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For other uses of the term see Traveler.

Irish Travellers (Irish: Lucht siúil) are a traditionally nomadic people of Irish origin living predominantly in Ireland and Great Britain, with a relatively small number in the United States. Among themselves, Travellers refer to themselves as Pavees. Derogatory terms are sometimes used to refer to them by non-Travellers, such as 'pikeys', 'knackers', and 'gypos'. In Irish, Travellers are called an Lucht Siúil (literally, "the walking people"). Many non-Travellers refer to the group as 'Itinerants' which means "people who travel from place to place" or 'tinkers' which originally meant "tinsmiths"; however, the latter term is considered derogatory.



The historical origins of Travellers as a group has been a subject of academic and popular debate.[1] It was once widely believed that Travellers were descended from landowners or labourers who were made homeless by Oliver Cromwell's military campaign in Ireland and in the 1840s famine. However, their origins may be more complex and difficult to ascertain because through their history the Travellers have left no written records of their own. The closest to a legend of origin known to exist describes the Travellers as descended from a tinsmith who helped build the cross on which Jesus Christ was crucified. According to this tale, Christ cursed the tinsmith's line to wander the earth until Judgment Day;[2] compare Matthew 16:28 and the legend of the Wandering Jew.

Furthermore, not all families of the Travellers date back to the same point in time; some adopted Traveller customs centuries ago while others did so in more modern times, yet all claim ancient origins regardless of noted assumption of the habits and customs.[3]

Dr. Sharon Gmelch, who has studied and written about the Travellers, states that the Dooley Clan is acknowledged by other Travellers as one of the "oldest families on the road".[4] There are also many Irish people surnamed Dooley who are not Travellers.

Irish Travellers are considered to be part of the general Irish population, as indicated by their typically Irish name and surnames. Genetic studies by Miriam Murphy, David Croke, and other researchers identified certain genetic diseases such as Galactosemia that are more common in the Irish Traveller population, involving identifiable allelic mutations that are rarer among the rest of the community. Two main hypotheses had arisen, speculating whether: 1) this resulted from marriages made largely within and among the Traveller community, or 2) suggesting descent from either an original Irish carrier long ago with ancestors unrelated to the rest of the Irish population.[5] They concluded that: The fact that Q188R is the sole mutant allele among the Travellers as compared to the non-Traveller group may be the result of a founder effect in the isolation of a small group of the Irish population from their peers as founders of the Traveller sub-population. This would favour the second, endogenous, hypothesis of Traveller origins. No estimate was given for the date of the original mutation, but it is now clear that it mutated from other galactosemia-causing mutations that are found within the larger Irish population.

Language and customs

Irish Travellers distinguish themselves from the settled communities of the countries in which they live by their own language and customs. The language is known as Shelta, and there are two dialects of this language, Gammon (or Gamin) and Cant. It has been dated back to the eighteenth century, but may be older than that.[6]

Travellers are keen breeders of dogs such as greyhounds and lurchers. They also have a long-standing interest in horse trading, and the main fairs associated with them are held annually at Ballinasloe in Ireland and Appleby in the U.K.

Cultural suspicion and conflict

Irish Travellers are recognised in British law as an ethnic group[7]. Ireland, however, does not recognise them as an ethnic group; rather, their legal status is that of a "social group"[8]. An ethnic group is defined as one whose members identify with each other, usually on the basis of a presumed common genealogy or ancestry. Ethnic identity is also marked by the recognition from others of a group's distinctiveness and by common cultural, linguistic, religious, behavioural or biological traits.

In Ireland and in Britain, Travellers are often referred to as "gypsies",[9] "diddycoy", "tinkers" or "knackers"[citation needed] (although many now consider these terms offensive). These terms refer to services that were traditionally provided by the Travellers—tinkering (or tinsmithing) being the mending of tin ware such as pots and pans, and knackering being the acquisition of dead or old horses for slaughter. Irish Travellers are sometimes referred to as Gypsies in Ireland and in Britain (the term more accurately refers to the Roma people, represented in Britain by the Romanichal and Kale). The derogatory terms pikey[10] and gyppo (derived from Gypsy) are also heard in Great Britain. "Diddycoy" is a Roma term for a child of mixed Roma and non-Roma parentage; as applied to the Travellers, it refers to the fact that they are not "Gypsy" by blood but have adopted a similar lifestyle.

A 2007 report published in Ireland states that over half of Travellers do not live past the age of 39 years. [11]

The Commission on Itinerancy, appointed in Ireland in 1960 under Charles Haughey, found that 'public brawling fuelled by excessive drinking further added to settled people's fear of Travellers...feuding was felt to be the result of a dearth of pastimes and illiteracy, historically comparable to features of rural Irish life before the Famine.[12]'

Disputes over land use

A complaint against Travellers in the United Kingdom is that of unauthorised Traveller sites being established on privately owned land or on council-owned land not designated for that purpose. Under the government's "Gypsy and Traveller Sites Grant", designated sites for Travellers' use are provided by the council, and funds are made available to local authorities for the construction of new sites and maintenance and extension of existing sites. However, Travellers also frequently make use of other, non-authorised sites, including public "common land" and private plots, including large fields. Travellers claim that there is an under-provision of authorised sites—the Gypsy Council estimates an under-provision amounts to insufficient sites for 3,500 people[13]—and that their use of non-authorised sites as an alternative is unavoidable.

An October 11, 2002 Dateline NBC episode reported that American Travellers habitually defraud their neighbours, demanding high prices for substandard day labour[14]. A consequent investigation by South Carolina law enforcement resulted in a single conviction for fraud and a handful of truancy violations.

The Georgia Governor's Office of Consumer Affairs issued a press release on March 14, 2007 titled "Irish Travelers Perpetuate a Tradition of Fraud".[15]

Traveller advocates, along with the Commission for Racial Equality in the UK, counter that Travellers are a distinct ethnic group with an ancient history and claim that there is no statistical evidence that Traveller presence raises or lowers the local crime rate.

The struggle for equal rights for these transient people led to the passing of the Caravan Sites Act 1968 that for some time safeguarded their rights, lifestyle and culture in the UK. The Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994, however, repealed part II of the 1968 act, removing the duty on local authorities in the UK to provide sites for Travellers and giving them the power to close down existing sites.

Planning issues in the UK

Recent criticism against Travellers in the UK centers on Travellers who have bought land, built amenities without planning permission, then fought eviction attempts by claiming it would be an abuse of human rights to remove them from their homes. The families applied for retrospective planning permission whilst they were living on their land. This received much media attention during the British 2005 General Election.

The use of retrospective planning permission arose after the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994, which Michael Howard brought through the Commons, started closing down many of the sites originally provided for the community. Howard advised that Travellers should buy their own land instead and assurances were made that they would be allowed to settle it, despite allegations that Travellers find it difficult to secure planning permission approval.


It has long been recognised that the health of Irish Travellers is significantly poorer than that of the general population in Ireland. This is evidenced in a lower life expectancy. A government report of 1987 found:

From birth to old age, they have high mortality rates, particularly from accidents, metabolic and congenital problems, but also from other major causes of death. Female Travellers have especially high mortality compared to settled women. [16]

In 2007, the Department of Health and Children in the Republic of Ireland, in conjunction with the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety in Northern Ireland, commissioned the University College Dublin School of Public Health and Population Science to conduct a major cross-border study of Travellers' welfare. The Study, including a detailed census of Traveller population and an examination of their health status, is expected to take up to three years to complete.[17] Traveller women were “shocked” to discover rape could occur within marriage, and believed only physical violence constituted domestic violence, 2007 research revealed[18]


An exact figure for the Traveller population in Ireland is unknown. A national census in 2006 put the figure in Ireland at 22,400 constituting just over 0.5 percent of the Irish population.[19] However much concern has been expressed that this figure does not represent the true size of the Traveller population. In addition to Ireland, Travellers live in other parts of the world. The number of Travellers living in Great Britain is uncertain, with estimations ranging between 15,000 and 30,000.[20] A further 7,000 live in the USA. For example, a population of Irish Travellers lives in Murphy Village, South Carolina and the Fort Worth suburb of White Settlement, TX.[21]

From the 2006 Irish census it was determined that 20,975 dwell in urban areas and 1,460 were living in rural areas. With an overall population of just 0.5% some areas were found to have a higher proportion, with Tuam, Galway Travellers constituting 7.71% of the population. There were found to be 9,301 Travellers in the 0-14 age range, comprising 41.5% and a further 3,406 of them were in the 15-24 age range, comprising 15.2%. Children of age range 0-17 comprised 48.7% of the Traveller population.

The birth rate of Irish Travellers has decreased since the 1990s, but they still have one of the highest birth rates in Europe. The birth rate for the Traveller community for the year 2005 was 33.32 per 1000, possibly the highest birth rate recorded for any community in Europe. By comparison, the Irish National Average was 15.0 in 2007.[22]

On average there are 10 times more driving fatalities within the Traveller community. At 22%, this represents the most common cause of death among Traveller males. Roughly 10 times more infants die under the age of two, while a third of Travellers die before the age of 25. In addition, 80% of Travellers die before the age of 65. Some 10% of Traveller children die before their second birthday, compared to just 1% of the general population. In Ireland, 2.6% of all deaths in the total population were for people aged under 25, versus 32% for the Travellers.[23][24]

Famous Irish Travellers

In popular culture

Irish Travellers have been portrayed on numerous occasions in popular culture.

  • My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding - A Channel 4 Documentary about Traveller weddings.
  • Traveller Wedding — An eNovel from film director Graham Jones narrated by a fictitious nomadic Irishwoman called Christine who is furious about the release of a violent videogame about a traveller wedding and is determined to tell the story of her people more authentically.
  • The Riches — An FX television series starring Eddie Izzard and Minnie Driver as Wayne and Dahlia Malloy, the father and mother of an American family of Irish Traveller con artists and thieves. The series revolves around their decision to steal the identities of a dead "buffer" family and hide out in their lavish mansion in suburban Baton Rouge, Louisiana.
  • Star Trek: The Next Generation, Season 2, Episode 18, "Up the Long Ladder" (May 22, 1989) — In this episode of the television show, the Enterprise encounters a society, the Bringloidis, (cf. brionglóid: meaning "dream" in the Irish language), that was founded by humans who left Earth centuries earlier to found a colony. They appear to be descended from Irish Travellers, possessing their accented form of the English language and a culture that appears very similar.[26]
  • Law & Order: Criminal Intent, Season 2, Episode 21, "Graansha" — This episode of the NBC television show focuses on the murder of a probation officer who springs from a family of Irish Travellers.
  • Into the West — A film that tells the story of two Traveller boys running away from their drab home in Dublin.
  • The Riordans (1964–1979) — In this Irish television soap opera, many issues affecting the Traveller community were portrayed through the challenges faced by the Maher family.
  • Glenroe (1983–2001) — A spin-off of The Riordans featuring the Connors, a family of settled travellers.
  • Snatch — A 2000 film featuring Brad Pitt as a comically stereotyped "Pikey" who is also a bareknuckle boxing champion. In one humorous incident, his Traveller Clan defrauds the film's protagonists by selling them a caravan that falls apart the minute they try to tow it from the premises. A running joke is that the Pikey's speech is virtually unintelligible to the other characters, who themselves use a wide variety of British accents; an inside joke is that the Pikey is actually played by an American actor.
  • The Field - a 1990 film in which farmer Bull McCabe's only son runs away with a family of travellers
  • Traveller — A 1997 film, starring Bill Paxton, Mark Wahlberg, and Julianna Margulies, about a man joining a group of nomadic con artists in rural North Carolina.
  • Killinaskully — This RTÉ Irish sitcom features a Traveller character named Pa Connors, played by Pat Shortt.
  • Man About Dog — A 2004 film featuring a group of Irish Traveller characters.
  • Southpaw: The Francis Barrett Story — a documentary following Galway boxer Francis (Francie) Barrett for three years and showing Francie overcoming discrimination as he progresses up the amateur boxing ranks to eventually carry the Irish flag and box for Ireland at the age of 19 during the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta.[27] This film won the Audience Prize at the 1999 New York Irish Film Festival.
  • Pavee Lackeen (Traveller Girl) — A 2005 documentary-style film depicting the life of a young Traveller girl that features non-actors in the lead roles. Its director and co-writer, Perry Ogden, won an IFTA Award in the category of Breakthrough Talent.
  • FightGame and Firefight by Kate Wild — teenage/young adult novels with a charismatic gypsy boy hero called Freedom Smith. They are thriller/sci fi based but they also deal with the real problems Gypsies and Travellers face
  • Strength and Honour — A 2007 film deals with a man joining a Traveller boxing tournament in order to win money for his son's operation.
  • The Wheel of TimeRobert Jordan's series of fantasy novels featuring a group of nomadic people based on the Irish Travellers, the Tuatha'an, who share the name "Tinkers" and a reputation (portrayed in the books as largely undeserved) for petty theft.
  • Midsomer Murders, Episode 4, Series Two, Blood Will Out (1999) — This episode of the British television drama features a local magistrate in an English village attempting to oust Travellers from his jurisdiction by means of a paramilitary vigilante attack.
  • Without a Trace — One episode of this CBS television show features a woman of Irish Traveller descent who had left the community and gone missing. Interestingly enough, this episode is one of the few on the show where the person had not been the victim of foul play but had instead simply decided to return to her birth community without informing anyone.
  • Dragonsdawn – By Anne McCaffrey includes as major characters the Connell family who are part of a group of Irish Traveling folk.
  • "Singin' Bernie Walsh" – Character created and played by Irish comedienne Katherine Lynch. Known for her album Friends In Hi Aces, her singles "Dundalk, Dundalk", "Don't Knock Knock 'Til You've Tried It" and "Stand By Your Van", Singin' Bernie Walsh featured in both of Lynch's RTE comedy series Wonderwomen and Working Girls which show her attempts at topping the Irish charts and achieving "inter-county-nental" fame.
  • Jim Henson's The Storyteller – The Episode "Fearnot" is a folk tale of a youth in search of fear. He befriends a "Tinker" on his journey.

See also




  • My Life On The Road (ISBN 978-1-899047-58-1) by Nan Joyce, first published 1985, republished 2000.
  • The Outsiders - Exposing the Secretive World of Ireland's Travellers (ISBN 978-1-903582-67-1)by Eamon Dillon, published Nov 2006 by Merlin Publishing
  • Nan: The Life of an Irish Travelling Woman (ISBN 0-88133-602-5) by Sharon Gmelch, 1991.
  • The Irish Tinkers: The Urbanization of an Itinerant People (ISBN 0-88133-158-9) by George Gmelch, 1997, 2nd ed. 1985.
  • The Road to God Knows Where (ISBN 1-85390-314-0) by Sean Maher, Talbot Press, Dublin 1972, republished by Veritas 1998.
  • Becoming Conspicuous: Irish Travellers, Society and the State 1922-70 (ISBN 1-904558-61-5) by Aoife Bhreatnach, University College Dublin Press 2006
  • Portraying Irish Travellers: Histories and Representations (ISBN 9781847180551) Cambridge Scholars Press.
  • 'Tinkers': Synge and the Cultural History of the Irish Traveller (ISBN13: 9780199566464 / ISBN10: 0199566461), by Mary Burke, Oxford University Press, 2009.
  • Travellers, Gypsies, Roma: The Demonisation of Difference, Micheal Hayes & Thomas Acton (Eds.) , Cambridge Scholars Publishing, Newcastle-Upon-Tyne.
  • Drummond (2006: A) ‘Cultural Denigration: Media representation of Irish Travellers as Criminal’, p: 75-85, in, Counter-Hegemony and the Postcolonial "Other" (Eds. M, Hayes, T, Acton), Cambridge Scholars Press, Cambridge.
  • Drummond, A. (2007) 'The Construction of Irish Travellers (and Gypsies) as a Problem', pp: 2-42, in, Migrants and Memory: The Forgotten "Postcolonials”, (Ed. Micheál ỒhAodha), Cambridge Scholars Publishing

Drummond. A. (2007) Irish Travellers and the Criminal Justice Systems across the Island of Ireland, PhD University of Ulster

Notes and references

  1. ^ Helleiner, Jane (2003). Irish Travellers: Racism and the Politics of Culture. University of Toronto Press. ISBN 9780802086280. 
  2. ^ Artelia Court, Puck of the Droms; The Lives and Literature of the Irish Tinkers, pages 88-89.
  3. ^ Sharon Gmelch, Nan: The Life of an Irish Travelling Woman, page 14
  4. ^ Sharon Gmlech, op. cit., pages 235-236.
  5. ^ Miriam Murphy, Brian McHugh, Orna Tighe, Philip Mayne, Charles O'Neill, Eileen Naughten and David T Croke. Genetic basis of transferase-deficient galactosaemia in Ireland and the population history of the Irish Travellers. European journal of Human Genetics. July 1999, Volume 7, Number 5, Pages 549-554.
  6. ^ Sharon Gmlech, op. cit., page 234.
  7. ^ Commission for Racial Equality: Gypsies and Irish Travellers: The facts
  8. ^ Irish Travellers Movement: Traveller Legal Resource Pack 2 - Traveller Culture
  9. ^ "The Roma Empire". newsquest (sunday herald). 2009. Retrieved 2009-05-11. 
  10. ^ Geoghegan, Tom (11 June 2008). "How offensive is the word 'pikey'?". BBC News Magazine. Retrieved 2009-05-11. 
  11. ^ - Breaking News - 50% of Travellers die before 39 - study
  12. ^ Bhreatnach, Aoife (2006). Becoming conspicuous: Irish travellers, society and the state, 1922-70. University College Dublin Press. pp. 108. ISBN 9781904558613. 
  13. ^ BBC News: Councils 'must find Gypsy sites'
  14. ^ Inside the world of Irish Travelers: Mother caught beating her child on a parking lot surveillance camera is member of mysterious group
  15. ^ Georgia Governor's Office of Consumer Affairs: Irish Travelers Perpetuate a Tradition of Fraud
  16. ^ "The Travellers' Health Status Study". Irish Dept. of Health. 1987. Retrieved 2009-06-15.  p24
  17. ^ "Minister Harney Launches All-Ireland Traveller Health Study". UCD. 10 July 2007. Retrieved 2009-06-15. 
  18. ^
  19. ^ "Press Release Equality in Ireland 2007". News and Events. Central Statistics Office Ireland. Retrieved 2009-02-12. 
  20. ^ Irish Medical Journal "Traveller Health: A National Strategy 2002-2005". Irish Medical Journal. 
  21. ^
  22. ^
  23. ^ Life expectancy of Irish travellers still at 1940s levels despite economic boom - Europe, World - The Independent
  24. ^ The Irish Times - Mon, Jun 25, 2007 - 50% of Travellers die before 39 - study
  25. ^ Ballad Biographies of Irish Folk Singers
  26. ^ "Up The Long Ladder (episode) see comment attrib. to script-writer Melinda Snodgrass". WIKJA. Retrieved 2009-06-12. 
  27. ^ Imdb: Southpaw: The Francis Barrett Story

External links


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