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3 Irish Travellers and the bardic tradition The initial Gypsilorist interest in Irish Travellers/tinkers was a shortlived phenomenon and it faded away after a few years. More than three decades passed before the subject was revived again as a source of interest. Once again, philology and its relation with cultural categorisation would prove the catalyst. It was not until the late 1930s that an interest in Traveller culture resurfaced once more and on this occasion it was the Traveller language known as Cant/Gammon and Shelta which acted as a catalyst for this renewed interest. In 1937 the Scottish Celtic scholar R. A. S. Macalister gathered together much of the previous research (vocabularies and wordlists) of Meyer and Sampson on Shelta into book form and produced The Secret Languages of Ireland, a work that remains to this day the only comprehensive study of Shelta and the other Irish ‘secret’ languages written to date. He agreed with the theories of both Meyer and Sampson that the genesis and formation of Shelta could not have occurred solely within the occupational group known as tinkers. He surmised that the linguistic inventiveness inherent in Shelta might have been the product of either travelling monks expelled from their monasteries or lay masters of the verbal arts who joined the myriad other itinerants on the Irish roads, including the tinkers. Macalister disagreed however with aspects of the linguistic analysis undertaken by the earlier Gypsilorists. While Meyer and Sampson had surmised that Shelta was a language that might have dated as far back as the eleventh century or earlier, Macalister demurred. Since Shelta’s structure and syntax was based primarily on the English language and since the English language was first spoken only by a few high-ranking Irish nobles at the end of the sixteenth century (and by most other Irish at a later date), Macalister concluded that Shelta probably originated in the modern era, a view that has been reinforced by more recent studies of the language (see Cauley and Ó hAodha, 2004; 03 Insubordinate Irish 026-035 13/6/11 14:19 Page 26 Ó Baoill, 1994; Ó hAodha, 2002a, 2002c). Macalister also posited a mixed ethnogenesis for Irish Travellers. He devoted an entire chapter of his 1937 book to examining the way in which the caste-like underworld in ancient Ireland operated. This caste system was a hierarchical one and included kings, nobles, non-noble freemen, etc. At the bottom of this hierarchy was a group comprising those who were unfree, slaves or homeless vagabonds. This latter group had no civil rights under the Gaelic system, were nomadic and wandered between classes in an effort to forge a living wherever they could. Some of them were entertainers ‘who specialised in acrobatic and clownish performances’ (1937: 124). Macalister believed that modern Travellers were the descendants of people from this group. However, modern Travellers were also in his view descended from another group of people. These were the scholars and druids, some of whom became redundant with the arrival of Christianity in Ireland. Some of these scholars had also formed guilds of poets who wandered from house to house, paying for their board with poetry and harp playing, some of them attaching themselves to the nobles of the great houses. Macalister echoed Meyer (1891; 1909) in proposing these poets in conjunction with travelling monks as the antecedents of many of the literary ‘disguise’ techniques found in the Travellers’ language Shelta. The likely cross-fertilisation between ‘literary’ Travellers and travelling craftsmen was highlighted by the first Irish-born scholars to take an interest in Travellers and their culture. Pádraig MacGréine or ‘Master Greene’ as he was known to the Travellers in his home county of Longford worked as a folklore collector on behalf of the Irish Folklore Commission during the 1930s. He discovered Shelta while collecting folktales from a well-known Traveller woman storyteller from the Midlands named Owney Power and wrote a number of articles during the 1930s on this topic for Béaloideas, the journal of the Irish Folklore Commission (MacGréine, 1931, 1932a, 1934). He called for further research into the ‘traveller-folk’ because of their importance as repositories of Irish tradition (MacGréine, 1931: 186). He noted that: ‘these “travellers”, the bacaigh [Irish: literally ‘lame person’, beggar, wanderer, etc.] of an earlier time, the poor scholars – the Irish scolares vagantes – had been the medium for the spread of folk tales and all manner of traditions’ (1931: 186). MacGréine’s plea for...


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