Irish Travellers in the United States

Traveller Group

Origins of the Irish Traveller

Irish Travellers are not Gypsies, yet they are often called so by non-Gypsies.  Irish Travellers share many traits with Gypsies, but are not of Asian Indian origin.  Irish Travellers are Celts, fair of skin, often blond, often blue eyed.  Some claim they even predate the Celtic invasion of Ireland, and this may be so.

Travellers claim that they even predate the Celtic invasion of Ireland, and are the oldest inhabitants of that Island. The Travellers claim by oral tradition to be descended from the pre-Celts, the “Fir Bolgs” and the “Tuatha De Danann.”

In other words, the history of the Irish Travellers goes back much further than the Gypsies. Gypsies came to Europe from India in the early Middle Ages. Traveller history predates the English legend of King Arthur by several centuries.

Irish Travellers in the United States

The history and culture of Irish Travellers in the United States has proved to be of some interest to Irish scholars and filmmakers.  Yet, the awareness of or interest in this Irish minority abroad among the non-Traveller population in Ireland remains scant.  Likewise, the Traveler tradition has yet to be generally recognized or claimed by Irish America.

After arriving in America as a distinct group, they have endeavored to maintain their ethnic identity.  According to U.S. experts, the number of Travellers living in the United States is estimated to be somewhere between 12,000 to 20,000.  Most arrived here during the mid 1800s during Án Gorta Mor. Upon arriving in this country, they traveled across the land doing seasonal work.  Although widely scattered, they are somewhat concentrated in the southern states.  Their communities can be found in Texas, Indiana, South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi and Tennessee.  Some 1,500 Irish Travelers live in a twenty-five square mile unincorporated community called Murphy Village in South Carolina.  Although they are also scattered in mobile home parks across the deep South, Murphy Village is by far the largest, most affluent, and best known of Irish Traveller enclave.

Community Life

The communities where Irish Travelers live serve their citizens as comfortable havens and refuges in the short, southern winters.  In the spring, however, those communities are more like military staging areas from which forays of pickup trucks and vans depart to raid the rest of the nation.  The men depart for a summer’s scavenging, leaving wives, children, and the elderly behind to keep the home fires banked and the air conditioners churning until the men return at the end of the school year.  At that time the entire family will take to the road.

In addition to leaving their families behind, the departing men usually leave their identities at home, assuming new names that are documented by bogus social security cards, driver’s licenses, credit cards, etc.  Should legal mishaps occur on the road, they certainly don’t want their identities traced to their home community.  Once they have crossed the state line, Travelers are likely to pull into the first “rest area” and change license plates.  Travelers from Murphy Village have been found in possession of current, valid license plates from Georgia, Alabama, Tennessee, Arkansas, and Texas as well as South Carolina.

Making A Living

Travellers WorkingThe Irish Travelers work as house and barn painters, driveway dressers, lightning rod installers, and so on.  They can bring tears to the eyes of their victims when they explain the tragic circumstances which force them to sell trailers or campers made in Indiana.  They will prune your trees, seal your roof, exterminate your termites, and keep you engaged while a cohort steals your nest egg and makes off with the Colonial Twist silverware that has been in the family for five generations.

The Irish Travelers are also merchants of flimsy, dangerous shop machinery produced by the Rebel Tool and Equipment Company of South Carolina.  The merchandise sold by the Rebel Tool and Equipment Company proudly wears the label “Made in the U.S.A.”  It lies.  Most of the components are imported from Taiwan and Korea and merely assembled in this country, a process which, technically and legally, justifies the misleading claim.

In contrast to the glossy, well-designed advertising sheets shown prospective customers, the machinery itself is flimsy, ill-constructed, and incapable of performing as promised.  All the hydraulic systems on the saws, hoists, and presses are imported from Taiwan and, should these systems fail, which they often do, the equipment is not only useless but also dangerous.

Perhaps the best indicator of the shoddiness of the equipment is a comparison of the cost of the item to the distributor and the list price on advertisements, invoices, and bills of lading.  A $3,690 hydraulic hoist is sold to the distributor for $150, a horizontal-vertical band saw which lists for $4,980 costs him $400, and he pays $150 for a thirty ton press retailing at $3,180.  A Traveler can sell $15,000 worth of equipment for $5,000 and still make a $3,000 profit.

Travellers CarpentryTravelers seldom ask anywhere near the list price.  They do, of course, get as much as possible on any transaction. To rationalize selling equipment well below list price, they use a variety of plausible excuses.  They often say that the man to whom the consignment was shipped died while his merchandise was in transit.  More frequently, the items are reported to be left over from a machinery producers’ convention where the paint was scratched and the driver was told to sell them “at cost” rather than ship them back to the factory where they would have to be repainted.  The Traveler may also state that the equipment is from a resale outlet that the company is closing down and doesn’t want to ship the machinery back to the warehouse and then have to ship it out again to another retailer.

The Rebel Tool and Equipment Company does guarantee its products for 90 days on some items and 180 days for defective material and workmanship on other items.  All guaranteed servicing, however, must be done at the company’s factory in South Carolina and the customer is responsible for freight charges both to and from the factory.  Since most of the items are heavy, crating and shipment charges normally exceed the original cost of the equipment.  When most items break down–and most items do break down–they are usually sold as scrap metal.

A Substantial Income

Travelers make a substantial income from all their various endeavors and much of that income is invested in Murphy Village housing.  While many of the approximately 400 families of Travelers live in large, luxurious, permanently situated house trailers or “double-wides,” more than a quarter of them live in what can only be called mansions.

Every year new mansions are erected in Murphy Village.  It fosters a resentment among nearby non-Travelers or “country folk,” as the Travelers call them.  The Travelers tend to be aloof and reclusive, having little to do with the surrounding community.  They interact with outsiders rarely, reject overtures of friendliness or neighborliness, and refrain from participating in the social activities of the area.  In doing so, the Travelers have made themselves easy to dislike.  Building houses well above the means of others around them simply fuels the regional hostility towards the Travellers.

Lack of a Formal Education

Because their parents are nomads, the children of Travelers seldom receive much in the way of formal education, a condition publicly lamented but privately quite compatible with the desires of the parents.

Traveller CaravanSince settling down in Murphy Village things have changed–but not by much.  South Carolina children are required by law to attend school through the eighth grade, and seldom does a young Traveler stay any more than the minimum.  Attendance during the required years tends to be inconsistent and interest in school work is commonly lacking.  In class or on the playground, Traveler youngsters are withdrawn, volunteer little, and associate only with others from their own community.

When asked about their children’s behavior at school and clear lack of any interest is getting an education, Traveler parents often state,  “The less contact our children have with the outside world, the less trouble they’ll get into and the better off our village will be.”

At the end of the school year Travelers return to Murphy’s Village, pick up their families, and take once more to the road.  From the age of seven or eight, Traveler boys join their fathers and uncles in dressing driveways, pruning trees, painting, etc., receiving part of the spoils when the take is divided.  They listen attentively while relatives make their pitch and later get instructed in the fine points of making a play for the country folks’ money.  By the time he’s seventeen or eighteen, the young Traveler has had nine or ten summers of intensive tutoring.

Marriage Among The Travellers

As the summers pass, the teen-ager plays an increasingly important role in the scams perpetrated until he is mature enough and knowledgeable enough to become a full-fledged member of the work team–and to marry.

Marriages are contracted by the parents when the children are mature.  The young couple is consulted before the final decisions are reached, and the arrangements are ordinarily made two or three years before the wedding is to take place.  The parents inevitably choose spouses for their children from among the Travelers, using such unions to solidify family friendships and business arrangements.  While children are allowed to marry outside the Village if they choose, they never do so. These children know that the culture of the Travelers is far too different to that of the dominant society for marriage with a non-Traveler to be successful.  The extent of intracommunity marriage is emphasized by the fact that among the more than 1,500 Travelers in Murphy Village there are only eleven surnames.