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Irish Travellers (Irish: an lucht siúil) also called pavees, tinkers or gypsies, are a traditionally itinerant ethnic group who maintain a set of traditions. Although predominantly English speaking, some also use Shelta and other similar cants. They live mostly in Ireland as well as having large numbers in the United Kingdom and in the United States. Their origin is disputed. Around 10,000 people in the United States are descendants of Travellers who left Ireland, mostly during the period between 1845 and 1860 during the Great Famine. About 2,500 of them live in Murphy Village, a community outside North Augusta, South Carolina.
Travellers refer to themselves as Minkiers or Pavees, or in Irish as an Lucht Siúil, meaning literally "the walking people".
Travellers are often referred to by the terms tinkers, itinerants, or, pejoratively, knackers in Ireland.[dead link] Some of these terms refer to services that were traditionally provided by them, tinkering (or tinsmithing), for example, being the mending of tinware such as pots and pans, and knackering being the acquisition of dead or old horses for slaughter. Tinker and especially knacker is used as a pejorative against Travellers in Ireland.
The term gypsy first appeared in record in the 16th century from continental gypsies in England and Scotland mistakenly thought to be Egyptians, who arrived in Britain. Other names, specifically derogatory, such as pikey and gypo or gippo (derived from Gypsy) are also heard.
From the 2006 Irish census it was determined that 20,975 dwell in urban areas and 1,460 were living in rural areas. With an overall population of just 0.5% some areas were found to have a higher proportion, with Travellers constituting 7.71% of the population in Tuam, Galway. There were found to be 9,301 Travellers in the 0–14 age range, comprising 41.5% of the Traveller population, and a further 3,406 of them were in the 15–24 age range, comprising 15.2%. Children of age range 0–17 comprised 48.7% of the Traveller population.
Following the findings of the All Ireland Traveller Health Study (estimates for 2008), the figure for Northern Ireland was revised to 3,905 and that for the Republic to 36,224.
In 2011, for the first time, the census category "Irish Traveller" was introduced as part of the broader Gypsy/Traveller section. The self reported figure for collective Gypsy/Traveller and/or Irish Traveller populations were 63,193 but recent estimates of Travellers living in Great Britain range between 15,000 as part of a total estimation of 300,000 Gypsy/Roma and other Traveller groups in the UK.
The London Boroughs of Harrow and Brent contain significant Irish Traveller populations. In addition to those on various official sites there are a number who are settled in Local Authority Housing. These are mostly women who wish their children to have a chance at a good education. They and the children may or may not travel in the summer but remain in close contact with the wider Traveller community.
Due to the level of secrecy of the group, there are no official or legitimate population figures regarding Travellers in the United States. In fact, Irish Travellers are not recognised as a unique ethnic group by the US Census. While some sources estimate their population in the US to be 10,000, others suggest their population is 40,000. According to research by Mary E. Andereck, "the Georgia Travelers' camp is made up of about eight hundred families, the Mississippi Travelers, about three hundred families, and the Texas Travelers, under fifty families."
Travellers in the United States are descendants of Travellers who left Ireland mostly during the Great Irish Famine of 1845–60. Travellers in the US divide themselves up into groups that are based on historical residence: Ohio Travellers, Georgia Travellers, Texas Travellers, and Mississippi Travellers. The largest and most affluent population of about 2,500 lives in Murphy Village, outside of the town of North Augusta, South Carolina. Other communities exist near White Settlement, Texas, where the families stay in their homes during the winter, and leave during the summer, while smaller enclaves can be found across Georgia, Alabama, and Mississippi.
Travellers in the US are said to speak English and Cant. The Cant spoken in the US differs from the Cant spoken in Ireland, in that the language has transformed into a type of pidgin English over the generations. They typically work in asphalting, spray painting, laying linoleum, or as itinerant workers to earn their living.
The historical origins of Irish Travellers as an ethnic group has been a subject of academic and popular debate. Such discussions have been difficult as Irish Travellers left no written records of their own. They may be of Romani extraction, although this theory is disputed by some, and theories of pre-Celt origin also exist. Ten percent of the Gammon language comes from Romani; however, the majority of its words derive from Gaeilge.
In 2011 an analysis of DNA from 40 Travellers was undertaken at the Royal College of Surgeons in Dublin and the University of Edinburgh. The study provided evidence that Irish Travellers are a distinct Irish ethnic minority, who separated from the settled Irish community at least 1000 years ago; the claim was made that they are distinct from the settled community as Icelanders are from Norwegians. Even though all families claim ancient origins, not all families of Irish Travellers date back to the same point in time; some families adopted Traveller customs centuries ago, while others did so more recently. It is unclear how many Irish Travellers would be included in this distinct ethnic group at least from a genetic perspective.
There has been a wide range of theories speculating on their origins such as that they were descended from those Irish who were made homeless by Oliver Cromwell's military campaign in Ireland in the 1650s, or possibly from the people made homeless in the 1840s famine due to eviction, or the descendants of aristocratic nomads the Clan Murtagh O'Connors in the Late Middle Ages. Their nomadism was based on cattle-herds or creaghts.
The 1959–63 government of Ireland established a "Commission on Itinerancy" with the following terms of reference:
The Commission's 1963 report defined "itinerant" as "a person who had no fixed place of abode and habitually wandered from place to place, but excluding travelling show-people and travelling entertainers". It recommended assimilation of travellers by settling them in fixed dwellings, viewing the Netherlands' approach to its travelling minority as a model. At the time, most Irish travellers lived in barrel-roofed horse-drawn wagons, with some still using tents.
The Travelling People Review Body (1981–83) advocated integration rather than assimilation, with provision for serviced halting sites. The Body's membership included travellers. The Task Force on the Travelling Community (1993–95) moved to an intercultural paradigm.
Irish Travellers speak English and sometimes one of two dialects of Shelta, Gammon (or Gamin) and Irish Traveller Cant. Shelta has been dated back to the 18th century, but may be older. Cant, which derives from Irish Gaelic, is a combination of English and Shelta.
Travellers have a distinctive approach to religion; the vast majority are Roman Catholics with particular attention paid to issues of healing. They have been known to follow a strict code of behavior that dictates some of their moral beliefs and influences their actions.
In December 2010, the Irish Equality Tribunal ruled in favour of a traveller child in an anti-discrimination suit covering the admission practices of CBS High School Clonmel in County Tipperary. This suit may allow more children from the Traveller community to enter mainstream educational institutions.
In July 2011 the secondary school in Clonmel successfully appealed the decision of the Equality Tribunal that its admission criteria were indirectly discriminatory against children from the Traveller community.
The health of Irish Travellers is significantly poorer than that of the general population in Ireland. This is evidenced in a 2007 report published in Ireland, which states that over half of Travellers do not live past the age of 39 years. Another government report of 1987 found:
From birth to old age, they have high mortality rates, particularly from accidents, metabolic and congenital problems, but also from other major causes of death. Female Travellers have especially high mortality compared to settled women.
In 2007, the Department of Health and Children in the Republic of Ireland, in conjunction with the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety in Northern Ireland, commissioned the University College Dublin's School of Public Health and Population Science to conduct a major cross-border study of Travellers' welfare. The study, including a detailed census of Traveller population and an examination of their health status, was expected to take up to three years to complete.
The birth rate of Irish Travellers has decreased since the 1990s, but they still have one of the highest birth rates in Europe. The birth rate for the Traveller community for the year 2005 was 33.32 per 1,000, possibly the highest birth rate recorded for any community in Europe.
On average there are ten times more driving fatalities within the Traveller community. At 22%, this represents the most common cause of death among Traveller males. Some 10% of Traveller children die before their second birthday, compared to just 1% of the general population. In Ireland, 2.6% of all deaths in the total population were for people aged under 25, versus 32% for the Travellers. In addition, 80% of Travellers die before the age of 65.
According to the National Traveller Suicide Awareness Project, Traveller men are over six times more likely to commit suicide than the general population.
Since there are no necessary requirements in owning land or a house in the culture of Irish Travellers, they are free to be as financially independent as desired. Couples tend to marry young: girls at around the age of 16 or 17, and boys between 18 and 19.
A genetic analysis of Irish Travellers found evidence to support the hypotheses of: (1) Irish ancestry; (2) several distinct subpopulations; and (3) the distinctiveness of the midland counties due to Viking influence.
Genetic studies by Miriam Murphy, David Croke, and other researchers identified certain genetic diseases such as galactosemia that are more common in the Irish Traveller population, involving identifiable allelic mutations that are rarer among the rest of the community.
Two main hypotheses have arisen, speculating whether:
They concluded that: "The fact that Q188R is the sole mutant allele among the Travellers as compared to the non-Traveller group may be the result of a founder effect in the isolation of a small group of the Irish population from their peers as founders of the Traveller sub-population. This would favour the second, endogenous, hypothesis of Traveller origins."
More specifically, they found that Q188R was found in 100% of Traveller samples, and in 89% of other Irish samples, indicating that the Traveller group was typical of the larger Irish indigenous population.
A 2011 survey by the Economic and Social Research Institute of Ireland concluded that there is widespread ostracism of Travellers in Ireland, and the report concluded that this could hurt the long-term prospects for Travellers, who "need the intercultural solidarity of their neighbours in the settled community. ... They are too small a minority, i.e., 0.5 percent, to survive in a meaningful manner without ongoing and supportive personal contact with their fellow citizens in the settled community."
Many Travellers are breeders of dogs such as greyhounds or lurchers and have a long-standing interest in horse trading. The main fairs associated with them are held annually at Ballinasloe (County Galway), Puck Fair (County Kerry), Ballabuidhe Horse Fair (County Cork), the monthly Smithfield Horse Fair (Dublin inner city) and Appleby (England). They are often involved in dealing scrap metals, e.g., 60% of the raw material for Irish steel is sourced from scrap metal, approximately 50% (75,000 metric tonnes) segregated by the community at a value of more than £1.5 million. Such percentages for more valuable non-ferrous metals may be significantly greater.
Since the majority of Irish Travellers' employment is either self-employment or wage labour, income and financial status varies greatly from family to family. Many families choose not to reveal the specifics of their finances, but when explained it is very difficult to detect any sort of pattern or regular trend of monthly or weekly income. To detect their financial status many look to the state of the possessions: their trailer, motor vehicle, domestic utensils, and any other valuables.[page needed]
Irish Travellers are recognised in British law as an ethnic group. In Irish law, their legal status is that of a social group. An ethnic group is defined as one whose members identify with each other, usually on the basis of a presumed common genealogy or ancestry. Ethnic identity is also marked by the recognition from others of a group's distinctiveness and by common cultural, linguistic, religious, behavioural or biological traits.
The European Parliament Committee of Enquiry on Racism and Xenophobia found them to be among the most discriminated-against ethnic groups in Ireland and yet their status remains insecure in the absence of widespread legal endorsement. Travellers are often viewed by settled people in a negative light, perceived as insular, anti-social, 'drop-outs' and 'misfits', or believed to be involved in criminal and mendicant behaviour, or settling illegally on land owned by others.[page needed][not in citation given]
The Commission on Itinerancy, appointed in Ireland in 1960 under Charles Haughey, found that "public brawling fuelled by excessive drinking further added to settled people's fear of Travellers ... feuding was felt to be the result of a dearth of pastimes and [of] illiteracy, historically comparable to features of rural Irish life before the Famine."
In 2008 a faction fight riot broke out in D'Alton Park, Mullingar involving up to 65 people of the Nevin, Dinnegan and McDonagh families. The court hearing in 2010 resulted in suspended sentences for all the defendants. The cause may have been an unpaid gambling debt linked to a bare-knuckle boxing match.
A 2011 report, conducted by the Irish Chaplaincy in Britain, Voices Unheard: A Study of Irish Travellers in Prison (Mac Gabhann, 2011)  found that social, economic and educational exclusion were contributing factors to the high levels of offending behaviour by Irish Travellers.
A complaint against Travellers in the United Kingdom is that of unauthorised Traveller sites being established on privately owned land or on council-owned land not designated for that purpose. Under the government's "Gypsy and Traveller Sites Grant", designated sites for Travellers' use are provided by the council, and funds are made available to local authorities for the construction of new sites and maintenance and extension of existing sites.
However, Travellers also frequently make use of other, non-authorised sites, including public "common land" and private plots such as large fields and other privately owned land. The Travellers claim that there is an under-provision of authorised sites – the Gypsy Council estimates an under-provision amounts to insufficient sites for 3,500 people. A famous example was Dale Farm in Essex.
The struggle for equal rights for these transient people led to the passing of the Caravan Sites Act 1968 that for some time safeguarded their rights, lifestyle and culture in the UK. The Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994, however, repealed part II of the 1968 act, removing the duty on local authorities in the UK to provide sites for Travellers and giving them the power to close down existing sites. In Northern Ireland, opposition to Travellers' sites has been led by the Democratic Unionist Party.
The following are some of the Travellers' representative organisations formed since the 1960s:
Irish Travellers have been depicted, usually negatively but sometimes with some care and sympathy, in film, radio, print, and television. Shows like The Riches, (2007–2008) – the American television series featuring Eddie Izzard and Minnie Driver – take a deeper look into the Traveller lifestyle. More recently, the documentary series Big Fat Gypsy Weddings (2010, 2011, and 2012) has been commercially successful in the United Kingdom, with descriptions of Traveller life set around real-life weddings.
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