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Irish Travellers just got off the ferry, right?
Wrong.

If we listen to the way the media talks about Irish Travellers in Britain we might be forgiven for thinking they were a very recent part of British culture. This couldn’t be further from the truth: they have been in mainland Britain for centuries.

Tommy Collins of Justice for Travellers has pointed out English parish records that mention Irish Travellers living here more than 500 years ago. Irish Travellers refer to themselves as ‘Pavees’ or ‘the Pavee’ and they are sometimes known by the Irish name of ‘Minceir’.

Irish Travellers on the move

An image of Irish Travellers on the move. This is one image from a fine photographic collection on Gypsies, held at the Liverpool University Library.

Irish Travellers are a recognised ethnic minority with their own language, called Shelta. This is spoken in different dialects including Gammon/Gamin and Cant.

Tradition is very important to Irish Travellers. Customs such as cleanliness and hygiene, music and singing, horsemanship, the family, respect and care for elders in the community are at the heart of Irish Traveller culture. Being free to travel is an idea that is still very important even for Travellers who live in houses.

Through the years Irish Travellers have had diverse dealings with Romany Gypsies and both peoples attend important fairs together, such as Appleby Fair in Cumbria in June. There have also been many marriages between English and Irish Travellers. Their histories are distinct though and this is a source of pride for both communities. Funereal customs are also different, but the need to show proper honour and respect to the dead is held in common.

Racism directed at Irish Travellers is commonplace and, as with anti-Romany racism, based on complete ignorance of their culture and traditions. Even politicians often voice disgusting views, and this can encourage violence: in 2003, 15-year-old Johnny Delaney was beaten to death in a racist attack just for being a Traveller.

However, the community is strong and determined to improve this situation, as organisations like Justice for Travellers and the Irish Traveller Movement show. Irish Travellers are as much part of the British landscape as any other group. They are recognised as an Ethnic Minority under British law, and many have gone on to contribute to the country’s social and cultural life. Wayne Rooney and David Essex have Irish Traveller roots.

For further information contact Bridie Jones of The Irish Traveller Movement on 01227 379206. You can visit the Irish Traveller Movement’s website at www.itmtrav.com.

About this story

GRTHM Magazine cover

This story originally appeared in the first Gypsy Roma Traveller History events Magazine of last year. Demand far exceeded supply of this publication, so we've reproduced some of the stories from that issue on this website.

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