The Travellers of Ireland
by Donald Kenrick
In 1960 the Irish Government established a Commission on Itinerancy
whose report was published three years later. This report was the basis
for a later assimilation program. Around this time a civil rights movement
emerged amongst the Travellers. In 1963 a school for Travellers, St. Christopher's
School, was built by Johnny MacDonald and was opened on an unofficial site
at the Ring Road, Ballyfermot, Dublin.
On January 6 1964 it was burnt down by Dublin Corporation employees
and later re-built on Cherry Orchard, Dallyford. In 1964 the Itinerant
Action Group was set up to fight for better living conditions and access
to education. In 1981 Travellers took a test case to the Court of Human
Rights in Strasbourg. They claimed that their constitutional right to educate
their children was denied by their being moved constantly without caravan
sites being available. Families sought the ruling that they could not be
evicted unless an alternative site was provided. The Court ruled favorably.
So, in that same year, a new report was requested and the Travelling People
Review Body was set up by the Minister of Health. It consisted of 24 members,
including representatives of the National Council for Travelling People
(a network of settlement committees) and three Travellers. Its remit was
to review current policies and services for the Travelling people in order
to improve the then current situation. The group reported in 1983. The
thrust of this report, as that of 1963, was the need to provide official
stopping places for the Travellers' caravans and to help with education
The Task Force on the Travelling People was set up in 1993 and published
yet another report two years later. In March 1996 a National Strategy for
Traveller Accommodation was announced to provide 3,100 units of accommodation.
This would consist of 1,200 permanent caravan pitches, 1,000 transit pitches
and 900 houses. A Traveller Accommodation Unit has been established at
the Department of the Environment to oversee the strategy. It is intended
to initiate legislation which will require local authorities to draw up
five-year plans for Traveller accommodation.
Nomadism of Irish Travellers to England probably started soon after
the English first landed in the country in 1172 and this may be connected
with the first appearance of 'tinker' as a trade or surname in England
three years later. In 1214 a law was passed for the expulsion of Irish
beggars from England and in 1413 all Irish (with a few exceptions) were
to be expelled. Emigration on a large scale to England and Scotland came
much later, in the nineteenth century. There are currently several hundred
Irish Traveller families living in caravans in Great Britain, including
children who were born there. In spite of some intermarriage with the English
Romanichal Gypsies they form a separate ethnic group, partly because of
their strong Catholicism. It is estimated that there are also 10,000 people
of Irish Traveller descent in the United States, whose ancestors left Ireland
even before the 19th century famine.
The main organizations are the Irish Travellers Movement and
Point (previously known as the Dublin Traveller Education and Development
Group). There is also a national organizer appointed by the Catholic church
whose main role is educational. In Ireland itself they number some 25,000.
The Travellers used to speak Irish with a special vocabulary known as cant,
or Shelta, but by this century the vast majority spoke English,
again with a special vocabulary. There is a strong musical tradition among
Gmelch, George. The Irish Tinkers: The Urbanization of an Itinerant
People. Menlo Park, CA: Cummings. 1977.
McCann May et al. (eds.). Irish Travellers, Culture and Ethnicity.
(Papers from a conference in 1991). Belfast: Institute of Irish Studies.
Gmelch, G. and S.B. "Ireland's Travelling People: A Comprehensive Bibliography".
In Journal of the Gypsy Lore Society (3rd series) vol. 3 1978. pp.
Macalister, R.A.S. The Secret Languages of Ireland. UK, Cambridge:
University Press. 1937.
Posted 1 March 1998.