One of the most difficult problems with the study of the origins of Irish Travellers is that until 1922, Ireland had been under British rule and occupation for several centuries. During that time, regardless of origin, Travellers were treated by Ireland’s rulers in London’s Westminster as one homogeneous group of undesirable, third-class citizens who represented a threat to society. Despite the best efforts of respectable Travellers, this stigma has stuck with Irish Travellers ever since, partly perpetuated, it has to be said, by the criminal and anti-social activities of a minority within their own community. But equally, it must be pointed out that politicians and the media rarely, if ever, direct public attention to the tens of thousands of decent Travelling People who have no involvement with criminal types but are instead shamed and angered by the activities of the anti-social minority in their midst. One of the most unfortunate and distressing side effects of the resulting anti-Traveller prejudice is a concentration by the government, media and general public on the negative aspects of Traveller life, with little or no regard or respect for the enormously significant, positive role of the Travelling People in the safekeeping of the traditional culture of Ireland. This carriage of our culture down the centuries played an enormous part in the preservation of our Irishness. The role of the Travelling Community in maintaining and celebrating our national identity during the centuries when our British rulers tried so hard to wipe out that identity by severe oppression and - during the 1840s period of the so-called ‘Famine - ultimately a blatant attempt at genocide (see Tim Pat Coogan’s The Famine Plot: England’s Role in Ireland’s Greatest Tragedy). This shameful, disgraceful attempt by Westminster to ethnically cleanse their troublesome Irish colony may be forgiven but cannot and must never be dismissed or forgotten. If we hope to battle the prejudice planted in our midst by the foreign oppressor, we need to better appreciate and understand the Travelling Communitys’ role and place in our national history and heritage.
The most widely offered explanations of Travellers’ history are generally regarded by serious anthropological and sociological scholars such as Jane Helleiner (Irish Travellers: Racism and the Politics of Culture, University of Toronto Press, Toronto 2003) “not as statements of historical fact but as socially constructed narratives”. The Gypsy/Roma origins which form the background of most non-Irish Travellers on the British mainland, cannot be (as they so often are) applied to Irish Travellers. Gypsy and Roma travellers are attributed with collective roots outside of their host nations such as areas of India and Africa, hence we learn that the word ‘gypsy’ is an abbreviation of ‘Egyptian’ in its old English form: ‘Egypcian’ (see writings of historian Angus Fraser and renowned Roman scholar, Ian Hancock). On the other hand, Irish Travellers do not come from a different or ‘other’ race but are an indigenous minority with their origins in Ireland going back to the prehistoric, pre-Celtic people of Ireland.