A few years ago, a dear friend and fellow photographer told me he was going to photograph the “Irish Travellers” and asked whether I would like to come along. My first reaction was to wonder why he thought I would be interested in photographing a tap dance troupe (like Riverdance) given my usual focus on vanishing cultures. Luckily, I tried to educate myself a little before answering him, (saving myself from embarrassment) and found out that the Irish Travellers are in fact an ethnic group and belong to a culture that could indeed be disappearing. Though I could not make it at the time, this year, as I spent part of my summer in London, I decided to hop up to the heart of Western Ireland and meet some of the Travellers.
For those like me who did not know about the Irish Travellers (and I will feel better if there are many of you), here are a few facts about them. Also called the Travelling People or Tinkers, they have been nomadic for generations, travelling the countryside in horse-drawn carts and wagons, presumably because of the limited demand for work at any one place. Though they were initially known for their tinware, they ended up doing any work that came their way: cleaning chimneys, buying and selling horses and donkeys, picking crops, sharpening knives, and whatever was needed to survive. Most families traveled and camped on the roadside, seldom remaining in one place for more than a couple of weeks. Of course, “gypsies” and Roma” come to mind when hearing about this lifestyle, but recent genetic testing has shown that the Travellers are native to Ireland.
The Travellers began to suffer in the 1970s as the demand for their work decreased significantly. With plastic replacing tin and the development of larger urban centers, the Travellers started to camp near cities on the roadside creating complaints among the locals. A movement emerged to settle travelling families on “sites” where they would have basic services and the children could go to school. Today the Travellers are no longer nomads, the vast majority live in houses or in caravans (trailers) on official “halting” sites. Although there are still approximately 30,000 living in Ireland they are clearly at the bottom of Ireland’s social and economic ladder.
I was curious to see how this evolution to a stationary life was working for them, particularly for the young ones who haven’t been on the road. Will they still identify with their culture? Of course, I was only able to spend a brief time with them so I certainly do not have full answers, but it was great to finally spend a little time with a new generation of Irish Travelers.
Children are easy to find at the halting sites. The Travellers are religious (Padre Pio has a strong presence there), and large families are the norm. My last day was spent with two families that had 8 children each, and in one of them, the oldest child was 10 and the youngest just 4 weeks old. I also met a 52 year-old man who had 29 grandchildren and a grandmother with 79!
The halting sites are basically concrete slabs on which residents can locate their caravans, so there is very little green on the sites per se. To earn a little money, some of the Travellers collect scrap metal and old cars kept near their caravans, and these junk heaps often become the childrens’ playgrounds. Yet, the Travellers have also kept their connections to nature by keeping horses nearby (which they also sell at Horse Fairs), raising dogs, especially greyhounds, and there are LOTS of puppies, and in some case also chickens. Boxing has been a sport where the Travellers have excelled even representing their country at the Olympics so punching bags are also a common sight.
Probably the most striking thing to notice about the children is how clearly gender roles are defined even for the youngest of children. When being photographed, the young boys always show their tight fists and take a fighting position. The girls quickly take a provocative pose, putting their hands on their hips and pouting their lips, (looking at a 2 year-old taking this pose make you want to burst into both laughs and tears). Most of the girls have long hair, and wear jewelry and make-up starting at a very young age. Though they look very girly, they seem just as good at boxing as the boys.
In this short visit, it was clear that the Travellers are a proud group who value their identity but who are struggling to foresee their future (and it is probably not tap dancing J). More on their struggle (plus horses!) in my next post.
P.S. You can follow me on Instagram at franceleclerc
P.S.S If you are interested in learning more about the Irish Travellers’ history and challenges, I recommend the following book written by two anthropologists who actually lived among the Travellers and went on the road with them in the early 1970s and returned to visit in 2011. It is a fascinating read.
“Irish Travellers, the Unsettled Life” (2014) by Sharon Bohn Gmelch and George Gmelch
And for more pictures of the Travellers from a collective of photographers, you can visit the Irish Travellers Photo Gallery on Facebook.