Contact Us
  History and Language

The History of Travellers

There are many theories about our origin. The one I most commonly meet is that we are the descendants of the people who lost their land at the time of the Famine. Among settled people this notion seems to have a lot of support, but I am going to have to disagree with this theory.

Let me explain by drawing your attention to the United States where there are more than 10,000 Irish Travellers living today. And yes, there are Irish Travellers with names like Collins, Sherlocks, McDonaghs, Maughans, Carrolls and Murphy. There's a large contingent of Irish Travellers in South Carolina, Georgia and Texas.

It is important to remember that. They play a large part in our history. They are very traditional in their lifestyle and very much identify as being Travellers and there are some very interesting facts about them. They have progressed very similarly to the families who live in Ireland. There is a parallel.

So how come they are over in the United States? Well just like the tens of thousands of displaced Irish who travelled on the "coffin" ships to America, so too some of the Irish Travellers left Ireland during the mid 19th century. The difference I point to though is that they maintained all of the lifestyle, customs and marriage patterns of the Travelling people when they reached America.

We can assume from this that these patterns were well established among the families ever before they left Ireland, so Travellers then predate the famine.

Mentions in History

It is very hard to say where in history Travellers come. We've always existed but the disasters in history like the famine would have swelled the ranks of Travellers on the road. At one time there were more than three million people on the roadside in Ireland. Within that three million Travellers were still easily identified. It would have been around the time of the Poor Law Commission these statistics would have come out. They were identifiable because they were more than one generation. There were grannies, great-grannies and daughters. The other people were all one generation. Most of these would have moved back on to the land once they got the chance, not so the Travellers.

I am not trying to 'prove' the origins of Travellers in Irish society but to disprove that we only came about because of a disaster in Irish history. This shows that the idea that we are dropouts or misfits, because either we or our ancestors couldn't cope, is wrong: Is there any other hints of older historical roots for Travellers?

A law was passed in 1562 during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I and it was illegal to be an Egyptian or a Counterfeit Egyptian. The English law said:

" Those in company or fellowship of vagabonds, commonly called or calling themselves Egyptians, and also those counterfeiting, transforming or disguising themselves as such by their apparel, speech or other behaviour, shall do so under pain of death."

In Ireland to be an Egyptian or a counterfeit Egyptian the penalty was deportation. The word Gypsy comes from Egyptian. When they came to this part of Europe they said they came from 'Little Egypt'. So they came as Egyptians. Why in this country would you have a law banning counterfeit Egyptians? There was an explanatory note with this law saying who they actually meant. They talked about a group of people who had the attire, work practice, similar marriage pattern, lifestyle and family groups but who were not Egyptian. This described Travellers to a 'T'. So there were Travellers in 1562. The word Gypsy is a group name for many different extended groups which include Shinti, Rom, Calderash. Gypsies never established themselves in any great numbers in Ireland because their lifestyle and especially their work habits were already to be found in larger numbers among Irish Travellers and Ireland is only a small country. Some Gypsies may have inter married with Travelling People just as some of those who lost their farms in Famine times may have joined with the Travellers.

If we go further back to the 12th Century we get the word "tinker" (Tinceard = Tin craft) appearing many times in written documents and there clearly was a group of Travelling crafts people who played an important role in Irish society and Irish economy.

Traveller Language

Owen McNeill wrote a booked called "Phases of Irish History". In that he said,

"Today's Travellers are direct descendants of industrial communities that lived in Ireland in Celtic and pre-Celtic times".

That is a beautiful theory. The theories come about through our own language. Our language is called various names as according to what familty you belong to. To some it is known as Shelta, Gammon (Gamin) or Cant (Minceirtoiree). Minceir means Traveller and Toiree means talk, so Traveller talk. Cant, or even Minceirs Toiree. A large number of families would call it Gammon (or Gamin) as this is a different dialect or sorts from Cant itself

Language is the last thing that we have left, that gives us our antiquity. It's the words that are used. Languages can be cousins to one another like Germanic or English Languages. The closest cousin to our language is old Irish. This was spoken here pre 1200's. Some of the words used at that time are still used by Travellers today when we speak in our language.

Our own words for a priest and for God have shown up in old documents to be words used in pre-christian Ireland and yet we still use them today. Our tradition was a very oral tradition so there is very little written evidence.

Normally history is about Kings and Queens but there is bits and pieces to show us that Travellers did not just come about in the last couple of centuries. They have existed for a long time, even in the more famous stories particularly the Tain Bo Cooley.

If you read that you will come across these people that are landless people who are not accepted by either Maeve's army or Cu Culainn. Yet they would fight for any side. These people would be always the best hunters, their tents would be up first, and people were always frightened of them and didn't want them with them.

There's lots of stories in Irish Mythology that mention the existence of people that had a diverse identity and culture from mainstream society.

Whether you accept everything I have said or not, you must at least agree that our origins go back a long way and may indeed be "lost in the mists of time".

Home    |    About Us    |    Contact Us
Photograph Archive   |    Music and Song   |    Travellers Talking   |    Culture and History   |    Academic Research   |    Resources