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1 Irish Travellers and the nineteenth century ‘Others’ Irish Travellers are a minority who have lived on the margins of mainstream Irish society for many centuries. Many contemporary sources refer to the Irish Travellers as an ethnic group, and they are recognised as such in Britain, although not in Ireland. It is estimated that there are at least 36,000 Travellers living in the Republic of Ireland with a further 6,000 in Northern Ireland. There are also significant communities of Travellers who claim Irish descent living in Britain and the United States. They are distinct from the surrounding population due to a range of differing cultural attributes. These include family structure, language, employment patterns and a traditional preference for nomadism or mobility as is inherent in the very ascription they attach to their community. For the past few centuries, these attributes have ensured the renewal of the Traveller community and their way of life from one generation to the next. It has also aided the cohesiveness and survival of this marginal community and its culture in the face of what in recent decades, at least, has frequently been a hostile majority or settled community. While it is sometimes claimed that Travellers have remained invisible within the official historical record in Ireland, this is not entirely the case. References in the Irish language, as recorded in the oral history tradition in particular, refer to fir siúil (travelling men, wanderers, lit: ‘walking men’) and mná siúil (travelling women). It is clear that the people alluded to in these references form a large amalgam of groups and individuals, all of whom are most likely descendants of a range of peripatetic and occupational groups. That some of these people were musicians, travelling poets, entertainers and healers is clear as is the fact that many others were tradespeople of different types including travelling tinsmiths, metalworkers, horse dealers, fairground entertainers and farm workers of different types. As with many in the settled population many Traveller families supplemented one trade with another and 01 Insubordinate Irish 001-008 13/6/11 14:13 Page 1 combined their occupation with hawking or occasional begging. The preference for travelling alone or as part of larger and kin-related family groups varied depending on the travel routes these people used. Until recent decades, many of these Travellers were referred to as ‘tinkers’, but today they are more commonly referred to as Travellers. History tells us that a large and diverse number of often peripatetic occupational groups and cultures existed in Ireland prior to the Tudor re-conquest of the sixteenth century and that some of these cultural minorities survived for centuries after the death of the Gaelic order.1 The antecedents of the group are an amalgam of a range of differing cultural groups, the history of which has been lost for the most part. The history of these peripatetic cultures in both the pre-Gaelic and post-Gaelic eras is still the object of some conjecture and requires future additional research. One element which united each of these diverse travelling peoples and cultures was the fact that they were nomadic for all or part of the year. This preference for nomadism or a peripatetic life has always functioned as a distinctive trait of the Irish Travellers and set them apart from the settled community. This study is an attempt to understand the contradictory and complex images of the Irish Travellers as constructed within both hegemonic and counter-hegemonic cultural impulses and as viewed by both the settled and travelling populations. Essential to this study, therefore, are the descriptions of Travellers provided in oral and (later) written form during the early 1950s as part of the Irish Folklore Commission’s cultural reclamation project. While the bulk of these descriptions were provided to the archive by respondents from the settled community they reflect Irish constructions of Irish people vis-àvis the self and Other and as relating to the paradigm that was an ‘outsider’ group at this critical juncture of Irish cultural development and historical self-definition – i.e. the decades immediately subsequent to Irish independence (1922). The primary source material for this study is the archives of the Irish Folklore Commission, a body of material which includes a Questionnaire on Tinkers that was circulated to members of the settled community in 1950. Central to the discussion in this volume is the idea that the representation of Travellers, i.e. their perceived identity as incorporated in the general...


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