Traveller (non-) history

Published in 20th-century / Contemporary History, Issue 1 (Jan/Feb 2005), Letters, Letters, Volume 13

A chara

—I am writing to highlight some discrepancies in Sinead ní Shuinéar’s article, ‘Apocrypha to canon: inventing Irish Traveller history’, in the last (Winter 2004) issue. Ní Shuinéar points to the lack of research in the area of the history of Irish Travellers but is evidently unaware of recent developments in the field. With Higher Education Authority funding, the Department of History, University of Limerick, has facilitated the teaching of an undergraduate and a postgraduate module on the history of Irish Travellers. This work is supported by a website and an on-line bibliographic database, www.rhw.ul.ie/heatravinit. Also, the Department of History is organising a one-day conference on the topic of research sources for the history of Irish Travellers.
It is worth noting that ní Shuinéar uses 30-year-old research to substantiate her claim and disregards the recent work of scholars such as Dr Aoife Bhreatnach, Dr Micheál Ó hAodha and Dr Paul Delaney, who are all actively researching and publishing in this field (for some sample work see website). She has also omitted work from historical geographers and Northern Irish scholars. The issues that ní Shuinéar points to are also true of other areas of Irish history, such as ‘history from below’, women’s history and children’s history, and these problems are exacerbated when oral traditions are concerned. Despite this there are a number of third-level institutions in Northern Ireland (e.g. Aileen l’Amie compiled a collection of material on the Traveller community over a 30-year period at the University of Ulster, Jordanstown, which is available in the University of Limerick library) and Britain (University of Liverpool) committed to fostering research in the field. Ní Shuinéar’s rather negative article fails to recognise recent advances in the field of Irish Traveller history and rather highlights her own paucity of research.

—Le meas,
CIARA BREATHNACH
Department of History
University of Limerick

Sir,

—As a historian studying the relationship between Travellers and settled people, I must respond to Sinéad ní Shuinéar’s attack upon the ‘inventions’ of Traveller history in the last issue. There are real limits to what conventional sources can tell us about Travellers, limits that ní Shuinéar does not acknowledge in her wide-ranging summary that discusses pre-Christian and nineteenth-century accommodation patterns in quick succession. As a group, Travellers are difficult to distinguish from the large numbers of mobile people, variously termed tradesmen, beggars, ballad-singers, boccoughs, etc. Since record-keepers were not immediately concerned with the differences between individual vagrants and nomadic family units, historians may not find anything other than oblique references to people who would be identified as Travellers today. A scholar also cannot assume that Travellers in the past were distinctive for the same reasons that they are now. It may be that Travellers’ origins, similar to that of the ‘genuine Gael’, cannot be historically verified. Unfortunately, ní Shuinéar does not use conventional historical sources to advance her argument about the origins of the present-day Traveller population. The author prefers to rely on genealogies collected from Traveller families, evidence that is not corroborated from other sources. The author attacks other studies based on restricted data, but the size of her sample and methods for compiling it are not discussed. However, the greatest weakness in ní Shuinéar’s thesis is her equation of origins with history. Although the moment when Travellers ‘began’ may be difficult to pinpoint, Travellers have a long history in Ireland, Britain and America. The historical profession has ignored that history, but a fruitless search for the chimera of origins will not remedy that failing.

—Yours etc.,
AOIFE BHREATNACH
Irish Research Council for the Humanities and Social Sciences
NUI Maynooth

Author’s reply

Since the Limerick University website (opened in mid-January 2005) is in the development stage (and thus only sporadically accessible), and since your hard-copy resource collection will not be launched until later this year, I share my ignorance of ongoing developments within the History Department of the University of Limerick with just about everybody outside that institution. Your web page opens with the words, ‘This project aims to fill the void that exists in the teaching of Irish Traveller history and hopes to encourage further research in this area’. Like me, you recognise that Traveller history has not been seriously addressed heretofore. Surely it would have been more appropriate to respond to my drawing attention to a fact we both agree on as an opportunity to announce the very welcome developments you outline than to imply that those not directly involved are somehow at fault for not knowing facts that are not yet in the public domain. Indeed, I am certain that this journal would gladly provide you with a platform from which to acquaint the interested public with your work, and with your resources.
I am absolutely delighted to learn that the University of Limerick has obtained a copy of the outstanding l’Amie Collection, with which I am very familiar, having written the introduction to the first volume, ‘Early history’, nigh on two decades ago. I have regularly contributed my own work and copies of primary sources such as newsletters to the Collection since its inception, precisely in order to make them available to other scholars. Congratulations to the University of Limerick for nurturing and facilitating them.
It is a great relief to learn that historians are finally addressing this outstanding gap, and, in essence, to be proved wrong. I trust that you will be announcing details of your forthcoming conference—the first specific academic conference in the South since the seminal Anthropology Association of Ireland gathering in 1991—in the pages of this journal. It behoves me to attend it, in order to rectify the paucity of my research.
*   *   *

I am in absolute agreement on all Aoife Bhreatnach’s points: the difficulty of identifying references to Travelling People in primary sources (noted in the article), as well as the fact that the issue of Traveller origins is used as ‘a smokescreen, a diversion to prevent the addressing of pragmatic questions’ such as ‘how to evolve a compromise between their cultural claims and ours’ (see my ‘Irish Travellers, ethnicity and the origins question’ in McCann et al. (eds), Irish Travellers, culture and ethnicity (1994)). The purpose of the article—subject to a stringent word ceiling—was simply to point out that current conventional wisdom, which equates history, origins and (lack of) legitimacy, is founded not on research but on politically motivated speculation expressed as historical fact, viz. the assertion that mobile accommodation was a late nineteenth-century introduction. We do not know the origins of the Travelling People but we think we do; we ‘know’ that Travellers are failed settled people and ([re]-assimilation) policy is formulated accordingly.
My current research traces contemporary interlinkages and self-identities; oral history is part of that identity, in a social network comprised of marriages. I mentioned it solely to confirm that some families trace descent from non-Traveller stock (but most do not). I am not compiling conventional vertical genealogies, nor seeking the chimera.

—Is mise le meas,
SINÉAD NÍ SHUINÉAR

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