Travellers used to
travel in horse drawn wagons that were called barrel top or vardo wagons and
before that with donkeys and tents. Now most Travellers have trailers (
caravans) and motor vehicles if they are still on the road. Traditionally Travellers
burned the wagon that the person died in. In modern times many may not wish to
continue to live in the trailer, the home that some nomadic families now live
in, if a person dies there.
The name "Travellers" refers to a roaming Irish
ethnic group. Irish Travellers are a group of people with a separate identity,
culture and history, although they are as fully Irish as the rest of us. They
have their own language known as ‘cant’ or ‘gammon’ and academics sometimes
refer to it as ‘shelta’ and travellers will sometimes use this language to
speak to each other. Irish travellers are native to Ireland and have been part
of Irish society for hundreds of years and while their history is largely
unrecorded they are recorded before the 12th century.
Occupations within the travellers traditionally include
tinsmithing, seasonal farm work, selling door-to-door and scrap metal
recycling. Some of these jobs are becoming rarer within the community such as
tinsmithing and many travellers today have diversified into other areas such as
market trading and antique dealing. Some travellers have their own business
such as shops and garages and others are employed in community enterprises,
voluntary organisations and training centres. However, just as in the settled
community there are some travellers who are unskilled and dependent on social
welfare in order to survive.
As stated earlier, there is not a great deal of historical
research on the Traveller way of life although there are references to various
nomadic groups dating back to the 12th and even the 5th
century. Travellers were craftsmen, entertainers, message carriers, horse
traders, and provided a variety of skills. They were involved in specific
economic activity throughout history that can be associated with a nomadic way
As industrialisation brought new methods of communication and
cheap plastic, Travellers as with other groups in Ireland began to experience a
change in their role in Irish society and had to adapt their lifestyle to
accommodate these changes. Under many pressures to adopt a sedentary or settled
lifestyle Travellers have resisted and have proved their ability to survive and
maintain their cultural identity. This identity has a number of common
features, history and experiences; it has an oral tradition, and value system
that sets it apart from the settled community. Travellers also have a history
of having to protect that identity from the attempts made to assimilate them
into the majority population.
Travellers have been largely ignored in the literature of the
“Great Tradition”. Not all families originated at the same time or in the same
way. Some Traveller families date back centuries while others have adopted a
travelling lifestyle in relatively recent times. “Tinker” and “Tynkere” first appear
as trade surnames during the 12th century. This word comes from the
word “Tinceard” which means tincraft and it suggests that at this time there
was clearly a group of Travelling crafts people who made and mended pots and
pans and who played an important role in Irish history. The itinerant tinsmith
or “white-smith” as well as tanners, musicians, bards and artisans travelled
throughout Ireland fashioning jewellery, weapons and horse trappings out of
bronze, silver and gold in exchange for food and lodging. Today, Travellers are
characterized by a growing solidarity and Political activism based on their own
increased sense of ethnic or group identification as Travelling People.
In order to preserve their unique identity, Travellers
operate within a type of social separation. Interaction between Travellers and other Irish
people is typically limited to economic exchanges and brief instrumental
encounters with bureaucrats or institutional representatives such as the
police, welfare, and hospital personnel. Practices of some Travellers (e.g.,
keeping unsightly campsites, drinking in public, aggressive selling tactics), reinforce social distance between members of
the two groups. However, prejudice and discrimination have played a larger role
in segregating the two communities.
Government proposals to build official campsites for
Travellers are invariably rejected by the local Community. Most people avoid
any interaction with Travellers; very few would consider marrying a Traveller.
Since the mid-1960s, the Irish government has attempted to solve what it
labeled "the itinerant problem," that is, the existence of Traveller
families living on the roadside in tents and wagons without basic amenities
such as running water, toilets, and electric lights. The solution was believed
to lie in settlement, in placing families on serviced government campsites and
in houses from which they could send their children to school, get wage-labour
jobs, and learn to live a settled life. Assimilation was the goal.
Since then, however, Travellers have become more vocal and
politically aware. Political action groups have been organized in some cities.
Travellers now consider themselves to be an ethnic group with the rights to
maintain their own identity and life-style while enjoying the privileges of
Many Travellers now live on sites, both council and private,
some have moved into houses and many still have nowhere to camp and live on
unauthorised sites constantly being moved on. Travellers have a common ancestry
and one is born a Traveller. Their contribution to music and story-telling has
been of great importance to these traditions. Travellers were the link between
isolated communities in a rural society. They carried the music, stories and
news from village to village. They also kept these traditions alive during the
oppression of the British, who tried to destroy Irish Culture. Travellers were
more difficult to restrict as they were moving from place to place and
contributed in no small way to the fight for Irish independence.
Travellers also served
with great courage during the war (Great Emergency) and two traveller men were
awarded the Victoria Cross the highest medal for bravery. Many traveller women
acted as medics, air raid wardens and were members of the auxiliary services. T
hey have been subject to oppression and discrimination and
have often hidden their identity to avoid discrimination, especially if they
have moved into housing. Travellers have the same rights as the majority
population and now have protection under the Race Relations Act in Ireland as a
recognised ethnic minority community.
This is a story that has been told to generations of
children down through the years and today I will tell it to you, hope you enjoy
na nóg. The Land of Eternal Youth.
Once upon a time long,
long ago in the west of Ireland there lived a young man called Oisin. One autumn morning he was out exploring the
wild hills with the Fianna, they were the ancient warrior hunters of Ireland.
It was a bright but cold misty morning. Suddenly from out of the mists they saw
a white horse appear and upon its back sat the most beautiful woman that Oisin
had ever seen. The sun glistened off her hair and she seemed to be surrounded
by a magical glow. The horse and rider came to a stop and the young woman spoke
to Oisin and the Fianna. Stepping forward Oisin introduced himself and as their
eyes met they fell instantly in love.
“I am Niamh of the
golden hair, daughter of the King of Tir Na Nog” she said in a voice that
sounded like the most enchanting music that Oisin had ever heard.
“Come with me to my
father’s land and there you will never grow old nor feel sorrow. My father has
heard wonderful things about the great warrior named Oisin and I have come to
take you back with me to the Land of Eternal Youth”
Oisin hesitated for a
moment, he thought of his friends and family and how he would be sad to leave
them but his hesitation lasted only a moment for he had fallen under a fairy
spell and he cared no more for any earthly thing only for the love of Niamh of
the golden hair. He quickly climbed up
onto the white horse. Oisin promised to return shortly, and they waved goodbye
and rode off into the mist. Oisin was never to see his family or his friends
When they reached the
sea the white horse ran lightly over the waves and soon they left the green
fields and woodlands of Ireland behind.
The sun shone and the riders passed into a golden light that caused
Oisin to lose all knowledge of where he was he didn’t know whether they were
still crossing water or if they were on dry land. Strange sights appeared and
disappeared and Oisin saw many strange creatures, some wondrous, some
terrifying. He tried to ask Niamh what these visions meant and were they real
or imagined but Niamh told him to say nothing until they arrived at Tir Na Nog.
Eventually they arrived
at the Land of Eternal Youth and it was just as Niamh had promised. It was a
land where nobody knew sadness, nobody ever aged, and everyone lived
forever. Together they spent many happy
times but there was always a piece of Oisin’s heart that seemed empty, he began
to feel lonely and missed his home in Ireland. He wanted to see his friends and
family once again. He begged Niamh to let him return to Ireland but she seemed
to be very reluctant to let him go. She finally agreed and gave him the white
horse that had brought him to Tir Na Nog but she warned him that when he
reached the land of Erin he must not step down from the horse nor touch the
soil of the earthly world for if he did then he could never return to the Land
of Eternal Youth.
Oisin set off and once
more crossed the mystic ocean. Although Oisin thought that only a few years had
passed it had in fact been three hundred years. You see time slows down in Tir
Na Nog and when he arrived back to his homeland he saw that things had changed.
The Fianna no longer hunted the green hills and the grand castle where his
family and friends lived was no longer there all that stood were crumbling
ruins covered in ivy. With a feeling of horror Oisin thought that he had fallen
under some fairy spell that was mocking him with false visions, he threw his
arms in the air and shouted the names of his family and his friends but there
was no reply, he tried once more but all he heard in reply was the sighing of
the wind and the faint rustle of the leaves in the trees. With tears in his
eyes he turned and rode away hoping that he would find those he looked for and
that the fairy spell would be broken.
Oisin rode for days but
found no sign of his people. He rode east and there he saw a group of men in a
field, he rode towards them hoping to find some answers, maybe they knew where
the Fianna had gone. As he approached he saw that the men were trying to move a
large rock from the field, as he came near they all stopped work and gazed at
him because to them he looked liked a messenger of the Fairy folk or an angel
from heaven. He was far taller than normal men, he carried a beautiful sword
and wore bright and shining armour and the horse he rode seemed to float above
the ground casting a golden light around both itself and its rider. Oisin looked at them and thought how puny
these men looked, the size of the rock would have meant nothing to the Fianna
and he began to feel great pity for them. He bent down from his horse, put one
hand on the rock and with a mighty heave he lifted it from the ground and flung
it away from the field. The men started shouting in wonder and applause, but
their shouting changed into cries of terror and dismay when they realised what
they had witnessed. They began to run away knocking each other over in the
Unfortunately for Oisin
the girth of his saddle had snapped as he heaved the stone away and he fell to
the ground. In that second his horse vanished into a mist that suddenly
appeared and Oisin rose from the ground dressed in rags. Feeble and staggering,
he was no longer the youthful warrior he was but a man stricken with old age,
white bearded and withered, crippled with arthritis he let out a cry of horror.
Oisin now knew why he could find no trace of his people, he had been in Tir Na
Nog for a few weeks but here in the earthly realm three hundred years had
passed and now he had each of those years repaid.
The men who had run
away looked back across the field and seeing what had befallen Oisin they
returned. They found him lying on the ground with his face hidden in his arms;
they lifted him up and asked who he was and what had happened to him.
With tears in his eyes
“I was Oisin son of
Finn, can you tell me where he lives for I cannot find him”
The men looked at each
other and then at Oisin, one of them said,
“”Of what Finn do you
speak off, for there is many of that name”
“Finn MacCool, captain
of the Fianna of Erin” replied Oisin.
The man said “You’re a
daft old man and you made us daft thinking you were a young man before. But we
now have our wits about us and we can tell you that Finn MacCool and all his
generation have been dead for three hundred years. They live now only in songs
and stories told. We now follow another, his name is Patrick and he teaches a different
way to live”
Oisin was left to
wander Ireland a lonely old man. He met Patrick and told him of his family and
the Fianna who had disappeared from Ireland hundreds of years ago, the magical
land of Tir na Nog and his love for Niamh and as he ended his story a great
weariness swept over him and he closed his eyes and went to his eternal rest.
Today we still tell the
story of Oisin, Niamh and Tir Na Nog and on a misty autumn morning if you see a
shimmering white horse dancing in the waves maybe its Niamh riding her steed as
she searches for her long lost love. Or maybe it’s just the crest of a wave,
I’ll let you decide.