Sunday, September 05, 2010

Irish Travelers in Fact and Fiction, Plus A Prize Winner

First, let me announce that rbooth43 won my download of THE TEXAN'S IRISH BRIDE. RBooth, you have 48 hours to email me at with your email address so I can send you this book in PDF format. After that time, if I haven't heard from you, I'll choose someone else.

In my September book, THE TEXAN’S IRISH BRIDE, the heroine, Cenora Rose O’Neill, and her family were among those turned off their land by an English landlord. This was all too common during the 1800’s and before. Rather than starve, they joined a band of Irish Travelers. For this reason, I wanted to impart a bit of history to familiarize readers with the ethnic group.

Irish Travelers are descended from medieval minstrels and poets who traveled Ireland telling myths and stories. At that time, they were respected and learned. Travelers have their own language, Sheldroo, which is linked to the ancient Irish oral language that existed well before a written Irish language. At the time of English occupation, many Irish families were turned out of their homes as were the O’Neill family in my book. During that period, it was illegal for Irish to learn to read and write—only the English could attend schools and universities. How were uneducated people to support themselves? Those who could read and write began teaching others in what were called "hedge-row schools" because there was no other site available. Few could attend, though, because they had to scrabble for food. Many men worked for a penny a day building walls around large estates. Bread was a penny-and-a-half a loaf, so children had to help to support their families. The walls are now refered to as "penny walls."

Some homeless Irish families drifted in with the traveling minstrels and eventually became the bands of Irish Travelers. At first, they camped in fields and hedge rows. Later they acquired tents, then the colorful wagons that resemble gypsy wagons—as seen below left in a photo from Bunratty Folk Park, Ireland.

They are not gypsies, though. Gypsies are Roms and originated in India before they spread across most of the world. Travelers are purely of Irish origin, although they have now spread throughout the Western world. I saw examples of their wagons in museums in both Ireland and in Scotland. I was amazed how much storage space was inside the colorful wagons like those at left in Bunratty Folk Park. Lots of drawers and cabinets painted in cheerful colors and bunks resemble a sailing ship captain's quarters. Very efficient use of space. The doors may be left open for ventilation or closed for warmth and privacy. You see the wagon on the left has the top half of the doors open. This is the back of the wagon. A seat on the front allowed the driver to sit in front of a closed door, or open the door to converse with the someone inside. However, men not driving a wagon and children walked alongside the wagons. The strings of ponies which they traded usually would be led by young men. More on this group is available online from the University of Liverpool library.

Legislation in Ireland has set aside special camping places for the Travelers. The controversy reminds me of  Ireland's version of America's Native Indians. There is much controversy there over whether the Travelers' children should be forced to attend school or allowed to remain uneducated and speak Sheldroo in keeping with their culture. How far do parents' rights extend if it condemns the children to poverty? I suspect even Solomon couldn’t answer that one.

In the U.S., Traveler children are supposed to attend school. There’s a large base of Irish Travelers in White Settlement, Texas and another in Los Angeles, California and smaller groups in Appalachia and elsewhere. In White Settlement, many families live in RV’s or mobile homes at a park owned by one of the Travelers. The children don’t attend school, or if they go, it’s only sporadically. Most of the families are Roman Catholic and the wives attend mass. They were/are also called Tinkers because there was usually one among them who repaired pots, pans, and metalware. I remember the character named Tinker in several of Louis L’ Amour’s books.

My first introduction to modern Irish Travelers, also called Tinkers, came one January day when a terrible accident happened on the Interstate just west of Fort Worth, Texas. A group of boys had been driving the new, red, double-cab pickup one received as a Christmas gift and were headed west to visit their uncle a small distance past Weatherford in the next county. The five boys—all related—were going so fast when the driver lost control that the pickup actually became airborne, sailed across a median, and landed atop another pickup traveling east. All six people died. Two were brothers, cousins to the other three brothers, plus the innocent man minding his own business while driving to Fort Worth.

Highway patrol, sheriff’s deputies, and police officers were so moved by the deaths of these young men from one extended family that many of them attended the funeral in White Settlement. As they read the bulletin each person was given, officers learned these young men were all underage--their drivers licenses were fake. The ages were from 13 to 16, not 16 to 21 as the ID’s had indicated, and the driver was underage. Sadly, fake ideas are not uncommon for modern Irish Travelers. This accident sparked several in-depth columns about Irish Travelers in the Fort Worth Star-Telegram.

The photo above right is of a modern Irish Traveler selling various items at a roadside park in Scotland. The woman is the Traveler. You're right, she looks nothing the picture top right that I chose as Cenora O'Neill. But then, Cenora is not an Irish Traveler--her folks just travel with them. Thanks to Beth Trissel for letting me use the photo.

Several times a year, Irish Travelers stop by our rural home and offer to pave our drive or repair our roof. The men are usually medium height and have startlingly clear blue eyes that truly look so innocent and sweet. If we were gullible enough—as one of our friends was—to let them resurface our driveway with asphalt, they would use a mixture of fluid which might resemble thin asphalt, but actually would be oil that washed away in a hard rain. Another common ploy is to get a 50% deposit for roofing, then disappear.

I am definitely not bashing Irish people! That would be stupid since I’m of mostly Scot-Irish descent and love anything to do with Ireland, Scotland and the UK. I’m simply identifying a stereotype. I’m sure there are some good people from the sub-ethnic group, Irish Travelers. As with so many other subjects, we only hear about the bad ones. For a couple hundred years, Irish Travelers have been thought of as con men and their wives as beggars. Some make good money. Others live hand to mouth. They’re accused of selling their daughters at a young age to marry much older men. Is that true? I don’t know.

They’ve made national news because of their shoplifting rings. Are there honest Travelers? Of course there must be, just as there are honest and dishonest people, good parents and bad parents, from any group. I took the photo above left on our second trip to Ireland. Sorry, but I can't remember where. We were near the end of a three-week tour when I took this photo and things had become a bit muddled together in my mind by then. I still loved the tour, by the way, and would go back at the drop of a hat!

How did Cenora O’Neill’s family and the band of Irish Travelers end up sailing across the Atlantic complete with their wagons and then trekking across the U.S. into Central Texas? Great question! You’ll have to read the book to learn the answer.

See, it was a trick question. Authors have no shame when it comes to getting you to read their books.

Thanks for stopping by. Don't forget to leave a comment to enter the drawing for the next book giveaway!


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Ashley Kath-Bilsky said...

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