibly older.
  • The language is derived from a mixture of intentionally-incomprehensible Irish Gaelic slang and English.  The language is often used to exclude outsiders from comprehending conversations between Travellers.  Known to insiders, it is meant to mislead outsiders.

Irish Travellers live in Ireland as well as having large numbers in the United Kingdom and in the United States.  They refer to themselves as Lucht Siúil, meaning “the walking people”.  To outsiders, they are also known as Tinkers or Knackers (in Ireland) and as Gypsies (in other countries).

  • The term Tinker refers to services that were traditionally provided by them — the mending of tinware such as pots and pans.
  • The term Knackers refers to the acquisition of dead or old horses for slaughter.

In Ireland, these terms are used in a derogatory manner that expresses contempt or distaste.  Many Travellers are significantly offended by these terms.

In 2006, the Republic of Ireland reported the number of Irish Travellers living in the Republic as being over 22,000 with an additional 2,000 living in Northern Ireland.

Due to the level of secrecy of the group, there are no official or legitimate population figures regarding Travellers in the United States.  In fact, Irish Travellers are not recognized as a unique ethnic group by the U.S. Census – as they are in Ireland.  Estimates of their numbers in America range from 10,000 to 40,000.  Most Travellers in the United States are the descendants of the Travellers who left Ireland during An Gorta Mór.

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The historical origins of Irish Travellers as an ethnic group has been a subject of academic and popular debate.  Such discussions have been difficult as Irish Travellers left no written records of their own.  In 2011 an analysis of DNA from 40 Travellers was undertaken at the Royal College of Surgeons in Dublin and the University of Edinburgh.  The study provided evidence that Irish Travellers are a distinct Irish ethnic minority, who separated from the settled Irish community at least 1000 years ago.  The claim was made that they are distinct from the settled community as Icelanders are from Norwegians.

Even though all families claim ancient origins, not all families of Irish Travellers date back to the same point in time.

  • Some families adopted Traveller customs centuries ago, while others did so more recently.
  • It is unclear how many Irish Travellers would be included in this distinct ethnic group at least from a genetic perspective.

Theories also claim they were descended from ancestors made homeless by the following:

  • The military campaigns of Oliver Cromwell and later William of Orange in the 1600s;
  • An Gorta Mór in the 1840s;
  • Or the descendants of aristocratic nomads from the Clan Murtagh O’Connors in the Late Middle Ages (their nomadism was based on cattle-herds or ‘creaghts’).

As disposed tenants with nowhere to go, they became inter-locking families who travelled and intermarried. Recent genetic tests show at least some Travellers have a much longer history.

There is evidence that 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.  The genetic evidence indicates Irish Travellers have been a distinct ethnic group in Ireland for at least a millennium.

Religion – Education

ReligionTravellers have a distinctive approach to religion; the vast majority are Roman Catholics with particular attention paid to issues of healing.  They have been known to follow a strict ethos called ‘The Travellers Code’ that dictates their moral beliefs and can influence their actions.

EducationTraveller children often grow up outside of the educational systems due to their nomadic life style.  However, there is a community advocate group that promotes equal access to education for Traveller children.  In December 2010, the Irish Equality Tribunal issued a ruling in favor of a Traveller child that will allow more Traveller children to enter mainstream educational institutions.

Finances and Marriage

Since there are no necessary requirements in owning land or a house in the culture of Irish Travellers, they are free to be as financially independent as desired.  However, the widespread distaste for the Travellers among the settled population could hurt the long-term prospects for Travellers, who need the intercultural solidarity of their neighbors in order to survive and prosper financially.

Today, many Travellers are breeders of dogs such as greyhounds and have a long-standing interest in horse trading.  In addition, they are often involved in the recycling scrap metals.  Do to their life style and unwillingness to reveal their specific income, their financial status is determined by the state of their possessions:  their trailer, motor vehicle, domestic utensils, and other valuables.

Couples tend to marry young: girls at around the age of 16 or 17, and boys between 18 and 19.  Most marriages occur within and among the Traveller community.  Travellers rarely marry a member of the settled community, and any such inter marriage would be a source of terrible shame to the settled Irish family to this day.


The health of Irish Travellers is significantly poorer than that of the general population in Ireland.   This is evidenced in a 2007 report published in Ireland, which states that over half of Travellers do not live past the age of 39 years.

From birth to old age, Travellers have high mortality rates from accidents and from metabolic and congenital problems.  Compare to settled woman, female Travellers have an especially high mortality rate.

Social Identity

In the United Kingdom, Irish Travellers are recognized by British law as a distinct ethnic group.  In the Republic of Ireland, their legal status is that of a social group.

The European Parliament Committee of Inquiry on Racism found the Irish Travellers to be among the most discriminated-against ethnic groups in Ireland.

The Irish view them as anti-social and misfits.  Public brawling fueled by excessive drinking has added to settled people’s fear of Travellers.  They perceive the Travellers as bering involved in criminal behavior and see them as settling illegally on privately owned land.


Who are the Travellers?

The Travellers, a minority community indigenous to Ireland, have existed on the margins of Irish society for centuries.  This group became separated from the settled population over a thousand years ago.  They share common descent, and have distinct cultural practices – early marriage, desire to be mobile, a tradition of self-employment, and so on.  The Travellers (until recently also called “tinkers” or “gypsies”) often live in ad hoc encampments, in direct contrast to “settled” people in Ireland. They are thought to be descended from a group of nomadic craftsman, with the name “tinker” a reference to the sound of a hammer hitting an anvil. (The reference is now considered derogatory.)

They have distinct rituals of death and cleansing, and a language they only speak among their own.  Travellers live in extended patriarchal families, prefer trailers, maintain a nomadic existence  interspersed with occasional house dwelling; a house is considered only a stopping place between journeys, whether the stop lasts 20 days or 20 years!  Many have no access to toilet facilities, electricity, refuse collection or piped water.

In the past they invariably travelled, but misguided government policy from the 1960s onward ensured that many were persuaded to settle in houses – a policy that, in undermining traditional values and lifestyle, is increasingly questioned, if not actively altered.

Traditionally, they were metal workers, hawkers, traders in horses and used goods of all description, and provided services where and when there were gaps in the market.  This resistance to wage labour and alternative cultural definition of work led to charges of idleness by the uncomprehending.

The necessity of living on their wits led to a stereotype of Travellers as shrewd, even cunning, dealers.  Having been persuaded to settle in houses, and consequently, having lost the mobility necessary to their traditional trades, many Travellers today rely on state welfare assistance.  This could be construed as a sinister government plot, but for the fact that government policy on Travellers has never been well planned enough to effect any successful strategy!  Ironically, Traveller representative Michael McDonagh believes that “Travellers that are the most nomadic are also the most economically successful, and also have far less difficulty with their identity than people forced into settlement”.

Their position is akin to that of the gypsy of Europe in some respects.  However, since foreign extraction has never been ascribed to them, they have never had the exotic, erotic aura projected onto the gypsy – which may be the cause of the troubling Irish resistance to defining them as an ethnic minority.

Travellers rarely marry a member of the settled community, and any such inter marriage would be a source of terrible shame to the settled Irish family to this day.  Likewise, the Traveller community will never consider a member of the settled community who marries a Traveller one of their kind, though his/her children will be accepted as such.  Travellers marry their own, or occasionally, gypsies.  Since they are a tiny inter-marrying population, Travellers often marry a relative.  Identity is defined by relationships, so Travellers are quick to claim kinship when they meet.  One cannot become a Traveller.

Today, however, the Traveller lifestyle has changed dramatically from even a few decades ago. Many have begun to embraced modern culture and become “settled,” no longer living apart from the mainstream.


The Irish Travellers

Oh yes, we are the Travellers of this land,
those who stride out to an older chant,
obeying our ancient spirit’s command,
mishlee the thoaber, thaari the Cant.”

Not for us were the country man’s ways,
nor for any other to be deemed our master,
we’d go where we wish, at our own pace,
fast as we wished and surely no faster.

Scant welcome had we on the byroads of Erin,
and of late even America forsakes our hand;
the lies now pursue us beyond toleration
and freedom for nomads is sought to be banned.

The Life can never be fettered and numbered,
nor lines and borders ever enslave our band;
our people will never by chains be encumbered.
Oh yes, we are the Travellers of this land.


Irish Travellers

A Traveller Pilgrim – A Poem By Irish Traveller Willie Stokes

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When I woke up this morning
With aches and sighs and moans,
Then I raised my arms towards the sky
As I stretched out my bones.

With cracks and creaks from head to toe,
And shoulder onto shoulder,
Now that’s the first I heard my body speak,
Don’t you know you’re getting older.

Ok I said I’ll enjoy this day
And probably have a little trip.
But then I said no I need some money,
That’s when the devil pulled out his whip.

But yes I need some money
And I will enjoy a little trip.
But its God in heaven whose my master,
Not this fellow with the whip.

But if you had lots of money,
Just think of all that you could buy.
But God said “No let your riches be in heaven
Where moth and rust will not destroy”.

Now if I’m to get through this short day
And my priorities aright,
I must think about eternity
And live by faith and not by sight.

So I considered by priorities,
And if today on earth was my last one,
What a fool I’d be to store treasures here,
If tomorrow I was gone.

So I’ll empty these bags of earthly treasures
And meditate on my Eternal Abode,
Lest the weight of them should weary me
And tire me of Heaven’s road.

So today I’ll walk that narrow road
And praise Him who sits on High,
And post my treasures in suitcase’s,
Post marked … ‘My Father’s Mansion In The Sky’

So I Set off upon my trip
To find my daily bread,
With prayer and hope for some lost soul
To whom Jesus might be led.

The day progressed I travelled on
But not one seed did I have sown.
Then the saddest thing I’ve ever seen
Was an old man kneeling and praying to a stone.

I enquired of him whom he was speaking to,
He replied this is a heavenly saint.
I leaned over and examined it,
“Sir this is only stone and paint.”

He said to me “Not al all
No greater friend you’ll find.
So I looked at him intently
I saw clearly he was blind.

I explained to him about Calvary
And about man’s greatest need,
And that Jesus done all He could for him,
But I can only plant the seed.

Now coming on towards evening
At two roads I was at a loss,
When I saw a great big fancy building
With a great big fancy cross.

Packed with lots of lovely Christian’s glory! glory!
I could not believe my eyes.
But they praised all the works of their hands,
But the work of Jesus they did despise.

With open arm’s they welcomed me,
Saying sure our religion is all the one.
So I searched upon their pulpit
But the Bible it was gone.

So I thanked them for their welcome,
And their outstretched arms that seemed so long,
But religion without the precious word of God,
Surly it is wrong.

Jesus Said: “If you abide in My Word,
You are My disciples indeed,
And You shall know the truth
And the truth shall make you free.”