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The Blanket - A Journal of Protest & Dissent
To Go On: Irish Travellers meet Academia


Seaghán Ó Murchú • 24 November 2005

In this anthropologically based collection of academic studies, Irish Travellers: Culture & Ethnicity, I found, in my long-desired if elusive (at least from me) secondhand copy, valuable information about 'indigenous commercial nomads' (aka 'tinkers' as formerly known by many; emphatically not synonymous with gypsies/Roma) via not reticent first-hand accounts but wider panoramas within to explore nagging questions; this was the first substantial anthology that attempts to analyze sombre truth beneath panoplied hearsay. Edited by May McCann, Séamás Ó Síocháin, and Joseph Ruane (QUB: Institute of Irish Studies, 1994), this gathers proceedings from a 1991 conference. While over a decade old, the comparative rarity of this book and the lack of its wider knowledge among many concerned with minority and marginalised issues within both an Irish and European context makes any attention to its contents still worthwhile within a nation changing even more rapidly than when this publication originally appeared.

Sinéad ní Shuinéar (who wrote three Traveller entries in the 2004 Encyclopedia of Ireland, gen. ed. Brian Lalor) tackles past, competing, origin myths, demolishes them all, then suggests three intriguing alternatives. Thomas Acton denies any gypsy origin for Irish (and Scottish) Travellers, but also goes further to deny continuity to an earlier ethnically distinctive population for English or Welsh 'romanies' either, after what he argues was a extermination of any Indian-derived people from early medieval times whom he believes were killed off 1520-1600. Donald Kenrick places Travellers within the context of other 'internally' nomadic commercial and trading groups who have evolved throughout early modern Europe. Judith Okely, whose theories are discussed by many others in this volume, dismisses much of the purportedly exotic origins of nomadic groups in the British Isles as playing into stereotypes foisted upon, also willingly manipulated, by nomads taking on an often-donned disguise of foreignness. (For more on current study of Roma and Europe's nomads: ) The authors so far mentioned do agree, joined by Patricia McCarthy later in the collection, that the 'culture of poverty' thesis advanced in the 70s by Sharon & George Gmelch in their respective and collective work (still in print and taught in anthropology courses) cannot account for the true economic and continuously fluid culture--yet one having in common with Romany groups similar taboos and mores--shared by Travellers.

Academics critique the previous scholarly approaches. Dympna McLoughlin's rejection of ní Shuinéar's clever and fresh arguments failed to convince me, and could have been much better articulated, but the gist of McLoughlin's objection is that Travellers should not seek to claim a distinct identity. She sees this as somehow strengthening a conservative agenda rather than a collective unity that would join Traveller activism with that of other oppressed entities within Ireland suffering 'internal colonialism.' Community worker Paul Noonan provides an anti-racist account for Travellers' difficulties from the North--he focuses largely on policy issues.

Other voices from Travellers join: John O'Connell and Martin Collins agree with McCarthy who now rejects the 'culture of poverty' Gmelch thesis. In closing, Máirín Kenny reminds the audience that even if Travellers reside in an area, there still remains a fundamental distinction between settled (she prefers 'sedentary; others use the former term) people and Travellers. The latter always carry within them a distinctive worldview. As settled folks, on holiday, still feel as if they will soon return home to customary patterns of a fixed place and routine, so Travellers carry an idea of not 'to go' but 'to go on'--a major difference, as Travellers forever, so argues more than one voice in this anthology, cherish the thought as well as the action of nomadism.

Alice Binchy and Dónall P. Ó Baoill study linguistic patterns to arrive at divergent answers to the meaning behind Gammon/Cant/Shelta, the supposedly "secret" language of Travellers. (Cant is more diffused, Gammon clusters in southeast Ireland; Shelta is a term still in vogue among 'gypsiologists,' originating in 1882.) Binchy holds that this coded language is used to cement intimate and personal communication between Travellers, while distancing them from the actions and identities of settled people. She accepts that a few of its words may stem from Middle Irish, thus implying a tenuous continuity with a group far predating (as opposed to the notion the Gmelches popularised) any Famine-era conditions that would have led to the rise of a numerically larger wandering array of the destitute that would have swamped any earlier ethnically separate band of wandering tradespeople. Ó Baoill rejects any notion of Cant/Gammon/Shelta as distinctive, finding that it merely serves as a linguistic 'register' that follows English grammar and word order but merely inserts fossilised and specialised vocabulary into a pattern from the dominant language in Ireland. He finds that what has been falsely asserted as a language distinct from English is in danger of extinction, and fails to grow or adapt neologisms among the younger generations.

What all the essays have in common is a recognition that the habitual mindset within which Travellers survive makes them an identifiably distinct community within Ireland, not on racial grounds or genetic differences, but by choice. This fostered longing to leave behind 'country people' for the road, ironically, as Kenny notes, has been used against Travellers. Marginalised although useful for and used by the 'dominant sedentary society,' these nomads have been forced by the settled and the powerful to not settle temporarily where formerly the law and custom had allowed seasonal camps as the Travellers followed their their trade and their wont. Now, as Kenny finds, they are oppressed and forced to wander. Kenny extends this into examining, albeit briefly, the prejudice against nomadism within the majority culture that long has presented urbanism and domestication as an improvement on herding and roaming.

While Kenny diminishes the question of origins debated by some of the academics as racially biased and ignoring the present difficulties of the Travellers in pursuit of a will-o'-the-wisp, I counter that among any group that calls itself distinct, and therefore its own ethnos apart from other societal factions, the pursuit of such questions may not reveal ready answers, especially among people so rooted in the oral and evanescent rather than the literate and documented. Still, as a descendant of Irish Travellers--from whom my continuity has been broken, for nobody who is half-Traveller is regarded as one unless they choose to be, and this ethnic link can be severed by a half-Traveller's choice so that subsequent generations (such as me) cannot return to their snipped origins and be accepted as Travellers--such attention to where today's Travellers might have come from, as well as the pressing needs of where they are arriving at now in practical terms of schooling, health care, and remunerative work, make for a fascinating, if rather dry and theoretical at times given the volume's provenance, account. Such a collection has long been needed by any asking for what truths lie behind so much of the myth and supposition that the term and the person of the Traveller evoke for so many settled people, Irish or otherwise.


Ó Baoill with John M. Kirk edited an expanded collection originating from a second conference exploring in 2000, at QUB, Travellers and their Language (Cló Ollscoil na Banríona, 2002: see for unfortunately pricey copies, given the state of academic publishing), a necessary follow-up to the 1994 conversation initiated, also including Binchy and ní Shuinéar among its eight academic papers as well as contributions from six Travellers. While the collection investigates both Ireland and Scotland, I will limit my review comments to the Irish material. Surprisingly readable for non-specialists outside anthropology, linguistics, and 'Gypsyology', this collection concentrates upon whether, as Binchy and Ó Baoill earlier differed, Cant/Gammon (the two are differentiated by 'an anonymous Traveller' who spoke, but she refuses to give concrete evidence why this is so-a bit more about this later) are a separate language or a 'register'of lexical terms inserted into English sentences and word order.

This contention-lexicon or 'register'?-- may appear arcane to readers, yet it symbolises and reifies a debate fundamental to both anthologies. Are Travellers a distinctive ethnicity with a distinctive language, or merely a sub-culture of itinerants who developed a coded array of a few hundred words that they devised to keep out of a stranger's earshot particularly intimate concerns (from a 'country person' most usually, but perhaps also to protect their conversation from a suspect Traveller from another group)? The scholars and speakers of Cant/Gammon in the second volume seem to agree that Travellers comprise a cohesive entity among whom this spoken secrecy evolves not from deceit, but from intimacy, much as a minority in many threatened situations concocts an argot to cloak their messages from authorities or rivals.

Ó Baoill and Kirk in their introduction address this need for protecting Cant/Gammon, even from academic publication. The fear that police will misuse the findings meant that certain words were not printed, only glossed with their English equivalent or excluded with an 'X'. While the Traveller-descended part of me sympathises with this ambiguity, the academic part of me trained then resists such obfuscation, however well-intended. Certainly, if those in the 'buffer' world cannot study this code, then it is up to the Travellers themselves to formulate the sophisticated linguistic and cultural analyses with which to confront the persistent questions about its origins, function, survival, and future that all involved in this conference and volume concur is threatened by the dominant Anglophone society.

One area, for instance, receives only a footnote, but I claim that it contains a valuable field of comparison and contrast. The analogy with the state of Irish among its native-born speakers makes for an excellent and timely intersection with Cant/Gammon studies, since creolisation appears in both under the unrelenting pressure among younger users who, under the constant switching between English and the second language, begin to make the task easier by adopting more English into the remaining patterns and vocabulary of the gradually less-spoken method of intimate communication, itself eroded by media, integration, and assimilation. Máirín Nic Eoin's use of post-colonial literary criticism within an Irish-language context, Trén bhFearann Breac ( Dublin: Cois Life, 2005), is a new major work bringing sustained and sophisticated discourse into a previously neglected academic and cultural field. Diarmait Mac Giolla Chríost in The Irish Language in Ireland (Routledge, 2005; I have reviewed this; a condensed version will appear in a future issue of The Blanket.) carries substantial sociological theories and public policy recommendations into his survey so as not to let his work languish on a library shelf, but to foment lasting change among agencies and individuals charged with using and fostering Irish today. It is to be hoped that the two conference proceedings will spark further research similarly for Cant/Gammon. Both Irish and Shelta, no matter how defined, deserve intensive analysis.

As with Irish-speakers, Travellers too accept that their culture remains only as vibrant as their language. Its declining fluency among the younger cohort means that both academic study and practical application of Cant/Gammon race against an Anglo-American (for it also has endured, cut off from the homeland post-Famine, within Travellers largely in Southern and Midwestern states) clock. Kirk and Ó Baoill close their preface by urging Travellers to recognise the need for scholarship on their language as well as cooperation between speakers and students of Cant/Gammon. Yet overcoming ingrained suspicions on the part of Travellers towards outside manipulation of their treasured and protected form of communication mean that even for scholars, access will not soon come easily or confidently given by its potential interpreters.

Fears of its manipulation and appropriation, as voiced by one Traveller in this book, emerge in abuse hurled in Cant/Gammon at women in and visiting prison, for example, a chilling use of the language against its speakers by guards and police. Such situations only worsen the fears that Travellers possess about appropriation of Cant/Gammon by their oppressors. Delicacy, as shown in the excisions in this anthology, has been chosen as a short-term reaction, but in the longer run, progress cannot continue without cooperation of Travellers. The net is noted wryly as a means by which Dr Binchy's own rarified and rarely reproduced research was, by one diligent American, extracted of its vocabulary on Cant/Gammon and the matching lexicons posted on-line. Binchy synthesises her earlier work, solidified by her MA thesis and Oxford dissertation, into reiterating that--what she refers to by the older term used by early investigators as Shelta-this code builds a barrier between 'us' and 'them'. Not out of contempt or hostility, but out of pride and safety.

With Binchy's survey, its use as a small array of largely trading terms may not qualify it among linguists as a language, but she counters that it need not be complicated, and that it sufficed in the commercial contexts for which it emerged, mixing Irish and English words into patterns making terms unrecognisable to outsiders. Unlike its Scottish variety, the Irish version did not borrow from Romany variants popular among British 'gypsies' who overlapped in their trade and contact with Travellers for many centuries; in Ireland, it is debatable but there appears to have been no substantial entry of Roma until very recently, centuries after Shelta had been already constructed.

I wish ní Shuinéar had expanded her 1994 considerations into the origins of Cant/Gammon. (See, however, Apocrypha to Canon: Inventing Irish Traveller History, expanding her theories about Traveller origins.) Instead, her paper examines earlier 19-20c scholarship on the language to find it all too wanting. Unfortunately, no other sources can substitute for what she regards as persistently misguided attempts to keep Travellers apart from the more 'orientalised' and 'exotic' Welsh and English 'gypsies'. Her comparisons of modern Dubliners' unknowing English employment of spoken strata originating in Irish make for intriguing analogies; she stresses how also Traveller speakers can not be necessarily conscious of how what they speak is rooted in far older forms of speech. She surmises that Travellers use what is a different form completely of Hiberno-English--akin to how Black English among African Americans denotes its speakers no matter where in the country they are raised; such a spoken substrate as Cant/Gammon still awaits serious analysis.

A much-needed perspective from within the Irish language comes from Micháel Ó hAodha. He reminds the audience that they need not be embarrassed about the predominance of 'back-formation' as a disguising technique. This rather "reflects the richness and antiquity of Shelta'. (57) Although, as with ní Shuinéar's essay, I would prefer to have read more about these origins--for any ethnic group depends upon its past orientation towards origin myths (and fact) as well as a direction towards community continuity into the future-still, his remarks about the previously higher literacy among such Travellers as the Wards (whose Irish surname means mac an bháird = son of the poet/bard) and the prevalence of 'the lettered class' of doctors and healers attributed to predecessors of today's Travellers urge any investigator into the community to remember that current levels of schooling have not always been those among the predecessors of their past. His detection of renewed pride among younger Travellers and their wish that Cant/Gammon not be kept from them as they perpetuate their heritage make also heartening conclusions for his essay.

Marian Browne's paper compares the language to Hiberno-English. While she does not dismiss the speculation that Cant/Gammon may have emerged from Irish-language grammatical patterns, she concurs that in its present form, it blends a non-English lexicon with Hiberno-English syntax. Ricca Edmondson and Níall Ó Murchadha relate how American, Irish, and Scottish Cant has been attempted to be reconstructed from the limited fieldwork undertaken, with the complicated help (and not mere hindrance as prejudice would assert) of clergy, teachers, and police, some of whom guided the investigators towards contacts scattered over great distances, defying conventional means of communication as they linked together via technologically sophisticated as well as timelessly simple methods. They agree with Binchy that while Cant/Gammon may have intentionally bamboozled outsiders, it also cemented bonds between its users. Ellen McDonagh, Jimmy Power, and an anonymous Traveller provide first-hand reactions to the scholarship presented at the conference. Richard J Waters adds from an American Traveller viewpoint his own critique of earlier research and a reminder from within the community to open up within reason the treasure of Cant/Gammon for further research and preservation. He points intriguingly back to its ancient Indo-European etymological roots and the early traders known to us as the Beaker Folk, while at the same time urging the restoration and perpetuation of these remnants of communication that may go back not centuries but millennia. Waters' own independent scholarship, in my opinion, is precisely what editors Kirk and Ó Baoill urge: from within as well as beyond Travellers own experiences, strengthened by academic foundations, a truer knowledge of Cant/Gammon awaits.

Mary Burke delves into literary representations of Cant/Gammon, ranging from Victorian scholars (dovetailing with ní Shuinéar's essay) into 20c work from writer Juanita Casey (of English Romany/Irish Traveller parentage), Bryan MacMahon's undercover assumption of posing as a Traveller through his own disguise, Maurice Walsh's romanticised depictions, and the Tuam band The Saw Doctors' own incorporation of Traveller terms (even the name of their group) into their lyrics. Tuam playwright Tom Murphy and especially the Carlow-born 'hybrid' (who I might add labels himself in an author's note as 'a third-generation Gypsy') John F McDonald's novel Tribe reveal changing adaptations by Travellers as their formerly protected linguistic and communal spaces have become opened at least in part to the 'country people'. Burke's notion of an 'alternative geography' (I thought of Bruce Chatwin's popularisation in Songlines of the aboriginal Australian strategies of tracing connections across a landscape) for Travellers meshes well with her challenge that Cant/Gammon represents the refusal of this language to fall into binary English-or-Gaelic comparisons, in its fluid and musical existence that transcends and frustrates the printed page.

Certainly, as I have earlier addressed, inability of a reader to enter fully into the bracketed, glossed, or absent language of Cant/Gammon in this anthology due to Traveller caution and pride presents a post-modern, as well as subversive, predicament for any 'buffer' wishing to colonise this contested realm for a safely Anglophonic, hegemonically literate space. Notions of space and time, without sounding romantic, differ among competing languages and cultures. For 21c Ireland, the dogged survival of Travellers and their speech reminds us of the revolutionary nature of those who resist and frustrate the dominant, the powerful, and the rigid. Such a message resonates with The Blanket's own project. I wish this review article spurs readers towards awareness of the crossover potential-without discounting innate and impermeable barriers-for recognition of republican and Traveller claims within long-contested Irish cultural-political terrain.



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The Blanket - A Journal of Protest & Dissent



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25 November 2005

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