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Irish Travellers

For other uses of the term see Traveler (disambiguation).

Irish Travellers in 1946. Irish Travellers () or Pavee are a traditionally nomadic people of ethnic Irish origin, who maintain a separate language and set of traditions.[1][2] They live predominantly in the Republic of Ireland as well as having large numbers in the United Kingdom and in the United States.[2][3]



Travellers refer to themselves as Minceir or Pavees in their own language or in Irish as an Lucht Si il, meaning literally "the walking people".

Travellers are often referred to by the terms tinkers, knackers or itinerants in Ireland. While in other countries the term gypsies[4] or didicoy can be used to describe the community.[5] Some of these terms refer to services that were traditionally provided by them, tinkering (or tinsmithing), for example, being the mending of tinware such as pots and pans, and knackering, being the acquisition of dead or old horses for slaughter. Tinker and especially knacker is used as a pejorative against Travellers in Ireland.

The term gypsy first appeared in record in the 16th century from a category of people thought to be Egyptians.[6] Other names, specifically derogatory, such as pikey[7] and gypo or gippo[8] (derived from Gypsy) are also heard, though rarely in Ireland itself.

Didicoy is a Romani term for a child of mixed Romani and non-Romani parentage; as applied to the Travellers, it refers to the fact that they are not Gypsy by ethnicity but Irish by blood and lead a similar yet distinct lifestyle.[9]



caravan]] window in 2011.

The 2006 census in the Republic of Ireland reported the number of Irish Travellers as 22,369.[10] A further 1,700 to 2,000 were estimated to live in Northern Ireland.[11]

From the 2006 Irish census it was determined that 20,975 dwell in urban areas and 1,460 were living in rural areas. With an overall population of just 0.5% some areas were found to have a higher proportion, with Tuam, Galway Travellers constituting 7.71% of the population. There were found to be 9,301 Travellers in the 0-14 age range, comprising 41.5% of the Traveller population, and a further 3,406 of them were in the 15-24 age range, comprising 15.2%. Children of age range 0-17 comprised 48.7% of the Traveller population.

Following the findings of the All Ireland Traveller Health Study (estimates for 2008), the figure for Northern Ireland was revised to 3,905 and that for the Republic to 36,224.[12]

Great Britain

Statistics for Irish Travellers in the UK do not exist, although in 2011, for the first time, the census categorised Romanies (including Roma) and Irish Travellers as distinct ethnic groups. Recent estimates of Travellers living in Great Britain range between 15,000.[13] and 300,000[14].

The London Boroughs of Harrow and Brent contain significant Irish Traveller populations. In addition to those on various official sites there are a number who are settled in Local Authority Housing. These are mostly women who wish their children to have a chance at a good education. They and the children may or may not travel in the summer but remain in close contact with the wider Traveller community.

United States

Due to the level of secrecy of the group, there are no official or legitimate population figures regarding Travellers in the United States.[15] In fact, Irish Travellers are not recognized as a unique ethnic group by the U.S. Census.[15] While some sources estimate their population in the U.S. to be 10,000, others suggest their population is 40,000. According to research by Mary E. Andereck, "the Georgia Travelers' camp is made up of about eight hundred families, the Mississippi Travelers, about three hundred families, and the Texas Travelers, under fifty families."[15]

Travellers in the United States are descendants of Travellers who left Ireland mostly during the Great Irish Famine of 1845-60. Travelers in the U.S. divide themselves up into groups that are based on historical residence: Ohio Travelers, Georgia Travelers, Texas Travelers, and Mississippi Travelers.[15] The largest and most affluent population of about 2,500 lives in Murphy Village, outside of the town of North Augusta, South Carolina.[16] Other communities exist near White Settlement, Texas, where the families stay in their homes during the winter, and leave during the summer, while smaller enclaves can be found across Georgia, Alabama, and Mississippi.[17]

Travelers in the U.S. are said to speak English and Cant.[15] The Cant spoken in the U.S. differs from the Cant spoken in Ireland, in that the language has transformed into a type of pidgin English over the generations.[15] They typically work in asphalting, spray painting, laying linoleum, or as itinerant workers to earn their living.[15]


The historical origins of Travellers as a group have been a subject of academic and popular debate.[18] It was once widely believed that Travellers were descended from landowners or labourers who were made homeless by Oliver Cromwell's military campaign in Ireland and in the 1840s famine; however, their origins may be more complex. Discerning their origins is difficult, since the Travellers have left no written records of their own.[19]

Others claim there is evidence of nomadic groups in Ireland in the 5th century, and by the 12th century the name Tynkler and Tynker emerged in reference to a group of nomads who maintained a separate identity, social organization, and dialect.[19] Even though all families claim ancient origins, not all families of the Travellers date back to the same point in time; some families adopted Traveller customs centuries ago, while others did so more recently.[20] The Clan Murtagh O'Connors are often cited as an example of aristocratic nomadism in Ireland in the late middle ages. Their nomadism was based on cattle-herds or 'creaghts'.


Irish Travellers speak English and sometimes one of two dialects of Shelta, Gammon (or Gamin) and Cant. Shelta has been dated back to the 18th century, but may be older.[21] Cant, which derives from Irish Gaelic, is a combination of English, and Shelta.[15]


Travellers have a distinctive approach to religion; the vast majority are Roman Catholics with particular attention paid to issues of healing.[22] They have been known to follow a strict ethos called 'The Travellers Code' that dictates their moral beliefs and can influence their actions.[23]


Traveller children often grow up outside of educational systems.[24] The Irish Traveller Movement, a community advocacy group, promotes equal access to education for Traveller children.[25]

In December 2010, the Irish Equality Tribunal ruled in favour of a traveller child in an anti-discrimination suit covering the admission practices of CBS High School Clonmel in County Tipperary.[26] This suit may allow more children from the Traveller community to enter mainstream educational institutions.


The health of Irish Travellers is significantly poorer than that of the general population in Ireland. This is evidenced in a 2007 report published in Ireland, which states that over half of Travellers do not live past the age of 39 years.[27] Another government report of 1987 found:

From birth to old age, they have high mortality rates, particularly from accidents, metabolic and congenital problems, but also from other major causes of death. Female Travellers have especially high mortality compared to settled women.[28]

In 2007, the Department of Health and Children in the Republic of Ireland, in conjunction with the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety in Northern Ireland, commissioned the University College Dublin's School of Public Health and Population Science to conduct a major cross-border study of Travellers' welfare. The study, including a detailed census of Traveller population and an examination of their health status, is expected to take up to three years to complete.[29]

The birth rate of Irish Travellers has decreased since the 1990s, but they still have one of the highest birth rates in Europe. The birth rate for the Traveller community for the year 2005 was 33.32 per 1,000, possibly the highest birth rate recorded for any community in Europe. By comparison, the Irish national average was 15.0 in 2007.[30]

On average there are ten times more driving fatalities within the Traveller community. At 22%, this represents the most common cause of death among Traveller males. Some 10% of Traveller children die before their second birthday, compared to just 1% of the general population. In Ireland, 2.6% of all deaths in the total population were for people aged under 25, versus 32% for the Travellers.[31][32] In addition, 80% of Travellers die before the age of 65.


Since there are no necessary requirements in owning land or a house in the culture of Irish Travellers, they are free to be as financially independent as desired. Couples tend to marry young: girls at around the age of 16 or 17, and boys between 18 and 19.[6]

Population genetics

A genetic analysis of Irish Travellers found evidence to support the hypotheses of: (1) Irish ancestry; (2) several distinct subpopulations; and (3) the distinctiveness of the midland counties due to Viking influence [33].

Genetic studies by Miriam Murphy, David Croke, and other researchers identified certain genetic diseases such as galactosemia that are more common in the Irish Traveller population, involving identifiable allelic mutations that are rarer among the rest of the community.

Two main hypotheses have arisen, speculating whether:

  1. this resulted from marriages made largely within and among the Traveller community, or
  2. suggesting descent from a original Irish carrier long ago with ancestors unrelated to the rest of the Irish population.[34]

They concluded that: "The fact that Q188R is the sole mutant allele among the Travellers as compared to the non-Traveller group may be the result of a founder effect in the isolation of a small group of the Irish population from their peers as founders of the Traveller sub-population. This would favour the second, endogenous, hypothesis of Traveller origins."

More specifically, they found that Q188R was found in 100% of Traveller samples, and in 89% of other Irish samples, indicating that the Traveller group was typical of the larger Irish indigenous population.[35]

Social conflict and controversies

Anti-Traveller prejudice

A 2011 survey by the Economic and Social Research Institute of Ireland concluded that there is widespread ostracisation of Travellers in Ireland, and the report concluded that this could hurt the long-term prospects for Travellers, who "need the intercultural solidarity of their neighbours in the settled community . . . They are too small a minority, ie 0.5 per cent, to survive in a meaningful manner without ongoing and supportive personal contact with their fellow citizens in the settled community."[36]


Many Travellers are breeders of dogs such as greyhounds or lurchers and have a long-standing interest in horse trading. The main fairs associated with them are held annually at Ballinasloe (Co. Galway), Puck Fair (Co. Kerry), Ballabuidhe Horse Fair (Co. Cork), the monthly Smithfield Horse Fair (inner Dublin) and Appleby (England). They are often involved in recycling scrap metals, e.g., 60% of the raw material for Irish Steel is sourced from scrap metal, approximately 50% (75,000 metric tonnes) collected and segregated by the community at a value of more than 1.5 million. Such percentages for more valuable non-ferrous metals may be significantly greater.[37]

Since the majority of Irish Travellers employment is either self-employment or wage labour, income and financial status varies greatly from family to family. Many families choose not to reveal the specifics of their finances, but when explained it is very difficult to detect any sort of pattern or regular trend of monthly or weekly income. In order to detect their financial status many look to the state of the possessions: their trailer, motor vehicle, domestic utensils, and any other valuables.[6]

Social identity

Irish Travellers are recognised in British law as an ethnic group.[38] The Republic of Ireland, however, does not recognise them as an ethnic group; rather, their legal status is that of a "social group".[39] An ethnic group is defined as one whose members identify with each other, usually on the basis of a presumed common genealogy or ancestry. Ethnic identity is also marked by the recognition from others of a group's distinctiveness and by common cultural, linguistic, religious, behavioural or biological traits.

The European Parliament Committee of Enquiry on Racism and Xenophobia found them to be among the most discriminated-against ethnic groups in Ireland[40] and yet their status remains insecure in the absence of widespread legal endorsement.[41] Travellers are often viewed by settled people in a negative light, perceived as insular, anti-social, 'drop-outs' and 'misfits',[42] or believed to be involved in criminal and mendicant behaviour, or settling illegally on land owned by others.[24][43]


The Commission on Itinerancy, appointed in Ireland in 1960 under Charles Haughey, found that "public brawling fuelled by excessive drinking further added to settled people's fear of Travellers ... feuding was felt to be the result of a dearth of pastimes and [of] illiteracy, historically comparable to features of rural Irish life before the Famine."[44]

In 2008 a faction fight riot broke out in D'Alton Park, Mullingar involving up to 65 people of the Nevin, Dinnegan and McDonagh families. The court hearing in 2010 resulted in suspended sentences for all the defendants.[45][46] The cause may have been an unpaid gambling debt linked to a bare-knuckle boxing match.[47]

Land disputes

A complaint against Travellers in the United Kingdom is that of unauthorised Traveller sites being established on privately owned land or on council-owned land not designated for that purpose. Under the government's "Gypsy and Traveller Sites Grant", designated sites for Travellers' use are provided by the council, and funds are made available to local authorities for the construction of new sites and maintenance and extension of existing sites.

However, Travellers also frequently make use of other, non-authorised sites, including public "common land" and private plots such as large fields and other privately owned land. The Travellers claim that there is an under-provision of authorised sites the Gypsy Council estimates an under-provision amounts to insufficient sites for 3,500 people.[48] A famous example was Dale Farm in Essex.

The struggle for equal rights for these transient people led to the passing of the Caravan Sites Act 1968 that for some time safeguarded their rights, lifestyle and culture in the UK. The Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994, however, repealed part II of the 1968 act, removing the duty on local authorities in the UK to provide sites for Travellers and giving them the power to close down existing sites. In Northern Ireland, opposition to Travellers' sites has been led by the Democratic Unionist Party.[42]

List of Irish Travellers

Depictions and documentaries

Irish Travellers have been depicted, usually negatively but sometimes with some care and sympathy in film, radio, and print. Shows like The Riches, (US TV Featuring Eddie Izzard and Minnie Driver) take a deeper look into the Traveller lifestyle. More recently, Big Fat Gypsy Weddings has been commercially successful in the United Kingdom, with descriptions of traveller life set around real-life weddings.

See also





  • S nchez, Eleuterio (1977). Camina o revienta: memorias de El Lute. Cuadernos para el di logo.
  • Garc a Grande, Mar a Remedios (2010). Ni una palabra m s. Celaya Barturen, Beatriz; ISBN 978-84-614-1053-8.

Notes and references

External links

cs:Ir t Travellers da:Paveefolket de:Pavee es:N madas irlandeses eu:Irish Travellers fr:Travellers ga:Lucht si il ko: it:Pavee he: nl:Travellers no:Paveefolket pl:Podr nicy Irlandzcy pt:Pavee ru: fi:Irlantilaiset matkailijat sv:Pavee th:

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