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On the Road with the Irish Travellers

The Traveller Culture

Travellers are one of those global ethnic groups who have a very strong and easily recognised culture but no country that they can actually call their own.

With a million Gypsy citizens, the European Union recognises Gypsies as one of its most important ethnic groups.

The vast majority of European Gypsies are Romani, coming originally from the area now known as Pakistan and speaking the Romani language.

The Irish Travellers, though they have many things in common with Gypsies, appear to be, most of them, of different ethnic descent.

The Language

In the 1880s the writer Charles Leland told of coming across an Irish Traveller in Britain who mentioned a language used by Irish Tinkers that was far older than Romani.

A surge of interest followed and it was discovered that this language, known as Gammon or Shelta, contained some words like “cuinne” for a priest which were archaic, previously only known in old manuscripts.

It was noticed that some Shelta words appeared to be disguised Irish words (Shelta “rodas” appears to be derived from Irish “doras”, a door) and were the same as those employed by priests in ancient manuscripts.

Other semantic evidence places the Shelta language before the twelfth century.

The Original Inhabitants of Ireland?

A romantic conclusion, drawn by an increasing number of people, is that Travellers may be the descendants of the original inhabitants of Ireland, those who were living there before the Celts came; the descendants of a wandering race who have never lost their nomadic ways.

Twenty five years ago the Irish establishment believed that the Travellers were a sort of failed house dweller. The solution to the Traveller ‘problem’ would be to move them all into houses but, in the words of Michael McDonagh, one of the increasing number of Gypsies who have now received an education and become part of the professional classes, ‘A Traveller doesn’t cease being a Traveller when he moves into a house.

‘The Traveller’s attitude to moving around is part of a wider mindset that permeates every aspect of our lives.

‘I remember when I first moved into a house, my grandfather looked at me and said, ‘Michael, that’s all very well for the winter, but how will you feel when the spring comes in and you’ll see the bumblebee buzzing at your window?’

‘A terrifying experience for many Travellers when they move into a house is when they begin to face the reality that they are expected by the authorities to remain in this one, permanent, place for the rest of their lives.’

A generation ago, this was a generally held view. Travellers were at that time thought to be people who had been forced off their land by the famine or by eviction.

Logic finally triumphed over this unlikely explanation for the provenance of the Travellers, when it was pointed out that if they were merely house dwellers forced from their homes by disaster, how was it that they had not got themselves back into bricks and mortar at the earliest possible opportunity? How was it that those who continued living on the road were those who spoke Cant?

Most interesting of all are the groups of Travellers who left for the United States of America in the 1840s.

They have maintained their distinct culture and remain, after some six to nine generations, one of the most distinct ethnic groups in the United States.

Dr Jared Harper of the University of Georgia gave, in 1971, a rough estimate of a total 5,000 Irish Travellers living in several permanent and semi-permanent communities in Georgia, South Carolina, Mississippi, Louisiana, Texas and Tennessee.

These people appear to be still using a vocabulary of which much is immediately recognisable by Irish Travellers.

We might ask why, given the opportunity to start afresh in the New World and lose their pariah status, Irish Travellers did not do so: ‘The most efficient “melting pot” in the world has failed to dissolve their distinctiveness’ - Sinéad Ni Shúinear.

Shared fundamental values among all Travellers include self employment, occupational flexibility, priority of social obligations based on kinship, nomadism as a functional corollary of that and, as a value in itself, strict segregation of pure and impure, versatility and adaptability in supplying market demands of the non Traveller community without losing their identity.

There is biological self perpetuation - people marry within the group.

The Racial difference; Physical distinctiveness - ask any Traveller who, scrubbed and combed and decked out in all new gear, has been refused entry to a pub or disco.

Travellers still lag behind the settled population of Ireland in health.

President Robinson, in 1990, said ‘When we talk about the Travelling community, it’s not just a question of whether they would prefer serviced halting sites. It’s that they want their culture recognised, they want to be full citizens of this country. I think that the most important things are that there’s real space for their own self-development and self-expression, that we have space for them and that we value them.

There is still the situation of hostility from the Travellers, perhaps inevitable from any group that has been persecuted. At one period the fact of being a Gypsy carried the death penalty in Ireland, just as it did in Hitler’s Germany.

Allegations of thieving habits these days may be hard to sustain since it is well known to police that the arrival of Travellers in an area can be the signal for local thieves to get to work, knowing that it is likely to be blamed on the Travellers.

I have to record, though, that two young English women, in fact an unofficial delegation from Tipi Valley in Wales (a place where some fifty to one hundred families live in tents and caravans in a remote valley as part of an attempt to live more spiritually and get closer to Mother Earth), arriving late one evening at the great Traveller gathering place at Balinasloe Fair, put up their tent and were harassed by children, had water thrown over them, were verbally insulted by Traveller men and women, became frightened and took their tent down but then were followed into town and attempts were made to trip them up and they were butted from behind.

Of course, it is so that two young women putting up a tent in many parts of Europe might be hassled. The shock for these two young women was that they felt that the Travellers, at least, so many of whom were actually born in tents, would understand them and welcome them, especially as they came as friends.

‘Just before World War Two my father and mother were camped at a roadside camp at Locklington, County Dublin, Eire.’

About the time when Oppersdorft was first photographing the lives of the Irish Travellers in the late 1960s, a record was being written of this same world, which forms a perfect complement to Mathias Oppersdorft’s pictures.

Johnny Connors, its author, is an Irish Traveller. He wrote his autobiography in a series of cheap exercise books with a biro pen. He wrote it in a prison cell at the British prison at Winsome Green in Birmingham in the late 1960s.

The book begins in 1939. Johnny was one of eighteen children and his father maintained them by making tinware such as ‘buckets, kettles, pots, pans, beakers, mugs, plates, tin baths, etc.’

They were difficult times for Travellers, and Johnny remembers how the guarda or councils would force them to move sometimes as much as five times in a month.

Even in those austere times, the roads were getting more crowded and one of Johnny’s earliest memories is being run over by a priest in a Baby Austin car. None of the children appears to have had boots at this time, and with the five pound note that the minister gave Johnny’s father by way of compensation, Johnny says he bought boots for all his brothers and sisters, with the exception of Mary.

Britain was at war and Ireland was neutral. Both countries had to bring in rationing as food and other things were becoming scarce.

The prejudice against Travellers, combined with their nomadic lifestyles, meant that it was often very difficult for them to get the documents necessary for obtaining rations. They had to get their food on the black market. They also made a meagre living through smuggling, and one of Johnny’s earliest memories is of careering along the back lanes to either side of the frontier with Northern Ireland.

The first of two very bleak periods in the story begins in 1946 when Johnny is nine and his father is run over in Dublin by a bus.

This accident brought the Connors family to their knees for his father could no longer earn money and two of the horses, their livelihood, were dead.

Through page after page of powerful story-telling, Johnny describes the terrible winter that followed this event.

At the time when ‘Seven Weeks of Childhood’ was being written, the majority of Gypsies and Travellers still did not read or write, although they had considerable skill in storytelling and singing. The written records of Traveller and Gypsy culture were almost entirely by non-Gypsies.

The tide of education has swept through the Traveller movement so that now the Travellers are beginning to write their own records, though the tide is still a long way from being fully in.

‘Seven Weeks of Childhood’, the creation of one of the earliest Travellers to write, will, I think, come to be increasingly prized for its freshness; it shines and sparkles like a meadow under the morning dew.

One of his sisters had died and Johnny was sent by his mother to a nearby nunnery to borrow a crucifix. Johnny made a hit with the nuns by asking them, when he first went in, ‘how the devil are you?’, upon which they all crossed themselves. He astonished the nuns by his ability to tell where they came from by their accents.

Johnny owes his ability to write to seven weeks of education he got in the nunnery and this is the seven weeks referred to in the title. So that the title commemorates the circumstances which made possible the book.

The seven weeks of schooling which she gave him were brought to an end when he and his family were once again evicted.

The title has another poignant meaning. Traveller children, some would say, do not have a childhood in the way that non Travellers experience it.

No toys.

Looking after siblings.

Marrying soon after puberty.

The boys from an early age going out to work with their fathers.

Above all, no education, nor comfort, nor pampering.

What Johnny experienced at the nunnery was seven weeks of the nurturing so often absent from Gypsy childhood.

Intensely proud of his own culture though he is, there is nonetheless a poignant awareness in Johnny Connors of some of the things he missed.

This book would not have been written if Johnny Connors had not had those seven weeks of education at the nunnery.

Also, it would never have got written if Johnny had not found himself for a period in prison.

The second section in the book which describes bad times tells of the circumstances leading up to Johnny Connors’ imprisonment.

Prosperity had come to Britain sooner than to Ireland and so it was that a number of Irish Travellers came to Britain in the sixties and Johnny was amongst them. The book tells how he met his wife at Appleby Fair, a great British meeting place for Travellers.

And so it was that in 1969, just when Oppersdorft was making his historic record in Ireland, in England Johnny one day presented me with what must be the perfect companion text for the pictures.

The circumstances were as follows. I was at that time one of those non Gypsy people on the Gypsy Council.

I remember the good looks and dashing nature of Johnny Connors.

A number of remarkable non Gypsy people, especially Donald Kendrick, Thomas Acton and Grattan Puxon, were working with prominent Gypsies to create a body capable of standing up against the increasing efficiency of the centralised state.

The subplot of the events he describes was that at any rate one Birmingham Councillor was advocating extermination at this time.

The Ballad of Brownhills.

And so the journey that began with a little boy, who has no boots, tickling fish in an Irish river, ends with a moving section on British justice, written in a British prison.

I’ve kept in touch with Johnny Connors since then.

He might be the first to say that a strength or resilience was lost to him during his time in prison ...

The Traveller who was perceived in the ‘60s as the man who could lead the Travellers forward and act as their spokesperson has become demoralised.

Two English collectors collected some songs from Johnny and a group of Travellers living with him, all of them Irish Travellers at the moment living in England.

Ellen Monger

If Johnny Connors represents the past, Ellen Monger shows the future, the way Irish Travellers may go.


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