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Irish Travellers are an ancient people


There is a tendency amongst "settled" Irish to believe that Travellers became itinerant in recent years — that they are an agglomeration of people who became homeless in times of hardship.

A DNA study of 40 Irish Travellers from around the island in 2011 showed them to be as genetically distinct as Icelanders are from Norwegians, separated for 1000 to 2000 years.

In reality, Irish Travellers are of an ancient race, nomadic for longer than anybody knows.

The settled population has important reasons to disbelieve a respectable heritage for the Travellers. It's easier to dislike them if you think they simply dropped out1 of society during the potato famine or some earlier but relatively modern crisis.

Or — to be more kind to the settled Irish — it's easier to think of the Travellers as a "manageable problem" if you can imagine re-assimilating the people into majority culture. Naturally, this would involve housing, property, and immobility — and would assume that this is what is natural. It would assume, more pointedly, that this is what the Travellers lost, are lacking, would want, and ought to have.

But the Irish Travellers have been nomadic, here on the island, for a long time. The story is not that of a people driven out onto the road by homelessness.

Some non-Irish call the Irish Travellers "Gypsies."

The true Gypsies, the Romani, are not related.

Travellers were nomadic when the Anglo-Normans got here in the 13th century. Most settled Irish people don't know that. The information would be unpopular2 if more people did know about it — which helps explain why they don't. There is no conspiracy of discreditation, but there is a folk-superstition — a semi-elective belief — and a lack of discussion.

It's possible (and continues to appear more likely) that the Irish Travellers' lineage predates the Vikings. The Vikings, on their 10th-century arrival and proceeding settlement, introduced the whole idea of towns and cities to the Irish landscape.

This points toward a strange implication — strange, anyhow, compared to the common Irish version of Traveller history. That implication is that the Travellers, and their travelling ways, predate Irish urbanization.

There is linguistic evidence,3 that the origin of some Irish Travellers' vocabulary predates the arrival of the Celts.

It's known that there were people here when the Celts began immigrating. It's possible that the Irish Travellers are descendants of that population — and that their nomadism is quite simply a remnant of the ancient culture.


Note: "Travellers," with double l, is the European-English spelling.

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1 Dr. Sinéad ní Shuinéar wrote:

"My objection to the 'drop-out' theory of Traveller origins is not that they and their culture would be worthless if it were true.... My objection to the drop-out theory ... is not that it's unpalatable but that it is demonstrably untrue and blatantly motivated by a political agenda: to justify their 're'-assimilation into mainstream Irish society."

— From "Apocrypha to Canon: Inventing Irish Traveller History"

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2 "you didn't mention that they are a filthy thieving bunch of animals in your article and that the pedjudice is warrented and by the way they are not a ethnic group,please cop on"

— from my guestbook

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3 "Research by an Irish socio-linguist, Dr Alice Binchy, suggests that more than half the surviving Cant/Gammon lexicon may be derived from a long-lost language spoken in Ireland before the Celts arrived."

— The Independent (UK newspaper,) 27 March 2005

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