History of Irish Travellers

Whilst the exact origins of Irish Travellers has been a subject of much debate, recent studies and genetic testing established evidence that we are undeniably Ireland’s only indigenous ethnic minority group, as genetically distinct from the settled Irish people as they are from the Spanish.

Theories that we are descendants of nomadic metal workers, tradespeople, musicians and bards from pre-Celtic times are supported within our oral history, music and language, traces of which can be identified in fifth century Irish, warranting further study into which language derived from which and when. It is worth noting here that pre- Celtic Ireland was a country of nomadic tribes, living in extended family groups, each with their own trades and traditions and so it isn’t a questions of ‘when did Travellers break away from Irish society and become nomadic’, it is a question of when did native Irish people stop being nomadic? Other recognised theories suggest that we were Druidic poets or dispossessed Irish nobility from the early Middle Ages, again a theory supported by connections to language, traditional trades, family names and a continued respect for traditional healing, cures and an affinity with nature which suggests deep connections to pre-Christian Ireland. The word ‘Tinker’, Tinceard, meaning tin craft, appears many times in many documents from the 12th century, referring to a group of travelling craftspeople who played an important role in Irish society and Irish economy. The vocabulary of the Traveller language, Shelta ( dialects include Sheldru, Gammon and the Cant), is similar to Irish but with a syntax based on English.

In 1834, the year before the Great Famine, there were more than two million people on the roads of Ireland, amongst whom Travellers formed a distinct group. Until recently, it was widely believed that we were dispossessed farmers who adopted a nomadic lifestyle as a result of the famine. This theory fed into the idea that we were merely ‘failed settled people’ although thankfully this idea has been disproven in recent years. Our traditional occupations included skilled metal working, craftwork, antique and horse dealing, entertainment and providing seasonal labour. Although living conditions would be considered harsh, Travellers made a good living up until the 1960’s, when in 1963 the government sponsored Commission on Itinerancy was released. The following quote encapsulates how the Irish establishment along with large sections of Irish society have historically viewed the Traveller community, and how they resolved to deal with the ‘itinerant problem’ as they understood it.

'For both social and economic reasons it is clearly undesirable that a section of the population should be isolated and follow a way of life which is harsh, primitive andof low economic value both to those who follow it and to the nation and, most important, which tends to create a closed and separate community which will become increasingly inferior to the rest of the national population and from which it will become increasingly difficult to escape … All efforts directed at improving the lot of itinerants and at dealing with the problems created by them, and all schemes drawn up for these purposes, must have as their aim =-[the eventual absorption of the itinerants into the general community.[1] '

Travellers were, in their opinion, ‘primitive’ and ‘inferior’, a people apart from the Irish nation, and certain to be a constant source of irritation unless assimilated into the majority ethnic group.

In order to understand and challenge anti- Traveller sentiment in Ireland, it is imperative to understand its historical and political context. There is an intrinsic link between the rapid pace of new technologies, the use of plastic and other cheap goods which brought about major changes in Travellers’ lifestyles namely the decline of nomadism. An understanding of traditional Traveller collectivism[2], methods of trade and reciprocity serves to elucidate the immeasurable impact on the community brought about by rapid changes in the global economy and a fundamental restructuring of the labour market. Outsourcing and mass production in the Far East, made possible by exploitatively low labour costs, have diminished craft traditions and undermined the strength of organised Irish labour in general. Globalisation has intensified both the precariousness of work and the marginalisation of Travellers through mass production of cheap goods and through increasing global competition, along with shifting trends in cultural tastes and aesthetics. This process of neoliberal restructuring poses a significant and discernible threat to traditional industries, not least to Traveller trades, which now survive on the peripheries of both global and local capitalist economies. The effects of this are exacerbated by state policy- legislation has made the practice of traditional crafts and trades de facto illegal[3]- and by the fact that such trades are fundamental to a nomadic lifestyle and Travellers’ commitment to subsistence way of living[4]. Itinerant Settlement Committees were set up in every local authority in 1969. Local authorities closed traditional Traveller sites and set up halting sites, to which Travellers were directed while they waited for permanent social housing. The sites were inadequately provided with services, but the Travellers were blamed for wanting to live in ‘unsanitary conditions’. This enforced settlement of Travellers, designed to assimilate us into a society that did not want us, has played a major part in the social issues prevalent in our community today.


[1] Report of the Commission on Itinerancy (Dublin, 1963), pp. 104, 106.

[2] Traditionally, Travellers follow a gemeinschaft community model rather than the individualistic, competitive geselleschaft one in which most contemporary Irish persons live.

[3] Since the 1990s, Government legislation has impacted negatively on opportunities within the Traveller economy, most notably the anti-trespass legislation (Housing (Miscellaneous provisions) Act 2002); The Casual Trading Act (2005); Control of Horses Act (1996); EU directive on end of life of vehicles (2000); as well as proposed new legislation on scrap metal. There has been no impact assessment undertaken prior to the introduction of these Acts, nor has there been any measures taken by the State to mitigate their impact on Travellers.

[4] Pavee Point (1993): Recycling and the Travelling Community: Income, Jobs and Wealth Creation. Dublin: DTEDG, and McCarthy, D., and McCarthy, P. (1998): Market Economy: Trading in the Traveller Economy. Dublin: Pavee Point Publications

The report of the Task Force on the Travelling Community (1995) stated that ‘with increasing regulation and enforcement in work areas associated with Travellers, e.g. recycling, waste disposal, horse trading, opportunities for self-employment have become more difficult to find.