The Magazine

Lost in Ireland

A window on the mystery of the Travellers.

Oct 29, 2007, Vol. 13, No. 07 • By JOSEPH LINDSLEY
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Irish Travellers

Tinkers No More

by Alen MacWeeney

New England College Press, 132 pp., $60

Freud once griped that the Irish are a "race of people for whom psychoanalysis is of no use whatsoever." Encountering Alen MacWeeney's collection of photographs, songs, and stories about the nomads of Ireland, you might concur. In the 1960s, photographer MacWeeney entered the world of the Irish tinkers--or "Travellers," as we must now call them so as not to offend their delicate egos. With a camera and tape recorder, he captured the sights and sounds of these itinerants in a camp called Cherry Orchard, a forlorn dump outside of Dublin. Over 40 years later, he has published his experiences in a sleek volume with black-and-white photographs of Travellers and a CD of their music, drawing you into a strange and depressing, yet somehow beguiling, world.

A wandering people with their own language (Gammon, related to Irish and Hiberno-English), Travellers traditionally roved the bucolic Irish roads in colorful horsedrawn caravans. Called tinkers because of their work creating products made of tin, they were also typically horse traders. When Irish law banned Travellers from squatting along roadsides, they quit traveling and hunkered down in designated fields outside of towns.

Today, it would seem that they lead fairly miserable lives, sucking the teat of the welfare state in their decrepit camps or singing for a few Euros on Dublin's Grafton Street. Yet their songs and stories, as presented by MacWeeney, suggest a presence of sweetness. The CD transports you into the world of the Irish music session, as if you had just happened upon a country pub or a camp of Travellers in a moonlit glen. Upbeat jigs-and-reels are interrupted by piercing laments, usually sung by a young woman, before the clapping and dancing begins again.

Are they happy or dolorous, Dr. Freud? Who knows? You'll see a photo of Kitty Cassidy, singing with eyes closed, baby in hand, in a pub, and you'll wonder whether she is the same young woman whose tender, yet confident and defiant rendition of "The Patriot Game" you hear on the CD. In the background, a baby cries--one of many reminders that these sounds were not recorded in a studio. After a particularly well-executed refrain, you'll hear an elder approvingly say, "Ah, lovely now"--the timid Irish, Travellers or not, need encouragement to sing in public, no matter how good their voices.

A number of the book's tales, -spoken and sung, and often full of blarney, concern the origins of the Travellers. Are they descended from the Irish gentry ripped from the land by Oliver Cromwell? Were they destined to a roving life after using their tinkering skills to make the nails that crucified Christ? Sometimes, in more philosophical moments, tinker music postulates that we all are Travellers, no matter how settled we think ourselves.

Listening to a woman sing "My Rifle, My Pony, and Me"--which Dean Martin and Ricky Nelson famously sang in the John Wayne film Rio Bravo--is an occasion to ponder what makes some people, from Western cowboys to frequent fliers, take to the road. The CD's final song, "The Blue Tar Road," raises the significance of roving to pretty high heights:

"Out here in Cherry Orchard, no cherry blossoms bloom," sings an unidentified man. "Forgotten and unwanted in dirt and muck and gloom, / But the man above who died for love on a crooked gallows tree, / Sure wasn't he a Traveller, the same as you and me."

One of MacWeeney's more striking shots is of Nell Ward, perhaps five years old--her intense glare suggesting that, despite her youth, she has a view toward the troubles that lie ahead, or maybe she is wondering why someone is taking her picture. Other photos are whimsical, such as that of Dan Flynn, son of Big Miley Flynn (described as "something of a terror"), with a cat sitting on his cap and another on his shoulder. Many photos display hardship, though rarely do the dirty faces look despairing. Some pictures highlight their irresponsibility: The cover photo, with a wagon and caravan in a field, focuses on a young girl holding cellophane over her face--not a bright idea.

They may lack formal schooling, but Travellers are often well-trained in the art of conversation because their culture relies upon each generation orally transmitting tales from the past. But tinker culture is in decline, with crime among the Travellers rising around their camps. With Ireland prospering, young Travellers who refuse to live the criminal life are inclined to quit poverty and join the ranks of the settled--though even settled Travellers often maintain their distinct traditions of singing and storytelling. Since MacWeeney visited them in the 1960s, a few Traveller families, such as the Fureys, have become popular folk music acts.