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Irish Travellers

Irish Travellers

ETHNONYMS: Itinerants, Tinkers, Travelling People


Identification. Irish Travellers are an itinerant ethnic group. Similar itinerant trader, artisan, and entertainer Minorities live in many other complex societies around the world. Group members refer to themselves as "Travellers" or as "the Travelling People." The term "tinkers" was once Commonly used by members of mainstream Irish society and by some Travellers. It was derived from the occupation of tinsmithing, which many Travellers once practiced; specifically, from the sound of hammer striking metal. Over the years, "tinker" became a pejorative label and is seldom used publicly today. The term "itinerant" was used extensively in the 1960s and 1970s by the government and news media; it has since been replaced by "Travellers" and "the Travelling People."

Location. Irish Travellers live and travel throughout Ireland and in the neighboring British Isles (Northern Ireland, Scotland, Wales, and England). In addition, families who identify themselves as Irish Travellers live in the United States, primarily in southern states, many having emigrated there in the 1800s.

Demography. In 1981 there were 14,821 Travellers or 2,432 Traveller families in the Republic of Ireland. An estimated 1,000 Traveller families live in the British Isles. Travellers comprise a tiny minority in Irish society, approximately 0.5 percent of the population. Nevertheless, it is a fast-growing population with an annual growth rate of 6.7 percent. The age structure of the Traveller population differs dramatically from that of the general Irish population. Nearly 40 percent of Travellers in 1981 were under 10 years of age; over 50 percent were under age 15. This compares to 20 percent and 30 percent, respectively, for non-Travellers. Only 6 percent of Travellers, however, are over the age of 50, compared to 24 percent of non-Travellers. These figures reflect the very high birthrate of Travellers; the median number of children born live to mothers aged 45 and over is 10. They also reflect a high death rate and a low average life expectancy. Alcoholism, related diseases, and alcohol-related accident deaths take a high toll on adult Travellers.

Linguistic Affiliation. Irish Travellers speak English and an argot known as Gammon or Cant (also known as Shelta) that is based on Irish Gaelic but also incorporates English, Romanes (the language of Romany Gypsies), and slang. It is used primarily as a secret language to obscure conversations from outsiders. At one time Travelling People living in Irish-speaking parts of the country undoubtedly spoke Irish, but no longer.

History and Cultural Relations

Travellers are indigenous to Ireland. Although there has been some intermarriage with British Gypsies, Travellers are genetically closest to other Irish people. Nevertheless, they have formed a sufficiently isolated breeding population to have diverged from the Irish population at a number of gene loci. The early history of Ireland's Travelling People is obscure. Being illiterate until recently, they have left no written Records of their own. Being poor, they have been largely ignored in the literature of the "Great Tradition." Not all families originated at the same time nor in the same way. Some Families date back centuries; others have adopted a traveling lifestyle in recent times. Tinsmiths have formed a distinct group for many centuries; "tinker" and "tynkere" first appear as tradeor surnames in written records during the twelfth Century. But as early as the fifth century, these itinerant "white-smiths"as well as other artisans and specialists such as tanners, musicians, and bardstraveled the Irish countryside fashioning jewelry, weapons, and horse trappings out of bronze, silver, and gold in exchange for food and lodging. Tinkers were numerous enough in Ireland (and Scotland) by the sixteenth century to have given Romany Gypsies stiff competition when they arrived in the British Isles for the first time. By 1835, when Britain's Poor Inquiry commissioners visited Ireland to collect evidence on the state of the poor, they were told that "wives and families accompany the tinker while he strolls about in search of work, and always beg. They intermarry with one another and form a distinct class." Other Travellers were originally peasants and laborers who voluntarily went on the road to look for work or else were forced into it by eviction or some personal reasona problem with drink, the birth of an illegitimate child, marriage to a "tinker." Through time, these disparate itinerant people coalesced into a distinct group labeled by outsiders as "tinkers." Today, Travellers are characterized by a growing solidarity and Political activism based on their own increased sense of ethnic or group identification as Travelling People.

Some form of social separation from outsiders is fundamental to the preservation of Traveller identity. Interaction between Travellers and other Irish people is typically limited to economic exchanges and brief instrumental encounters with bureaucrats or institutional representatives such as the police, welfare, and hospital personnel. Practices of some Travellers (e.g., keeping unsightly campsites, drinking in public, aggressive selling tactics) reinforce social distance Between members of the two groups. But prejudice and discrimination have played a larger role in segregating the two communities. Government proposals to build official campsites for Travellers are invariably rejected by the local Community. Most people avoid any interaction with Travellers; very few would consider marrying a Traveller. Since the mid-1960s, the Irish government has attempted to solve what it labeled "the itinerant problem," that is, the existence of Traveller families living on the roadside in tents and wagons without basic amenities such as running water, toilets, and electric lights. The solution was believed to lie in settlement, in placing families on serviced government campsites and in houses from which they could send their children to school, get wage-labor jobs, and learn to live a settled life. Assimilation was the goal. Since then, however, Travellers have become more vocal and politicized. Political action groups have been organized in some cities. Travellers now consider themselves to be an ethnic group with the rights to maintain their own identity and life-style while enjoying the privileges of other citizens.


As recently as 1960, 92 percent of Traveller families camped in rural areas in horse-drawn wagons and in tents. Most lived in dispersed groups of one to three families from mid-March until November, when they moved back to their home village or took shelter in abandoned houses in the countryside. When traveling, they seldom remained camped in one place for more than two or three weeks and frequently for only a day or two. By 1971, the number of Traveller families living in horse-drawn wagons and in tents had dropped to 27 percent; and by 1981, to 4 percent. Today most families live in modern trailers or in houses in urban areas. Forty percent live on the roadside or in vacant lots in groups that range in size from a single nuclear family to as many as fifty families on occasion. A quarter live on government "sites" in trailers or small houses built especially for them; most of these campsites accommodate fifteen families. Thirty-six percent now live in public housing estates.


Subsistence and Commercial Activities. Travellers exploit social (rather than natural) resources, that is, individual customers and client groups within the host society. They are self-employed opportunists who use generalist strategies and spatial mobility to take advantage of marginal economic opportunities. Prior to World War II, Travellers moved from one farm and village to the next making and repairing tinware, cleaning chimneys, dealing in donkeys and horses, selling small household wares, and picking crops in exchange for food, clothing, and cash. They also made clothespins, brushes, brooms, and baskets; repaired umbrellas; collected horse hair, feathers, bottles, used clothing, and rags; and exploited the sentiments and fears of the settled population through begging, fortune-telling, and bogus money-making schemes. Occasionally a Traveller family worked for a farmer for an extended period of time. Travellers were welcomed for the useful services they performed and for the news and stories they brought to isolated farms, but they were also regarded with suspicion by the settled community and once their work was done they were encouraged to go. With the introduction of plastics and cheap mass-produced tin and enamelware following World War II, the tinsmith's work became increasingly obsolete. The growing affluence of the Irish population in the 1950s and 1960s also contributed to the demise of their rural-based economy. As farmers bought tractors and farm machinery, such as the beet digger, they no longer needed the agricultural labor and draft animals Travellers had provided. Likewise, the increased ownership of private cars and an expanded rural bus service, which made access to towns and shops easy, eliminated the need for the itinerant peddler. Travellers were thus forced to migrate to urban areas to look for work. In the cities they collected scrap metal and other castoffs, begged, and signed up for government welfare. Today most families earn their livelihood by selling portable consumer goods from roadside stands and door-to-door, by salvaging old cars and selling the parts, and from government assistance.

Division of Labor. Household income is produced by all family membersmen and women, young and old. Children traditionally became economically productive at an early age: begging, peddling small items, picking crops, scouting opportunities for other household members, and helping in camp. Today, many attend school for part of their childhood. Older people contribute income through passive employment such as the collection of special welfare benefits. Women have always assumed important economic and domestic responsibilities within Traveller society. In rural areas, they did most of the peddlingbartering small household wares such as needles, scrubbing brushes, combs, and handmade tinware for farm produce and cash. Many also begged, told fortunes, and collected castoffs. Traveller men made tinware, swept chimneys, dealt in horses and donkeys, hired themselves out for farm and repair work, or produced handicrafts (e.g., small tables, brooms). With the move to urban areas in the 1960s and 1970s, women's economic contribution relative to men's Initially increased; they begged on city streets and in residential areas, sometimes developing patron-client relationships with Irish homemakers. Their economic importance was also enhanced by the collection of the state children's allowance, which is paid to all Irish mothers. In the cities, women also began acting as cultural brokers, handling most interactions with outsiders (e.g., police, clergy, social workers). Traveller men initially focused on collecting scrap metal and other castoffs and more recently, on selling salvaged car parts and new consumer goods from roadside stands and door-to-door. They also collect unemployment assistance.

Kinship, Marriage, and Family

Kin Groups and Descent. The basic structural unit as well as the primary unit of production and consumption is the nuclear family. Descent is bilateral with individuals having equal rights and obligations toward both their maternal and paternal kin. The importance of cognatic kinship is reflected in the use of Eskimo kinship terminology; in flexibility and choice in residence patterns, with households alternately affiliating with either the husband's or the wife's kin (although a preference for husband's kin is evident), or with nonkin, or else living on their own; and the absence of corporate kin groups.

Marriage. Travellers marry at an earlier age than the general Irish population. In the past, most marriages were "matches" or arranged marriages negotiated by the couple's parents, typically between families who traveled in the same counties. Today, in urban areas, individual choice is much more common. But initially with the move to the city, the number of arranged marriages between close kinfirst and second cousinsactually increased, as parents responded to the new experience of living in close proximity to Travellers from other parts of the country whom they barely knew.

Domestic Unit. Traveller families range in size from 1 to 19 persons. The median family size is 6, but 36 percent of Travellers live in families of 10 or more persons.

Sociopolitical Organization

Social Organization. The composition of groupings larger than the household, whether they are travel and camp clusters or stationary enclaves within cities, is fluid. Cognatic Kinship is the fundamental means for association, but at any one time household clusters reflect a variety of individual and situational choices and may even be formed among unrelated households. Group composition and size is continually being renegotiated in response to changing economic opportunities and a host of social concerns: the emergence of personal animosities and the resulting fissioning, visits from distant kin, the need to defend relatives from insult or attack, the desire to affiliate with households of similar or higher economic Status, the wish for a change of scene. The actions of police, legislators, and local government employees also play a role. In England in the 1980s, for example, the average camp size for Irish Traveller carpet dealers was 19 households, but it was not uncommon for 30 households to congregate. Such large groupings were a reaction to local authority eviction policies. By traveling and camping in large groups, Irish Travellers made it more difficult for local authorities to evict them and thus ensured themselves a longer and more economically profitable stay. Travellers respond quickly to opportunities for assembly and social engagement. Annual fairs provide Distant groups, former associates and neighbors, and members of overlapping kindreds with the opportunity to meet for entertainment, trading, marriage negotiations, and fighting. Life-crisis eventsmarriages and funerals as well as fights, hospitalization, and imprisonmentare also important opportunities for assembly.

Political Organization. Travellers have a common identity based on their shared life-style and marginality to settled society, but they lack formal political leaders and superordinate political structures. Indeed, adultsespecially mentake great pride in their independence. Respect is paid to the elderly, especially to male heads of large families, and their advice may be sought by kin, but it is not binding.

Conflict and Social Control. Minor disputes between households are settled through a variety of familiar mechanisms such as joking and ridicule, gossip, and, less often, discussions between the parties involved, sometimes with the help of ad hoc mediators. Serious disputes are settled by fighting or by fissioning (i.e., moving away) and avoidance. Not surprisingly, it is typically the most vulnerable familiesthe poorest and those least able to mobilize a large number of adult male kinwho move away. Fighting between close relatives and with nonkin is quite common. Lacking formal legal institutions and officers, physical aggression is the Travellers' ultimate mechanism of social control. But fighting also appears to be a basis for social organization. When families come together to defend each other in a major quarrel, they are expressing and reinforcing kin solidarity.


Religious Beliefs and Practices. Irish Travellers are Roman Catholics as are most other Irish people. Most are baptized, married, and buried in the church, although few attend mass regularly. Irish Travellers have no unique religious beliefs and lack specialized religious practitioners of their own. Travellers believe in various omens that portend good or bad luck or some specific event. Chattering magpies, for example, presage trouble, flying cranes foretell a meeting with friends, two magpies and a crow hopping about the camp Together mean the police are near. Many beliefs were shared with the settled Irish population, while others appear to be unique to Travellers. Today these beliefs are dying out, as is storytelling, which was once an important tradition among Irish Travellers. Around the campfire at night, they often told ghost stories and other tales of supernatural happenings, such as getting mysteriously lost while crossing a familiar field and horses balking on the road when passing the place where someone had died.

Arts. Tinsmiths were skilled craftsmen who produced a variety of household objects, from buckets, milk containers, cake pans, sieves, funnels, and scoops to decorated lanterns. A few tinsmiths still practice, selling their wares to tourists. Other Travellers were wagon builders who decorated their wagons and carts with wagon artpainted scrolls, horseshoes, grape and leaf motifs. Music is very important to Travellers; social gatherings often include ballad singing and instrument playing. Many adult Travellers, particularly the men, play either the accordion, melodeon, harmonica, tin whistle, or spoons. Some Travellers are skilled folk musicians, interpreting old Irish ballads in new ways and creating new ones.

Death and Afterlife. It used to be customary for families to abandon, sometimes to burn, the wagon and possessions of a dead relative for fear of the individual's ghost and to avoid bad luck. Travellers still move away after a death to escape both the memory of their loved one and the ghost, and most sell or abandon the trailer or wagon the Person lived in. Funerals draw especially large crowds of Travellers who often come at considerable expense and from considerable distances to express their respect for the dead and to reinforce group bonds. Such large assemblies reinforce a common identity as Travellers that overrides, at least temporarily, kinship and localized political alliances. These meetings have an emotional intensity that is striking to an outside observer. It is as if what Travellers lack in formal organization or structure they make up for by periodic assembly and intense emotional interaction.


Gmelch, George (1987). The Irish Tinkers: The Urbanization of an Itinerant People. Prospect Heights, Ill.: Waveland Press.

Gmelch, Sharon (1986). Nan: The Life of an Irish Travelling Woman. New York: W. W. Norton.

Joyce, Nan, and Anna Farmar (1985). Traveller: An Autobiography. Dublin: Gill and Macmillan.

Rottman, David, A. Dale Tussing, and Miriam Wiley (1986). The Population Structure and Living Conditions of Irish Travellers: Results from the 1981 Census of Traveller Families. Dublin: Economic and Social Research Institute.


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