Irish Travellers in the Republic of Ireland have been engaged in a struggle with the state for decades to have their peoplehood recognised as a distinct ethnic minority, and, whilst in some government papers it tacitly acknowledges the difference of Pavee culture, the Irish government has continued to avoid fully and legally recognising its ethnic particularity. It may be true that the genetic traits distinguishing Travellers from the vast majority of ethnic Irish people may be slim, but ethnicity is not a question of genetics, but one of culture, language, history, and so forth. With regard to this nexus of ethnic identifiers, it is striking that Irish Travellers lament the fact that they have no recorded history of their culture.

Owing to numerous factors, including a historical lack of interest in Ireland in the past of the Travellers and shortcomings in literacy among the Travelling community, there is no real record of Pavee history in Ireland. What is clear is that the present search for ethnic recognition for the Travellers will involve a recovery of their shared history. Sadly, it is far beyond the scope of this brief comment to complete such a task, but it is hoped that by asking questions of the shadows of linguistic evidence we have we may establish one platform from which a meaningful reconstruction can begin.

To date the most significant, popularly held assumption of Traveller origins is that voiced in the 1952 Folklore Commission of Ireland which concluded on thin evidence that today’s Pavees “are descended from Irish peasants forced onto the roads, most significantly as a result of the Great Famine of the 1840s.” Certainly the emergence of nomadism among a number of familial groups of the Irish peasantry in the context of the wider societal disturbance of the Famine is a plausible explication, but it continues to fly in the face of written sources which predate the Famine. The word ‘Tinker’ – commonly used derogatively of modern Travellers – has been in use in Ireland to describe itinerant tradespeople since the twelfth century, thus implying a greater antiquity of nomadism in Ireland. The same must be said of another pejorative – Travellers are all too often the subject of pejoratives – ‘Knacker.’ A Knacker, as we find him in the sixteenth century, was a travelling harness-maker forced on to the road due to the low population density of the island of Ireland. It is also interesting that the evolution of the meaning of this term has closely paralleled the economic modes of living of the Irish Travellers in more recent history; from the mid eighteenth century to the present.

Assuming, then, that the Irish Travellers of today owe their cultural origins solely to the social disturbance of the Great Famine is an untenable historical conclusion. It is altogether possible that many took to the roads and byways during the Famine, and that many of these failed to return to settled life, but it is certain that if this had happened then those who were uprooted merely supplemented the number of people who were already on the road. Ireland has an ancient history of rootless people. Our use of language still retains the memory of this truth. It is clear that there is a history there to be found, and the work ahead is to filter through the evidence we have in order to rebuild that lost story.

Jason Michael
Blog Author


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