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Travellers in the text

This book traces a number of common themes relating to the representation of Irish Travellers in Irish popular tradition and how these themes have impacted on Ireland's collective imagination. A particular focus of the book is on the exploration of the Traveller as ‘Other’, an ‘Other’ who is perceived as both inside and outside Ireland's collective ideation. Frequently constructed as a group whose cultural tenets are in a dichotomous opposition to those of the ‘settled’ community, the book demonstrates the ambivalence and complexity of the Irish Traveller ‘Other’ in the context of a European postcolonial country. Not only have the construction and representation of Travellers always been less stable and ‘fixed’ than previously supposed, these images have been acted upon and changed by both the Traveller and non-Traveller communities as the situation has demanded. Drawing primarily on little-explored Irish language sources, the book demonstrates the fluidity of what is often assumed as reified or ‘fixed’. As evidenced in Irish-language cultural sources, the image of the Traveller is inextricably linked with the very concept of Irish identity itself. They are simultaneously the same and ‘Other’, and frequently function as exemplars of the hegemony of native Irish culture as set against colonial traditions.

Mícheál Ó hAodha

This study attempts to understand the contradictory and complex images of the Irish Travellers as constructed within both hegemonic and counter-hegemonic cultural impulses, and as viewed by both the settled and travelling populations. The descriptions of Travellers provided in oral and (later) written form during the early 1950s as part of the Irish Folklore Commission's cultural reclamation project are important to this study, the primary source material for which is the archives of the Irish Folklore Commission. Travellers are described using a series of popular stereotypes as implicated in discourse. The question of Traveller ‘origins’ played a role in the formation of the Irish imaginary. The ‘drop-out’ version of Irish Traveller history and origins may hold sway today, but this was not always the case.

in ‘Insubordinate Irish’
Mícheál Ó hAodha

Gypsy and Traveller cultures were of particular fascination to the Gypsy Lore Society (GLS)'s members. The trope of the ‘doomed primitive’ is still a vibrant designation as attributed to many minorities today, certain traditionally nomadic groups, such as the Roma Gypsies and the ‘indigenous’ Traveller groups included. The raison-d'être of the GLS was deemed a very appropriate and timely project, and this attitude would underlie the intellectual projects and energies of those intellectuals who shaped the folkloristic discourse that was the GLS. The Irish Travellers were considered one of the ‘lowest’ groups on the exotic and cultural purity scales created by the Gypsilorists. The temptation to explain Traveller origins fitted into the ‘racial purity’ and exoticist hierarchy of the Gypsilorists. Groups campaigning for social rights and cultural autonomy for Gypsies and Travellers are increasingly reassessing the role that the Gypsilorist tradition played in the perpetuation of erroneous stereotypes and myths.

in ‘Insubordinate Irish’
Mícheál Ó hAodha

Macalister posited a mixed ethnogenesis for Irish Travellers. The likely cross-fertilisation between ‘literary’ Travellers and travelling craftsmen was highlighted to take an interest in Travellers and their culture. The Questionnaire is a particularly useful insight into the perceptions that the settled community held of Travellers. Seán McGrath's views were an important forerunner of the new orthodoxy of colonial dispossession and the drop-out theory. While Pádraig MacGréine had promulgated the value of all Travellers as a repository of an older Irish traditional culture, McGrath saw only a few of the Travellers as worthy of investigation, since, in his view, only a few of them were actually ‘old-style Travellers’ and therefore heirs to an ‘older Ireland’. Anti-Traveller racism in Helleiner's view is an example of a longstanding and endogenous Irish racism.

in ‘Insubordinate Irish’
Mícheál Ó hAodha

Otherness and the way in which ‘otherness’ or ‘difference’ elucidates meaning has dominated French thought. The French theorisation of the Otherness question highlighted the necessity for ‘difference’. Psychoanalytic theory's emphasis on the formation of the self provided certain insights into the formation of ‘the Other’ and the dialectical relationship that exists between the ‘self’ and ‘the Other’. The ‘Other’ as constructed in the neo-conservative Western European tradition has generally been perceived in negative terms. The ‘Othering’ of Irish Travellers as evidenced in modern Ireland can be linked to the formation of the new nation-state in Ireland. The eighteenth century saw the continuation of the Irish-stereotype tradition as outlined by leading British intellectuals as a justification for colonisation and exploitation. The nineteenth century saw the advent of ‘scientific’ theories of racism. The discursive tradition can be seen as a form of cultural conditioning, one which inculcated an ideology of domination.

in ‘Insubordinate Irish’
Irish Travellers and the Questionnaire
Mícheál Ó hAodha

This chapter argues that ‘new’ Irish essentialism, which accompanied the discourse of the emergent nation-state, employed an ideological framework of ‘control’ or ‘representation’ that was quite similar to that which had accompanied British imperialism. This new essentialism was reductive by nature and, consequently, it obscured the existence of heterogeneity in Irish culture, including subaltern groups such as Irish Travellers. The 1952 Tinker Questionnaire was one small part of the emergent nation-state's attempt to re-nationalise and ‘re-Gaelicise’ Ireland. The chapter then highlights some primary aspects of the most significant discourse the Questionnaire's respondents constructed vis-à-vis Travellers. The resentments and tensions between the Traveller and settled communities relating to begging requests on the part of Travellers had their roots in fearful beliefs, including that of the ‘evil eye’ in relation to Travellers and their alleged ‘magico-religious’ powers. The association of Travellers with subversive activity and spying remained strong in the Irish imaginary.

in ‘Insubordinate Irish’
Mícheál Ó hAodha

Irish oral tradition had a range of beliefs concerning the existence of countercultures made up of beggars and various types of wanderers. The countercultural motifs incorporating the idea of a ‘pagan’ marriage ceremony provided a link connecting the construction of Travelling people with an imagined sexual licentiousness and a romantic concept of ‘freedom’. Apart from the Tinker Questionnaire, most of the Irish Folklore Commission (IFC) references to fighting by Travellers pertain to challenges and single combats. According to the IFC respondents, Travellers utilised two forms of secret communication. One involved a spoken language known as Cant or Gammon, and the second, a sign language that took the form of physical ‘markers’. The notion of a separate ‘Travelling society’ that was presided over by its own rulers, and which was the subject of separate and secretive practices and taboos, had very old roots in the European imaginary.

in ‘Insubordinate Irish’
Contested terrains
Mícheál Ó hAodha

This chapter investigates the ‘modes of existence’, which relates to both vernacular culture and the juxtaposition that is the ‘local struggle’. The contingency of power dictates that the luminal historical discourses were muted yet tenacious. It is evident that the oral traditions and discourses explored here complicate the notions of authenticity and ‘truth’, and question the efficacy of many dominant European cultural paradigms as inculcated in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The ‘Othering’ of Irish Travellers has been influenced and energised by an ambivalent and often dichotomous discourse internal to Ireland, as encompassed in folktales, narratives and texts that have assimilated both hegemonic and counter-hegemonic impulses. Travellers and their cultural values are judged according to the norms of the settled community, and are defined by certain stereotypes and attributes that continue to be ascribed to the Travelling community today.

in ‘Insubordinate Irish’
The narrative within the Irish imaginary
Mícheál Ó hAodha

This chapter describes the influence of folktales in the Irish tradition, and their influence on popular beliefs and attitudes regarding Irish Travellers, also making links to similar folktales as they exist in the European tradition. The folktales discussed here are tales that are referred to as the ‘Nail’, ‘Pin’ and ‘Bar of Gold’ tales. The Traveller is accused of inhospitality and a lack of courtesy in the ‘Pin’ legend. The ‘Bar of Gold’ legend depicts the Traveller as an untrustworthy good-for-nothing who is always capable of sharp practice, while the ‘Nail’ legend accuses the Traveller of complicity in the worst crime anyone can commit: deicide. These narratives undoubtedly had a certain psychological power for their audience. Travellers are the instigators of a powerful form of symbolic inversion in which their ‘Other’ status is shown to be a disguise for their function as ‘holy people’ or shamans.

in ‘Insubordinate Irish’
Mícheál Ó hAodha

This chapter describes what may be termed a ‘counter-tradition’ to that which proposes an anti-Traveller discourse in Irish tradition. This counter-tradition manifests itself in a story entitled Ortha an Ghreama (‘The Stitch Charm’), in which Jesus and Mary act as shamans or healers, ‘outsiders’ who morally arbitrate on the actions of the settled community. In Ortha an Ghreama, Travellers in the guise of holy people rebel against their marginalisation from the dominant discourse through their role in a countercultural healing process that incorporates both the physical and psychic healing of society as a whole. Folktales such as Ortha an Ghreama form a discourse in which Travellers are seen to subvert their assignation of ‘outcast’ or ‘negative Other’ as incorporated in ‘anti-Traveller’ folktales. The Traveller as depicted in Ortha an Ghreama is a figure indicative of an attitude of creative disrespect, engaged in a re-ordering of long-established discourses and imaginaries.

in ‘Insubordinate Irish’