The Irish Travelers who were once referred to as “tinkers” or “gypsies” are an insular ethnic group that has lived on the fringes of mainstream Irish society for centuries. They live an itinerant lifestyle, with long traditions and gender-based roles that have been passed down from generation to generation. The Travelers today still speak the secret Traveler language, a dialect alternately known as Shelta, Gammon, or Cant, which includes elements of Irish Gaelic, English, Greek, and Hebrew. Sons commonly take over jobs or enter trades their fathers and grandfathers have practiced for hundreds of years. Daughters are encouraged to marry early, and families of eight to twelve children are not uncommon. Discrimination however is wide spread, school dropout rates are high, domestic violence is rampant, and suicides are ever increasing.
Yet the lives of the Travelers are slowly changing in many positive ways. Recently recognized as an Indigenous Ethnic Group by the Irish Government, Traveler families are finding it easier to live in government-serviced halting sites rather than continue their nomadic lifestyles. Teenagers are trying harder to stay in school, graduate, pursue careers outside the Traveler community. Young women are waiting longer to marry and have children. Bit by bit, for better or worse, the Travelers are being assimilated.
I first encountered the Irish Travelers through a photographic trip to Killaloe, County Clare. Although they have a savory reputation for violence and criminal behavior, I found them to be generally friendly, approachable, and tragically misunderstood. I think it’s important to document the Travelers as we know them today, to collect a photographic record of a unique people and their traditions before they disappear. Although there is great interest in the Travelers outside of Ireland, they remain invisible to the Irish citizens who consider them a nuisance to society. Nevertheless the travelers are desperate to have their stories of heritage and hardship told, to be respected and understood for where they’ve come from and who they are now. As a woman and as a non-Irish citizen, I’ve been able to connect with the Travelers in a unique way. I offer no threat nor judgement, just curiosity & a willingness to listen and understand them. I’m particularly interested in interviewing and photographing the Traveler women, who still assume very traditional roles within their communities and families. How do they feel about their place within the Traveler culture, while “settled” women in the outside world are experiencing liberation and fighting for equal treatment and rights. Do they feel conflicted and does this affect their expectations of their own daughters and granddaughters, and how they are raised. My goal is to bring awareness through my photography of the Traveler people, the discrimination they face daily, and to display the human qualities that make them the same as other Irish citizens yet celebrate the differences that make them unique. I hope to do this through publishing a book & articles in photography magazines with readership around the world.
The Irish Travelers