Traveller history

Published in 20th Century Social Perspectives, 20th-century / Contemporary History, Issue 2 (Mar/Apr 2005), Letters, Letters, Volume 13


—Sinéad ní Shuinéar’s article ‘Apocrypha to canon: inventing Irish Traveller history’ (HI 12.4, Winter 2004) held a particular resonance for me. I am currently researching Irish Travellers and the criminal justice systems on the island of Ireland, north and south. Recently, in consideration of a theoretical framework with which to guide my Ph.D, I began to explore the historical perspectives of Irish Travellers in Ireland. Yet, as referred to by Sinéad, owing to the lack of secondary sources and its dubious integrity, this situation may engender more issues than are sought to be resolved. A shining example of this is to be found in Kent’s Ph.D study (1980) In the houses of strangers: the impact of government policy on the Irish Travellers, concluding, without question, that assimilation would be in the best interests of Irish Travellers.
Even though research concerning Gypsy Traveller [‘Gypsy’ Traveller is used here not as a derogatory term but as a collective umbrella for complex communities] history has been compiled in England, for example regarding anti-‘Egyptian’ laws during the Tudor period, legislation and its effects is mostly all that we discover (e.g. Mayall, English Gypsies and state policies [1995]). We are informed little as to the diversity of lifestyles, of languages or dialects, or of customs of the heterogeneous Gypsy Traveller communities. This cannot be blamed entirely on the researcher. Traditionally, Gypsy Traveller history has been passed down in narratives, mostly unrecorded. Yet, how different is this aspect of their history to that of working-class, settled people? I believe that three aspects of ‘our’ histories require further contemplation relating to the familial, societal and the personal.
In the first instance, the education of the working classes, both in England and Ireland, is a relatively recent phenomenon. Subsequently, working-class familial history is sketchy. We haven’t always written down ‘our’ history/histories. Indeed, all I know about my family history is what has been passed down to me. I know that my maternal grandfather, born in England, was of Irish descent, perhaps second or third generation. I know little else. I have only one torn photograph of him, and a war medal. I was recently informed by my mother that her father’s cousins kept horses and were involved in the rag-and-bone trade in Newcastle, England, and were what she euphemistically, and in passing, referred to as ‘what you would call Gypsies’.
This was news to me. I know less about my father’s side. When I informed him that anyone called Wood [a very common name amongst Welsh Travellers, and his maternal grandfather’s name] was invariably descended from Gypsies, he replied adamantly: ‘I said Woods, not Wood’. This was the same man who, years earlier, and on a whim, insisted we visit Appleby fair, a huge traditional gathering of Gypsies, on the premise that he had always wanted to visit. Consequently, I am at a loss to know how many familial ‘truths’ I have been told.
Secondly, how valid is ‘my’ societal history? At a comprehensive school in England in the early seventies (designed primarily for the processing of working-class males into factory labourers and to encourage glib acceptance by females of male dominance and motherhood) I was informed that ‘my’ history was as part of the warring British nation state. Yet no mention was ever made of the victims of this history. Despite the fact that hundreds of thousands of Irish and people of Irish descent attended British schools, the Famine was never mentioned. Despite the fact that the ‘Troubles’ were relayed to us daily on television, we remained ignorant as to its causes. What ‘truths’ were considered too painful to be taught and what were the repercussions of this?
Thirdly, with regard to personal history, when I was a child homophobia was ubiquitous. No support was available for victims of this form of hate crime. The perpetrators invariably escaped discipline. We were told nothing about the murder of gay men and women in the Holocaust. Other than believing ‘queers’ (common colloquial and derogatory term at that time, later to become reclaimed by some members of the gay community) to be psychiatrically disordered, physically torturing them (this went as far as removing the breasts of women admitting to lesbianism serving in the British army in the 1960s in an attempt to realign their gender) and locking as many away as possible, gay history had hardly been documented. What had been documented was probably not worth remembering, and, as in the case of Irish Travellers, was probably based upon lies.
In consideration of these observations, I wholeheartedly agree with Sinéad that perhaps ‘the truths we thought we knew as such are lies and lies that actively harm the people they’re told about’. Yet, much of a working-class man or woman’s history could be based upon such ‘truths’. ‘Truths’ family members ‘forgot’ to remember because of familial and societal pressure or personal shame. ‘Truths’ based upon silence and collusion because no one could bear to speak up or were perhaps afraid of the repercussions of doing so. ‘Truths’ based upon the fact that there were simply no words to describe such realities. Although the histories of nations, of laws, of wars and societies may often be written in stone, the histories of ‘us’ may not. Consequently, I propose that our history, or histories, belong to ‘us’ as unique individuals and not ‘them’, the outside chroniclers. As such, ‘our’ histories are to be recorded by ‘us’. If this is not to be the case, then authors should heed the warning: ‘Tread softly because you tread on my dreams’.

—Yours etc.,

University of Ulster


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