Irish Travellers

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Irish Travellers
An lucht siúil
Travellers Decorated Caravan (6136023633).jpg
Irish Travellers in 1954
Total population
Regions with significant populations
Northern Ireland3,905
Great Britain15,000
 United States10,000–40,000
English (Hiberno-English), Irish, Shelta
Predominantly Roman Catholicism, Cultural Catholic
Related ethnic groups
Irish, Scottish traveller groups

Irish Travellers (Irish: an lucht siúil, meaning 'the walking people') are a traditionally itinerant ethnic group who maintain a set of traditions.[2][3] Although predominantly English-speaking, some also use Shelta and other similar cants. They live mostly in Ireland as well as comprising large communities in the United Kingdom and the United States.[4] Their origin is disputed. Traveller rights groups have long pushed for ethnic status from the Irish government, finally succeeding in 2017.[5]

As of 2016, there are 30,987 Travellers within Ireland, and this has led to them becoming recognized as a minority group in Ireland.[6]


Travellers refer to themselves as Minkiers[7] or Pavees, or in Irish as an Lucht Siúil ("the travelling people").


The historical origins of Irish Travellers as a distinct group is still unknown.[8] It continues to be the subject of academic and popular debate. Research has been complicated by the fact that the group appears to have no written records of its own.[9][page needed][10]

Deeper documentation of Shelta and the Travellers dates to the 1830s, but knowledge of Irish Travellers has been seen from the 1100s, as well as the 1500s-1800s. Many decrees against begging in England were directed at Travellers, passed by King Edward VI around 1551. One such decree was the “Acte for tynckers and pedlers”.[11] Travellers make up a minority group of Ireland who are nomadic. They have a metalwork culture that dates to pre-Celtic arrival.[citation needed] The identity of Irish Travellers resembles other nomadic communities, some aspects being self-employment, family networks, birth, marriage, and burial rituals, taboos and folklore.[12] Because they worked with metal, Travellers had to travel throughout Ireland and work on making various items ranging from ornaments, jewelry, or horse harnesses to make a living. As a result, by 1175 they were referred to as “tinkler,” “tynkere,” or Tinkers as well as Gypsies all of which are derogative names to refer to their nomadic way of life.[13]

Origin theories[edit]

Many different theories have been put forward to explain the origins of Ireland's nomadic populations. A suggestion that they might be of Romani extraction[14] is not supported by genetic evidence, which finds no connection to Romani groups.[15] One idea is of them being distantly related to a Celtic group that invaded Ireland. Another theory is of a pre-Gaelic origin, where Travellers are descended from a community that lived in Ireland before the arrival of the Celts. Once Ireland was claimed as Celtic, this group was seen as lower class. [16] There is also a theory that an indigenous, nomadic, community of craftsmen are the ancestors of Travellers, and they never settled down like the Celts.[17] Other speculations on their origin are that they were descended from those Irish who were made homeless during the Cromwellian conquest of Ireland in the 1650s, or made homeless in either the 1741 or the 1840s famine due to eviction.[16]:56:43[18] Genetic research has ruled these events out as the founding events for Travellers, however it cannot rule out the displacement of the population along with most of the Irish population during these events.

It has since been recognised that no single explanation is likely to be adequate in answering this complex question. Current scholarship is investigating the background of Gaelic Ireland before the English Tudor conquest. The mobile nature and traditions of a Gaelic society based on pastoralism rather than land tenure before this event implies that Travellers represent descendants of the Gaelic social order marginalised during the change-over to an English landholding society.[19] An early example of this mobile element in the population, and how displacement of clans can lead to increased nomadism within aristocratic warrior societies, is that of the Clan Murtough O' Connors, displaced after the Norman invasion.[20]

Population genetics[edit]

Present genetic evidence indicates that they are genetically Irish.[21] In 2011, researchers at the Royal College of Surgeons in Dublin and the University of Edinburgh analyzed DNA samples from 40 Travellers. The study provided evidence that Irish Travellers are a distinct Irish ethnic minority, who have been distinct from the settled Irish community for at least 1000 years; the report claimed that they are as distinct from the settled community as Icelanders are from Norwegians. This apparent distance though may be the effect of genetic drift within a small homogeneous population and may therefore exaggerate the distance between the two populations.[22] A genetic analysis of Irish Travellers found evidence to support: (1) Irish ancestry; (2) several distinct subpopulations; and (3) the distinctiveness of the midland counties due to Viking influence.[21]

In 2017 a further genetic study using profiles of 50 Irish Travellers, 143 European Roma, 2232 settled Irish, 2039 British and 6255 European or worldwide individuals confirmed ancestral origin within the general Irish population. An estimated time of divergence between the settled population and Travellers was set at a minimum of 8 generations ago, with generations at 30 years, hence 240 years and a maximum of 14 generations or 420 years ago. The best fit was estimated at 360 years ago, giving an approximate date in the 1650s.[23] This date coincides remarkably well with the final destruction of Gaelic society following the 1641 Rebellion and during the Wars of the Three Kingdoms in which Cromwell's forces devastated the country.

Irish Travellers are not an entirely homogeneous group instead reflecting some of the variation also seen in the settled population. Four distinct genetic clusters were identified in the 2017 study, and these match social groupings within the community.[24]

Genetic disease studies[edit]

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 an original Irish carrier long ago with ancestors unrelated to the rest of the Irish population.[25]

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 population.[26]


Irish Travellers speak English and sometimes one of two dialects of Shelta, Gammon (or Gamin) and Irish Traveller Cant. Shelta has been dated back to the 18th century, but may be older.[27] Cant, which derives from Irish, is a combination of English and Shelta.[28]

The Irish Traveller Gammon language, commonly known as Cant, consists of Romani words.[29] Jean-Pierre Liégeois [fr] writes that the Irish Traveller Gammon vocabulary is derived from pre-13th-century Gaelic idioms with ten percent Indian origin Romani language vocabulary.[30] Since Shelta is a mixture of English and Irish grammar, the etymology is not straightforward. The language is made up mostly of Irish lexicon, being classified as a grammar-lexicon language with the grammar being English-based.[31] Gaelic language expert Kuno Meyer and Romani language linguist John Sampson both asserted that Shelta existed as far back as the 13th century, 300 years before the first Romani populations arrived in Ireland or Britain.[32][unreliable source?][better source needed][discuss]

Shelta is a secret language. Travellers do not like to share the language with outsiders, named “Buffers”, or non-travellers. When speaking Shelta in front of Buffers, Travellers will disguise the structure so as to make it seem like they aren't speaking Shelta at all.[33] There is fear that if outsiders know the entirety of the language, it will be used to bring further discrimination to the Traveller community.[34]

The Irish state and Irish Travellers[edit]

There was no specific state focus on Travellers prior to the establishment of the Irish republic in 1949. Issues with mobile sections of the population came under loosely defined vagrancy laws, ultimately of English origin. In 1959 the 1959–63 government of Ireland established a "Commission on Itinerancy" in response to calls to deal with the "itinerant problem". This was made up of senior representatives of the Irish state, judges, Gardaí, religious organisations and numerous farming lobby groups such as Macra na Feirme. The Commission had no Traveller representatives, neither were they consulted.[35] The Commission had the following terms of reference:[36]

(1) to enquire into the problem arising from the presence in the country of itinerants in considerable numbers;
(2) to examine the economic, educational, health and social problems inherent in their way of life;
(3) to consider what steps might be taken—
(a) to provide opportunities for a better way of life for itinerants,
(b) to promote their absorption into the general community,
(c) pending such absorption, to reduce to a minimum the disadvantages to themselves and to the community resulting from their itinerant habits and
(d) to improve the position generally; and
(4) to make recommendations.

The Commission's 1963 report defined "itinerant" as "a person who had no fixed place of abode and habitually wandered from place to place, but excluding travelling show-people and travelling entertainers".[37] It recommended assimilation of travellers by settling them in fixed dwellings, viewing the Netherlands' approach to its travelling minority as a model.[38] This assimilation was to be achieved by the effective criminalisation of nomadism, and the report paved the way for an increasing state emphasis on criminal laws and penalties for trespass.[35]

At the time, about 60% Irish travellers lived in barrel-roofed horse-drawn wagons, with almost 40% still using tents in summer (fewer in winter).[39][40]

The Travelling People Review Body (1981–83) advocated integration rather than assimilation,[40] with provision for serviced halting sites. The Body's membership included travellers.[41] The Task Force on the Travelling Community (1993–95) moved to an intercultural paradigm.[40][42]



The 2016 census in the Republic of Ireland reported the number of Irish Travellers as 30,987, up from 29,495 in 2011.[1] In 2006 the number was 22,369.[43] A further 1,700 to 2,000 were estimated to live in Northern Ireland.[44]

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 Travellers constituting 7.71% of the population in Tuam, Galway. 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.[45]


Great Britain[edit]

In 2011, for the first time, the census category "Irish Traveller" was introduced as part of the broader Gypsy/Traveller section. The self reported figure for collective Gypsy/Traveller or Irish Traveller populations were 63,193[46] but estimates of Travellers living in Great Britain range between 15,000[47] as part of a total estimation of 300,000 Romani and other Traveller groups in the UK.[48]

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.[49]

There are also a number of Irish Traveller communities in the Home Counties.[50]

United States[edit]

An estimated 10,000 people in the United States are descendants of Travellers who left Ireland, mostly between 1845 and 1860 during the Great Famine.[51] However, there are no official population figures regarding Irish Travellers in the United States as the US census does not recognise them as an ethnic group.[52][28] While some sources estimate their population in the US to be 10,000, others suggest their population is 40,000. According to research published in 1992, Irish travellers in the US divide themselves up into groups that are based on historical residence: Ohio Travellers, Georgia Travellers, Texas Travellers, and Mississippi Travellers. 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."[52][28]

The largest and most affluent population of about 2,500 lives in Murphy Village, outside of the town of North Augusta, South Carolina.[53] Other communities exist in Memphis, Tennessee, Hernando, Mississippi, and 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.[54]

Travellers in the US are said to speak English and Shelta, a form of Cant. The Cant spoken in the US is similar to the Cant spoken in Ireland, but differs in some respects in that the language has transformed into a type of pidgin English over the generations. They typically work in asphalting, spray-painting, laying linoleum, or as itinerant workers to earn their living.[52][28]


Travellers have a distinctive approach to religion; the vast majority are practising Roman Catholics with particular attention paid to issues of healing.[55] They have been known to follow a strict code of behaviour that dictates some of their moral beliefs and influences their actions.[56]


Traveller children often grow up outside educational systems.[57] The Irish Traveller Movement, a community advocacy group, promotes equal access to education for Traveller children.[58]

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.[59] In July 2011, the secondary school in Clonmel successfully appealed the decision of the Equality Tribunal that its admission criteria were indirectly discriminatory against children from the Traveller community.[60]


Irish Travellers in 1946

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.[61] (By comparison median life expectancy in Ireland is 81.5 years.) 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.[62]

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, was expected to take up to three years to complete.[63] The main results of the study were published in 2010.[64]

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.

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.[65][66] In addition, 80% of Travellers die before the age of 65.

According to the National Traveller Suicide Awareness Project, Traveller men are over six times more likely to kill themselves than the general population.[67]


Teenage marriage is common among Irish Travellers.[68](p110) Couples tend to marry very young. According to Judith Okely, "there is no large time spans between puberty and marriage" of Travellers. Okely wrote in 1983 that the typical marriage age for females was 16–17 and the typical marriage age for males was 18–19.[69](p153) As of the Census of Ireland 2011 the average age of an Irish Traveller was 22.4 and 52.2% were aged under 20. Yet only 252 15–19-year-old enumerated Irish Travellers identified themselves as married.[70] In contrast, the Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government (DEHLG) in ROI "definition of a [Traveller] family includes unmarried Traveller men over 18 as a unit" because, according to Abdalla et al., "it is understood that they will marry at this age and require an additional unit of accommodation."[45] Irish Travellers generally marry other Irish Travellers.[71](p156) Consanguineous marriage is common among Irish Travellers.[68](pp110–111)[71](p156)[a]

Irish Travellers lived as cohabiters who "married at one time without religious or civil ceremony."[73](p258) Into the early 20th century about one-third of Irish Travellers were "married according to the law."[73](p246)

According to Christopher Griffin, arranged Irish Traveller marriages in the early 21st century "safeguard the girl's [interests] by securing a man who won't mistreat her."[73](p247) According to Julie Bindel, in Standpoint, some Irish Traveller females in the UK are forced into marriages, but Bindel points out that data is difficult to obtain because "the line between an arranged marriage and a forced one is not always clear."[74]

Social conflict and controversies[edit]

Discrimination and prejudice[edit]

Travellers are often reported as the subject of explicit political and cultural discrimination, with politicians being elected on promises to block Traveller housing in local communities and individuals frequently refused service in pubs, shops and hotels.[75]

A 2011 survey by the Economic and Social Research Institute of Ireland concluded that there is widespread ostracism of Travellers in Ireland, and the report concluded that it 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, i.e., 0.5 percent, to survive in a meaningful manner without ongoing and supportive personal contact with their fellow citizens in the settled community."[76] The general prejudice against Travellers hinders efforts by the central government to integrate Travellers into Irish society.[77] Because Travellers are a minority group within Ireland and the United Kingdom, they have always faced discrimination on the basis of their ethnicity as Travellers. They experience discrimination in not having equal access to education, being denied service in pubs, shops, and hotels,[78] and being subject to derogatory language.

In 2016, the USA's Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for the United Kingdom stated that Irish Travellers (among other groups) widely reported discrimination in the country, and highlighted that the High Court had ruled the government had illegally discriminated against Travellers by unlawfully subjecting planning applications to special scrutiny.[79]

Pejorative names[edit]

Travellers are often referred to by the terms tinkers,[80] gipsies/gypsies,[81] itinerants, or, pejoratively, knackers[82] in Ireland.[83] Some of these terms refer to services that were traditionally provided by the group: 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. The term gypsy first appears in records dating back to the 16th century when it was originally used to refer to the continental Romani people in England and Scotland, who were mistakenly thought to be Egyptian.[69](p158) Other derogatory names for itinerant groups have been used to refer to Travellers including the word pikey.[84][85]

Work and income[edit]

According to the 2002 Irish census, "the labour force participation rate for male Travellers (72%) slightly exceeded that for total males (70%) while the rate for female Travellers (38%) was considerably below that for females in general (47%). Unemployment among male Travellers measured 73 percent according to the self-assessed principal economic status question on the census form. The national measure of unemployment for males on a comparable basis was 9.4 per cent according to the 2002 census results. Corresponding rates for females were 63 percent for female Travellers and 8 percent for the female population overall." [86]

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 (County Galway), Puck Fair (County Kerry), Ballabuidhe Horse Fair (County Cork), the twice yearly Smithfield Horse Fair (Dublin inner city) and Appleby (England).[87] They are often involved in dealing scrap metals, e.g., 60% of the raw material for Irish steel is sourced from scrap metal, approximately 50% (75,000 metric tonnes) 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.[88]

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. To detect their financial status many look to the state of the possessions: their trailer, motor vehicle, domestic utensils, and any other valuables.[69](p63)

Social identity[edit]

Irish Travellers are recognised in British and Irish law as an ethnic group.[89][90][91] 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.[91]

The European Parliament Committee of Enquiry on Racism and Xenophobia found them to be among the most discriminated-against ethnic groups in Ireland[92] and yet their status remains insecure in the absence of widespread legal endorsement.[93] Travellers are often viewed by settled people in a negative light, perceived as insular, anti-social, 'drop-outs' and 'misfits',[94] or believed to be involved in criminal and mendicant behaviour, or settling illegally on land owned by others.[57][page needed][95][not in citation given]

Violence and crime[edit]

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]."[96]

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.[97][98] The cause may have been an unpaid gambling debt linked to a bare-knuckle boxing match.[99]

A 2011 report, conducted by the Irish Chaplaincy in Britain, Voices Unheard: A Study of Irish Travellers in Prison (Mac Gabhann, 2011) found that social, economic and educational exclusion were contributing factors to the "increasingly high levels of imprisonment" of Irish Travellers.[100]

In 2016, Irish Travelers from the southern East Coast of the United States pleaded guilty to charges of perpetrated scams on homeowners as well as government agencies. By 2017, 52 had plead guilty to violations of the federal Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO).[101]

Land disputes[edit]

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 councils, 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. A famous example was Dale Farm in Essex. 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.[102]

The passing of the Caravan Sites Act 1968, for some time, safeguarded their right to a site, but the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994 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.[94]

List of Travellers' organisations[edit]

The flag of the Irish Traveller Movement[103]

The following are some of the Travellers' representative organisations formed since the 1960s:[104]

  • Irish Traveller Community (1960s)
  • Itinerant Settlement Committee (1960s–1980s)
  • Travellers' Rights Committee (1981–83)
  • Minceir Misli (1983–85)
  • Travellers' Education and Development Group (founded in 1984)
  • Pavee Point (founded 1985)[105]
  • Irish Travellers' Movement (founded in 1990)
  • Cork Traveller Visibility Group Ltd. (founded early 1990's)[106]
  • National Traveller Women's Forum

Depictions and documentaries[edit]

Irish Travellers have been depicted, usually negatively but sometimes with some care and sympathy, in film, radio, print, and television. Shows like The Riches (2007–2008), the American television series featuring Eddie Izzard and Minnie Driver, take a deeper look into the Traveller lifestyle. The documentary series Big Fat Gypsy Weddings (2010, 2011, and 2012) has been commercially successful in the United Kingdom, offering glimpses of Traveller life as viewed at real-life weddings. A 1997 American film, Traveller, starring Bill Paxton and Mark Wahlberg, also explored the Travellers in America.

See also[edit]


Similar groups:


  1. ^ A 1986 study reported that 39% of marriages in the study were between first cousins.[68](p110) According to Alison Healy in 2003, 19–40% of Irish Traveller marriages are between first cousins.[72]


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