Although it has now been established that Ireland’s earliest inhabitants were a nomadic pre-Celtic people, over the last century, the narrative or story of origin given most credence - particularly by State Department officials seeking to justify their Traveller Settlement policies - was that Irish Travellers are descendents of people forced off their land by the famines, evictions and land clearances during 400 years as an English colony, from the Elizabethan and Cromwellian plantations up to British withdrawal from the 26 counties of Southern Ireland, i.e. that the Travelling people are the victims and result of English colonialism. However, many Traveller spokespersons challenge such claims of colonial origins. In Traveller (Gill & MacMillan, Dublin 1985), respected activist and author, Nan Joyce, declares that ”some of my ancestors went on the road in the Famine but more of them have been travelling for hundreds of years”. In The Elizabethans and the Irish (Cornell University Press, New York 1966), David Quinn, analysing Gaelic society in the pre-conquest era of Brehon Ireland, points out that movement between tuathas or ‘settlements’ by itinerant poets, bards, musicians, craftsmen, etc. was a fundamental and accepted part of prehistoric Brehon life and the creation of its mobile society. These travelling artists and craftsmen were welcomed in the different tuathas they passed through in pre-Celtic Ireland - bringing news, stories, new songs and tunes - they had a useful and well respected function in society. In fact travelling bards and musicians were held in such high esteem that only the kings or lords of the tuathasand their druids ranked above them.. A friend of the late, great Margaret Barry, my dear, departed friend, Micil Ned Quinn, the sadly deceased singer/storyteller/folklorist from South Armagh recalled to Traveller singer, Tommy McCarthy and myself how as recently as the 1950s he remembered so much excitement and delight at the prospect of a visit from Travellers that hoses would be freshly, specialy decorated in anticipation of their forthcoming most welcome arrival in the area: “There was a great hullabaloo when word went out that the Travellers were coming. We’d paint the house. Cakes would be made. They’d bring us news of what was going on around the country, mend whatever pots’n’pans needed fixin’ and there’d be great singin’ and music makin’... ‘twas like Christmas so it was”. What a shame that a similar welcome is not so commonly extended to Irish Travellers in their own country in the 21st century.
The 12th century writing of Welshman, Geraldus Cambrensis, the so-called History and Topography of Ireland (Penguin Books, Middlesex 1982) was little more than a malicious attempt at portraying the Irish as ‘barbaric’ in order to justify the excesses of Norman suppression. Cambrensis ignored the fact that for several centuries prior to his writing, Ireland - then known as the Island of Saints and Scholars - had been hailed throughout Europe as an enlightened and highly civilised country. Cambrensis resorted to the standard racist claim of moral and intellectual superiority as he pointed to the mobility of sections of the Irish population as evidence of barbarism and equated the ‘civilising’ of the Irish with a suppression of this nomadic mobility!
Nobles To Slaves:
Many believe that some of the bloodlines of the Travelling Community descend from nobles and rulers of petty kingdoms driven from their lands by Elizabeth I and Oliver Cromwell in the 16th and 17th centuries. In that period the Travelling People of Ireland were officially known as ‘Gypsies’ and ‘Masterless Men’ (see A. L. Beier’s Masterless Men) and subject to severe punishment, including execution, for their desire to lead a nomadic lifestyle. Under British rule – as Ireland was at the time – Edward VI instituted a law which required that ‘Gypsies’ (as both Travellers & Romas were known) be “branded with a V on their breast, and then enslaved for two years. Such slaves could be legally chained and given only the worst food; they could be driven to work by whips... if they ran away or were caught, they were to be branded with an S and made slaves for life”. (K. Quarmby).
By the time of the Industrial Revolution, ‘Gypsies’ were perceived and described as “representatives of a vanishing rural era who had refused to relinquish it for the sake of progress”. (Ibid). Members of the Travelling Community were commonly described throughout the 19th century and first half of the 20th century as ‘Tinkers’ from the then common craft of Travelling metal workers who were described in medieval English as ‘tyckner’ or ‘tinkler’. Use of that term has since been deemed unacceptable by our ‘politically correct’ sentinels, although most Travelling People of my acquaintance do not regard being referred to as Tinkers as offensive so long as it is clear that no offence is intended. Context and intent of effect are obviously the prime factors in whether or not any such reference is offensive. When I knew the Traveller activist, “Pops” Johnny Connors in London in the early 70s, he insisted that ‘Tinker’ was a description of which to be proud as tinsmithing had long been one of the main trades of The Travelling People. In his comic song, Gum Shellac, in which he describes the carry-on of an unscrupulous Traveller tinsmith who used hardened chewed bread instead of metal to pretend to ‘fix’ kettles, Pops insists that “Tinker is the name”, and that was good enough for me. There are many descriptions such as ‘knacker’, ‘pykie’ and ‘gypo’ which are used in derogatory ways while terms such as ’pavee’ and ‘mink’ can hardly be deemed prejudicial as travellers use these terms to describe themselves in everyday conversation.