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Saturday, August 7, 2010

Abbreviated History of the Irish Travelers

Irish Travelers are descended from medieval minstrels and poets who traveled Ireland telling myths and stories. At that time, they were respected and learned. Travelers have their own language, Sheldroo, which is linked to ancient Irish language before a written Irish language. At the time of English occupation, many Irish families were turned out of their homes. During that period, it was illegal for Irish to learn to read and write—only the English could attend schools and universities. How were uneducated people to support themselves? Some homeless Irish families drifted in with the traveling minstrels and eventually became the Irish Travelers. They camped in fields. Later they acquired tents, then the colorful wagons that resemble gypsy wagons--as seen at the left in a photo from Bunratty Folk Park, Ireland.

They are not gypsies, though. Gypsies are Roms and originated in India. Travelers are purely of Irish origin, although they have now spread throughout the Western world. I saw examples of their wagons in a couple of museums in Ireland and in Scotland. Amazing how much storage space was inside the colorful wagons like those above. Lots of drawers and cabinets painted in cheerful colors and bunk resembling a sailing ship captain's quarters. Legislation in Ireland has set aside special camping places for the Travelers. There is much controversy there over whether the Travelers' children should be forced to attend school or allowed to remain uneducated and speak Sheldroo. In the U.S., they are supposed to attend school. There’s a large base of Irish Travelers in White Settlement, Texas and another in Los Angeles, California. In White Settlement, many live in RV’s or mobile homes at a park owned by one of the Travelers. The children don’t attend school, or if they go, it’s only sporadically. Most of the families are Roman Catholic and the wives attend mass. They were/are also called Tinkers because there was usually one among them who repaired pots, pans, and metal wares.

My first introduction to modern Irish Travelers—also called Tinkers—came one January day when a terrible accident happened on the Interstate just west of Fort Worth, Texas. A group of boys had been driving the new, red, double-cab pickup one received as a Christmas gift and going west to visit their uncle west of Weatherford. The five boys—all related—were going so fast when the driver lost control that the pickup actually became airborne, sailed across a median, and landed on another pickup traveling east. All six people died. Two were brothers, cousins to the other three brothers, plus the innocent man driving to Fort Worth. Highway patrol, sheriff’s deputies, and police officers were so moved by the deaths of these young men from one extended family that many of them attended the funeral in White Settlement. As they read the bulletin each person was given, they learned these young men were all underage. Their drivers licenses were fake. The ages were from 13 to 16, not 16 to 21 as the ID’s had indicated. Sadly, fake ideas are not uncommon for modern Irish Travelers. This accident sparked several in-depth columns about Irish Travelers in the Fort Worth Star-Telegram.

The photo above right is of a modern Irish Traveler selling various items at a roadside park in Scotland. The woman is the Traveler.  About three or four times a year, an Irish Traveler stops by our rural home and offers to pave our drive or repair our roof. The men are usually medium height and have startlingly clear blue eyes. If we were gullible enough—as one of our friends was—to let them resurface our driveway, they would use a mixture of fluid which might resemble asphalt, but actually would be oil which washed away in a hard rain. Another common ploy is to get a 50% deposit for roofing, then disappear.

I am not bashing Irish people! I’m of Scot-Irish descent and love anything to do with Ireland (and the UK). I’m identifying a stereotype. I’m sure there are some good people from the sub-ethnic group, Irish Travelers. As with many other subjects, we hear about the bad ones. For a couple hundred years, Irish Travelers have been thought of as con men and their wives as beggars. Some make good money. Others live hand to mouth. They’re accused of “selling” their daughters at a young age to marry much older men. Is that true? I don’t know. They’ve made national news because of their shoplifting rings. Are there honest Travelers? Of course there must be, just as there are honest and dishonest people from any group. I took the photo at left in Ireland. Sorry, but I can't remember where.

In my September book, THE TEXAN’S IRISH BRIDE, the heroine and her family were among those turned off their land by an English landlord. Rather than starve, they joined a band of Irish Travelers. How did they end up trekking across the U.S. into Central Texas? You’ll have to read the book to learn the answer. See, it was a trick question.



Victoria Gray said...

Great post, Caroline! Thanks :)


Paisley Kirkpatrick said...

Nice to learn more about the travelers. I thought they were Rom gypsies, not of Irish decent. How interesting that you were able to find this information and share.

Caroline Clemmons said...

I did a ton of research for this book. Thanks for your comments.

Natalie said...

Thank you for the info! I'm Irish & love to learn about anything Irish, too.

Anonymous said...

*Travellers and gypsy is a slur

Pavee Gypsy said...

Just to mention- I am an Irish traveler and the language is called Shelter I never heard sheldroo before.
It comes from the Irish Siul which means walk. Travelers is not a slur to us at all- in fact tinker is not a slur either. The Irish travelers over in US are similar to us and share a heritage but prob are quite different by now.

Anonymous said...

The Irish Travellers deal mostly in cash, both in their scams and in honest dealings.
They pull off insurance scams. They seldom commit fraud in the P&C industry these days, but rather they commit life insurance fraud. I won't get into detail, but they lead a lifestyle often leading to an early death and a sick Traveller 9yes, they spell it with two Ls )is seen as an asset in the community with numerous people, some related and some not, taking out policies on the ill and hiding medical records. The payoffs are huge. This is how they built all the McMansions in Murphy village. They do not object to being called Travellers.

Anonymous said...

Apparently Travellers in Ireland are now racing horse attached in sulkies between Cork and Dublin on regular asphalt roadways with cars. They left a horse that collided into a car to die. Just posted. Sick group of people if they allow that.

Anonymous said...

I am an Irish Traveler. Most of what I read is incredulous. Irish travelers were the first peoples to inhabit Ireland. There have been many studies and genetic testing. I have been educated, but I also have something that causes many to gravitate to me. Both sexes have always liked me. There are some things I know that come from an innate knowledge, not having to do with education.