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Irish Travelers

Irish Travelers

ETHNONYMS: Irish Gypsies, Travelers


Identification. Irish Travelers are a small, itinerant ethnic group in the United States. Distinct from present-day Irish Travellers in the Republic of Ireland, Irish Travelers in the United States earn their living as itinerant workers, spray painting, asphalting, or laying linoleum. Irish Travelers are identified by non-Travelers as Gypsies because of their itinerant life-styles, but Travelers consider the term a derogatory one. Nevertheless, Irish Travelers will often introduce themselves to non-Travelers as Irish Gypsies because of the continuing use of the label by non-Travelers.

Location. Irish Travelers divide themselves into three groups based on historical residence: Georgia Travelers, Mississippi Travelers, and Texas Travelers. There is also a group called Ohio Travelers that migrated to the Midwest in the late 1800s while other Irish Travelers moved south. Contact between the Ohio Travelers and the Travelers in the southern United States is minimal.

Demography. Population figures on Irish Travelers in the United States are unavailable. The U.S. Census does not recognize Irish Travelers as a unique ethnic group. The amount of itinerancy and the level of secrecy of the group make enumeration very difficult. According to my research and Irish Travelers' estimates, the Georgia Travelers' camp is made up of about eight hundred families, the Mississippi Travelers, about three hundred families, and the Texas Travelers, under fifty families. The birthrate among Irish Travelers is surprisingly low for a very strict Roman Catholic group, with an average of two to three children per family.

Linguistic Affiliation. Irish Travelers in the United States speak English and an argot they call Cant. Cant is a combination of Shelta, derived from Irish Gaelic, Romanes (the Language of Romany Gypsies), and English. Travelers use their Cant among themselves in the presence of non-Travelers. Irish Travellers residing in Ireland also speak a similar Cant, but in the United States the Cant, over generations, has developed into more of a pidgin English. Younger Travelers are not as fluent as previous generations and often know only a few phrases or words.

History and Cultural Relations

According to oral history, Irish Travelers believe that eight families emigrated separately from Ireland or England to the United States in the mid-1800s. Traveler families spread throughout the urban areas of the Northeast, practicing itinerant occupations such as tinsmithing and peddling various goods, but gradually entered the mule trading business. Many Irish itinerants in Ireland were horse and mule traders, so the occupation was not new to those in the United States. Irish Travelers increased their numbers by marrying other Irish itinerants in the mule business, and more rarely, Romany Gypsies they encountered in their travels. Before the Civil War, Irish Travelers began trading in the southern states Because of heavy use of horse and mule power on southern farms. Irish Travelers would spend winters in the South, trading horses and mules, and return to the North for the warmer months. As the need for horse and mule power decreased in the North but continued in the South, Irish Travelers began to set up their home bases in Nashville, Tennessee, and later Atlanta, Georgia, where the Irish Travelers began using the label "Georgia Travelers." Once in Georgia, Irish Travelers began to migrate to other areas of the South. A group of Families moved to Mississippi for economic reasons and were then called "Mississippi Travelers." The two groups, Georgia Travelers and Mississippi Travelers, consisted of families who worked different stock centers. Communication and interaction between the two groups was and is still constant. A third group, Texas Travelers, has since emerged and is composed of both Georgia Traveler and Mississippi Traveler families who became interested in asphalting. Moving to Texas allowed them to conduct business in the growing urban areas affected by the oil boom of the 1970s.


Prior to the 1930s, Irish Travelers moved throughout the Northeast and South in horse-drawn barrel-shaped wagons like those used by Irish Tinkers in Ireland. With the increased use of automobiles by the general population, Irish Travelers began using trucks after 1927 and camping in large tents with wooden floors. Gradually tents were replaced with small trailers, and since the 1960s, Irish Travelers have purchased large mobile homes. The size of the mobile homes has made it difficult to pull the homes on a regular basis, leading Irish Travelers to set up what they call camps or villages. Some of the more affluent Georgia Travelers have been building large homes worth over $200,000 in their villages, but this is unique to the Georgia Travelers and cause of much suspicion by non-Travelers concerning the source of the money. Mississippi, Georgia, and Texas Travelers have their own villages in the South, although they remain itinerant in terms of occupation. Families will travel throughout the year for work and Return periodically to their villages.


Subsistence and Commercial Activities. Irish Travelers began their itinerant occupations in the mid-1800s, tinsmithing or trading horses and mules. By the mid-1920s, some Irish Travelers began peddling linoleum and spray painting, while others continued to work with livestock. During World War II, a number of Irish Traveler families who owned stables provided the U.S. government with mules for the war. Most Irish Travelers were spray painting and peddling linoleum by the 1960s and continue the occupations today. Many elderly Travelers receive Social Security benefits and also financial support from family members. Travelers are very proud of the fact that they do not take part in the welfare system in the United States.

Division of Labor. Irish Traveler women are not expected to work outside the home. Throughout their history in the United States, the women have peddled various items such as Irish lace and handbags. Only recently have younger, unmarried women entered the labor force with non-Travelers. Owing to their low educational level, lack of skills, and the suspicions held by non-Travelers, Irish Traveler women must often take factory jobs, but are expected by the Traveler Community to quit their jobs once they are married. Traveler women are responsible for all aspects of the home and the children, including managing the money earned by their husbands. Most transactions are in cash, from paying for dinner to purchasing a new truck. Trading and bartering are still used by Travelers in business dealings. Irish Traveler men are expected to work until their health becomes a problem. Elderly women are not expected to peddle goods, but are responsible for helping raise the grandchildren. Many elderly women remain in the villages throughout the year and do not travel with their married children as was the practice in the past.


Irish Traveler descent and inheritance is bilateral, although the children, as is the general custom in the United States, take the father's last name. Travelers recognize each other as close relatives compared to outsiders. Kinship responsibilities within the group, however, are usually limited to immediate family members and first and second cousins. Working partnerships for Irish Traveler men are varied and may include Fathers and sons, brothers, or fathers-in-law and sons-in-law. Cousins become partners only when a more immediate family relation is absent. Beause of the residential pattern of each group of Irish Travelers, whenever a party or ceremony involving a Traveler occurs, the entire village is invited.

Marriage and Family

Marriage. Irish Travelers are endogamous. There are more females than males within the Traveler communities, so competition for marriage partners is strong. Marriages are still arranged by the mothers, sometimes at birth, although these early agreements are often broken. The young couple may have a say in finalizing the match, and rarely do the mothers arrange a marriage without prior approval from the couple. Traveler men are usually over twenty-one years of age when they marry, but their brides may be as young as twelve with the average being between fifteen and eighteen. An exchange of money, up to $200,000 in cash for the young man, is not uncommon among the more affluent Traveler families. Among the less affluent Georgia Travelers, the number of women marrying outside the group has been steadily increasing. Without a large dowry to offer a boy's family, these girls must choose between the possibility of remaining unmarried for life or marrying outside the group. Mississippi, Georgia, and Texas Travelers do marry across groups, but the growing population of each group contributes to a reduction in the exchange. Marriage between second cousins is allowed by Irish Travelers and is within the law of most southern states. Local officials have adapted to the cultural practices of the Irish Travelers by waiving the requirement for a court order from juvenile court for a marriage involving someone under fifteen. Weddings are usually held after Christmas because of the likelihood of a large number of Travelers being in the villages for the holidays. The holidays provide the Travelers with a chance to arrange marriages and then to organize the Ceremony before the families return to the road.

Domestic Unit. Residential units are usually composed of nuclear family members. Grandparents, even when widowed, may maintain their own residence unless disabled. The grandparent whose health is poor will live with a daughter and her family. The unmarried children continue to live with their parents until marrying.

Socialization. Traveler children from age five are socialized to their future roles in the community. The young girls learn to take care of younger siblings or cousins, clean the home, and manage money. The young boys begin helping their fathers in their occupations at an early age, often traveling with the older men for long periods of time.

Sociopolitical Organization

Social and Political Organization. Irish Travelers in the United States are not politically active on their own behalf. Although they have been victims of discrimination and prejudice since their early itinerant days, Irish Travelers react to outsiders by withdrawing into the group and reinforcing the boundary rules. For example, Irish Travelers now enroll their children in school for a longer period of time than earlier generations did, but because of their increased contact with non-Travelers, Travelers are marrying each other at younger ages.

Social Control. Irish Travelers have very strict boundary rules against outsiders. Close social contacts with non-Travelers are prohibited unless the non-Traveler is a religious person such as a priest or nun. If a Traveler is even suspected of befriending a non-Traveler for any reason other than business, the Traveler and the family may be ostracized by the entire village for a short or even permanent period. The chance of being ostracized has proven to be a very successful method of social control. The prejudice and discrimination Travelers feel from non-Travelers only reinforce the need for acceptance by fellow Travelers.

Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs and Practices. Irish Travelers are Roman Catholic and continue to raise their children in the Catholic church. But because of the lack of formal instruction, most Travelers have integrated into their observances a number of their own religious practices. Some, such as novenas or praying for several days for a special intention, are older Catholic practices that are not widely encouraged by the church, because of the tendency of the practitioners to show signs of superstition rather than affirm their faith. Traveler women's religiousness is strong, whereas the men participate in the sequence of sacraments but do not regularly attend church. All Travelers are baptized as infants, receive first communion around eight years of age, and are confirmed Between thirteen and eighteen. The women continue to attend mass, receive communion, and often go to confession throughout their lives. Most men attend mass only on holidays and for special events. The older Traveler women attend mass daily for "extra graces" or special intentions. There are four major concerns for which Travelers, especially women, pray, in order of importance: that their daughters marry; that their daughters, once married, become pregnant; that their husbands or sons quit drinking; and that any health problems in the family are overcome. Because of the amount of time Traveler men are on the road and the fatalities that have occurred from automobile accidents, Traveler women worry about the level of social drinking practiced by the men. Pressure from the women has resulted in Irish Traveler men "taking the pledge." They ask a local priest to witness in front of the church altar their taking the pledge or promising to quit drinking for a specific amount of time. This is done inside the church with no other witnesses.

Death and Afterlife. Irish Travelers believe, as the Roman Catholic church teaches, that there is an afterlife. Travelers do not believe anything that diverges from the mainstream Catholic way of thinking. In the past, Traveler funerals were held once a year to enable as many Travelers as possible to attend. The distance Travelers must travel from their villages to obtain work has made it difficult for some families to attend all the activities held by other Travelers. Because of the difficulty in including all Travelers in the funeral plans and the increase in funeral costs, funerals are now being held within six months of the person's death. Irish Travelers continue to bury their dead in cemeteries used by their ancestors, although recently, Travelers have begun to bury their relatives in local cemeteries.


Andereck, Mary E. (1988). "Irish Travelers in a Catholic Elementary School." Ph.D. diss., Texas A&M University, College Station.

Harper, Jared V. (1969). "Irish Traveler Cant: An Historical, Structural, and Sociolinguistic Study of an Argot." M.A. thesis, University of Georgia, Athens.

Harper, Jared V. (1971). "'Gypsy' Research in the South." In The Not So Solid South, edited by J. Kenneth Morland, 16-24. Athens, Ga.: Southern Anthropological Society.

Harper, Jared V. (1977). "The Irish Travelers of Georgia." Ph.D. diss., University of Georgia, Athens.


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